There are preachers supported by conservative churches of Christ that are drinking in the denominational teachings of grace and faith only. They are not well grounded in sound teaching. They refuse to debate issues in a logical and fair setting. They would never engage in “much dispute”(Acts 15) with sound brethren to test their views or to show that their views can stand under cross-examination. Yet, they continually quote from denominational preachers and cut off brethren who challenge them on issues of faith only doctrines. One brother made the following comment on Facebook:
JE: If we are saved thru faith, unity is possible between brothers who disagree. If we are saved by faith plus works, unity depends on full agreement on the works.
TB: This is very misleading. If we are saved through faith, we still have to agree on the object, nature, and content of faith, and how faith should work to prove it is not dead but living. Our brother is dabbling in some basic denominational doctrine here. In the rest of this article I will demonstrate that our brother has left open too many loose ends in his statement, and has resorted to the same mistakes of vagueness in terminology that has characterized the arguments of “faith only” doctrine for hundreds of years.
There are masses of people who have been lulled to sleep with a false sense of security. They believe they are saved, ever so sincerely, based on an interpretation of a few key scriptures. These are not scriptures that say "one is saved by faith alone", but rather passages that single out faith and IN THOSE PLACES mention nothing but faith. It is concluded that one need look no further than at what one perceives "faith" to be.
There are two basic errors in the approach: 1) assuming that a few scriptures can be lifted away from context and other scriptures and still exhaust the subject, and 2) assuming that "faith" in each biblical context is exhaustively defined by a selection of Webster's basic definitions.
The concept of faith is variously held with a vagueness subjected to each individual's opinion. Because of the variations in concepts of faith, there are several different APPLICATIONS made from the doctrine of salvation by faith only. For example, if the concept of faith is that one only has to believe in the reality of Jesus (like one might believe in the reality of angels), he may continue to be an adulterer while holding this concept of faith and salvation. Another person holds that faith in Jesus includes conviction of sin and repentance (would this be faith plus godly sorrow and repentance?). This person would hold that the adulterer was not really saved if he continues in his sin. Since there are several concepts and differing applications of the doctrine of faith only, we will look at various cases and show the fallacy of each concept, while showing the correct and scriptural idea of faith.
Case #1: This man believes in the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. He perceives "faith" to mean belief in Jesus. At the moment he believed in the reality and existence of Jesus, he believes (based on his view of scriptures like Jno.3:16 and Eph.2:8,9) he was forever saved. He believes that because he is saved he should want to quit his affairs (adultery), but such is not essential to his salvation. He could go on with his sinful activity, suffering only some chastisement on earth, without losing his salvation.
The first flaw in the above reasoning is the assumption that one can pick a scripture to the exclusion and contradiction of other scriptures. Other scriptures would show that repentance is essential to salvation and therefore becomes an essential element of saving "faith"(See Lk.13:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30,31 etc.). He assumes that he understands everything about "faith" by the word "faith" itself. The word "faith" does not say WHAT one is to believe about Jesus, if there is a required level of trust, or whether it is essential that it be expressed in a precise manner that Jesus might demand. His refusal to consider other related passages is similar to the approach of the Universalist (one who believes that everyone will be saved). The Universalist picks I Jno.2:2 and concludes that since Jesus died "for the sins of the whole world"(that would include even the sin of unbelief), then everyone will be saved. He refuses to acknowledge other scriptures that would show that though Jesus died for all, the benefits are not enjoyed except under His conditions of faith. The pick and choose approach to scripture is fallacious. God did not intend for us to handle His word so carelessly and arbitrarily.
The second flaw in the case is in assuming that faith and repentance are mutually exclusive words. Actually, faith is a flexible and often encompassing word. It is flexible enough to be great or small. Some people's faith is not large enough to save them. See Jno.12:42,43. Saving faith must be large enough to cause the person to repent (Acts 2:36-41; 3:14-19), among other things. It must be large enough to confess faith in Jesus. The Lord did not promise to save people regardless of the strength, degree, content, or level of faith.
The third flaw in the case is in assuming that one can add the word "alone" or "only" to the word "faith". However, the Bible nowhere says that we are saved by "faith ALONE". The only time the expression is found is in Jas.2:19-24 and here it says "a man is NOT justified by faith alone".
The fourth flaw in the case is in assuming that God promised to save AT THE MOMENT one acknowledged the fact of Jesus. But, Jno.3:16 and Eph.2:8,9 do not mention the precise MOMENT that salvation is obtained. That those passages say it comes through faith does not relate exactly WHEN it comes through faith. It is by and through faith that one repents and is baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:36-38). To say that salvation comes to us through faith does not necessarily tell WHEN it comes through faith.
The fifth flaw in the case is in the assumption that a Christian can "continue in sin that grace may abound"(Rom.6:1f), that a Christian can sin, i.e., be adulterers, homosexuals, etc. and still inherit the kingdom of heaven (See I Cor.6:9-11; Gal.5:19-21). The Lord said such a concept was self-deception.
The sixth flaw in the case is in the assumption that the phrase "not of works"(Eph.2:8,9) means any activity whatsoever. The context is ignored, and a meaning is forced into the text that was not intended. Paul was contrasting works of merit or perfect law-keeping (that which would be essential, like the Jews would have to accomplish, if Jesus continued to be rejected) versus receiving God's grace through faith in Jesus. The interpretation applied would exclude even "faith" from being essential since it is an activity (even if it is an activity of the mind). Faith is something we "do" and it is described as a "work" (Jno.6:28,29). If the phrase "not of works" means any activity whatsoever, then even faith becomes a non-essential activity of the mind. Paul did not teach that there is no essential activity of faith that is a condition for receiving God's gift. His point was that we did nothing that merited the reward, God did not owe us, and our works were not sufficient to boast or allow us to feel we had no need of God's mercy offered through His Son Jesus Christ. Only perfect, meritorious works could offset the need for God's mercy. Repentance is an act of faith that recognizes a need for God's mercy. Baptism is also an act of faith that is an appeal to God for mercy and a good conscience before Him (Acts 2:22-41; I Pet.3:21; Tit.3:5). It is not a work of merit whereby one can boast. Repentance and baptism are admissions that one has NOT worked perfectly before God, and that one has need of the remission of sins offered on the basis of Jesus' death on the cross. Baptism is an expression of faith, not an expression of works whereby one might boast.
The case is full of flaws, contradictions, and fallacious reasoning. It should be clear to the honest student of the Bible that God never intended such an interpretation on the word "faith". But, other concepts are hardly any better.
Before we look at other cases, let us try to get a better grip on the word faith. The lexicons and dictionaries would use words like "conviction, assurance, trust" as synonyms and definitions on the word. We must press our faith-only-friends to tell us what all they include and exclude from the meaning of saving faith. Does "faith" include or exclude:
1) Conviction of sin? Must one be convicted of sin before he can be saved? Is this faith plus conviction of sin? If not, then you must be able to show what all is to be contained within the faith that saves.
2) Godly sorrow over his sins? Must one be sorry he sinned against God before he can be saved? Is this faith plus godly sorrow? If not, why not?
3) Repentance, turning from sin? Must one determine to turn from the practice of sin? Or may one decide to keep on sinning before, during, and after salvation? If repentance is contained within the meaning of faith, is baptism also? How can we have unity of faith if we cannot even agree about what all is to be included in the term? Is faith plus repentance essential to salvation?
4) A longing to be rid of guilt? Must one's faith have within it a yearning to be released from the guilt of his sins? Is it faith plus calling upon the Lord for forgiveness? Is work of the heart any less work than movement of the body to baptism?
5) An understanding that I need the blood of Jesus? Or, may one be saved even though he does not understand that forgiveness comes to us on the basis of what Jesus did on the cross? Is it faith plus understanding that we need the blood of Jesus? How much work does it take to learn who Jesus is and that His blood must be applied to our account? Is this faith plus learning knowledge?
6) Dying to sin? Must faith slay the appeal that sin has? Is faith a certain kind that must be characterized with all this knowledge and attitudes toward sin? Or, is this faith plus dying to sin?
7) Being buried with Christ in baptism (Rom.6:1-5; Col.2:11-13)? Is baptism inherent within saving faith, or does baptism come after saving faith? Is it faith plus baptism? Or, is baptism something that is an essential element of faith?
Must faith have the desire to bury the old way of life in an immersion into His death and burial, and may it be expressed in the act of baptism? Must faith be expressed the way Jesus said? Or, may faith be expressed any way we desire to express it? Will it save with no expression at all?
8) Being raised together with Him? Must the faith that saves take one through a death, burial, and resurrection and may that process be expressed in the act of baptism? Must faith take us through this death, burial, and resurrection?
You see that when our faith-only-friends are forced to tell us WHAT faith entails many of them will agree that it entails more than a mental agreement to some facts. Many can see how repentance comes under faith as an essential CHARACTERISTIC or quality of the faith that saves. With just a little more openness they can also see how baptism is also a part of the process of faith that obtains God's saving gift. It is hard to see it when one has been told all his life that baptism is a work of law, that it is not essential, and that good preachers have never believed it. But, it is easy to see if one can block out all preconceived ideas, make a diligent and fresh effort at absorbing what the Bible actually says on the subject, and determine to let the Bible speak for itself.
Case #2: This man believes in salvation by faith alone, but differently from the man in Case #1. This man believes that a man cannot even activate his own mind and will toward believing. He believes that man is "totally depraved", "wholly inclined toward evil" and therefore cannot even lean in the direction of belief. If a man is to believe, God must alter the man's spirit and give him the ability to believe. This man cannot "choose" to believe. If he could he might have something of which to boast. Those who believe can only thank God for selecting them and giving them faith.
This version of salvation by faith alone would look at the man in Case #1 as teaching a "works salvation"(as they think of "works"). It is faith alone from a purely Calvinistic perspective. It is taught in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith. The man in Case #2 looks at the man in Case #1 as "teaching another gospel", "teaching salvation by works", because he believes that man can do the believing. Since "doing" and "works" are thought of as equivalent, then the idea that man can be taught (do the hearing, listening, examining, evaluating, and concluding), and by such a mental exercise do the believing, is to make man partially his own savior. If our man in Case #2 will be consistent with his own belief he will conclude that anyone who believes in free-will will have to teach a "works salvation"(as he thinks of "works"). Since free will assumes the ability of man to choose to believe, then man can save himself by believing. This means that everyone who is not a subscriber to the ideas expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith concerning predestination and the "unchangeable design" of each individual, is a teacher of a "works salvation" and should be marked as "pseudo-christian" or "cultic". To contend for free will is to make man a partner to the salvation process. Thus you can see that two people who seem to believe in salvation by "faith alone" can still be poles apart in their basic beliefs about it. As with Case #1, there are several flaws in the reasoning of our man in Case #2.
The first flaw in the reasoning is the assumption that man became totally depraved, totally unable to choose good or even prepare himself for good. That man became sinful is one thing, but to teach that he became so totally sinful as to lose his ability to choose good is an entirely different matter. It is commonly held among the writers of the Westminster Confession that man lost free-will since the fall of Adam. The rest of humanity is not even responsible for its evil actions. All blame is placed on Adam. We were helpless to resist receiving from him an inherently evil nature. We had no ability to resist. We had no choice. Of course, the Bible does not teach this. The Bible speaks of the ability to choose (Deut.30:19; Josh.24:15), and that sin is not something you inherit, but something you do (I Jno.3:4; Rom.3:23; Eze.18:20-24). The very fact that God would command anything of man says that God believes in the ability of man to obey Him. The very fact that God would hold man accountable and judge man for his actions tells us clearly that man has the ability that he does not exercise appropriately at times. The idea of the TOTAL INABILITY of man is nowhere taught in scriptures.
The second flaw in the reasoning is that God must give man the ability to believe and that God must alter man's spirit to give him the ability. This view is as repulsive as anything taught by Mormon's and Jehovah's Witnesses. It is a doctrine that in consequence puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of God if ANYONE is lost. Why does God not alter everyone's spirit if He really: 1)"so loved the world"(Jno.3:16)?, 2)"died for the sins of the whole world"(I Jno.2:2)?, 3)"desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth"(1 Tim.2:4)?, and 4)"is not willing that any should perish"(2 Pet.3:9,10)?? You can see how the man in this case holds to a belief that is far more serious in its threat to sound doctrine than even the man in Case #1. It is a viewpoint that is "pseudo-christian" and "cultic" to the core. It denies that God really desires the salvation of all men. If He really desired it, He would give everyone the same ability to believe. These two views of faith only do not have any real common ground.
The third flaw in the reasoning is in the idea that God does everything in the saving of the elect. Peter said that one can make his own calling and election sure "if you do these things"(2Pet.1:5-11). To our man in Case #2, election is arbitrarily decided by God alone, and that man has no part in the way of "choice". The elect cannot "choose" to remain in sin (they have no real will of their own). The non-elect cannot "choose" to turn to God away from sin. Unbelievers are not really responsible for their unbelief. There is no ability to believe. It cannot be their fault. It is God's fault because He chooses not to give them the ability. Who can believe in such a God? This is the God represented by Presbyterian doctrine. Is this YOUR God?
Actually, the man in Case #2 does not believe in "faith only" but in "grace only". His talk of salvation by faith alone is meaningless. When examined closely, the two cases are poles apart and can have no real respect for each other. The first case is modern Baptist belief. The second case is Presbyterian doctrine. There is no real common belief in salvation by "faith only".
Case #3: This person believes in salvation by faith alone. He envisions that it comes at the point in faith when the person "invites the Lord into his life". He believes that the Lord has no other conditions except that mental invitation. The Lord will come into anyone's life if only they will invite him in by faith only. He believes that repentance and confession can be assumed in this invitation, but that baptism cannot. Baptism is only an outward sign that salvation has occurred.
As with the other cases there are several critical flaws in the reasoning of this case. In this case there is an effort to identify WHEN a person is saved by faith. He admits that a man might believe in Jesus but still not yet "invite the Lord into his life". Thus, he is qualifying the word "faith". He is including repentance, confession, and a mental invitation for the Lord to come into his life. He is right to believe that faith encompasses these things, but he is careless in his view of baptism. It should also be included in the activity of faith that brings Jesus into the life.
You may have noticed that "faith only" in this case is not the same kind of faith only as in case #1 and case #2. Again, the man in Case #2 should look at this as another form of "works salvation"(as he thinks of "works"). The faith described includes all kinds of activity: thinking, reasoning, conviction, sorrow, repentance, confession, and a decision to invite Jesus in. All of these things were mental works that are credited to the believer. The man in Case #2 can also argue that this man believes a gospel that makes him a "co-savior" with Jesus. This man can boast of his confession and invitation as much as others can boast of baptism. Remember, that the Bible does not make a difference between mental works and outward works. Also, remember that faith is itself described as a work (Jno.6:28, 29).
Another basic error in the reasoning is in the assumption that "baptism is only an outward sign" that salvation has already occurred. Who said this? Where is this even implied in the Bible? As much as people say this you would think they got it right out of the Bible. They do not get it there. Some man made that up and they simply swallowed it as fact. The only "sign" implied in baptism is that a death, burial, and resurrection is taking place (Rom.6:1-5; Col.2:11-12). A death to sin (when faith brings one to turn from sin), a burial with Christ in baptism, and a resurrection to walk in newness of life is the only sign implied. Nowhere does the Bible say or imply that baptism is only an outward sign of an inward grace or a sign that one has already been saved. Every scripture describing the baptism of the Great Commission (Matt.28:18-20; Mk.16:15-16) place it into the very process of salvation. "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved "(Mk.16:16) is as simple as 2 + 2 = 4. "Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins"(Acts 2:38). "...arise and be baptized and wash away your sins calling on the name of the Lord"(Acts 22:16). "There is an antitype that now saves us, namely baptism..."(I Pet.3:21). The Ethiopian eunuch did not wait for a church service to show others a sign he had already been saved. When he came to some water he wanted to be baptized and he wasn't happy until he was baptized (Acts 8:36-39). This indicates that he had no reason to rejoice until after he was baptized. The Philippian jailor was not interested in showing a sign days or weeks after he was saved. He was baptized in the same hour he learned about Jesus, and that was at midnight (Acts 16:25-33). If baptism is only an outward sign, why the urgency? Why not at least wait till the next day? Paul talked of baptism as an act that unites one with Christ, using expressions like "baptized into Christ", "baptized into His death"(Rom.6:1-5; Gal.3:26,27; Col.2:11-12). Doesn't it seem a little curious that baptism is mentioned so frequently as a part of the salvation process and never as a follow-up to salvation?
Doesn't it seem strange that as much as preachers say that baptism is only an outward sign that the Bible doesn't say it anywhere? And, when we look at the case of the jailer, it is only after he was baptized that Luke could say he “believed” (Acts 16:33, 34). Baptism was the action that showed that he believed. So, baptism is involved in faith, and is not an addition to faith. It is faith that includes baptism in the name of Jesus that allowed Luke to say of the jailer that he “having believed” rejoiced.
Some have used Col.2:11-13 to show that baptism is compared to circumcision, and circumcision was an outward sign. The only comparison that Paul makes here is that in both acts a "cutting off" takes place. In circumcision a cutting off of the flesh takes place. It is an act that uses "hands" to do the cutting. In baptism a cutting off of sins takes place, and this is done through faith in the operation of God where hands are not used. The believer goes down into the water assured that God will cut away his sins on the basis of what Jesus suffered on the cross. The comparison is NOT that both acts are mere outward acts, but that a "cutting off" takes place in both acts. Again, baptism is never referred to as a mere "outward sign".
A fatal flaw in all three cases is the failure to see that baptism is an integral part of saving faith. Separating it from the process of salvation is a later invention of man. As our man in Case #3 uses "faith alone" and slips several things under that faith, it is easy to see how baptism can also be slipped under that same word. When looked at correctly, it is ONLY through faith in Jesus Christ that one will be baptized in His name (Acts 2:36-38; 10:47). There is no other compelling force that would move one to be baptized. The Jews who reject Jesus are not compelled to be baptized as a work of law. It is not found in the law. The Gentiles who reject Jesus are not compelled by their laws to be baptized. It is through faith in Jesus alone that one is compelled to "arise, and be baptized and wash away his sins, calling on the name of the Lord"(Acts 22:16). There is no other reason or compelling force. I would not be baptized if I did not believe in Jesus (Mk.16:16). It is only my faith in Jesus that convinces me that baptism should be practiced at all. I trust Him when He says "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved"(Mk.16:16). Do you believe Jesus? Do you trust what He says? As you can see, my ideas of baptism come from my complete trust in Him. It was NOT Jesus who said that baptism is only an outward sign. That idea came from people who could not trust what Jesus actually said. They do not believe Jesus. They do not believe in His inspired apostles and prophets who trusted in Jesus and recorded His last will and testament. The real issue is not baptism, but whether you really believe and trust Jesus. Can you take Him at His word? If so, that is the only compelling force that will lead you to conclude that when you are baptized in His name, your sins will be "cut off", "remitted", or "washed away"(Acts 2:38; 22:16; Tit.3:5; Eph.5:26).
So, you can see that there is a sense in which baptism comes under faith alone, just as much so as repentance and "inviting Jesus in". It is a matter of trusting Jesus. It is like the blind man who had to trust Jesus when He told him to go and wash in the pool to receive his sight. It is all a matter of trusting Jesus. Do the men in Cases #1,#2, and #3 trust in Jesus? They do not trust what He said about baptism. The only thing they seem to trust is their fallacious reasoning about faith alone. They do not trust in Jesus. They trust in an idea of faith that refuses to take Jesus at His word.
Now, for our brother to say that faith is a basis for unity, he needs to tell us what is included and what is excluded from the faith that unites. He has not done so. It is clear that people who believe in faith alone have various divided ideas about that faith alone.
Secondly, since faith is dead without works (James 2:19-24) why should we want unity based upon a dead faith? Wouldn’t that be unity with the devil? JE said: “If we are saved by faith plus works, unity depends on full agreement on the works.” But, unity would also depend on full agreement of the faith, the content of faith, the required activity of faith, and knowledge of what activity can be excluded from real, saving faith. As we made observation in the three cases above, there is no agreement as to what is included and excluded from saving faith. So, with which of the three cases above would JE find agreement? JE will not discuss this matter because he does not wish to be pinned down. I would encourage all brethren to beware of drinking too long at the wells of denominational writings.
Terry W. Benton