Q – Regarding last week’s message that I downloaded [“Arguments Against The Perseverance of the Saints” Dated: August 25, 2002]. If I understand this correctly, you’re saying that the Bible says that saying we have free will is considered a false gospel, correct?
Jim – First off, I’m glad that you’re availing yourself of the MP3 downloads available on our site. We update them weekly and have the previous two weeks’ worth of messages available. They can be streamed (if you have a fast connection) or they can be downloaded to your hard drive for later listening. Soon, we’ll be including the weekly Thursday night classes on Eschatology, so check back for those.
Now, to your question.
Let me explain my position this way. If you start with the notion that humans have an unencumbered will and that their willpower and decision-making ability leads to their salvation (i.e. they obligate God to save them as the result of their choices and decisions), then you have indeed created a method of salvation that is foreign to Scripture.
The human will does have a capacity for choice. That’s axiomatic. But, our ability to choose between options is limited by the fact that our nature is sinful and that we can only choose those things that are within our grasp and sinful capabilities. For instance, we cannot choose to invade Heaven and call God into account for His actions. Our will is weak in matters of God. In fact, we are only able to choose among a variety of sinful thoughts and actions. But, we are incapable of choosing to do righteous works and faithful acts that are sufficient to advance or secure our standing before God. That’s the Biblical paradigm.
In order for men and women to move toward God or perform activities that are pleasing in His sight, He must indwell that person, free them from their bondage to sin, enlighten them, regenerate them and draw them to Himself. The good works that they will perform, then, are in reaction to His gracious call and saving work. They are not the cause of salvation. They are the reaction.
That being said, freewill is not the false gospel. It is simply a false concept. The idea of individual self-will was introduced into Christian theology by an early church father named Tertullian, who lived and wrote 100 years after the last apostle died. He also introduced the language of the Trinity into our Christian lexicon. So, Tertullian has lots of credibility in certain circles. But, the notion and concept of freewill is not found in the pages of Holy Writ, particularly in the New Covenant documents. And, that’s the difference.
So, if you start with a fallacious premise and then allow that false notion to influence your thinking about God, of course you will arrive at false conclusions. And, that’s where false doctrine comes into play.
The false gospel is any gospel that denies Christ’s complete and utter salvation of His people. If we add anything, any requirement that people must perform in order to complete the work of salvation, we have created a false gospel.
“I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different (Gr. “heteros” – altered) gospel, which is not another (Gr. “allos” – not of the same quality, qualitatively different); but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert (Gr. “metastrepho” – to transmute or corrupt) the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed (Gr. “anathema”). As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:6-10)
In the case of the church at Galatia, the corruption of the gospel was that Gentile converts were compelled to be circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic Law. In some modern churches you must tithe or you’re not considered truly saved. In other churches, baptism is the deciding factor. In some groups, the words that are said during your baptism reckon your eternal state. Some denominations and church groups believe that only adherents to their set of rules, or membership in their body, can guarantee your eternal destiny.
And in many, many churches the emphasis is put on your willingness to “accept Jesus,” or “make Him your Lord and Savior,” or “say the sinner’s prayer,” and then you are truly saved. These are all actions and activities designed to obligate God to save people in response to their willingness to be saved. God is not seen as the “first cause” in such instances. He is not the instigator, author or finisher of salvation. God is simply seen as providing an opportunity for salvation, provided someone will come along behind Him and put that plan into effect.
But, the Bible teaches quite the opposite message. Men and women are described as “dead in trespasses and sins,” wholly incapable of taking the slightest step toward God. God, therefore, is presented as saving His people for His own glory. It is His idea, His design and His enterprise. He is saving sinners who cannot get to Him, cannot please Him and cannot obligate Him. He is loving the unlovable, pardoning the unforgivable, and saving the otherwise unredeemable.
And, it is this very incapability on the part of humans that necessitates God’s grace in action. Since we cannot exercise our will to get to Him, to obligate Him, to plead our case before Him, or to produce any positive results or merit that will redound to our eternal account – indeed because we cannot do any good thing whatsoever and all our best actions are accounted as filthy, bloody rags (Isa. 64:6), it is axiomatic, self-evident, that God must move toward us. We cannot, nor would it ever enter our sin-corrupted minds, to move toward Him.
God approaches the sinner to begin the salvation relationship. Sinners cannot move toward God any more than Lazarus could move out of the tomb toward Jesus. First Jesus had to bring Lazarus to life. Then, He could tell Him what He wanted him to know.
Inasmuch as sinner are powerless to obligate God (I mean, what do we have to commend ourselves? Our works? Our filthy rags?), it must be God – of His own will and for His own purposes – who determines the salvation of people.
That’s a long answer to a short question, I know. But, whenever you start with a false premise, you must arrive at a false conclusion. An individual’s will in never designated in Scripture as the instrument or method of salvation. The instrument is God’s grace and method is God’s power. We are merely the recipients of God’s good pleasure and abundant mercy
So, while freewill is not the false gospel, in and of itself; it cannot help but lead to one.
Q – I am a member of the local First Baptist Church. I’ve been there for about three years now and Jim, I cannot deny seeing God take such an active part in the lives of those people and in that church in general. Granted, they don’t teach election …well, it’s acknowledged but it’s not taught.
Jim – I don’t doubt it. Wherever two or more of Christ’s people are gathered in His name, He is there in the midst (Mat. 18:20). I have never argued against congregations. Paul himself did not argue against bodies of saints gathered together. He argued against the leadership, the teachers, the false professors and those who would introduce heresy into the body. He fought to protect the body against such encroachments.
People misunderstand me sometimes when I comment on the traditions of other churches. The traditions of men, according to Jesus, make the Word of God of no effect – null and void, essentially (Mat. 15:3). And, God will hold those teachers accountable for their error.
I am a great fan of the Church. Like Paul, under most all circumstances I am thankful that Christ is preached. But, that does not mean that we should not earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
“Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
It is bothersome to me to hear that any church will “acknowledge” some aspect of God’s Word while at the same time being unwilling to teach and embrace it. I wonder what they are afraid of. God’s people are not offended by God’s Word, any more than sheep are bothered by sheep food.
But, there’s more to it. The modern church is shackled with responsibilities and problems that the early church knew nothing of. For instance, the First Century Church spent no time “counting heads.” They realized that Jesus was building His church and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it (Mat. 16:18). They understood that God added daily to the church “such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). And, they knew that as the gospel went out those who were “ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
So, they were not worried with numbers. They were worried with quality. They only wanted genuine converts who held to the true faith. And, they were quick to expose and break fellowship with anyone opposed to the genuine gospel.
“Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” (2 John 9-11)
That seems very extreme and “separatist” to our modern sensibilities, but it was essential that the early church not allow the various destructive ideas and teachings to permeate the body. Purity of doctrine was absolutely essential.
But not so, these days.
If you are the pastor of a large church with a large building, large budget and large bills, you have considerations beyond doctrine. And, if you are answerable to a board, a Synod, a convention, or a Presbytery, then one of the ways your effectiveness as a pastor is judged is by your ability to grow the numbers and raise money. That becomes a primary concern. And lesser concerns, like proper doctrine, take a back seat to the more immediate and practical matters of bill-paying and church-growing. So, whatever it takes – puppets, mimes, clowns, surround sound, drama, musicals, showbiz, multiple self-improvement classes, singles groups, social clubs, gymnasiums, swimming pools, martial arts classes, music lessons, whatever! – the leaders of the modern church need to put people in the pews and keep them coming back.
Doctrine won’t accomplish that. Proper doctrine, rightly taught, is likely to offend people. And, you cannot risk offending people when you’re striving to reach million-dollar budgets.
Throughout Scripture, the genuine gospel was always considered “a rock of offense.” Everywhere that it was told, people rejected it violently, stoning the preachers and driving them out of their cities. The true gospel pulls the rug out from under men’s self-sufficiency and convicts them of their sinfulness. People don’t like that. They want to hear that they are just fine, doing well and God loves them regardless. But, Jesus said, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
That ought to wake us up. The current man-pleasing gospel is designed to make everyone like the preacher and his message of universal love and acceptance. No rules, no absolutes, no requirements. Just easy-believism and a free pass into Heaven.
But, the true Word will separate sheep from goats. It will cause division and contention. I’m not saying we need to go out and try to stir up trouble, but every apostle who told the truth concerning God ended up in a world of trouble. The world hates the gospel. It reproves them of their evil deeds. It throws light on their dark hearts. So, they reject it.
But, the modern church has made a comfortable place for even the most miserable sinner to join without guilt or repentance – provided they bring their wallet. It’s easier to preach a non-threatening, light and easy message and then pass the plate. It’s hard to stand up for the truth, because there’s a very good likelihood that people will try to stone you.
So, to answer your question more directly, will God bless the people who are in churches that advance the watered-down message? Sure. I’ve seen Him do it. But, that is an act of grace, not obligation on His part. Is God pleased with the milquetoast message emanating from so many contemporary pulpits? Surely not. “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) God holds the leaders in the church responsible for the health of the body. And, there are plenty of sick bodies out there. But, God is gracious to His people wherever He finds them.
Q – I admit that they do push works in the form of “quiet time,” church service, tithing and the like…your general works that most people don’t particularly consider works, but they are because of how they are pushed. If that is a false gospel, its teachers are worthy of damnation. So then why does God take such a positive role in things there?
Jim – You are very perceptive, so you are asking very good and probing questions. And your logic is correct. Whatever we add to the finished work of Christ is necessarily “works.” And, those works hamper the genuine gospel. That does lead to a false gospel and Paul did say that anyone who preached another gospel was “anathema” – fit for burning for God’s glory. Those are his words, not mine.
You simply cannot mix works and grace. The two are diametrically opposed to each other. It’s one or the other. Either God will judge you on your own merit, or He will judge according to Christ’s finished work of redemption. But, as soon as we add some morsel, some speck, some attribute or merit of our own, we are begging God to judge the quality of that contribution. And, according to Paul, the minute we are tried according to our works, there is no grace to cover us. God will judge all our works and condemn on the basis of our failure to accomplish the perfect righteousness He justly demands. It’s a very dangerous game people are playing, but they seem oblivious to it.
Now, why does God continue to bless such a body? Grace, my friend. He is kind. He is charitable. He is longsuffering. And, He has His people in the midst of that body. After all, you’re there, right?
God blessed Egypt when Joseph was in their midst. Once Israel was delivered, God drowned the armies of Egypt. God will continue His patient forbearance with this evil world so long as His Church is on the planet. But, after He has removed the body of Christ, the tribulation will begin. That’s how God works.
God will shake up the false churches and hold the false teachers accountable. But, He is longsuffering and endlessly kind toward His people, and the false professors may prosper under the hand of blessing that has providentially fallen their way. But, not forever.
“For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.” (Heb 10:30)
Q – Do I doubt you? No. I’m just trying to understand and must play “devil’s advocate” in order to get the whole picture. I’ve been meaning to go back and listen to that message again. But, if I understood you correctly, then what you’re saying is that only those who believe in the reformed way will be in heaven…? Doesn’t make sense.
Jim – First off, I’m a great fan of healthy cynicism. Don’t take any man at his word. Always, always check every man’s teaching against the Word of God, and if it doesn’t fit, if it doesn’t jibe, if it doesn’t make sense, run to the nearest exit. Test the spirits and hold teachers accountable for how they represent God. It’s important work and not to be taken lightly. I commend you for your “due diligence.”
“And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.” (Acts 17:10-12)
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)
Now, as for your understanding of my teaching: I have never said that only those people who believed Reformed Theology will enter into Heaven. The thief on the cross knew no theology whatsoever. He only knew whom to look to. And, that was enough. The gospel message has always been that simple. People cloud it up and confuse it with traditions and false ideas. But, the thief on the cross trusted wholly and completely in Jesus to save him. And, that was sufficient.
But, more to the point, no one in the First Century church believed “Reformed Theology.” It had not been developed in any systematic form and wouldn’t be for many hundreds of years. Yet, plenty of people were saved. That’s not to say that Paul did not argue adamantly that his theology was accurate and any other version of the gospel was false and incapable of securing salvation. There has always been one – and only one – genuine article.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph 4:4-6)
But, the one faith that can save is equitable with Paul’s doctrine, not necessarily “Reformed Doctrine.” There are many, many similarities and I do believe that of all the various historic theological systematics, Reformed thinking comes closest to Pauline teaching. But, I’m studying and promoting Paul’s teaching, not the teaching of the Reformers, per se.
As for whom God will save or condemn, that’s none of my business. It’s up to Him and I do not go around pronouncing judgment on people. I agree with Paul’s assessment that men who “pervert” the gospel will fall into just condemnation. But, that’s not my conclusion, that’s Paul’s conclusion. I agree with him.
Now, what I do know is where the safe ground is. I know how to build a house on the solid rock. And, that’s what I adjure people to do. I go around saying, “I know the sure way.” As bold as that may sound, I am convinced that the gospel message contained in the bible is sufficient to guarantee the salvation of your ever-living, never-dying soul. That’s what I’m all about. I point people to the sure and certain way.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of people out there building on sand. There is no security in that. There is no surety in that method. I try to warn them, but I cannot save them. Only God can convince them. Now, whether those people end up in Heaven or not is completely and utterly God’s decision, not mine. I do not pretend to have such authority or intimate knowledge of God’s dealings. I hope and pray that He will be merciful to them. And, I trust He will. He is a merciful God. But, I do not pretend to persuade Him.
My job is not to give comfort to those who are in error or in danger. My job is to point people to the truth, where safety and security abounds. My job is to tell people where certainty, rigor and eternal peace can be found.
Let me put it this way: If you wanted to visit Hickory Hollow Mall, I could give you directions. The streets between here and there are “set in stone.” If you follow my directions, turn where I say turn, follow the roads I say to follow, and stop when I say stop, you will end up nowhere else except the Hickory Hollow Mall. However, you may opt for an alternate course. That course may ultimately lead you to the Mall or you may end up hopelessly lost. But, I do know the way and I am willing to tell you, provided you’ll pay attention and follow the directions.
Now, of course, where mall-hopping is concerned, it might be fun to veer off course and see where you end up. But, when we’re talking about things of eternal importance, like where your soul will wind up, I think it’s vitally important to understand the true path and make sure you’re on it. God may be gracious to people who wander off and lose their way. He may guide them back to that steady course and get them safely home. But, that’s between them and Him. That’s not my job, nor do I have such abilities. I just tell everyone who will listen where the safest course is.
On the other hand, God may leave people to themselves and let them wander until they are hopelessly doomed. Again, that’s up to Him. And, I leave it there. I do not presume to encroach on the mind of God. I pray for His mercy on those who are lost, but I do not pretend to have the capability to pronounce judgment on anyone.
But, I do know the true and secure path. So, I tell people. That’s my gig.
Thanks for writing. I hope that helps.
Yours in Him,