A Journey Toward Jesus: 4th Letter


A Journey Toward Jesus
–Fourth Letter

November 23, 1973

Dear Bruce,

I was not quite so fast answering your second letter as the first, but you are responding so fast yourself I just can’t keep up the pace!

May I say first of all that your “impressions” or thoughts from what I said are neither unusual nor unexpected. They are what almost all thoughtful people say who consider these matters the first time, but with a zeal for God and a love of the truth. And I must say with some pleasure, they are very similar to the objections presented to, or at least considered hypothetically by, the apostle Paul in response to his teaching in Romans 1-5. That does not guarantee that what I have said is what he said, but it does encourage me that my teaching elicits the same response as his. And – this is most important – his answer must also be forthcoming to these same objections. Namely: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid! How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?”

One might say that Paul’s answer leaves a lot to be desired in terms of logical proof, and from the standpoint of the learned lawyer or scribe of the Jews it probably did. But what Paul is really saying, of course, is that one trained in the legal thinking of the scribes and lawyers really has to do a kind of about-face in basic mental conceptions and framework of thinking in order to appreciate and understand the gospel anyhow. So, if we approach the “God forbid …” answer from the standpoint of Paul’s presentation, it makes wonderful sense – but if we approach it from the standpoint of the carefully-reasoning legal scribe of his day, it did not. And please understand me here, I am not trying to label you any such thing as that, but I say these things because I really believe they are true. I am leveling with you with an open heart and hand, expressing myself to you in trust that you will give this the same kind of consideration you do whatever else you come across in your search for understanding the will of God.

The reason it is necessary to teach others after baptism is that the question asked by the man who understands the grace of God in truth, and in whom the gospel bears fruit and increases (see Col. 1:5,6) is NEVER “must I do such and such?” or “how much do I have to do?” or “can you prove such-and-such is a sin, or else I will want to do it anyway.” Rather it is a question that ‘speaketh on this wise’: “How can I present my body a living sacrifice to God, to do what is His good and acceptable and perfect will, in view of the mercies of God from whom and to whom all things are?” (Rom. 11:32 – 12:2). Or it says, “We make it our aim to be pleasing to Him” (11 Cor. 5:9). Or, “How may I walk in the Spirit?” (Gal. 5:16). Or, “What is the acceptable will of God?” (Eph. 5:10). Or, “How may I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus?” (Phil. 3:14). Or, “How may I seek those things which are above, setting my affection on things in heaven?” (Col. 3:1,2).

In other words, the man who understands the work of Christ as he ought, and who has experienced genuine repentance (a full turning-about of his thinking toward God) and has been joined to Jesus in death and resurrection – such a man has a positive quest: HE WANTS ABOVE ALL ELSE TO PLEASE GOD.

This involve many negative things, of course, for God has revealed certain things that displease Him, and the man of God avoids these things with zeal. But he does it, not because they are simply to be avoided within themselves or for their own sake, but because in avoiding them he pleases God – and that is a positive thing for which he is called.

The very idea of dying with Jesus, of doing a repentance about-face, of being raised by the power of God to a newness of life, suggests all this – and the person who must be compelled to act, who does only what he must, who avoids only those things that carry a heavy sword or dire warning, this person is basically negative in his approach toward God, and although he doesn’t realize it, he is really trusting more in himself for salvation (he will do what he should; he will not do what he should not!), rather than in Christ, who has done so much for him already and who now offers salvation as a free gift through union with Him by faith.

This is why I want to know all I can of the Lord’s will on every subject: whether it be the “institutional” question, the “covering” question, the “marriage” question, or any one of dozens or perhaps hundreds of others. 1996 UPDATE: One might well decide, upon careful study of the Bible, that God has no preference at all on many of our issues, although he is always concerned with our motives and attitudes as we encounter our issues. It is not that God keeps up with all our issues and enlarges His list daily of things to check us on in judgment and see if we got it figured out right or not. Rather God does keep up with our daily constant life-long FAITH or UNBELIEF. And the man of faith talks in terms of pleasing the Lord in all things, therefore he is deeply concerned, concerned above all else, with doing what He believes the Lord wants him to do. There is such a great difference between acting in this manner, and acting out of other, human motives – such as merely seeking a reward, or seeking only to avoid punishment, or trying to please men, or line up with a group, or be “in” with a particular party or sect. Again, I do not believe you are any of these last things – I simply suggest them for you to think on.

I might suggest another line of thought for consideration. You mention “the work and worship of the church” as a kind of category that matters practically above all else, and reason that since this is the important category, therefore everyone can understand God’s will on these matters who really has the right kind of heart; you have the right kind of heart, therefore those who do not reason as you do on such matters must not, otherwise they would come to the same conclusions as you.

The first question that comes to my mind is this: Where does the Bible ever give any such category as “the work and worship of the church” in the first place? As I read through the inspired letters, I find no such label, or even an implication of such a category which is above all else. I suspect this is an invention of men; hallowed by age and use; accepted by well-intentioned people from those whom they know also to be well-intentioned. Yet in the absence of any such category in the Word of God, I cannot accept such a category myself as the all-important thing.

Now the various matters we would place in that category are all subject to what I said in the earlier paragraphs. I want to do the Lord’s will on all those matters – as well as anything else. But I cannot “play cafeteria” about it – although it is much easier to “justify myself” that way, for I can easily work out categories that I can fulfill, then stamp myself “sound” and walk around ready to judge everybody else. But the Lord’s way does not let me off so easy.

Rather, I am called on daily to face myself as a sinner – one who continually falls short of God’s glory – even at my best. And I am compelled to realize the proper reward for MY life – eternal death. But, in Christ, and because of His perfect doing (obedience) and dying (atonement), I am accepted by the Father on the basis of my genuine faith in Christ (and I don’t need to say to you every time, I am sure, that such faith takes hold of God’s grace in the beginning at the obedience of baptism, and must continue all through life to be any good.)

The “work and worship of the church” category is relatively easy to fulfill; these are mostly external matters; they do not deal with the real heart of those involved at all. No, I say, we cannot get off that easy! And I must add that what I am saying is not accepted – as you know – by some who call themselves “sound.” They will prefer not to accept this part for sure, because some of them are comfortable with a categorized religion that comfortably fits their own pocket and can be considered as taken care of already with a minimum of effort in the future. I am not angry in saying this; just making an observation which I believe to be true of some.

As for whether these conceptions “contribute to, encourage, and perhaps perpetuate denominationalism,” I quickly say they do not at all. In fact, this is the only effective way to combat denominationalism and sectarianism, for when men use the “check-list” or “cafeteria” approach to religion, they almost invariably end up with their own new denomination or sect, even if they call it a “movement” or “brotherhood” or “fellowship” instead of a denomination or sect. But when men are motivated by the grace of God freely given in Christ through faith, they seek the will of God in all things. And with this ideal, acting without competition in their hearts (“sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts”), they are eager to denounce and leave off any practice or belief found to be out of the “pleasing-to-the-Lord” category! And that is a category, by the way, I am happy to talk about and live with, for it is amply urged throughout the New Testament epistles for Christians.

The person converted to the “Church of Christ” may rationalize very easily any mispractice or misunderstanding, because his security is in the “right Church” that he is a “member” of anyway. But the person converted by the drawing power of the message of the cross, who becomes a real New Testament Christian, can never put much stock in “what the church does” or “what the brethren teach” – for his only goal is to please the Lord. Therefore, if he learns a bit of new truth (new to him), he doesn’t have to change churches (the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others often prey on members that way – shake them in one point and urge them to switch memberships) – he just adds the new knowledge to his thinking and increases in pleasing the Lord!

As for the lady you describe with all the problems, I am first of all glad she is hypothetical! 1996 UPDATE: She is not hypothetical at all, and we in the Churches of Christ might have as much to learn from her as she does from us. But if I should encounter her, I would tell her that those things are not God’s will which I believe not to be; that other things are which I believe to be; and urge her if she is of the heart of faith to align her life with the will of the Lord. If she is of such a heart, this will be the greatest motivation in the world for her. If she is not, I will do her no good anyway, because she is still lost in unbelief.

Then you speak of the person who will “not relinquish” some error. Of course, if he confesses it to be error and will not relinquish it, we have a case of knowledgeable and intentional sin, and ought not to continue to “fellowship” such a person as a faithful one in Christ. If he is seeking the Lord’s will and has not yet understood it, my job is to keep on (in the right attitude and for the right purpose) seeking opportunities to help him -understand and conform to it. If he dies without having reached that desired goal – of understanding the will of God fully and living by it perfectly, he is in the hands of God and must answer to Him alone.

As far as his condition before God, I suggest only this. All those who are saved will he people who have a heart of faith, seeking the will of God and earnestly desiring to do it. They will all have come short of the perfect goal. They will all be, on their own record, sinners. But they will be saved by grace through faith – if they are saved at all.

God is righteous and will know how to handle every individual case. I am glad that is not our job, for I am not capable of doing it for the two reasons mentioned in the earlier letter: I do not know the secrets of men’s lives, and I do not know their hearts. My job is, however, and I intend to be faithful to it – God helping me – to INSTRUCT every man to the best of my ability, to WARN, to EXHORT, to ENCOURAGE, to REBUKE, etc., etc., with the goal of “presenting every man perfect in Christ.” It is not enough to get him lined up on “the work and worship of the church,” though that is part of the total picture.

1996 UPDATE: Further Bible study might lead one to conclude, as it has me, that many of our traditional issues on these topics are actually non-issues with God, since he does not make a point of them in Scripture. Unfortunately, we have often fought and argued over subjects about which Scripture was silent, while ignoring or missing entirely other topics about which the Bible speaks often, such as God’s sovereignty and election, his “keeping” those who belong to Christ, the necessity and work and gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as character issues which we often slide over with ease but which involve what and who God calls us to become in Christ.

My point on Leviticus 10 and the sins of Aaron’s sons is not that I can go around telling everybody “it doesn’t matter whether you do what is right or not because God often overlooks it!” It is rather to cause men to realize that we cannot go around with Nadab and Abihu stuck in one pocket and Uzzah in the other one, condemning every sinner to hell, with no thought or regard of God’s possible mercy in view of the man’s abilities, intentions and circumstances. I hope that makes a clear-cut difference, for I am as much against the first as anyone, and wish everybody else was as aware of the second.

I cannot take Nadab and Abihu without taking Eleazar and Ithamar. I cannot take Uzzah without taking the well-meaning people of 11 Chronicles 30 who kept the Passover “otherwise than it was written,” and yet, because they had intended to do what was right and wanted to do it, God “healed” (forgave) them. Read especially verses 1-20. It is not a choice; we must take it all. The examples of harsh judgment teach me to do God’s will as carefully and strictly as I can, and to urge others to do the same. The examples of tender forgiveness and mercy teach me not to despair when I fail while trying to do the above, and to leave judgment to God who alone can either judge or show mercy.

I am thrilled to hear your remarks about emphasis on the church rather than on Christ. That can be misinterpreted, and will be by some, who still do not really understand what the church is, I believe; but it can be said in the right way with great profit and biblical understanding. I believe you are in the latter category as, I hope, I am. May I simply say that THIS VERY POINT YOU MAKE is at the very root of all I have tried to say, in one way. I believe many brethren look at salvation primarily in terms of CHURCH (work and worship, organization, marks, etc.). The Bible pictures it primarily in terms of CHRIST. Those who are converted to Him, as Savior and Lord, seek to do His will in all matters (including all those dealing with “church” affairs) because it is His will, and they owe Him everything and love Him.

It is after five o’clock and my wife will be wondering where I am, so I better close for now. May I suggest a couple of things in leaving. First, these concepts did not penetrate my own thick skull until several years of study had elapsed, joined with earnest prayer. I do not expect to be able to communicate them fully and convincingly to others in a few days or a few letters.

Second, the question is not really whether you or I can answer every anticipated objection or consequence in the light of our present views and knowledge – although truth is consistent and does not fear crossexamination at all. The real question is, “Do the Scriptures appealed to really teach what they are being said to teach?” That is, am I properly representing them, in context, and in the light of the language used?

If I am, then we must take what they teach, regardless of the changes it might mean in our own thinking and living, and regardless of any consequences. Of course, there is always a proper need for balance, to take all the truth and not just part of it, which I am eager to do.

Please re-read my first letter sometime with your Bible out and see how those verses strike you. Keep on re-reading Romans (in a modern speech version if possible – the NASB or NIV are very good) over and over through the years. Don’t be in too big a hurry to settle everything and answer every question. Just pray that the Lord will give wisdom to understand His will, and be sure you want it above everything else.

This is what I am doing, and I must confess that if this will not cause us to have the proper understanding, I know of nothing else that will. We are standing on holy ground in discussing such matters. We must attempt always to view the Scriptures objectively and without (as best we are able) the grids and screens of our century, movement, contemporary opinions or errors. May the Lord bless us both, and may He bless you as you keep on considering these things. I believe we can learn from each other … and I appreciate your kind and gracious letter again.

Yours in Christ,