Growing up in the Churches of Christ, I well remember being taught about “grace.” Grace meant that God would forgive our sins at baptism. We had to first hear, believe, repent, and confess. But if we did all five steps, then our sins would be forgiven. Our slate would be wiped clean. We’d get an entirely fresh start.
But after baptism, the rules would change. When someone sins after baptism, forgiveness was available for that sin, too. The path to forgiveness was confession of the sin, repentance from that sin, and a prayer to God asking for forgiveness.
The independent Christian Churches were doctrinally identical to us, except they worshiped with instrumental music — which was error and hence sin. This meant they were damned, because they’d never confessed, repented of, or asked for forgiveness of this error. So as long as we in the a cappella Churches of Christ managed to have flawless doctrine, we’d be okay, because there’d be no doctrinal error to confess, repent of, and ask to be forgiveness of.
That was obviously a very strict standard, but we worshiped a very holy God who was very particular about how we was worshiped. And we knew that we’d been preceded by great Bible scholars who’d sorted all the important questions out, so that we need not worry about our doctrinal purity.
And then we had a new family join our church. He pointed out that we had our opening prayer before the announcements. This made the announcements part of our worship, and yet announcements could not be found in the list of Five Acts of Worship, and according to the great Bible scholars who preceded us, we must perform these five and only these five acts of worship during the Sunday morning service. And so our elders moved the announcements to precede the opening prayer, solving the problem.
And as a teenager, I wondered about the salvation of those who’d died while we were praying before our announcements. I mean, for 15 years or so, we’d been practicing error. And unrepented error damns. And so those who’d died during that time in our church’s history died damned. Right?
Actually, I thought no such thing. I thought the whole discussion was just as wrong as could be. I mean, who could worship a god who damned because we prayed for his blessings before we announced weddings, births, and funerals? I knew something in the logic of our religion was profoundly wrong. The God who cleansed our sins so freely at baptism could hardly expect us to live sinlessly and without any doctrinal error the rest of our lives. We must have made a mistake somewhere. The great Bible scholars who preceded us missed something very important.
Many years later, I ran into a passage in Romans 5 that assured me that God was indeed far more gracious than I’d been taught.
(Rom 5:6 ESV) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
[Regarding “at the right time,” I refer to readers to a series starting tomorrow at my blog One In Jesus called “Exile and Repentance.”]
The “ungodly” and the “weak” are the same people, both Gentiles and Jews — everyone not yet saved by Jesus. “Weak” in this context means helpless — unable to save ourselves. We were, before our baptisms, without God, without salvation, and utterly unable to do anything about it ourselves. We were helpless.
(Rom 5:7-8 ESV) 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The Messiah — king — died for us. We know that. What we forget is that he died for us while we were still sinners. God acted first. We didn’t come to God asking for forgiveness, hoping Jesus would die for us. Jesus died for us, in hopes that we’d respond. He initiated the process before we heard, believed, confessed, repented, or were baptized. Jesus acted while we were still unreconciled, ungodly, weak, and sinners.
We need to peek ahead to v. 10 —
(Rom 5:10 ESV) 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Not only were we unrighteous sinners, we were God’s enemies. The word translated “enemies” is a very harsh word. We were not merely God’s opponents. We weren’t just on the wrong side. We were odious, hostile, hated enemies. We were at war with God. And even so, he gave his Son for us.
This is grace, and we miss the entire point if we don’t first pause to imagine the kind of God who would do such as thing. As Paul says, most of us would hesitate to give our lives for a righteous person. For an enemy? For someone who lives in rebellion against us? For the ungodly? Who would dare die for such a person? Only our God.
Now, once again, Paul is talking about the moment of our baptism — the time when ALL our sins are washed away and we received a fresh start. And this greatest act of grace happened when we’re God’s enemies.
Got it? Now watch what Paul does with this lesson–
(Rom 5:9 ESV) Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
Read it again to be sure you followed the logic. Paul says that, now that we’ve been “justified” — declared righteous — by the sacrifice of Jesus, we are now “much more” saved. That’s right. We’re much more saved after baptism — from leaving the baptistry until death — than at the moment of baptism. After all, baptism is for God’s enemies. And if he was that gracious for his enemies, how much more gracious will he be for those who’ve been made righteous by the blood of his Son?!
(Rom 5:10 ESV) For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
To make sure we don’t miss it, Paul repeats himself. A second time he says we’re “much more … saved” now that we’ve been reconciled. We were saved at baptism thanks to the death of Jesus. But we were resurrected with him to live in his life. And if we were saved by his death, now that we have been resurrected with him into life, we are that much more alive in him than when we were first saved.
I can’t count the times that I’ve seen someone come forward after a sermon asking to be re-baptized because they’d committed a particularly foul sin and couldn’t feel forgiven. They felt that such an awful sin needed a particularly potent sacrament to be scrubbed off. They wanted a second baptism to feel as clean and forgiven as when they were first saved. I think that Paul, approached by such a person, would have refused — telling them that they are “much more” saved by being a child of God than seeking to once again come to him as an enemy. Obviously, God will be more forgiving to his children than to his enemies! And if God will give his Son on a Roman cross for his enemies, imagine the lengths he’ll go to for his child!
No, a second baptism means we’ve misunderstood the nature of both the first and the second. We have it exactly backwards. It’s better to have been reconciled than to go through reconciliation. The relationship that results from reconciliation is stronger than a relationship that needs reconciliation. We just refuse to believe the good news that we’ve been adopted, reconciled, forgiven, and declared righteous by God. It’s too good for our heads to hold.
Now, many of my more conservative brothers understand a glimmer of this. We in the Churches of Christ are fond of pointing out —
(1Jo 1:7 ESV) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
“Cleanses” is in the present tense, and in the Greek, this implies continuous action. We could translate “continuously cleanses us from all sin.” But, of course, this contradicts the notion that we must first confess, repent, and then ask forgiveness, because if we have go through that three-step ritual to be forgiven, we aren’t continuously forgiven. Indeed, for sins we’ve not repented of, we aren’t forgiven at all.
And so we have this split doctrine. The 1 John 1:7 doctrine applies to the sins we commit. The three-step ritual requirement applies to sins other people commit. We are saved. They are lost. When we make announcements after the opening prayer, we’re still walking in the light and continuously forgiven. Those who die before we correct our error are quite saved by the continuously cleansing of the blood of Jesus. But those who use instruments to worship God have not confessed, repented, or asked for forgiveness, and they are damned, damned, damned.
About 10 years ago, I wrote the editors of the several major Church of Christ journals — the ones filled with doctrinal articles — and I asked them how, according to the scriptures, I could tell who is under the continuous forgiveness promise of 1 John 1:7 (and Rom 5:6-10) and who is damned for having failed to confess, repent, and ask for forgiveness. Every editor responded. Not a one answered my question.
I would like to put the following to you for your prayerful consideration.
1. Every single Christian — every child of God — is covered by the grace promised in 1 John 1:7 and Rom 5:6-10. All Christians have been reconciled to God, are children of God, and are much more saved than when they first rose out of the baptismal waters.
(1Jo 1:5 ESV) This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
If we are “in him,” then we are in a place where there “is no darkness at all.” None. Therefore, if we are in Christ at all, we are walking in the light. You see, in him, there is nothing but light. That’s what the text says. We should believe it.
(Rom 8:1 ESV) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Suddenly, this promise, which is at the climax of the entire book of Romans, is true — exactly as it’s written. There’s no need to explain it away. It means what it says, and it says what it means.
2. There is an “on the other hand.” On the other hand, it is possible to so rebel against God that you are no longer his child at all, no longer reconciled, and no longer saved. But this doesn’t happen by getting the announcements and opening prayer out of order, nor by using an instrument. It comes from conscious, intentional rebellion. It comes from turning your back on God so that you no longer care whether you’re obedient.
(Heb 10:26-27 ESV) For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
(Deu 29:18b-20 ESV) Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, 19 one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. 20 The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven.
There’s a difference between rebellion and error, the bitter root and an honest mistake or a moment of weakness. The scriptures threaten to take God’s blessings away from those who deliberately turn their backs on God and who “go on sinning” — that is, those who sin continuously, not occasionally, and do so intending to sin.
I believe a Christian can fall away, but I don’t believe that every sin and every doctrinal error makes a Christian fall away. In fact, the text is very clear that the truth is just the opposite! In the ordinary case, once we’re first saved, we remain saved until we die in the arms of Jesus. But for some, the temptation to give up their repentance and to live in rebellion is too great. The seed that began to grow will be overcome with sin and die. But for most —
(Psa 32:1-2 ESV) Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.