Is the “Plan of Salvation” Arbitrary? Part 2

History of the argument

I want to now respond from a slightly different angle. Where did this embarrassingly bad argument come from? Well, from a line of reasoning popular in the mid-19th Century that emphasized obedience to “positive commands” over moral commands. The idea was that God imposed certain purely arbitrary (“positive”) commands to test our faith. Therefore, obedience to the positive commands is outside the realm of grace. There might be grace for all sorts of moral sins — no one is perfect — but not for positive commands. See this article by John Mark Hicks giving some examples. Here’s another example from a sermon by Benjamin Franklin (the Restoration preacher, not the Revolutionary patriot).

These positive commands include baptism, the Plan of Salvation (for some), the Lord’s Supper, weekly attendance, a cappella singing. Do you see a pattern?

Thus, refusing to use a piano or organ was considered far more important than, say, caring for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, or refusing to slander your brother. This element in the Churches of Christ went so far as to make the “positive” commands so absolute that any error at all — having an elder with just one child, ordaining a deacon who remarried after the death of his first wife — damns the entire congregation. And, thus, patternism came to supplant righteousness, and the Pattern became far more important than being transformed by the Spirit into the image of Jesus.

The language of “positive commands” is largely forgotten, but the old attitudes and positions remain strong in some segments of the Churches of Christ. Schools of preaching continue to repeat such ignorance of the scriptures despite repeated disproof of their errors.

Thus, the mindset has become that we can only absolutely insist on positive commands (a human false assumption, nowhere taught in scripture). Therefore, since faith and repentance are clearly absolutely required (and they are), they must be positive commands. Therefore, there is no real reason or purpose behind those commands. It’s a very backward, absurd way of thinking created to defend a very destructive legalism.

At this point, the embarrassing absurdity of this human philosophy masquerading as Christianity should be obvious to anyone. Repentance is arbitrary? God wants us to stop sinning just because … just to test our faith? Are you serious? Oh, please …

Just so, faith in Jesus appears arbitrary to those who don’t know Jesus. There are plenty of atheists who’d agree! But faith in the one who died for us, who bears the image of God himself, who set the perfect example of being like God on the cross — well, that’s not arbitrary. It’s the heart of being restored to God’s image.

Here’s the long and short of it. The foolishness of the humanistic philosophy is found in the desire to build up baptism as the center of Christianity. And that’s a mistake. Jesus hanging on the cross for our sins is at the center — and it reaches all the way to the edges. Miss that and you miss everything. Moser was spot on.

The real reasons

Let’s ponder some reasons faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. And there are, of course, numerous reasons. And I don’t pretend to have completely plumbed the depths of the question. I see some facets of the jewel, but I don’t see the jewel’s entirety — and I don’t expect to until I’m in the arms of Jesus.

1. Jesus’ death is the propitiation or expiation of our sins. It’s the perfect atoning sacrifice. But it’s not a sacrifice we personally make. Rather, it’s a sacrifice God makes for us — in hopes that we’ll enter his family. And, of course, we can’t respond to that sacrifice if we don’t believe in Jesus. We can’t be changed by it. We can’t be grateful for it. We can reciprocate God’s love as shown in the sacrifice.

2. Jesus’ death is the model for Christian behavior. Over and over, we’re told that we should live as Jesus lived and sacrifice ourselves as he did. And we can’t do that unless we believe in him.

3. Jesus is the Messiah, that is, the God-anointed king of God’s Kingdom, to whom we must bow. And how can we serve someone we don’t believe in?

4. Jesus is Lord. That’s the confession of the early church. “Lord” means “king” but is also the word used by the Jews for YHWH. This is not merely about getting the doctrine of the Trinity right. It’s about knowing God. Jesus is, you see, the truest, most perfect image of God. He was created in God’s image, unblemished by sin. And one of God’s goals in saving us is to re-shape us into God’s image. God wants us to be like God, which is to be like Jesus, which is to be a self-emptying, sacrificing, servant of God — like Jesus. Jesus is our example and our goal and our teacher. Love — the real, unadulterated, pure Christian kind of love — is personified in Jesus. Miss Jesus, and you misunderstand love.

5. “Faith” also includes trust, and we trust God’s promise of the resurrection because we believe that God resurrected Jesus. There is no hope without faith in Jesus.

6. “Faith” further includes faithfulness. Why be faithful? Well, because Jesus was and is faithful. Because we are moved by Jesus’ life, teachings and sacrifice to be faithful. To realize our hope. To be like God. To please God, whom we love because we met God in Jesus.

7. Faith is the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham. God knew that mankind could not rise to the level of perfection required to merit salvation, and so he came up with a grace system — a system based on the heart rather than absence of guilt — a system mankind could measure up to and a system that would work in all cultures and nations and languages. And so God brought the Gentiles into his covenant with Abraham by faith in Jesus.

8. Faith makes us suitable receptacles for the Spirit. The Spirit of Christ only dwells where Jesus is believed in. We have to be willing to yield to the Spirit — and who can yield to a Spirit that he doesn’t believe in? It’s my experience that the Spirit works much more powerfully in those who believe in the indwelling, and further my experience that belief in the indwelling is found most powerfully among those who accept salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. It’s only when we begin to truly trust in Jesus, rather than ourselves, that the Spirit can lead us effectively.

That’s all that comes to mind. But it should be enough to demonstrate how very non-arbitrary faith in Jesus is — and how ignorant of the scriptures the contrary view is. Taking faith seriously, and delving into its mysteries, opens up countless vistas into the scriptures and brings clarity and insight and richness. Insisting that faith is arbitrary makes the scriptures unfathomable and obscure.

Flee such false teachers.


About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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25 Responses to Is the “Plan of Salvation” Arbitrary? Part 2

  1. Alan says:

    Jer_17:10 “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”

    God does test us, and there very well might be a command that is given purely for that purpose. Consider Abraham for example, or Naaman. Not that I think the supposed five acts of worship are in that category.

  2. Price says:

    Alan…perhaps he doesn’t test us to condemn us to hell but rather to help teach us… Like a math test…He helps US see where we are in relation to where we need to be… Moving in a positive forward direction rather than condemned for all eternity…

    Jay…Excellent…I believe that the depth of Faith is indeed beyond most conversations about it… It is something that God valued more than good behavior… Essentially, I see it as the willingness to trust in something that I can’t touch, feel or see in contrast to that which I can and that I must by faith reject…It’s powerful…

    Some quote the passage about the demons believing…OK…but do they Trust in God for everything ? Hardly… So there must be a difference between Acknowledgement and Faith… and that Faith is highly esteemed by God.

    Great piece of work for a guy that is desperate need of a tan…:)

  3. Alan says:

    Price, God obviously wants to save us, not to condemn. He proved that by sacrificing his son. But he does test us, and there are blessings that are conditional upon the test.

    Gen 22:1 Some time later God tested Abraham.

    Then after Abraham passed the test:

    Gen 22:15-18 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring[b] all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

    So God blessed Abraham ” because” he passed the test. Notice that this is the first time God told Abraham *why* he was making these promises. God knew in advance that Abraham would pass the test.

  4. konastephen says:

    It seems to me that many of the early restorationists developed this mode of thought—conformity to God’s arbitrary ‘pattern’—because they were attempting to build unity among all the disparate sects, trying to carve out a middle way between the ‘old-world’ traditionalists and the romantic transcendentalists (sentimental/spiritualism). They were obviously quite optimistic that they could achieve unity by reading the bible through the lens of objective science. That a ‘firm foundation’ could be reached on modern notions of truth and logic. Steeped in a Newtonian sense of objectivity (Newton was famous for dismissing questions about ‘why’ and focusing only on describing the ‘what’ of reoccurring, observer independent, reality with mathematical precision) it is little wonder that the bible would become a mere depository of arbitrary facts and propositions.

    So I think it is important to highlight this truth: that many wanted unity, and thought the most up-to-date modern modes of thought could offer tools to help achieve this. It seems that it was in the 20th century that church of Christ teachers and preachers forgot the naïve yet conscious assumptions and calculus of the early restorationist and simply assumed these presuppositions as indubitable. This has unfortunately led, in my eyes, to a stubborn, unreachable spirit in much the coC, unable to hear or adequately respond to the challenges and questions of others today.

  5. John says:

    Price and Konastephan, great points! There is nothing I could add except to say that the idea of grace for the morally imperfect being only for the religiously perfect cannot be found in the New Testement with any lense or looking glass; its just not there.

    Yet, it is a base that the legalist believe has to be kept strong and in place, or everything they have fought for collapses and comes to nothing. To which I would remind them, “You will not die; you will not disappear; you will not cease to be unique. Instead, you will find that trusting God with your prayer, ‘ I have been nothing’ will give you a wholeness and uniqueness that touches the hearts of others around you with a love and grace that no ‘tract’ listing a plan could ever do”. Nothing astounds the world like actually seeing a child of God.

  6. Zach says:

    If God is the embodiment of love and everything he does is out of loe (hope I don’t have to back that up biblically), and he has no human concept of time because he knows the outcome of everything he does, could anything he does be truly arbitrary?

    A man int he military doesn’t jump on a grenade to test if the military would honor him with a medal, why would God who truly unconditionally loves us sacrifice his only son not to save us, but to test our faith?

  7. Zach says:

    And as far as the positive commands go, we don’t arbitrarily get baptised or help the needy, but those are outward signs of an inward spiritual grace if you take the sacrement route.

  8. Alan says:


    Gen 22:1 tells us that God tested Abraham. It’s not up for debate.

    Why he tested him, I can’t tell you. His ways are higher than my ways. But he did it, and he told us that he did it.

  9. Zach says:

    yes, but as you say yourself His ways are higher than ours, what may seem arbitrary to us i can’t seem to fathom being arbitrary to Him.

  10. Alan says:

    Zach, on that we agree. I’m sure God had is reasons. He just didn’t tell us what they were. I’m OK with that.

  11. John says:

    Alan, in regard to Abraham and Naaman, no doubt these are strong examples of obedience. Still, if you want to use every aspect of the stories, you still see the grace of God in imperfection.

    With Naaman, it is strongly implied that he went into the water not fully convinced. I do not believe for a moment that his mind was fully and totally converted by the words of his servant. It was more like, “OK, lets give it a try”. The grace of God fills the voids of our thinking as well as the voids of our acts.

    As for Abraham, well, God did not demand a completion of the act. Would have Abraham done so? Most certainly. God knew so. Still, the grace of God completes what we often do not, for whatever reason that only God knows.

    As I said, these are unmistakable acts of obedience. But to accept them so, we must take into account any imperfection and incompleteness that only grace can perfect.

  12. Alan says:

    Absolutely. The fact that God tests us doesn’t negate grace. Neither does grace negate the fact that God tests us. Both are true.

  13. Royce Ogle says:

    Does an omniscient God really need to “test” me to know what I will do? I think we humanize God way to much. God is not limited by any likeness to mere man.

  14. Alan says:

    Royce, maybe he tests us to *demonstrate* what we will do. Or maybe for some other reason. Your question is about why he tests us. My statement is simply that he does so, without presuming to know what is in God’s mind when he does so.

  15. Royce Ogle says:

    I think we are tested mostly for our own benefit. I can’t imagine the reason is so that God can know us better. Take the story of Job. God knew how Job would react. God received glory, Job knew his friends and the depth of his faith, and we are instructed by the story.

    God justifies sinners just like He always has. “Abraham believed God”. God’s graceful acceptance of ungodly sinners rests on His own righteousness and not ours.

  16. Doug says:

    I agree with Royce. My wife and I have a saying that we use when we feel that God has placed yet another test on us. It is: “God must love us a lot”. I can see in my own life that these tests have always resulted in what I see as positive changes in my life in Christ. I certainly haven’t enjoyed having two of my homes destroyed by natural diasters (hurricane and tornado) but that experience has made me much more sympathetic to those who are affected by diasters.

  17. Alan says:

    I hear what y’all are saying… but I wonder if that is how Abraham felt about his test.

  18. Alabama John says:

    All this is set up for some reason we can never understand so why question?

    We know we are a spirit that will live forever and who knows how long existed before we were born on this earth.

    Fun to think about and imagine, even might impress someone every once in a while, but, its just that, fun and supposition.

  19. guestfortruth says:

    So things that are morally Right are Religiously right?

  20. guestfortruth says:

    Alabama John,
    God’s knows everything, because he is our creator and he gives us light in his inspired word. We did not existed before to be conceive in our mothers wound, but god reveals us in his word our purpose in this life Acts 17:27 “27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;” his word is our lamp. as proclaimed by the psalmist “Your word is a lamp to my feet
    And a light to my path.” (Psalms 119:105) We need to be the man that God’s wants as we have the example in Psalms 1:2-3 “ But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.3 He shall be like a treePlanted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper.”

  21. Alabama John says:


    First post:
    For most of the humans that have occupied this world that is true and what the book of Romans says. Numerically speaking, most by far never heard of a law of a Israelites, Jew, the Bible or Jesus that have ever lived.

    Second post: We did not exist before our mothers womb.
    How do you know that?

    Jesus before he was born of woman was many things: pillar of fire, rock, then born of woman. Who knows what else and for how long? The point is its possible.

    We do not know if we as a spirit are created brand new at the time of birth or when or where before. Common argument among pros and cons of abortion. But, that centers on what amount of time in a mothers womb, not before that.
    All our thinking is based on the time physical life started and not the start of our spirit, the real eternal us. Eternity? Our spirits live for eternity, When did it start or will it end? We know neither! God placed our spirit inside our earthly body and when it was first created no one knows.
    Forever is a long time that our spirit lives when this body dies and that amount of earthly time we cannot begin to fathom and neither can we fathom time before our spirit entered this body either.

    Far more things could of been written other than what is in the Bible, so many the world couldn’t hold them we are told.
    WE are not too smart after all and only been given what we can hold and that ain’t much!
    With all the arguing among us, seems like we have been given too much for our brains already!

  22. guestfortruth says:

    Alabama John,

    Some things are wrong within themselves. It has always been wrong to lie, steal, murder and commit adultery. These are sins against our fellowmen. They violate the moral law. Hence, those who are guilty of such are immoral. There are other things that are right only because God commands them. Most of these commandments have to do with our relationship to God. They are of man’s faith and many of them are contrary to human reason. In religion we walk by faith, not by sight. 2 Cor. 5:7.

    [Remainder of post deleted because post was plagiarized.]

  23. Jay Guin says:


    Your comment of 1:35 pm is plagiarized from I will not permit plagiarism. Here are the rules:

    1. If you copy someone else’s work without saying who really wrote it and where we can find the original, I’ll blacklist you permanently without further warning.

    2. If you copy more than 50 words from one source in one comment, even if you give the source, I’ll blacklist you permanently without further warning.

    This is not up for debate or negotiation. I’ve warned you and blocked your before for this very reason.

    I’m glad to have you commenting here, but it must be your words and not someone else’s.

  24. Alabama John says:

    Guest for truth

    There has never been a human that didn’t have a spirit of God inside themselves placed there by God and worshiped that supreme being being God in some way. Some we would call worshiping nature and its bounty and beauty given us as the supreme God..
    We humans have always differed with others on the how and what (idols of all kinds, golden calf, etc.) but not the point they worshiped and for what reason.
    Not much different today in religion than thousands of years ago, and probably more different names for worshiping God today that then. Christians call their differences denominations while others worldwide have a name for their worship of God that is something else. Whatever its called, the people are all worshiping God ABOVE in their mind and heart however erroneously.
    Every religion has rules or laws that they believe come from God not just Christians.
    Unless you are of Jewish decent, and most on earth are not, one of those worshiping in a way you wouldn’t approve of at all today were all your kin folks and from that religion came YOU!

  25. guestfortruth says:

    So the title should be: is the Gospel plan of Salvation “Positive”?
    I have several questions to this article:
    Did you read all the articles that John Mark Hicks cited? In the declaration and address is mention Divine Ordinances, but not “positive” I think that was the idea of john mark to make his article very interesting. The only one that use that kind of word was brother Benjamin Franklin, but he never putted over the morality that God has given to mankind. I don’t think brother. Thomas Campbell continue reading any religious article from Charles Hodge (December 27, 1797, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – June 19, 1878, Princeton, New Jersey) He matriculated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1812, and after graduation entered in 1816 Princeton Theological Seminary, reading the religious articles from Princeton Theological Seminary?, because he cut out connection with the Presbyterians in 1808 withdrawing communion and fellowship with the “Associate synod of North America”. (Memoirs of Elder Thomas Campbell p.18)
    Jay said “There might be grace for all sorts of moral sins — no one is perfect — but not for positive commands.” Have you heard about the second Law of Pardon for those who are being baptized into Christ and continuing practicing sin Acts. 8:22. “repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). God understands that though a person has been born again and is a Christian, he or she may sin and fall away. One New Testament writer cautions, “Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God” (Heb 3:12). Listen to this good news: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). Confess means “to say the same thing.” We see sin as God does, confess we’re done it and turn away from it. God will never give up on you as His child, if you will not give up on yourself. You can always return home to God.
    Jay said “Therefore, there is no real reason or purpose behind those commands.” It is truth? that there is not purpose in faith and repentance ? Are not part of the Gospel plan of Salvation?
    Jay said “refusing to use a piano or organ was considered far more important than, say, caring for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, or refusing to slander your brother.” Why do you use the word “say”? our 1, 2, 3,4,5 line of restorers, they didn’t just “ say” they did and live the gospel in his totality. Are you charging our spiritual restorers of not practicing what they were preaching? In our heritage there were godly men that died for what they stand for.
    Jay said “the mindset has become that we can only absolutely insist on positive commands (a human false assumption, nowhere taught in scripture).” I don’t think so jay. You are Generalizing that the conditions of salvations are assumption? If you are charging Alexander Campbell from using reasoning “Logic “ right thinking to answer to those who demand a reason of his faith. 1 Peter 3:15. He just follow the example of Jesus and the apostle Paul.

    Jay said “The foolishness of the humanistic philosophy is found in the desire to build up baptism as the center of Christianity. Is not Romans 6:3- 11 the Gospel in practice “Action”?

    Jay said “I see some facets of the jewel, but I don’t see the jewel’s entirety — and I don’t expect to until I’m in the arms of Jesus.” Why you don’t expect to know the entirely Jewel (Word of God) ? Do you know that talk about what you don’t understand is cause of own destruction? James 3:1 says “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”

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