November 12, 1973
Your letter came this morning, and it has made me feel very good. You sum up my point about Leviticus 10 as: “God is the final judge, so although we can recognize things as being out of harmony with His will, hence sinful, we cannot ‘relegate practitioners to hell, i.e. not pronounce sentence,’ since God is the judge.” Yes, you have said it very well, and I believe that is an important step which is significant in one’s spiritual maturing process.
The basic meaning of the word hamartia, translated “Sin,” is to , “miss the mark.” Other words translated “iniquity,” “transgression,” “error,” signify various shades such as “rebellion,” “willful sin,” etc., but, “sin” itself does not necessarily imply either willfully missing the mark or a rebellious spirit and attitude.
Therefore we can speak of “ignorant sins” or “sins of ignorance,” meaning that one who is sincerely trying to please the Lord in all things nevertheless does “miss the mark” of the Lord’s perfect will, and “sins,” therefore is a “sinner.”
The real basic point of the gospel is that God through Christ saves sinners, for they are the only kind of folks who need saving after all; and John (and Paul in Romans 3) make it clear that we all come under that category. The question then is not “will God save sinners?” but “what kind of sinners will God save?” And the gospel answer is: “those sinners who are identified with the sinless Son of God, Jesus Christ, whose perfect life and atoning death can “stand in” (vicariously, as a substitute) “for them.”
Paul therefore expresses the hope “to be found in Christ,” not having a “righteousness of my own” but “the righteousness of God in Christ which comes by faith” (Phil. 3). And he can tell the Corinthians that Christ is made by God for us “righteousness,” as well as wisdom and sanctification and redemption (I Cor. 1:30).
The result is that “no human being might boast before God” but “let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (I Cor. 1:29,31). The Messiah-Christ is therefore called in prophecy “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6) and the saved people of the Messiah are called “The Lord Is Our Righteousness” (Jer. 33:16). This is the case because “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we [sinners] might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Cor. 5:21). As the apostle Paul said to the Romans, we are saved by the (perfectly obedient, now resurrected) life of Christ (Rom. 5:11). For “one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (who are in Him). For “by one man’s obedience” (perfect obedience, by the way, for that is what God’s holy justice requires), “many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18,19).
Those who will be saved in the last day, therefore, will not be separate from sinners and higher than the heavens, but will be themselves sinners snatched from the fire. Their salvation will be freely given because of a life of perfect obedience – not theirs, but the Lord’s, who IS their righteousness. God’s holy law will be satisfied, because of the perfect DOING and perfect DYING of the Lord Jesus Christ, who became man to do for man what man has never done for himself – to do the will of God perfectly in a human body. (Please notice Hebrews 10:5ff carefully along this line. That passage has been of great encouragement to me in the Lord and I believe you will find joy in it as well.)
The obvious question then is, which sinners will be thus saved by the grace of God, who has provided a “robe of righteousness” in the place of man’s “filthy rags” (Isa. 61:10; 64:6)? And the Bible answer is, Those who are “of faith” (faithful). For in both Old and New Covenant times “the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; see Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38,39). Just as Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5), so the one who puts his trust in Christ may also be counted righteous in the same manner – that is, by faith (Rom. 4:23-25). That verse 25, by the way, uses dia with the accusative, “because of,” and this thought can be rich in benefits upon further meditation.
Who then will be saved? Those who believe in Jesus, the one who has been set forward by God to be a covering (propitiation), through faith in His blood (representing His perfectly-obedient life and sinless death in the place of sinners) – Rom. 3:21-26. This forever excludes human boasting (Rom. 3:27), and it does not overthrow God’s law but establishes it, for Christ has done what must have been done for man to be saved. He has kept the law of God perfectly in a human body as a man (see also Rom. 8:3,4 as well as Hebrews 10:5ff). Now it is God’s pleasure and will for His law to be fulfilled (note the passive tense in the text) in those who walk after the Spirit and not the flesh (Rom. 8:3,4), so that we are not only (first of all) pronounced righteous by an infallible God on the merit of Christ’s perfect obedience and death for us, but we are also (progressively throughout life) made righteous by the sanctifying work of the Spirit (II Thes. 2:13), conformed to the image of God’s Son (Rom. 8:29), perfecting holiness in the fear of God since we have such great promises (II Cor. 7:1). This is no “make-believe righteousness,” it is not “quasi-Calvinism.” Whatever all these passages of Scripture tell us is the Word of GOD – not of man. And we can have full confidence in what God’s Word says, no matter what any man may say about it! This is a glorious gospel, it is truly good news, for now Edward Fudge can be saved, although his life will never merit salvation and he could never attain it or have it other than through identification with Jesus Christ!
When or where does one enter this blessed state? Perhaps the better (biblical) way to ask it is, How does one respond who hears this news and believes it? And the Bible answer is clear: “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38); “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16); etc. etc. What happens when one does this? Why he takes hold of Christ by faith, he is joined to Him, he is buried with Him and raised through faith in the working of God (Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:3-5; Gal. 3:26,27).
And then what must he do to be saved in the end? Must he be perfect in his own understanding and life? Justice and God’s holiness require perfect obedience – yes; but the man in Christ has at God’s right hand one sitting who Himself bodily represents that perfect obedience already given, once for -all! Who then can condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, who was raised, who is at God’s right hand, who intercedes for us (Rom. 8:33-34). If God is for us (and this proves conclusively that He IS!) who can be against us? No one!!
But back to the original question. What must one do to stay saved? He must, in Scripture’s words, “be faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10). He must “continue in the faith” (the same faith he has had to this point in the finished work of Christ) and not be “moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Col. 1:23). He must hold fast his confidence, firm unto the end (Hebrews). He must believe, to the saving of the soul (Heb. 10:39). He must walk in the light, for then the blood of Jesus continually cleanses him from all sin. (This proves that walking in the light does not mean he never sins, by the way, for then cleansing would be both unnecessary and impossible.) He is urged, by the mercies of God, to present himself a living sacrifice, to seek the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:1,2). This is his constant quest: to learn the Lord’s will in all things so as to please Him (Col. 1:9,10); yet in this he has the help of divine power, and the blessings of divine grace (Col. 1:11,12).
To be “faithful” does not mean that one never sins; it does mean he does not want to sin and he tries not to. It does not mean that he understands fully and perfectly the will of God; it does mean that he is growing toward that goal with genuine and sincere determination. It does not mean that his record in judgment will be personally faultless; it does mean that he can be presented to God in judgment “not in his own righteousness,” but in the righteousness God provides, which is his through faith in Jesus.
Dear brother, these are just a few of so many wonderful and precious promises. If I were to make any suggestion of value it would be this (and please do not think me presumptuous to make it): read and re-read and reread again the book of Romans, preferably in a version that can be easily understood and not bog the mind with antiquated English translation. Read all the epistles, and the Gospels, and the rest – over and over and over. There is the only source of truth and wisdom. It is before us inviting us to take it and fill our souls. Whatever I may say on any subject is of no importance whatsoever. My views on anything do not matter at all, The Word of God is what counts – and we must be always eager and willing to desire it as a newborn babe does his milk, that we may grow thereby. The power of God will have its effect, the word will effectually work in us, if we believe it, but it must always be received with humility and mixed with faith (I Thes. 2:13; I Pet. 2:2; Heb. 4:2; Jas. 1:21).
We apparently share a common conception of what “fellowship” means. It is not synonymous with “brotherhood,” but means “sharing together” – and in the Scriptures the term is almost always used with a specific object. That is, it is nearly always specified as to what is ,’shared,” so that we do not think of “fellowship” just in general, but of having sharing or fellowship in a given thing with someone.
As a general rule I believe the Scriptures allow the child of God to share in what is good with any other child of God. I say “general rule,” however, because there are some specific exceptions in Scripture. We do not continue to associate with and share in good things as a fellow-saint with the person who is knowingly and persistently immoral according to the flesh (I Cor. 5,6). We do not associate with the man who is factious (Tit. 3:9,10). We do not continue to associate in this way with the person who just “cops out” of being a responsible Christian, such as described in 11 Thessalonians 3. What this boils down to is: the saint continues to share in a general way and specifically in good things, with the fellow-believer who continues to make an effort to please the Lord (contrasting with II Thes. 3), abstains from such open and clear-cut works of the flesh as God has specifically forbidden and repeatedly emphasized to be against His will (in contrast with the bad man of I Cor. 5,6), and who manifests a humble attitude in his relationship with others, learning how to differ without being a trouble-maker (contrasting with the bad character of Titus 3).
To say that all in a single term, this kind of person is one who the Bible would call a man of faith – a man who is trying to please the Lord, who walks in obedience according to His present knowledge of God’s will and who walks in humility with his brethren. And when we get right down to it, that is all any of us can hope for! The blessed thing is that God promises to save the man who is faithful unto death, not out of humanlike “tolerance” and “broadmindedness,” but because divine justice is perfectly satisfied for such a one through the perfect obedience of Christ and the sinless death He died in our place on the cross!
What does all this boil down to? I believe it may be stated two ways:
The only man who will be saved is the one who abides in Christ, i.e., having been joined to Him in the first place and then continues in a heart of faith. Such faith means depending on His once-for-all work of salvation (His DOING and His DYING) for salvation; believing all He has revealed, as one understands it, and seeking to obey Him in all things as best he is able; continually repenting of any known sin and confessing it to God for forgiveness; meanwhile confessing continually to God that he is a sinner (apart from Christ), and thanking Him for salvation in Christ who has taken his place. (I admit that is a long sentence, but I said I would try to say it in a single term!)
The other way to put this, and the consequence of it, is: Any person who God sees infallibly to be of the above description will be saved, by grace through faith.
Because I cannot know all secret things and because I certainly do not know the deep heart of man, I must leave it to God to know who (for better and for worse) is “of faith” and who is not. There will probably be many surprised people in judgment both ways, for man often sees others and judges by outward appearances, when Jehovah looks on the heart. That is an encouragement to me (God knows my heart – man cannot judge me by outward appearances which often reflect my sinful and weak self, in spite of continual confession and effort), but it is also a warning to me (God knows what is really on the inside, no matter how I may “snow” men around me with externals and appearances!).
- I must always do just what I find to be the will of God in my own study of His word. This involves not only some things clearly stated in positive and specific terms (such as fornication being wrong), but also some things I infer, deduce, conclude and reason out to the best of my human abilities and given my particular conditioning (such as the “covering” question, women’s apparel, movies and TV, mixed swimming, “institutionalism,” Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights,and jillions of other “questions” and “issues” that men think of which God has not come right out and said “Here is the way it is!” 1996 UPDATE: Those were some 1973 issues among the non-institutional Churches of Christ. The same principle applies on a far wider scale to many other differences among Christians of all denominations and nondenominations, about which the Bible is silent or is not precise.
Here, by the way, is why I cannot put fornication and institutionalism in the same class so far as fellowship is concerned; and yet I do not practice either of them. They are both forbidden to me – but I must treat the other fellow differently, since one is clearly forbidden and positively condemned by God, and the other is a latter-day “issue” solved by appeal to scriptural principles which are applied by human reason and on which godly men sometimes differ.
1996 UPDATE: The so-called “institutional” question, involving the organizational manner in which churches fund various good works, was one of conscience for me in the 1970s, but is no longer a subject about which I believe God has any preferences at all, the New Testament not being given as a detailed “pattern” of such incidental details.
- I may “have fellowship” in whatever I believe is good with any brother who seems to me to be trying to do the Lord’s will as best he understands it, living a pure life and seeking to grow in understanding the will of God. I might be mistaken about such a person; if I give him too much credit, God knows, and will see that we are both properly disposed of in judgment. If I fail to recognize such a one, God knows that, too, and will take care of him in judgment anyway. Since my obligation has to do only with what I practice, what I teach, and what I do with other people, the question of who will be saved by grace through faith is left entirely to the only One who can handle it infallibly: GOD HIMSELF. Only He knows the hidden things; only He knows the heart. God will make no mistakes about it. This point is summed up in Paul’s words: “The Lord knows those who are His; and, Let every one that names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (II Tim. 2:19).
“Is one sin greater than another?” you ask. It is a good question. Perhaps the best way to answer it from the Bible is to ask it a different way. “Is one sinner different from another?” And to that we certainly find an affirmative answer in Scripture. For some sinners (already specified) are specifically declared to be out of our limits in general fellowship as saints, while, on the other hand, we all are sinners who continually (the literal translation) fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). As to whether there are different kinds of sins, John says there is a ,’sin unto death” and there is a “sin not unto death” (I Jno. 5:16,17). Perhaps you can help me understand this better than now, but it seems to me at the present time that John is distinguishing between the sin which is committed knowingly and rebelliously, on the one hand, and the sin which is done in ignorance or weakness, on the other.
For the first he says we are not even to pray; for the second we are to pray and God will give life. As I said, if you come across a better explanation than that, I will be happy to consider it, but this seems in keeping with all the rest of the Scriptures.
Your statement that you are “confused, perplexed and uncertain” brings back strong memories from my own life of about 6-10 years ago. The Lord gave me assurance and great peace of mind through an) appreciation of the work of Christ on our behalf, and that came from a study of Romans (and other books of Scripture) read over and over with much prayer for wisdom, and careful study. I have full confidence that He will bring you safely through your own time of distress, and that will be how He will do it – through a study of His word.
It would not hurt you eternally if you never read another article by any mortal man in the “church papers.” You would in fact be in the same position as Christians for centuries before the invention of printing, when there were no “church papers.” Except you would be immeasurably better off, for being able to read God’s Word where they could not read it either. In short, brother, do not be too concerned about the papers, or men now living, or who is right and wrong, etc. Concern yourself with the Christ, with doing good, with a study of the Scriptures with such intensity as if you had never heard them before and were reading them for the first time with no preconceived notions as to their meaning. I know that is practically impossible, but what a challenging goal it always is and must be for us!
I need to apologize for the length of this letter. I will look forward to hearing from you. I have opened my heart to you because I believe you mean what you say in your letter and I can chat with you openly and without fear of misuse or abuse of words and confidence. I hope my letter will bring joy to your heart in the Lord as yours did to mine. Pray for me and I will do the same for you.
Yours in HIM,
P.S. Anything that is true is as old as the Bible, and therefore likely to be discovered by many people from many backgrounds. Any interpretation of Scripture, therefore, or any doctrine, which is peculiar to one man or group of people, might be viewed with suspicion. It is a source of joy to me that every major doctrine we teach is taught by commentators and scholars of many denominations, even if they do not then practice what they teach. It is unlikely, therefore, that one will ever have true “distinctives,” if by that one means that no one else has discovered a particular doctrine in the Bible which he has learned. If it is true it is not new; if it is new it is not true. All that is true is as old as the Bible, even if it is new to us and our understanding.