Romans and Those Who Haven’t Heard

It is my opinion that what Calvinists, Arminians, Universalists and virtually all other believers in Christ have some beliefs in common beyond a simple faith in Jesus as the Son of God — whether they want to admit it or not. And some of those beliefs aren’t necessarily good.

First, most of us believers have in common a kind of absolutist definition of the word “all” wherever it is used in scripture with regard to people — that it always means “everyone who has ever lived from the beginning of time through and including everyone who is still alive at the end of time.”

I can’t say that I buy into that. If I say “Singing at church Sunday was awesome,” and you ask me “Why?” and I reply “Because everyone sang,” you don’t assume that I meant “everyone who has ever lived through everyone who ever will.” When Genesis 6:5 says everyone was perpetually evil all the time, did that include Noah? His family?

Second, I think most believers share in an absolutist definition of “wickedness” in Romans which includes any sin, any number of sins, the nature of anyone who is not perfect and sinless. In other words, imperfection = wickedness. All sin is the same. Anyone who sins is damned.

I can’t say that I buy into that, either. Paul defines what he means by wickedness early on in Romans, and it’s pretty heinous. It’s not just slipping once in your life and saying “oh crap” instead of “oh doo-doo.”

Go ahead and read Romans 1:18-32. I’ll wait.

Now I ask you: Is that talking about people whose minds wander a bit during communion or who clap while singing praise to God in church or who let fly an epithet in an unguarded moment once in a while?

Or is it talking about sin, seriously depraved, self-seeking, God-denying, hateful, greedy, lascivious, murderous sin? Is that the way everyone is who sins? Or is that what a little sin leads to, and why it cannot be tolerated, and why it cannot be a part of God’s assembled saints? Is the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against people who aren’t perfect — or people who suppress the truth by their wickedness? Does Jesus’ statement in Luke 12:47-48 have any relevance here? (I don’t know for certain if He was speaking of eternal judgment there, but He certainly seems to support the principle that there are some sins that are worse than others.)

Third, most believers don’t believe what Paul says in places like Romans 2:6-11 (and many other scriptures) unless they get to add their own qualifications to what’s said. For them, “doing good” must include obeying God the way they define it. Otherwise, it’s not good enough. Even those of us who understand that our works don’t and can’t save us.

In the epistle to the Romans, it takes some discernment to figure out where Paul really is talking about everyone and about universal (not Universalist!) principles … and where he is talking just about people who have had some exposure to the notion of God … and where he is talking about people who grew up knowing all there was to know about God. And it’s important! Because the things said about one group of people may not apply to another group of people.

It takes some discernment to plot out where he begins talking to Jews only … and where, much later on in the epistle, he addresses Gentiles only … and where, still later on, he’s talking to everyone again. Not as much, but some. Plus, he’s writing  — obviously! — to people that have heard a gospel and have heard that Paul has a gospel and accusations against both Paul and his gospel. And that’s important to know, too. Because the things said to one group of people may not apply to another group of people. Right?

It takes some discernment to figure out whether Paul means that imperfection is the same as wickedness … if someone can actually be good and do good without hearing the name of God, having intuited His existence and goodness from what has been made, yet without having descended into the wickedness of idolatry and worship of self … if someone can actually be good and do good having heard and understood the will of God but having willfully rejected it in order pursue whatever gratifies self, at whatever cost to others and to God.

I’m not going to pretend that I have it all sorted out and there is a simple color-coded systemological map that you can overlay the epistle with and have it all neatly figured out. But I’m smart enough to pick up on the fact that Romans is not a one-size-fits-all letter with the same thing to say in every verse to and about everyone in Rome, or just every believer in Rome. Or to every Jew and Gentile who has encountered it since it was written.

The can’t-wait-to-get-to-it message of Romans — after that quick overview of global morality and immorality in chapter one — is “Stop judging each other! You have no right to! You’re doing the same wrong things that you’re judging others for doing when you judge them — you’re sinning!”

Yes, I’m especially sensitive to this theme after studying Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion for several months with my LIFE group. Boyd’s examination of Bonhoeffer and scripture is pretty convicting about the original sin — judging God to be untrustworthy — and expressing virtually all other sins as failures of human judgment. That’s pretty much borne out in Romans, especially as chapter two begins:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? ~ Romans 2:1-4

This is the kind of judgment that comes from self-righteousness … the inability to see the plank in one’s own eye while trying to pluck the splinter from another’s. It’s the kind of judgment that a Pharisee or teacher of the law uses to justify crucifying an inconvenient prophet from Nazareth.

So far, in this epistle addressed to “all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people,” there has been no change of address. He’s talking to everyone, about all of them to whom he’s writing. They’ve all been guilty of this kind of judgment. Jews. Gentiles. Everyone. And yet they are people whose “faith is being reported all over the world” (Romans 1:8). He continues:

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.~ Romans 2:5-11

So there are people who have persisted in doing good … as well as those who have been self-seeking and follow evil. The standard of judgment is the same for Jew and Gentile.

When it says “God does not show favoritism,” does it say that He just going to save everyone because He doesn’t play favorites? No.

When it says “God does not show favoritism,” does it say that He will just condemn everyone who hasn’t heard because they have rejected truth they’ve never heard even though they might (or might not!) have persisted in doing good? No.

It says He doesn’t play favorites in saving Jews over Gentiles. That’s pretty much the point of the whole epistle, and why there should be no racial judgment taking place between the two groups!

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. ~ Romans 2:12-16

So it is possible for people who have not heard the law to still do things required by the law that are written on their hearts. We know from this epistle that keeping works of the law does not save. But the Gentiles described in this passage would have been described in scripture as “God-fearing” before the crucifixion and resurrection. Would they have been saved before those events, yet damned after?

Can we read that passage and still believe it is not possible for someone who has not heard of Jesus to live good lives, lives repentant of living for self, lives that express belief in love for others (and God is love)? That they cannot have belief in a good creator God who has put in their hearts a moral compass and a yearning for more than this life? Can we absolutely state that God cannot or will not impute the saving blood of Christ to those whom He wills, those who please Him by lives that give Him glory whether they have ever heard His name or not?

Paul understands that it’s impossible to believe on a name that one has not heard:

As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? ~ Romans 10:11-14

Does he — in this epistle or any other scripture — ever say that it is impossible for them to receive God’s salvation? Does any writer of scripture?

Scripture says we are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14-15) and saved by faith, not works (Romans 3:27-28; 9:32; Galatians 2:16; 5:4; John 5:24). It also says all will be judged (not saved, but judged) by their works (Matthew 25; Revelation 20:12) and words (James 3:1, Matthew 12:37)  — and in the way that we have judged others (Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37).

The only exceptions I have been able to find to those being judged are those who do not judge and do not condemn and who forgive others and those who hear and believe :

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~ Luke 6:37

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” ~ John 5:24

Are we ready to make a judgment that only one or the other of these is required? Just one and not the other? Both?

Have we as believers done one but not the other?

And aren’t we judging those who haven’t heard when we interpret scripture to say that God cannot, will not, and/or does not save them at His own discretion — when scripture does not say so? That they don’t rate an individual judgment like those who have heard and are just categorically out-of-luck? Damned automatically by chance of birth?

Don’t get me wrong: the gospel is still — and has been since Jesus lived it — the way God wants for His power to save to be shared with all; with everyone, everywhere, in every era.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” ~ Romans 1:16-17

Those who hear and believe; who will repent and conform their lives to Christ have a promise of salvation and advantage that those who heard do not have. At the same time, I feel completely inadequate — and forbidden — to judge the life of someone else who has not had that advantage and say that their faith is inadequate because they don’t know the Name.

And I think it extremely presumptuous to say that God does not have the power, the right, the sovereignty, the love that covers sins, the grace that triumphs over judgment, to show mercy to whom He will show mercy and compassion to whom He will have compassion … to say that He is somehow contractually obligated by the way most believers have historically interpreted Romans and other scriptures to categorically condemn everyone who has not heard, understood and accepted the gospel of His Son Jesus, the Christ.

We don’t believe that’s necessarily true of categories within it like babies and small children, mentally challenged people, or those among His people who lived before the Word took human form in Jesus.

We tend to believe — want to believe — that God can impute the grace bought by His Son’s blood to those exceptions, though we have no scriptural basis for that belief.

What does it say about us that we somehow want to believe that He cannot or will not save good people who have diligently sought Him but never had the opportunity to hear His name or His story?

I believe that is our double standard, not His.

I believe it’s our error that this kind of final judgment is ours to make, before the Day when He decides.

Not that He will save all whoever lived. There are those who are mortal who have chosen to defy, oppose and blaspheme all that is good and all that is of God, just as surely as there were those who were celestial beings who so chose. Their reward is just. My pity for them has no salvific power. My conviction that God’s heart also breaks for each one cannot redeem them. They must choose and they have chosen. What they have chosen will not prevent me from loving and trying to reach as many of them as I encounter.

Because the promise always beats the possibility of a relationship with God.

I believe God created this world and us to offer us choice and then to respect our choices.

We can choose good or evil, righteousness or sin, God or Satan, salvation or damnation … love or judgment.

I am doing my best to choose to love and not to judge …

… for the reasons outlined above.

The Incredible Free Giveaway Offer

No, my blog has not been hacked and taken over by some seamy cheat hacker trying to pry bucks from your gullible or not-so-gullible grasp. This is just a little story I made up. So indulge me.

A creative entity known as Apple decided to make known an incredible free giveaway offer of iPads and gave away an almost immeasurable quantity of iPads to all the people who heard about the free offer and responded. The hope was that the iPads would serve as a resource for people to “think different,” create good stuff, and generally make the world a better place.

Surprisingly, word did not spread as widely as Apple might have anticipated, and Apple decided to just give away iPads where the offer was not made known.  After all, Apple had always been the sole source of iPads, and it was within Apple’s purview to distribute iPads at pleasure. Apple found all kinds of people who wanted to “think different,” to create good stuff, and to generally make the world a better place. So Apple gave iPads to them, too.

Now the first group of people, who received their iPads because the offer had been made known to them, felt it was unfair to be giving away iPads to people who had not heard of the offer and had not responded to it as they had. They felt it was not like Apple to give away iPads to people who had not heard about the offer, and they began telling people that Apple should not and would not give away iPads to people who did know about the offer and respond to it.

Were they right to do this?

I’m guessing that most people would say “no” to this story, and I would be one of them.

They were not the ones making the decision. They were not part of the decision-making process about making an offer or giving away iPads. They did not word the agreement of the offer. They were beneficiaries of the process. They lost nothing; they still had their iPads. The wonder is that they largely kept the information about the offer to themselves.

You see, the people who responded to the offer were given a promise, then they received the gift. The second group of people just received the gift.

Now do me a favor. Put your cursor at the beginning of the story, sweep it and copy it and paste it into a text document app, and do a search-and-replace. Replace “Apple” with “God” and “iPads” with “salvation.”

Oh, let me just do it for you:

A creative entity known as God decided to make known an incredible free offer of salvation and gave away an almost immeasurable quantity of salvation to all the people who heard about the free offer and responded. The hope was that the salvation would serve as a resource for people to “think different,” create good stuff, and generally make the world a better place.

Surprisingly, word did not spread as widely as God might have anticipated, and God decided to just give away salvation where the offer was not made known.  After all, God had always been the sole source of salvation, and it was within God’s purview to distribute salvation at pleasure. God found all kinds of people who wanted to “think different,” to create good stuff, and to generally make the world a better place. So God gave salvation to them, too.

Now the first group of people, who received their salvation because the offer had been made known to them, felt it was unfair to be giving away salvation to people who had not heard of the offer and had not responded to it as they had. They felt it was not like God to give away salvation to people who had not heard about the offer, and they began telling people that God should not and would not give away salvation to people who did know about the offer and respond to it.

I don’t know about you, but I would still say that the people in the first group were not right to draw this conclusion and make this pronouncement.

For all the same reasons.

If you can find a scripture that says God gives up His sovereignty to show mercy and favor to whomever He wills because of His contractual obligation to those of us who have heard the offer and responded to it, I’d like to see it.

I understand that He is a just God and that we are imperfect people and that believers have an advantage in living saved lives and making the world a better place, but I am not aware that our ongoing imperfections are less egregious to God. I haven’t read anything in scripture that says we stop sinning after we believe and respond or that our sin becomes less sinful.

In fact, don’t the people who live that kind of lives that believers should be living put us to shame for having the law of love written on their hearts yet having never encountered the free offer of salvation made by God through His Son, Jesus, the Christ?

If we are going to picture God as only just and not merciful — having somehow exhausted His mercy at Calvary as if it were a finite quantity — then we truly picture ourselves as children of a lesser god.

And if we keep the information about that offer to ourselves, when others could benefit from it here and now and gladly join in the telling, well then … what does that say about us?

Now, the qualifier. I said nothing about God giving this incredible free offer to everyone, but to everyone whom He wishes to give it.  It is within His power enacted by Christ’s blood to save everyone. It is not within His nature. Clearly, we have much information in scripture that indicates He will judge and there will be those who will reject Him and His offer and face consequences that have no reprieve.

But you have to know someone to either receive or reject them. You have to be aware of an offer in order to accept it or turn it down. You have to have knowledge of a promise in order to believe or disbelieve it.

At the same time, you can reject everything that a person stands for without knowing them, or even knowing that they exist.

Anyone can accept a gift. If a life is lived which displays the acceptance of that gift, will God ultimately deny it to someone living it yet who has never heard the Name of the Giver?

Grace, Good Things, and Lazarus

We know the story and it teases, taunts and mystifies us:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” ~ Luke 16:19-31

I’ve been criticized in the last few months for proposing that perhaps not all mankind is totally depraved, and that those who hear and believe are recipients of a promise of salvation, but that salvation is not necessarily denied to those who haven’t heard.

So I just wanted to bring up this little story that Jesus told and point out that (whatever His point in relating it was at the moment), the poor man Lazarus in this story dies and receives eternal comfort. He is not commended for exceptional behavior nor for his faith in God nor for any attribute of his life over which he seemed to have control.

The difference between Lazarus and the rich man in torment was that in life Lazarus received bad things and the rich man received good things.

And if this story has any value at all in describing the afterlife (and I believe it does; a second value in addition to describing the unwillingness of some in Jesus’ lifetime who would not believe in resurrection), then its secondary value may well be in pointing out that God saves whom He wishes to save. He is sovereign. He is free to do that.

That does not mean that He will necessarily save everyone; it’s not even implied. The Lord gives life to whomever He wills:

For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. ~ John 5:21

Is Lazarus an example of this unqualified grace and mercy? A way Jesus meant to communicate it? What are your reasons for thinking so — or not?

Feel free to discuss among yourselves.

The Nativity Story from John 1

Yesterday, a friend on Facebook asked a group of mostly preachers what they would be preaching about on Sunday, December 25, Christmas morning.

I answered, “I don’t preach, but if I did, I’d preach on the Nativity Story from John 1. Yup, John 1. It’s short, but cosmic.”

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. ~ John 1:1-5, 14, 17-18

I love the baby-Jesus-in-a-manger version of the story as dearly as anyone. But this version has incredible power in its brevity.

The very Son of God, the Word, who was with God and was God from the beginning, took our form to live with us. The glory of which angels sang was now visible in Him. You could see grace. You could see truth. In Jesus, you could see God.

Want another tiny sample of this part of the Nativity Story?

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” ~ John 8:58

They wanted to kill Him right there in the temple by throwing rocks at Him, they were so incensed to hear this. He claimed to be God. But truth is a defense against blasphemy as well as libel … and He walked away, unharmed. I have to wonder if their hands were stayed by doubt in their conviction that He was only a man; that a man could not also be God.

Another glimpse?

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” ~ John 14:8-10

God with Us. Immanuel.

Jesus knew who He was. He knew what Isaiah had prophesied in 7:14, and He knew that “Immanuel” meant “God With Us.” He had to have known what His mother had treasured in her heart for all those years.

And in telling Philip and the other apostles once again Who He was, He was promising to give them the very Holy Spirit within Himself so that God could do His work through them as well.

One more glimpse, this time from someone other than John:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:5-11

God became a single cell; a nothing; a thing invisible except through a microscope. God became a baby. A young man. A servant.

A sacrifice.

God intended all of this to happen, and that was why it was as good as done as soon as Jesus was born, and the angels could sing praise at His birth for what He would yet do as a man, and a servant, and a sacrifice.

Jesus showed us that God could be in and among man, so that God could continue His work in us and among us and through us by His own Holy Spirit.

Jesus showed us that we could be born anew; become something very different, something still like a human being on the outside, but full of grace and truth and God within.

Jesus showed us that the true glory of God is to serve, to give, to be given and spent out and used up in love to others.

He gave up a throne in heaven to wash dirty feet.

He gave up being in the Presence of God in order to be the Presence of God.

He surrendered His life there to surrender it again here, and to give it abundantly and without measure to anyone who hears and believes and asks.

The Plan

I have never really been a fan of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989), but as someone who grew up yearning to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (on at the same time evening worship started on Sundays) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Disney’s World of Color, same time, different channel), I had high hopes when I went to see it.

Not sure anyone emerged from the chilly theater as a fan, but the movie had moments. Most James Cameron flicks do.

The one that resonated with me (to the best of my recollection)?

Trapped in a deep undersea sub-structure rapidly filling with icy water, oil rigman Virgil and estranged wife Lindsey are trying to come up with a plan to get both of them over to an airtight compartment back on the rig hundreds of yards away. He still loves her passionately; she has shown only cold contempt for him. He is wearing a wet suit; she is not.  And the minisub is a wrecked piece of junk:

Lindsey: Please, listen! Just listen to me for one second. Now you’ve got the suit on, and you’re a much better swimmer than I am, right?
Virgil: [reluctantly] Yeah, maybe…
Lindsey: Right? Yes! So I’ve got a plan.
Virgil: What’s the plan?
Lindsey: I drown, and you tow me back to the rig.
Virgil: No. No!
Lindsey: Yes! This water…
Virgil: NO!
Lindsey: …is only a couple degrees above freezing! I g-go into deep hypothermia, my blood’ll go like ice water, right? My body systems will slow down, they won’t stop…
Virgil: Linds…
Lindsey: You tow me back and I can, I can be revived after, maybe ten or fifteen minutes. Ten-fifteen minutes!
Virgil: [pushing the suit collar at her] Linds, you put this on, you put it on!
Lindsey: [pushing the collar back at him] No, it’s the only way! Just put this on! Put this on, you know I’m right. Please, it’s the only way, you’ve got all the s-stuff on the rig to do this! Put this on, Bud, please
Virgil: [putting the collar back on] This is insane.
Lindsey: Oh my God, I know. But it’s the only way.

Maybe it’s not the only way; after all, I didn’t get to see all of those scientifically-stoked hours of Voyage and Leagues. Maybe it’s just a few hokey moments of pretty good melodrama in an otherwise immemorable movie.


But the scene resonsates with me because I have always wondered how the conversation in heaven took place where The Plan was formulated. You know: The Plan.

We can theorize and argue all we want to about atonement theories, but when we intellectualize the subject, we fail to to address and experience the raw emotion of The Plan.

The Father will have to abandon His beloved Son in ultimate anguish. The Son will have to suffer in indescribable physical pain. And die, trusting the Father who has turned His back on the sin borne by the Son. And the Son must stay dead for three days. And then be resurrected, to a whole new and different kind of body, apparently.

Somehow, among all the nice, systematic, logical theories we can muster, The Plan turns out to be the only way.

It is the only way we can be revived from asphyxiation while drowning in icy sin.

Partial Depravity

I just want to bullet a few points and then I’m going to leave this subject alone for awhile. It’s taken me most of my 56 years to sort it out this far, and I don’t expect to make any great gains in it anytime soon.

  • I don’t believe the Roman epistle was intended to be — solely or even primarily — a commentary on man’s inclination toward evil. It’s an answer to Jewish and Gentile Christians who are having difficulty living with the reality of their equality in God’s eyes, and that equality is based on the fact that everyone sins; no one is perfect.
  • The first ten or so chapters are written to resonate with the Jewish-trained mind; references to existing scripture and point-of-view. This seems to be because the Jewish Christians were lording it over their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ that they were of God’s chosen people. (There seems to be a brief break at Romans 11:13 when Paul addresses Gentiles at that point.)
  • Romans 1:18-32 is not necessarily talking about the wickedness of all people (the word “all” does not appear there), but specifically of “people who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (NIV) or “men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (ESV) or “men who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (KJV). There’s no punctuation in the original Greek text, so we endanger the meaning by placing a comma there after “people” or “men.” I think the importance of this passage is that there is no distinguishing between Jew and Gentile; people of both groups have been guilty of these sins — hence the use of the non-specific term “men” or “people” (as the NIV renders it).
  • The text specifically names sins which are in play because of this wickedness: idolatry, sexual immorality (perhaps in the context of idol worship), trading God’s truth for a lie. And this unholy idolatry led to further sin: ” … They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips,slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.” It’s a history of how people have gone wrong through having ignored the plain evidence of God in creation.
  • Romans 1 is not separate in thought from Romans 2, which condemns the kind of judgment and racial line-drawing that evidently had been going on between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. Romans 2:5-11 not only quotes a Psalm and a Proverb, but also agrees with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 25: God will judge according to what people do.
  • Please consider very carefully the verses in Romans 2:12-16 before confidently concluding that belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God through hearing the gospel is an absolute prerequisite to the salvation that His blood enables and that God gives as a free gift.
  • No matter how many good things people do, it can never be enough to earn or merit salvation. That’s the point of Romans 4-9. That’s the weakness of the Jewish law. It was never meant for salvation, but preservation of God’s people as sanctified, set apart to prepare the way for the Chosen One — and by far the greatest share of them paved their own paths to nowhere instead.
  • Abraham was justified by faith in God (Romans 4:1-3); and so are we (Romans 5:1-2). But the good works we do testify to our faith, just as Abraham’s act of faith did (James 2). The purpose of those good works is to bring the judgment of those who have not heard and do not believe to bear on the goodness of God. They give us an opportunity to explain the good and giving nature of God through His most extravagant gift: His Son, Jesus, the Christ. No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6ff); He and the Father are One.
  • Adam brought sin and therefore death into the world; Jesus took away sin and the sting of death (Romans 5-6). Jewish law could not bring life; only judgment, by specifying what constitutes sin (Romans 7). Sinleadstodeath … sinleadstodeath … sinleadstodeath (one of the major subtexts of the entire Bible, but especially Romans). Adam is not responsible for our sin; we are (Deuteronomy 24:16).
  • The Spirit of God/Christ rescues us from slavery to sin and the consequence of death (Romans 8). He is given to those God foreknows and predestines and calls — but there is no language there that says God only calls certain people, or that He alone determines how they respond to that call. (See Isaiah 65:1266:4, Jeremiah 7:13; but also see God’s promise to answer even before they call for Him, Isaiah 65:24.) In all cases in scripture, the subject for the word “predestined” is plural. It is never used in a singular, individual sense. The same is true of the word “foreknew” and “foreknowledge.” Is there anyone God does not foreknow? Is there anyone He does not call?
  • The point in Romans 9:18-33 seems to be that God calls to the Gentiles as well as the His chosen people, the Jews, to prove that righteousness in Christ is not achieved by obeying their law/doing good alone, but through faith. The choosing spoken of here, again, is of a group of people (Jews, Gentiles) — not of individuals.
  • To me, the sense of the foreknowledge and choosing is that God knew in advance that he would be calling a group of people to follow His Son from among the Jews and the Gentiles. He predestined this group to be, and to be mixed. Nothing in the text says He predestined individual persons to be a part of that group and made their choice for them. At the same time, nothing in the text says that God does not permit Himself to save — show mercy — to whom He wills if they have not heard of His Son.
  • Romans 10 concludes that Jews and Gentiles (that’s everybody, folks) need Jesus … and need to hear about Jesus so they can believe. Romans 11 maintains that God has not rejected his people, Israel (the Jews), but wants for them to know not just of Him but of His Son and what has been done for all people through Jesus. To the Gentiles, Paul advises that they should not get a sense of superiority over their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ, because they were grafted in; not inherently better or some kind of “new” chosen people.
  • The rest of the epistle is filled with instructions for both Jews and Gentiles, addressed to all, capstoned (perhaps) by: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. ” (Romans 15:7-9)
  • None of that says anything about people being incapable of imagining or doing good of themselves. Assuming that people do, in fact, make their own decisions based on the faith God gives them (Ephesians 2:8) without God making the decision for them, then people are capable of making a good decision when they decide to follow Jesus Christ. And people who do what the law requires without knowledge of the law are capable of making a good decision when they decide to do good works.
  • There is no record that Cain and Abel were commanded of God to offer sacrifices. If they were not, then both of them were capable of making a good decision in making an offering of gratitude to God … a creative choice in lieu of a command to follow. And, yes, even one out of two of them managed to mess that up  badly … yet Abel offered his gift in faith (Hebrews 11:4).
  • What value would our choices to follow God have if He made them for us? This is the rhetorical question Paul asks, almost as a joke (“Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” ~ Romans 9:19-24). Paul’s answer is that the sovereign God has the right to make our choices for us — He made us — but His will is to call even the Gentiles as well as the Jews to the relationship made possible through His Son. This agrees with what Paul taught in Athens, that God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30-31). Peter agrees (2 Peter 3:9).
  • But: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14)
  • It’s important not to say “can’t” where scripture says “doesn’t.” The fact that we do not choose to do good things does not mean that we cannot.

Okay, that’s all for now. I may or may not respond to comments; I’ll just tell you that in advance. I’m not good at arguing with people and I don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t usually set a good example for people who read arguing comments and conclude that Christians are more comfortable at arguing than they are at doing good in the world.

I’m having a more and more difficult time with that perception, myself.

That means I am re-evaluating the kind of blogging that I do here, and it means that a change is in order. I don’t know what that change is, but I have a strong feeling that it will be more writing about Jesus, which I have badly neglected.

I just feel deeply that we believers have too often made a very bad impression on those who don’t know of Him except through us, especially by judging them and using expressions like “total depravity” and generally leaving the impression that God only loves people who have heard about Jesus and have accepted Him as Son of God and Savior and Lord. And that means us and not them.

Nothing could be further from God’s truth.

Call Me Totally Depraved, But …

… I think I am unfit to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian.

That’s right; they actually agree on one of their respective five points — total depravity — and as far as i understand it, I disagree with it.

Here’s the way that Wikipedia phrases the first of Calvin’s five points:

Total depravity“: This doctrine, also called “total inability”, asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures. (The term “total” in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as possible.)[10] This doctrine is borrowed from Augustine who was a member of a Manichaean sect in his youth.

And how the third article of the Arminian Remonstrances reads:

That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John xv. 5: “Without me ye can do nothing.”

Now, the fact is, I agree that no one is capable of being saved by his or her own effort, or without the blood of Christ. I agree that faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8 ), but I do not find anything in scripture that says this gift is given exclusively to those who have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Faith may come by hearing (Romans 10:17) — it certainly does for many, many believers — but scripture nowhere says that it comes solely by hearing. You have to add the word “only” to get that meaning.
  • There may indeed be no one who is sinless before God (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 143:2; Romans 3) … but not one of those passages (or any other) adds, “and therefore they are all automatically damned.”
  • Nor does any of them say that a man is incapable of anything truly good. In fact, a good number of Old Testament heroes are spoken of as righteous or fully devoted to God in spite of their sins (Noah, Genesis 6:9; 7:1 … Abraham, Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, 9; Galatians 3:6; James 2:21, James 2:23 … Daniel and Job, Ezekiel 14:14, 20 … King David, 1 Kings 15:3). And as far as we can tell, none of them ever heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life. People can imagine, think and do good … even if the rest of Noah’s generation thought only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5). Noah did, unless somehow you can explain to me how Noah was righteous even though he was also a person whose heart’s inclinations were only evil all the time.
  • In addition, when God created man, He pronounced man along with all His creation, not just “good,” but “very good.” (Genesis 1:26-31).
  • This is where I disagree with Calvin’s Reformed thought even further; man (through Adam and Eve) chose not to be good one time; God gave them the choice of two trees in the garden, and one was promoted by the serpent to be more attractive though forbidden on pain of death itself. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is choice, and our choices matter to Him, and they have consequences. We have chosen ever since not to be perfect, but that does not mean that we have chosen not to be good. It only takes one time choosing self to bring sin into our lives and render us imperfect. But that does not mean that God sees us as unrighteous and consigns us to the fires of hell upon the commission of the first sin; through Christ’s blood He justifies the ungodly. He judges fairly — and I believe that would have to mean, individually, rather than as part of a class of people (“sinners”) that He can condemn because it will save Him a great deal of time and effort.
  • This is where I diverge from Arminius’s Remonstrances even further because the fourth article reads:

That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of any good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost,—Acts vii, and elsewhere in many places.

So — if I understand it correctly — this article of doctrine says that only God can sponsor anything good; all good actions come from God as well as all good things and good can only be ascribed to Him. Where does scripture say that? I’ll agree that His grace is not irresistible (one of the points of Calvinism says it is), but where does God’s word tell us that no man is capable of any good at all, of himself? Wouldn’t that be a requirement of free will and choice; the ability to choose within oneself between genuine good and inarguable evil? Don’t we even call it “making a good choice” or “making a bad choice”? Isn’t the purpose of giving people a choice finding out what they will choose?

Let’s face it: all the talk of “total depravity” is just a redefinition of another doctrine of men: Original Sin. It is so tenuously based in scripture that believers in Christ can’t begin to come to a consensus on what it is, what it means, or how it applies to mankind. It seems clear to me in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 that the acts of Adam and Eve introduced sin (and therefore death) into the world. Since Augustine, we’ve read the word “eternal” before “condemnation” into the Romans passage, where Paul is talking about the condemnation of a death sentence — where there was none before Adam and Eve! His point is that the first man brought sin into the world; Jesus took it away. Adam is no more responsible for my sins than I am for his or my great-great-uncle’s or my yet-unborn grandchildren’s (if any — Jeremiah 31:29-31) .

I’ll admit I don’t understand everything about Calvinism and Arminianism. To my view, they lead to extremes: one to excluding man entirely from the salvation process; the other, to virtually excluding God’s sovereignty in favor of free will. I don’t understand all of the arguments that are used to explain away all these doctrines’ inconsistencies with scripture. I don’t get all of the points that new Reformed voices make to ameliorate the extremes of their classic position (does that mean they are reformed Reformed?).

I do understand that these doctrines are two systematized approaches to theology (study of God’s nature), soteriology (study of salvation) and probably lots of other religious stuff, and they are systems created by men.

And I believe I understand what Jesus says about nullifying the word of God by human tradition and invalidating worship by teaching human rules (Matthew 15:1-13; Mark 7:1-13). God doesn’t have to fit in our rulebooks, no matter how cleverly we deduce them or how cogently we argue them or how persuasively we phrase them.

Anything I need to understand about the relationship between God and us — what He wants for us; what He has provided for us — I can see pretty clearly in the life and actions and teachings and sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, His Son.

He didn’t pronounce anyone totally depraved; completely unreachable by God due to their slightest sin. Instead, He seemed to go out of His way to find good in the people that His countrymen expected the least good from, like a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13) and a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). He challenged people with His own perfection (Matthew 5:20, 5:48; John 5:14; John 8:1-11). He was a perfect (mature, complete) example; I believe that He feels we deserve that as much as God’s perfection required it in order for Jesus to be our sacrifice … and that we deserve a challenge of perfection, even if it’s impossible for us to achieve ourselves. But I don’t ever hear Him saying or implying that it’s impossible for us to be good, or to do good, or to have faith in what’s good which can be counted as righteousness.

I think this point of Calvinist/Arminian agreement — total depravity — is pervasive in Restoration Movement thought, too. It supports our view that God cannot and/or will not save anyone who has not heard the gospel, believed, repented, confessed, been baptized, and kept all of our man-made rules, too.

Some of our man-made rules and interpretations give Old Testament heroes the benefit of the doubt, even though none of them ever heard the gospel of Christ in order to believe in it, repent, confess His Sonship or be baptized into a fellowship where we in churches of Christ could explain [sarcasm alert] the salvific importance of a cappella worship. We also excuse babies and small children and usually folks who are mentally challenged from the requirement to obey, though scripture says no such specific thing about their acceptance or rejection by God. So, we Restoration folks kind of believe in total depravity, too … but we also believe in the exceptions we wish to make in it.

Can we even look at these issues from outside our own doctrinal boxes and see what scripture says and doesn’t say?

Those who are saved eternally, are saved by Jesus’ blood and the Lord’s judgment — which is His choice. Those who have heard the gospel and have chosen to accept it and have been immersed into a Christ-like life are recipients of a promise of salvation (Romans 10:9), which they are free to continue accepting or can walk away from it and from Him forever (Hebrews 6:4-6 — now that’s depravity!). Those who have not heard the gospel cannot possibly be expected to obey its implications (Romans 10:14). But you know there are good people who have lived as if they had — including patriarchs who lived before God made clear in His law what kind of good He wanted for His people! Those who haven’t heard, yet live obedient lives, perceive and believe in the necessity of good over evil, repent of and repudiate acts that gratify self at the expense of others … they are a law for themselves (Romans 2:14). We will all be judged by what we have done (Matthew 25:31-46), because what we do testifies to what we believe (James 2).

That’s what I read scripture saying. Not five points decided upon by a Reformation synod or five minimal acts of obedience deduced by the founders of a Restoration movement.

And I can’t find anywhere that scripture says those who have not received the promise are automatically excluded from the gift of salvation through the grace of God in Christ because of their total depravity, or anything else.

So it would appear that I am not fit for Calvinism; I’m not fit for Arminianism.

I do find a fit for myself (and everyone else, excluding no one on the chance circumstance of having heard the gospel) between God’s sovereignty and our own free will to choose and within a human nature that is touched by sin, struggles with sin, yet — along with a lot of other people (some of whom have heard of God’s grace and some of whom have not) — yearning for what is good and right in the world, fully capable of imagining what that looks like and often willing to help make that happen.

Sermons and Chimes: Working Out Our Salvation

Alfred Ellmore, my Great-Great Grandfather
I’m coming to terms with my heritage in Churches of Christ through the person of my great-great grandfather Alfred Ellmore, one of the early preachers in the Restoration Movement that yielded this fellowship. This is an installment from his 1914 book Sermons and Chimes, and my reactions to it in the form of a dialogue with him:



“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:[12-]13.)

One of the great blessings to man in this life is that his Creator has given him something to do. Without having his hands and mind employed he can not be happy. And in order to make this work a success, God proposes to take man into partnership with him, hence in the work of salvation there are two parties, the divine and the human, and if one be taken out, either the divine or the human, the work is a failure. Without the divine, man can not save himself. Man can not forgive his own sins, nor raise himself from the dead. Without the divine we would be denied the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit, and would know nothing of his sustaining grace. And without man’s acceptance and his hearty co-operation, God does not propose to save man. Man without God can not save himself, and without man’s acceptance God will not save man. And to make this a little stronger, God asks man through the means to save himself.

Right up to the point where you said “God asks man through the means to save himself,” Great-great Grandfather, I was right there with you. Because, right off the bat, I see a conflict with Acts 15:11, Ephesians 2:8, and 2 Timothy 1:8-10 — just to name a few.

Salvation applies to man in three distinct or separate states, and the first thing is to ascertain which salvation does Paul refer to here. There is offered to man a present salvation from past sins. This means pardon, forgiveness, justification. And man is promised salvation from the grave. This means only the salvation of that which was lost, viz., the body. It was the body which was lost in the grave, and when that which was lost in the grave is taken out of the grave, man will be saved from the grave. Then we are promised eternal life beyond the resurrection, and this will be given unto all who have washed their robes, who have been redeemed, and have lived faithful lives unto death. Now which of these salvations is referred to here? Does he refer to conversion, to their salvation from past sins? Whatever salvation it was, it had to be worked out. Then for two reasons we know he could not refer to their conversion. First, they had already been saved from their sins. Paul was not writing to sinners but to Christians, and though they had been saved from past sins, he is speaking of a fugure salvation. And second, there is not much “work” required in becoming a Christian. We read in the New Testament of the thousands who became Christians under the apostles’ preaching, and it was always the work of one day. There is not the case of one person who was told what to do to be saved, being put off until tomorrow. But if one were to obey the gospel today, and live forty years a faithful Christian life, there would be some work in that. Clearly, then, it was not conversion they were to work out.

I have heard this so-called division of salvation described differently … as justification (Acts 13:39; Romans 4:25; Romans 5:16), sanctification (John 17:19; Acts 26:18; Romans 15:16; Hebrews 10:29), and glorification (Romans 8:30; 1 Peter 1:21): the pardon and forgiveness; the process of being set aside for growing increasingly like God through Jesus’ Holy Spirit; the translation into a glorified, eternal form to dwell with them forever. These are scriptural terms, and I have nothing against calling scriptural things by scriptural names — but it would seem to me that your division separates the last of these into two separate things, and ignores the middle one completely. And here I would differ with you.

Salvation is most often spoken of as a single thing; a continuous process. It may well begin with an acceptance of pardon and forgiveness, progress through the living of an increasingly Christ-like mortal life, and continue forever in an immortal form — but it is spoken of as a single life; a single salvation.

But does Paul refer to their salvation from the grave? For two reasons he could not have meant the resurrection of the body. First, we all get that salvation; as by Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Second, we do not have to “work” out that salvation. The death in Adam is universal and unconditional, so is the resurrection.

Then we are forced to the conclusion that the salvation spoken of here is the salvation in heaven, it is eternal life. Then, my friend, is there something startling here? Though they were Christians, but they were not in heaven, nor were they absolutely certain they would be; if they prove faithful unto death, a thing I fear very many Christians are not doing, they would be saved. The same thought is found in Heb. 4: “Let us therefore fear, lest a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to have come short of it.”

I would have to argue that in leaving out the “part” or sequence of salvation that has to do with becoming more like Christ — the part which involves our active participation and partnership with God through His Holy Spirit — you have left out the possibility to reach the correct conclusion.

And you have opened the door to the doctrine of a works-based salvation, against which Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 2:16 and all of Romans 3 and 4 (in fact, the entire epistle) argue heartily against.

I’m not sure than anything in all of Christendom has done more damage to the faith of believers than a doctrine of works-based salvation; that completely deficient teaching that our salvation is all up to us and that God has done His part and He’s through with us and the Holy Spirit is not going to help us today — only the people who lived in the later years of the New Testament age.

Because it leads to self-reliance and self-doubt, both of which are dead-end tracks to nowhere fast. Self-reliance and self-doubt may be quite useful tools for those who crave power to manipulate others into doing what they desire others to do, but they do not lead one closer to Christ because they are centered on self. To God be the glory!

Those “once in grace always in grace” people do not get much consolation here. Paul says: Let “us” fear! What! Paul fear he might be lost? “Final perseverance” people are not all saved here; they were not all baptized into Christ, and are therefore not in Christ.

“Work out your own salvation.” This suggests two things: First, I need not ask my brother to work out my salvation. He has a work of the same importance, that of working out his own salvation. And we need not ask the Master to work out our salvation. He has not promised to do that. And when he commands man to do a certain work, he will not do that work for man. Then if I do not work out my own salvation, it will not be done. Surely, the Lord will assist us in this great work. “He is a sun and a shield, he will give grace and glory, and no good thing will he withhold from them who walk uprightly.” He will not do our work, but he will assist us in doing it.

“We need not ask the Master to work out our salvation”? Really? Because it’s my understanding that we cannot do it ourselves (Romans 3:23) and that He offers the help we need through His Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 5:5; Romans 15:16; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Timothy 1:14; Titus 3:5; Jude 1:20-21).

There are two things said of the congregation at Philippi, which I believe I never heard of being said of any other congregation: First, they had always obeyed, not in his presence only, but now much more in his absence. Whoever knew a congregation who were more faithful after the preacher had left them? Second, here is the only congregation I ever heard of which had its beginning at midnight. Turn to the sixteenth chapter of Acts, and here we read of the beginning of the work in Philippi. Paul and Silas were the apostles called to Philippi by a vision. And on the Sabbath day they went out of the city to a place where resorted persons for prayer, and Paul preached to some women who assembled there, and a woman named Lydia heard the word, believed, and was baptized. And a certain damsel, possessed of an evil spirit, said: “These are the servants of the most high God who show unto us the way of salvation.” And after some days, Paul being grieved, commanded the evil spirit to come out of her, and when her masters saw their business interfered with they beat the apostles, who were then put into the inner prison, and their feet were made fast in the stocks, and there in a strange city, and no friends, and bleeding and hungry, they sang praises and prayed. The Lord heard them, sent an earthquake which opened the doors and threw off their chains, and the jailor rushed into the prison, and seeing the prisoners all loose, was going to take his own life, but Paul saw him in time, and said: “Do thyself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light and fell down before the apostles and brought them out, and said: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved and thy house.” And they spake unto him the word of the Lord and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes, and he was baptized, he and all his straight way, and when he had brought them into his house he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

Now here is the report of the beginning of the cause in Philippi. And were are the preachers now, under the most favorable circumstances, who would follow out such a program? Perhaps one-half of the men called preachers in the United States would not baptize people under any circumstances. But many who do baptize would not have gone out and baptized persons at midnight. No; they might say: “Wait until next Sabbath, and I will preach a discourse in our church, and if our church is the church of your choice, you can join.” But these preachers were preachers of the gospel; they were laboring under the commission of Him who had said: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Now, if you should happen to come upon a group of people administering this rite at midnight, what would be your conclusion as to their faith? Would you say they were Catholics? Oh, no; Catholics never baptize. But come among the Protestants; would you say they were Methodists, or Lutherans? Hardly. But are they Presbyterians? No. Presbyterians (except the Cumberlands) do not baptize.

Again, dear ancestor, you seem to miss no opportunity to say rude things about believers of other opinions than your own — and perhaps in their absence — rather than finding an opportunity to teach the beautiful, deep meaning of baptism and its salvific power in our lives. Would it not be more instructive to point out to those hearing or reading why baptism was commended by Paul and Silas to the jailer and his family … even to the heart-touching symbolism of the two evangelists washing the jailer’s sins away in baptism even as the jailer humbles himself to wash their stripes?

But it is God who works the will into the people. And says the sleepy Christian: “I’d like to do more and better work in the church, but I haven’t the will, and when God works the will into me, I will rise up and do my duty.” And says the alien: “I’d like to be a Christian, and when the Lord works the will into me I will obey, and of course you could not expect me to obey if I were not willing.”

Now, it is affirmed here that it is God who works the will into man, and if he do this independent of man’s will, even without consulting man, then men have a lawful excuse for their disobedience. But if the Lord propose reasonable means to induce men to obey, and they reject the means, man is to blame.

I am unable to find scripture which supports your turn of phrase, “it is God who works the will into man.” The closest I can come is 2 Peter 1:21, which is speaking of prophecy and prophecy alone; or Philippians 2:13 (the second verse you quote in your introduction), which says “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” And I believe that this does not say He works His own will into people, but works within believers who want to do what He wills; what pleases Him — almost certainly through the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (v. 1).

I wish you were still alive to explain to me how you came by this phrase and what you mean by it, as it is perplexing and outside of scripture and my experience. Was it a phrase used by other evangelists of differing opinions from yours; are you quoting it, daring them to justify it themselves? Because you seem to agree with it in the paragraphs which follow:

In the autumn of 1867 I went into Hamilton County, Ind., to preach. On Lord’s day the house was filled with women, and the men were seated on planks, chairs, and wagon seats in the yard, and I stood on the door step. The audience was enthusiastic, and I was energetic. After we closed, a shrewd man made his way through the crowd, and I was introduce to him as Mr. Smith. In a firm but mild manner he said: “Mr. Ellmore, I want to make a statement to you. I just wish to say that today is the first time I ever heard the gospel preached.” Said he: “I was born in North Carolina, and it was my lot to be thrown among that people who believe that God foreordains everything that comes to pass. Those who were born to be saved will be saved, and those who were born to be lost will be lost. Sometimes these people would hold protracted meetings and get up revivals; some would ‘get through,’ and they would shout. Others would seek and fail. I often became anxious as to my future. On one occasion I was in the woods crying and praying. All at once I sobered, and began a soliloquy: ‘What are you worrying over? My salvation. Is not that all unnecessary? Suppose you are one of the elect, don’t you suppose the Lord will call for you at the right time? But suppose you are one of the non-elect, will your worrying and praying induce him to accept you — when you from all eternity were lost, and couldn’t be saved?’ And I folded my arms and told the Lord that, if he wanted Dan Smith, he could let me know, and I should never make another effort until he informed me, and behold, I have spent the forenoon of my life, and now a part of the afternoon, waiting for the Lord to do for me what he has commanded me to do for myself, and today I have learned what that duty is.” Soon Dan Smith, wife and nearly all of their children were members of the church.

But how does God work the will into man, and leave man free to do his own will? Let us see. Early in the spring here stand two men, a father and a son, and the father says: “My son, it is now time to begin work on the farm.” But the son says: “I have decided to change my line of business. I shall quit the farm!” Says the father: “This is the first time you ever refused to obey my command, how is this?” “Well, father, until this morning I was a minor, and I was subject to you, but this morning I am twenty-one, and here are two citizens now, and two ‘wills’ to be consulted.” Now, since the father is willing — anxious — but the son is not willing, what is the first thing to be done? The father must “work the will” into the son. And what is the proper course for him to take? He might say: “My son, I am the stronger, and if you further refuse, I will force you to go.” This might be in accordance with the will of the father, but I hardly think it would work the will into the son. He might force the son to work, but it would be against the will of the son. Suppose, instead of coercion, he tries persuasion, and offers inducements. “My son, if you will go and work on the farm I will give you a dollar and a half for each good day you put in.” But the son hesitates: “I can make better wages for less hours at some other business.” But the father is loath to let the son go, saying: “Your mother and I are growing old, and we can not consent to having the family circle broken. And now, if you will work with us this season, I will give you two dollars per day, and in addition, I will give you one-third of everything the farm produces this year.” The son springs to his feet and asks: “Where shall I sow the oats, and where shall I plant the corn and cotton?” The father says: “A great change has come over you, and what has brought about this great change?” “You did it, father, by offering me such amazing inducements that I could not find it in my heart to deny.” So, the Father offers lost man remission of sins, the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit, his abundant grace, food and raiment, a glorified body, and an eternal home in heaven, and the considerate, reasonable man says: “I yield, I yield.”

So it is only by coercion and bribery that God “works his will into man”? What of the motivations of love for God and gratitude for what He has done for us in Christ and the honest desire to please Him? Have these no value in becoming more self-giving as Jesus was; living the kind of life He lived?

Now let us note some of the worthy examples who were laborers in the vinyeard, and first, the Master himself. He labored in the carpenter’s shop until he was thirty years old. He then became a preacher, and he labored from morning till night, and after the multitudes whent home to rest, Jesus went apart to pray, and upon one occasion he prayed all night (Luke 6:12). He visited the sick and he healed them. He sought the hungry multitude, and fed them. He went about doing good. How would the ten-thousand-dollar clergyman size up with the lowly Master? The twelve apostles must go into all the world and preach, and take, in part, bonds, and whippings, and imprisonments for their reward. They often labored with fear and trembling.

In his boyhood Paul was taught the trade of tent-making, and after becoming a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and after becoming an apostle, he worked at his trade between discourses, to help bear expenses of himself and the young preacher who accompanied him. A preacher of his ability to stop by the wayside and work with his hands! But he worked with “fear and trembling,” not so much for the hardships and dangers of self, as for the poor and forsaken around him. Paul could look across the dark river and see the rewards of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. And have we all thought of that three-years’ meeting he held in Ephesus? Did anybody ever read of such labors as those were? To the elders he says: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember that, by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears!” Is not this a remarkable experience? For three years! A long meeting. I ceased not to warn every one of you, the whole congregation. Night and day. Not only during the day, but in the night also. But he warned them night and day with tears! There are not many preachers now who could give such a report. Do we know of one? Just one? And do we see Christians now serve God “with fear and trembling?” Do we see elders feeding the flock “with fear and trembling?” Do parents warn their children of the dancing hall, and of the saloon, and of the Sunday ball game with fear and trembling?

Now, in view of these things, let us all — every one — go to work, not boisterously, but industriously, quietly. Let us assist every one near us, to work faithfully. And let us pray much, pray without ceasing, at least once per day, but three times would be better. Let us do all the good we can, and no harm.

Great-great Grandfather, this is only half-a-gospel. It is the same half-a-gospel that too many preachers preach (and to only moderate effectiveness) today: Don’t do bad stuff. Do good stuff. Work faithfully. Pray. Do all the good we can, and no harm. Obey. Don’t mess up.

It isn’t specific. It doesn’t tell us what good stuff to do, or what good stuff to do might be, or what we should work faithfully at, or what all the good we can might involve.

And it is also only moderately effective because it is only moderately descriptive. It misses out on that whole middle sequence of the salvation process: growing up in, maturing like, growing closer to, becoming like Jesus Christ in this world, through the power and comfort and assistance of His very own Holy Spirit in our lives. It is part of an ongoing transformation which begins with our surrender and forgiveness (justification) and continues through our grateful obedience (sanctification) :

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” ~ Romans 12:2

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” ~ 2 Corinthians 3:18

… then culminates in our being changed from mortal to immortal at the return of Christ and the judgment we escape by His grace:

” … who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” ~ Philippians 3:21

“After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” ~ 1 Thessalonians 4:17

Great-great Grandfather, there is not one iota that you or I or anyone else (save the Lord) can do to effect this part of the change. It is beyond our capability. What Paul means by our working out our salvation in fear and trembling cannot possibly mean our transformation into eternal beings, but our transformation into Christ-like mortals through partnership with God, His Son the Christ, and Their Holy Spirit.

“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:9

“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” ~ 2 Corinthians 6:1

“We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith …” ~ 1 Thessalonians 3:2

Paul doesn’t say this of himself or Timothy out of arrogance; but out of God’s grace and desire to work through those of us who believe.

“There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” ~ 1 Corinthians 12:6

That’s what scripture means when it says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13)

Partners with God. Working out our salvation. Not by ourselves. Not earning it ourselves.

Together, with Him. Yes, in holy fear and trembling at the notion of God Himself dwelling within us and working through us — but also trembling with excitement at the incredible opportunities afforded by a partnership with God Himself.

I believe you were on the right track when you began this sermon, dear ancestor.

I wish you hadn’t taken the dead-end siding.

Possibility vs. Promise

Who among us would be willing to admit that they really, really want to believe in a Jesus who says, “If you have never heard of me – no matter how kind and loving and generous you are – if you have never heard of me, I will see to it that you fry in hell forever”?

I do, in fact, believe in Him; that He is the Son of God. But I do not believe His Word reveals Him to have said any such thing — either in His life here, or through the writers inspired by His Holy Spirit.

Yet many believers insist that this is what He means … placing an unbearably heavy burden on both the hearer to speak and convert, and upon the willing listener to hear where no one has spoken. What He says is that all come to the Father by Him, will be judged by Them, according to what they have said and done.

Belief in Him is never listed as some sort of prerequisite for those who have never heard of Him. It is, however, described as the naturally-expected response of those who have.

And for the believer, there is a promise of reconciliation with God and unending life that is never described as an impossibility for those who have never heard. That’s where the importance of the gospel resides: in transforming what’s possible to what’s promised.

I don’t know of anyone who would not exchange the possibility of receiving a treasure of immeasurable value for the promise of receiving it from Someone who lives and believes in them to spend it wisely and well.

Once they hear about it.

I think it’s time to put to rest the twin but oppositional misconceptions lies of universalism and the damnation of all souls who have never heard of Him.

One leads to an unhealthy disregard for the importance of living to please God and win others’ hearts with Christ’s love.

The other leads to an unhealthy arrogance about one’s salvation and an unhealthy presentation of God’s nature as uncaring toward those He does not choose to bless with messengers of His promise.

Both can sabotage the purity of that message as stated in scripture and its effectiveness, and I am convinced that Satan likes nothing better than doing so by distorting the Word through extremes of interpretation arrived at by great flaws of logic.

Resurrected or Resuscitated

When my dad passed away the first time, eighteen years ago, EMTs came rather quickly and brought him back to life — a simulacrum of life, anyway; he remained in a coma the rest of his days and even breathed on his own for the last several of them. A couple of weeks later, pneumonia finished what his coronary episode had been cheated out of accomplishing.

For a while, though, my dad was resuscitated.

People in scripture died and were resuscitated. A widow’s son (1 Kings 17:7-24). Another widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17). A little girl (Matthew 9:18-23; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56). Lazarus (John 11:1-43). Perhaps even a young man who fell out of a window (Acts 20:9-12). They were raised to life. Eventually, they died again.

Being resurrected is something entirely different. Jesus was not the first to return from the dead, but He was the firstborn of/from the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5) — and I have to wonder if this means that He is not only pre-eminent from the dead, but also the first to be resurrected rather than just resuscitated.

The resurrection body is different; it is imperishable; it cannot die again (1 Corinthians 15:52). The immediate context of that verse is revealing:

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” ~ 1 Corinthians 15:50-54

May I propose that this change does not necessarily apply to everyone, but to “brothers and sisters” whether they “sleep” or not? That “the dead” refers to the dead among the believers, not all of those who have died? Because “the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable,” perhaps those who have not been obedient are – at the day of judgment – not resurrected at all, but resuscitated? Given back their mortal forms in order to stand at judgment as well?

I don’t intend to be dogmatic about this; I’m just proposing it.

Unconvinced? That’s okay. It’s not a test of fellowship. It’s a proposition. But consider the verses of the larger context, immediately before these just quoted:

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. ~ 1 Corinthians 15:42-49

That may or may not mean that “earthly man” refers to those who will not obey. It could, as is usually understood, simply refer to our mortal forms — whether believer or not. I’m speculating. I acknowledge it again.

But this could explain how all will face judgment – no matter what degree of decay or even atomization their mortal form may have taken (Revelation 20:11-13) – yet the disobedient can be destroyed (2 Thessalonians 1:9; 2 Peter 3:7) while those given grace also receive immortality (2 Timothy 1:10); eternal life (for the aeonsMark 10:30; John 3:16; John 5:24; John 17:2; Romans 2:7, etc.)

And the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).