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Purchasing the Gift of Grace
Does Man’s Obedience bring about
the Glorious Gift of God’s Grace?
By Al Maxey
I recently heard a young man make the following declaration in an online Bible discussion group when asked by one of the participants to state his belief as to how one obtains divine grace: “What brings grace? Obedience brings grace, not the other way around.” Such a lack of understanding of God’s dealings with man is troubling, for one of the foundational truths of the Scriptures is that we are saved by the grace of God, by virtue of His infinite love and mercy, not because we in some way by our own effort merited or deserved such divine favor.
Paul writes that in Christ Jesus “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:7-8), which was “according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (vs. 5-6). God’s grace is “freely bestowed” upon us; indeed, it is “lavished upon us.” It is a gift of divine love, not wages due unto those who were obedient under some system of law. To promote the latter as the motivation for the giving/receiving of God’s grace is to negate His loving gift of salvation, reducing it to that which He owes us by virtue of our own performance.
Paul informed the Roman brethren that our justification before Him was a “free gift” imparted through the atoning blood of His Son, and “if by the transgression of the one [Adam] the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many” (Romans 5:15). It is somewhat interesting that in Romans 6:1 Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” Paul’s answer is, “By no means!” (vs. 2). The same is true with the other side of the coin: “Shall we go on obeying so that grace may increase?” Of course not. God’s grace is not conditioned upon what a man does, it is based upon who God is! His grace flows from His nature, as does His love and mercy. Indeed, God IS love (1 John 4:8, 16), from which grace, mercy, compassion, acceptance flow naturally. Thus, “we love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God’s love wasn’t poured out upon mankind because sinful man first loved Him; rather, it was the other way around. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This happened “while we were still helpless” (vs. 6).
Grace is poured out upon the helpless and the sinful; God doesn’t wait to demonstrate His love until man, by his obedience, deserves His mercy. He bestows it freely as a gift while we are utterly undeserving! Indeed, such is the common definition of the word “grace” — it is the undeserved, unmerited favor of our God. To teach that grace is given to those who are obedient completely neutralizes the significance of the term, and it shows a woeful ignorance of the very message of the Gospel. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). We are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
Yes, Paul speaks of “wages” (that which we have earned), but what we merit by our own effort is death. What we receive in love by His grace is life! It is a gift. Yet, some seemingly don’t understand the concept of a “free gift,” and insist on “paying for” this gift of grace. Little do they know that the price of this free gift was “paid in full” by Jesus at the cross. To suggest that we must pay something in addition to what He has already paid is to imply that the price He paid in His precious blood was somehow insufficient, and the difference must be “made up” by us.
Some will immediately run to their favorite proof-text on this: Hebrews 5:9, which states Jesus “became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” There you have it, they say. We must obey in order to be saved, and, of course, the point in time at which we “obey the gospel” is the moment of our baptism in water. Then, and not a moment before, God pours out His grace upon us and saves us. Please stop for a moment and look at the many assumptions and additions being made here to what is actually stated in the text. We have assumed and inferred a whole theology ex nihilo. What IS stated in this passage is that Jesus Christ is the source of our salvation, which is taught throughout the Scriptures. He “became” (aorist tense) that source of our salvation at the cross. This was an act accomplished at a specific point along our space-time continuum (at a time God determined to be right), and it happened almost 2000 years ago outside the city of Jerusalem. That shedding of His blood, which He offered “once for all,” is the fountain in which we are all washed clean of our sins. This act was a gift of God’s grace; this act did not occur because mankind was deserving, it occurred because God is LOVE. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16).
This free gift is received by faith, not by anything we have done, or ever could do. Our response of faith, having now been saved by grace, is to show gratitude for this gift by seeking to reflect His nature more and more in our own actions and attitudes. In this way we live lives obedient to His will and calling. It is this that is in view in Hebrews 5:9. The word “obey” in this passage is a “present participle,” which actually means “to the ones who are continually obeying.” In other words, Jesus “became” (aorist tense = at the point of His sacrifice) that cleansing fount for all those in every place and every period of time who are continually living in relationship with Him. HE is our salvation, not anything WE may offer to God, although as saved ones we seek to live and walk daily in the light of His life, obedient to His will.
This passage does not teach us that obedience generates God’s gift of grace, it teaches that those of us who are in Him (who IS that gift of grace) continually show the reality of our acceptance by leading Spirit-filled, Spirit-transformed lives that are in obedience to His will. And what is that divine will to which we are obedient? We are to love, just as He loved — fully and self-sacrificially! Such love is the fulfillment of all law, for such love is the nature of God Himself. The word “obey” in this passage is a Greek word meaning “to hear under; to hear submissively” — we who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb live lives in submission to His will. And what is it that He commands (wills) of us? Love God and love one another!!
There is absolutely nothing in Hebrews 5:9 that even remotely suggests God’s grace is given only to those who are obedient to a system of law or to a list of rules and regulations. Indeed, how can one who is “helpless” do anything righteous so as to merit God’s grace? “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). “There is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:12). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) … in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:4-8).
Those who add human obedience or human effort to this passage only succeed in tarnishing the glorious gospel of grace. God owes us nothing; He freely gave us everything! We show our thanks by surrendering to His indwelling Spirit and living daily as transformed men and women, reflecting His love and mercy and compassion to those around us. Those who walk in the light in this way demonstrate they are washed by the blood of the Lamb, their Savior. He is the source of their salvation, and the motivation for our life of submission to His will in our daily attitudes and actions. “Thanks be to God for His indescribable GIFT” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
At the very outset of this study let me hasten to assure the reader that I am in no way suggesting that obedience is unimportant or that it has no place in our relationship with our God. One would have to be utterly ignorant of the contents of Scripture to affirm such a doctrine. A number of people in recent years have accused me of teaching that we do not have to obey God; that if we simply believe in Jesus we can coast into heaven while still “doing as we please” in our daily lives. I knew a preacher several decades ago who, in a conversation with me, told me that he proclaimed to his congregation, “As long as you believe, you can live like the devil and God will still accept you.” In my opinion, there are serious problems with that kind of teaching. This is not what I teach.
There is no question, at least not in my mind, that our Father expects His children to live in accordance with His will for them. Whether one chooses to characterize this as obedience or compliance or submission, it is nevertheless a divine expectation conveyed throughout Scripture. Thus, I am not declaring, nor have I ever declared, obedience to be unnecessary or irrelevant to our spiritual sojourn here on earth. The question is not: “Is obedience necessary?” Clearly, it is. The real question we must ask is: “Necessary to what?” What purpose does obedience serve? What does obedience accomplish? Why do disciples of Christ Jesus obey, and what do they obey? By asking these types of questions, and by seeking to grasp the answers through careful, prayerful examination of the Scriptures, we will perhaps gain a better understanding of the nature, purpose, and practical parameters of obedience.
I recently received an email containing the following statement: “I listen regularly to a Church of Christ preacher who stresses obedience in his sermons. While being obedient to God is what all Christians should be doing in their lives, it seems to me that this preacher makes one’s obedience a salient part of being saved (and staying saved). Isn’t there a danger of muddling the Gospel message, and of obscuring what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross, if we add anything to the finished work of Jesus at the cross? The message of this preacher seems to be: By means of what Jesus did at the cross, PLUS what WE do (obedience to commands: i.e., water baptism, good deeds, being as sin-free as we can manage, and so forth), we co-redeem ourselves. Is this typical Church of Christ theology, or just mostly the doctrine of the most conservative among you? In a recent sermon, this preacher said: ‘You can’t buy salvation. You have to earn it by being obedient to God.’ He is right in saying you can’t buy salvation, but then he defaults back to his doctrine of ‘saved by obedience.’ I would love to hear your take on this.”
Perhaps the place to begin a response to such a query is to look at the word “obedience,” especially as it is presented to us in the New Covenant writings. Generally, when one is told that he or she must “obey,” it brings to mind some command or point of law with which one must comply without question: a “do it or die” divine edict. I remember in the military that we were informed, in no uncertain terms, that we were to “obey without question, whether you agree or not, and whether you like me or not.” Thus, obedience (in such scenarios) did not truly come from the heart, it was a matter of doing as one was told in order to avoid the consequences of disobedience, or to gain the approval of a harsh master. In such cases, obedience is largely motivated by fear, not by love or respect. Is this truly what God is looking for? Does our Father desire children who “do as they’re told” and “don’t ask questions”? That is a type of “obedience,” but is it the type of obedience God seeks? I think we can all agree that such a view of “obedience” is not even close to the teaching of the New Covenant scriptures.
So, what is the expectation of our heavenly Father? The Greek words utilized in the New Covenant writings are: “hupakoe” (noun = “attentive hearing; compliance, submission, obedience”) and “hupakouo” (verb = “to listen/hear attentively; to submit, comply, obey”). The word is a combination of the preposition “upo” (“under”) and the word “akouo” (“to hear; listen”), thus signifying one who listens to another with respect, placing themselves under the guidance of that individual; heeding what they say. As disciples of Christ, we place ourselves willingly under His authority, and we listen to what He says, and we observe what He does, so as to conform our attitudes and actions to His (Philippians 2:5; Romans 8:29).
Obedience under this new covenant of grace, therefore, is not a subjecting of oneself to a rigid system of law, but rather a submitting of oneself to the very personification of LOVE (Jesus) and seeking to comply, in our own attitudes and actions, with the pattern/example of His attitudes and actions. Obedience under a covenant of grace, rather than a covenant of law, is a willing submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives, who works to conform us to the image of God’s beloved Son. It is not about following rules and regulations, it is all about following Jesus. Thus, when we place ourselves in submission to Him, we declare our willingness, with the help of His indwelling Spirit, to visibly display His attributes in our daily lives. Those who are law-bound will insist that obedience is to be found in the precise following of procedural patterns (as in a “worship service,” for example), whereas genuine NT obedience is to be found in lovingly following the pattern of the Lord Jesus Himself.
As we increasingly grasp God’s grace and the true significance of obedience, realizing that we now live in a dispensation of liberty not law, we will appreciate the wisdom of this new order. We will have passed beyond the notion of salvation by rule keeping, to the reality of salvation in relationship with the Lord. Thus, as children of a loving Father, the concept of “obedience” within the context of this new covenant is more accurately conveyed by the term “submission” (which suggests, more properly, attentiveness to, with the intent to imitate, the attitudes and actions of the Son). This forever removes our “obedience” from the realm of LAW and places it firmly (where it belongs) in the realm of LOVE. God is love, and when we place ourselves in submission to Him, “heeding attentively” the personification of the Father in the Son by loving as He loves, we are thereby “obedient” to Him. If the entirety of law and all the prophetic writings is summed up in LOVE (as both Jesus and Paul declare), then our “obedience” and “submission” and “compliance” is perfected in LOVE. It is these who are truly “obedient” (in submission) to Him.
I really like the statement by an ancient Jewish rabbi who stated, “Obedience to the law is not our salvation, it is the fruit of our salvation.” This rabbi realized an important truth: men do not obey in order to be saved; men obey because they are saved.” Placing ourselves willingly in submission to our Redeemer is not an act by which we hope to secure His favor, it is rather an act/attitude of gratitude for having been granted His favor. God’s grace is a gift; it cannot be earned. It is received by faith, and we then spend our lives in loving submission to Him for that gift, a submission that surrenders our very lives to His leading and to the transforming work of His indwelling Spirit. It is this latter that constitutes the NT teaching on “obedience.” For those willing to give themselves in submission to that leading, and who are willing to be transformed by His Spirit, Jesus stands forever as the source of their salvation (a salvation not secured by their own acts or actions, but by His).
The aforementioned preacher stated in his sermon, “You can’t buy salvation. You have to earn it by being obedient to God.” Sadly, this is what some preach (even within Churches of Christ), yet it could not be more untrue. Salvation is a gift, and a gift cannot be “earned” (that would make it “wages due”). Thankfully, more and more within the Stone-Campbell Movement are abandoning this teaching. We are not saved by compliance with commands; we are not redeemed by our response to rules and regulations. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Yes, as saved men and women, we will seek, by the power of His Spirit, to live in compliance with and submission to His example. As He loved, we will seek to love; as He was merciful, we will seek to be merciful; as He was kind, benevolent, forgiving, compassionate, so we will seek to be. In so doing we “attentively hear” the proclamation of His life and teaching, and we submit. Again, this is not done in order to earn salvation, it is done because we are already saved, and we simply seek to show that reality in our daily lives. This is the “obedience” one finds promoted within the pages of the New Covenant writings. Liberation, not legislation, is the watchword; love, not law. May God help us to perceive this reality, for failing to do so only leads us back to enslavement to religious regulation, and therein lies the pathway to our own spiritual demise.
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We need more Boanerges or sons of thunder in
the pulpit. … If Satan rules in our halls of legislation,
the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become
so corrupt that the very foundations of government
are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it.
Charles G. Finney (1792-1875)
“The Decay of Conscience”
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in a letter to William Stevens Smith dated November 13, 1787, wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.” A true patriot is not one who flees from the foes that would enslave his fellow citizens, but one who is willing to stand, fight, and die to secure freedom for all. At times of crisis, true patriots step forward. They always have; they always will. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) wrote the following memorable words in 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly; ’tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as Freedom should not be highly rated.”
As Paine pointed out, there are “sunshine patriots” who talk a good talk, but then slither away when the storm comes. True patriotism is much different. Perhaps Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) stated it best in a speech in New York City on August 27, 1952: “What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? … A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Among such patriots, and Jefferson, Paine and Stevenson most assuredly had these in mind, were the godly men within the early American colonies known as The Black Robe Regiment (aka: The Black Regiment), who truly epitomized and personified the meaning of self-sacrificial love for God and country.
These men, and there were a great many of them, were not just patriots, they were pastors. They were the leaders of their congregations, the moral motivators of the people, the spiritual shepherds of the flock of God in this new land. They were also a vital part of, indeed the voice and soul of, the movement to secure liberty from British tyranny. Thus, many of the government leaders were also leaders in the churches. The same was true of those who later took up arms to defend the colonies. Pastors would often go from pulpit to battlefield, leading the men of the congregation into war with the British troops. Their sermons were filled with a call to liberty. As the American Revolution approached, it was the pastors who called their members to take up arms, who would lead them in military drills following the Sunday services, and who would lead them into battle. These church members, who could be “ready in a minute” to confront the enemy, and who were recruited and trained largely by their pastors, were known as the “Minutemen.” Historians are quick to point out that had it not been for the influence of the early American pastors, both in their sermons from the pulpit promoting liberty, as well as their leadership on the field of battle, the history of our nation might very well have been written differently. One historian, Tom Barrett, observed, “I do not consider it a stretch at all to say that were it not for the pastors and churches of colonial America, our land would be a British colony today” [The Forgotten Holiday].
The British were only too aware of the power of the pastors in the shaping of public resolve against tyranny and in the people’s thirst for freedom. Indeed, when the British troops landed in America, it was the pastors, whom they had disparagingly named “The Black Robe Regiment” (because of the black robes they typically wore in the pulpit), that they went after first. Dr. David C. Gibbs, president of the Christian Law Association, observed, “The colonial pulpit was a major source of strength and inspiration both before and during the Revolutionary War for Independence. In particular, the ministers of New England played a pivotal role in calling for independence and for godly resistance to British tyranny. … The pulpits of New England were especially important in helping to bring about independence. Long before the general population understood the threat to American liberty, some colonial ministers saw what was coming and boldly spoke out about it from their pulpits” [One Nation Under God: 10 Things Every Christian Should Know About The Founding Of America]. These men saw themselves as the “watchmen on the wall” for God and country (Ezekiel 3:17-21), and they took their calling seriously.
There are some who believe that pastors should never inject secular concerns into their preaching and teaching, that their pronouncements from the pulpit should only be expositions of Scripture pertaining to spirituality. We are citizens of Heaven, they argue, and thus should have no concern for what happens in some earthly nation. I believe such thinking is dead wrong, and so did the members of The Black Robe Regiment. Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766), a member of this group, and one of its most profound thinkers (a graduate of Harvard and the pastor for West Church in Boston), clearly opposed such thinking. Robert Treat Paine, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and also an Attorney General of the United States, called Mayhew “the Father of Civil and Religious Liberty in Massachusetts and America.” On January 30, 1750, Jonathan Mayhew preached a sermon on Romans 13:1-7, pointing out that he firmly believed there was a divine imperative for pastors to speak from the pulpit about the ills of society, and about tyranny and oppression. He declared, “It is hoped that but few will think the subject of it an improper one to be discoursed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that ‘all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.’ Why, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the pulpit, as well as others?” The Scriptures speak of kings and governments, and the obligations of both rulers and those ruled. Thus, Mayhew reasoned, “politics” was just as appropriate a topic to be addressed from the pulpit as any other. An historian and pastor named Wayne C. Sedlak rightly observes, “The pulpits of that era were anything but neutral. And they certainly did not subscribe to that error of reasoning so dominant in the churches today which says that the only proper subject of concern for the pulpit pertains to individual salvation and one’s personal preparation for heaven.”
In the early days of our country, the pastors powerfully proclaimed liberty from their pulpits. The Black Robe Regiment stood boldly before the people and called them to throw off tyranny and embrace freedom. John Adams (1735-1826), our 2nd President, rejoiced that “the pulpits thunder and lightning every Sabbath against King George’s despotism,” and praised these pastors as being among “the most conspicuous, the most ardent, and the most influential” men of that day in the “awakening and revival of American principles and feelings” that led to our ultimate independence [The Works of John Adams, Charles Adams, editor]. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) said, “Pulpit oratory ran like a shock of electricity through the whole colony.” In 1864, the historian B.F. Morris wrote, “The ministers of the Revolution, like their Puritan predecessors, were bold and fearless in the cause of their country. No class of men contributed more to carry forward the Revolution and to achieve our independence than did the ministers” [Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States]. In 1898, historian Charles Galloway stated, “Mighty men they were, of iron nerve and strong hand and unblanched cheek and heart of flame. God needed not reeds shaken by the wind, not men clothed in soft raiment, but heroes of hardihood and lofty courage, and such were the sons of the Mighty who responded to the divine call” [Christianity and the American Commonwealth]. Yes, had it not been for these powerful pastors and their preaching, our history might have been written differently. In many ways, they were both the soul and the voice of the American Revolution.
Again, the British were not unaware of the significant role the pastors and the churches were playing in the coming Revolution. In fact, in the British Parliament the War of Independence was often referred to as “the Presbyterian Revolt.” The Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches were the leaders in this “sedition and treason.” Thus, as already noted, when the British troops arrived on our soil they wasted no time seeking out the pastors for special punishment. Many were rounded up and killed, and a great many of the church buildings were burned to the ground. This was because the church buildings were serving as meeting places for the Minutemen, who were made up of the church members, and the church grounds were used as training fields for these fighting forces, which were being led and trained by the pastors and deacons of the churches. In fact, the pastors generally led their members into battle. It is stated that at the time of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, all except one of the Colonels serving in the Colonial Army were elders in the Presbyterian Church. The spiritual leaders of the churches were also the military leaders during our war for independence!
The American Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord, which were in Massachusetts. The pastor for the church in Lexington was Jonas Clark. His sermons calling for liberty had been powerful, and he had been urging his members to prepare for war. Indeed, when the smoke of battle cleared that day in Lexington, the American dead were all from his congregation. Thus, the first blood had been shed in the cause of liberty, a cause promoted from his pulpit. “The teaching of the pulpit of Lexington caused the first blow to be struck for American Independence” [J.T. Headley, The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution]. James L. Adams observed, “The patriotic preaching of the Reverend Jonas Clark primed the guns” of the Battle of Lexington [Yankee Doodle Went to Church: The Righteous Revolution of 1776]. When Paul Revere made his famous ride, he rode to the home of Jonas Clark. Samuel Adams and John Hancock happened to be with Clark at the time, and when it was learned that “the British are coming,” they asked the pastor if the people of Lexington were ready to fight for their independence. Clark replied, “I have trained them for this very hour!” Indeed, when the first shots were fired, Jonas Clark was there with the Minutemen of his congregation taking the battle to the British invaders. One year later, to the day, Jonas Clark would declare in his sermon, “From this day will be dated the liberty of the world.”
General John Peter Muhlenberg, who was also a Lutheran pastor in Virginia, preached a sermon one Sunday on Ecclesiastes 3, saying, “In the language of Holy Writ, there is a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away. There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!” At that point in the sermon he removed his black robe. Underneath he was wearing the uniform of a Colonel (he would later be promoted to the rank of General) in the Continental Army. He said he was leaving the pulpit to defend the cause of freedom, at which point many in his congregation chose to do the same (they would become the famed 8th Virginia Regiment). That moment in history, by the way, is to this day commemorated in a statue of Muhlenberg that stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The General/Pastor would later lead his brigade against Gen. Cornwallis at the Battle of Brandywine. Even the wording of our great Declaration of Independence is almost verbatim from the teachings of a pastor with the Black Robe Regiment named John Wise. For many years he had been preaching and writing about the very issues that would find their way into that document. In 1864, historian Benjamin Morris stated that “some of the most glittering sentences in the immortal Declaration of Independence are almost literal quotations from this essay of John Wise,” which was “used as a political textbook in the great struggle for freedom.” President Calvin Coolidge, in a speech he delivered in Philadelphia in 1926 (at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence), affirmed the same: “The thoughts in the Declaration can very largely be traced back to what John Wise was writing in 1710.” Thus, this pastor, and others like him from the Black Robe Regiment, through their many sermons and writings, “laid the intellectual basis for American Independence.”
One of the accounts that shows the spirit of these noble men is of James Caldwell (1734-1781), who was known as “The Fighting Chaplain,” and also “The Fighting Parson of the Revolution.” He was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. His wife was shot and killed during one of the battles. His real fame, however, comes from his actions during the Battle of Springfield in June, 1780. As supplies were running low, Caldwell and his American forces, who were greatly outnumbered, needed wadding for their weapons. Caldwell grabbed some of the hymn books from a nearby church, ripped the pages out of these hymnals, and passed the pages to the troops for wadding, which prompted James Caldwell to cry out, “Give ’em Watts, boys! Give ’em Watts!” (the hymn book was filled with the hymns of Isaac Watts, often characterized as “The Dissident Hymnist”). Inspired by this action, the Minutemen pushed back the British, winning the battle that day.
The reality is, and many Americans today are sadly unaware of this fact, “ministers were intimately involved in every aspect of introducing, defining, and securing America’s civil and religious liberties” [David Barton, Wall Builders]. Many books and articles have been written about these men (the now famous Black Robe Regiment), and a search of the Internet will produce a wealth of knowledge about this group. For those who might be interested, I would highly recommend the two volume set by Dr. Ellis Sandoz titled “Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805.” Yet another excellent work describing the sermons of the Black Robe Regiment is “The New England Soul” by Dr. Harry Stout of Yale University. On May 9, 1789, in an article titled “The Importance of the Protestant Religion Politically Considered,” which appeared in the Washington, D.C. newspaper Gazette of the United States, we find this glowing endorsement of these brave pastors: “Our truly patriotic clergy boldly and zealously stepped forth and bravely stood our distinguished sentinels to watch and warn us against approaching danger; they wisely saw that our religious and civil liberties were inseparably connected and therefore warmly excited and animated the people resolutely to oppose and repel every hostile invader. May the virtue, zeal, and patriotism of our clergy be ever particularly remembered.” Maybe John Wingate Thornton (1818-1878), an attorney and historian, summed it up most succinctly in the following statement from his book “The Pulpit of the American Revolution” – “To the pulpit, the Puritan pulpit, we owe the moral force which won our independence.” We enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today due, in large part, to the pastors who motivated our forefathers to rise up and break free from their bondage to British tyranny, and who then willingly laid their lives on the line by taking up arms and leading their congregations in fighting for that freedom. May God raise up a Black Robe Regiment today with the same courage of conviction to stand boldly in their pulpits and call the people to freedom in Christ and freedom from tyranny, both religious and secular. A nation is lost when its pastors fail the people from the pulpits!
“I am puzzled about which Bible
people are reading when they suggest
that religion and politics don’t mix.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
A dear brother in Christ from one of our nation’s southern states recently wrote me the following, “Al, I am active in the Republican Party. Many years ago I was criticized (though not by name) in a sermon because I spent time in political activity, rather than spending all my time in church related activities. The preacher apparently believed, as David Lipscomb did, that Christians should not even vote. The attitude toward political involvement is now changing in this area, but most Christians around here still don’t take much interest in politics.” I heard a preacher declare once, “I choose not to get involved in secular politics because there is enough politics in the church to last me a lifetime!” Sadly, the negative aspects of what we term “politics” can indeed be found among the people of God as well.
Let me preface my thoughts in this article about Christians becoming involved in secular politics by saying a few words about the whole “separation of church and state” issue that we have all heard so much about in recent years, and about which there is tremendous confusion based on some rather popular misinformation. As often as one hears this phrase one would almost think it was an integral part of our U.S. Constitution. It is not. The First Amendment simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The words “church,” “state,” and “separation” do not even occur in this statement. The emphasis of this solemn declaration was an assurance to the people that their government would not seek to establish a national religion or dictate to the citizens the parameters of their worshipful expression. It simply declared the federal government would not seek to impose its own will upon the people with regard to any religion.
This notion of a “wall of separation” between church and state actually comes from an exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association of the state of Connecticut. On October 7, 1801, the Baptists wrote Jefferson of their concerns regarding the First Amendment. They felt their “free exercise of religion,” as viewed by the federal government and as expressed in this amendment, was being presented more as “a favor granted” than as “an inalienable right.” Thus, if their freedom of religion and religious expression was government-given, rather than God-given, what assurance was there that this government would never change its mind and revoke that freedom?!
Jefferson responded to their letter of concern on January 1, 1802, and assured them that a protective wall separated the church from the state, thus assuring their freedom of religion and religious expression. He wrote, in part, “I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson had chosen those words carefully, actually seeking to establish some common ground with the Baptists (of which he was not a member) by borrowing the expression from Roger Williams, one of the leading preachers among the Baptists. Williams had previously spoken emphatically of “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world.” Jefferson, therefore, chose to apply this concept of a protective “hedge or wall of separation” between the church and the world to the church and the state as well.
The U.S. Supreme Court echoed these words in 1947 in the case of Everson v. Board of Education. They wrote, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” This was perceived to be strictly one-directional. In other words, as used by the Baptists, the church was free to influence the world about them with their religious values, however the world was not to be permitted to enter the church and do likewise. The same one-directional concept was perceived between church and state. The principles and ethics of Christianity would certainly be welcomed as positive influences upon government, however the intrusion of government into the church would not be welcomed.
Therefore, in the early, formative years of our great nation’s history, there was no concerted effort to keep the church (or, more accurately, the influence of Christian principles) out of the affairs of state, but only an assurance that the state would not meddle with the affairs of the church. Indeed, in these early years, our founding fathers, and the government itself, were greatly affected by the teachings of the Christian faith. In the year 1799, Dr. Jedediah Morse made this rather insightful observation about the intimate, and necessary, relationship between the two: “In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom. … Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.”
Any nation which separates itself from the church, or the influence of Christian principles, is a nation destined for ruin, and when Christians seek to separate themselves from responsible involvement in the affairs of their nation, they, in my opinion, shirk their responsibility to be a leavening force for good, and in their lack of involvement actually contribute to the inevitable decline of their nation. In other words, it is my firm conviction that we, the people of God, must be active participants in every aspect of the society in which we live. How can we ever truly expect to effect responsible change if we isolate ourselves from the world about us? The Lord never prayed for His people to be taken out of the world, but that through their godly influence and example they might transform the world about them. That can only be done by those men and women willing to get out of their plush church buildings and into their communities. Yeast doesn’t work as long as it is still in the package; it must be mixed in with the dough before change occurs. The most important thing we as Christians can do to return our nation to a responsible course, and to effect responsible reform, is to truly start being the light, salt and leavening force for positive change that we are called by our God to be. That can’t be done if we are not willing to actively participate and involve ourselves in seeking to ennoble every aspect of life within our communities, and within our society at large.
In a position paper released by the Center for Biblical Bioethics it was declared that “a society cannot operate long in a moral vacuum. When people of good conscience fail to influence society with their values, then other influences will fill the gap. This has happened in America. In the past one hundred years, most fundamental Christians have left the political arena, considering it ‘worldly’ and outside the legitimate realm of Christian influence.” The result of this failure by an increasing number of disciples of Christ is that our nation is spiraling ever downward away from God, and that can only result, as history proves, in its ultimate demise. It is the conclusion of this position paper that “Christians need to be involved in the political process in order to have a positive effect on the future of our communities and our nation. It is poor citizenship and very poor Christian stewardship to permit this great nation to plunge on toward destruction by default.” William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, stated in the early 1700’s, “Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad.” That goodness, however, must permeate every corner of government, not be separated from it.
What does Scripture have to say about all of this? Some attempt to make much of the fact that nowhere in the NT writings are Christians ever urged to actively participate in politics, or to seek public office. The assumption some men draw from this fact is that such silence is thereby prohibitive. However, our integrity to Scripture, and to the principles of biblical interpretation, demand that we also acknowledge as fact that nowhere in the NT writings is such involvement and participation condemned or discouraged. Thus, to assume that such silence is necessarily prohibitive, is probably to assume far more than is exegetically warranted. Indeed, there is evidence that Christians should take an interest in ennobling the societies in which they live!
Paul’s view of government was largely positive in nature, although, like any of us, he could certainly have found many aspects of it with which he would have taken exception. He wrote to the Roman brethren that the governing authorities are God-ordained. “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). He regarded such governing authorities as being “a minister of God” (vs. 4) to accomplish His purpose. Indeed, Paul regarded the rulers (whether these rulers themselves realized it or not) as “servants of God,” devoting themselves to the carrying out of His purposes in society (vs. 6). “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (vs. 7). Paul urged the church to pray for those in government, “in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Some see justification for “separation of church and state” in the response of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians who sought to trap Him in a question regarding whether one should pay the poll-tax to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). The Lord said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus was indeed making a distinction between secular and spiritual concerns, but He was not urging our involvement in one to the total exclusion of our involvement in the other. He was, rather, advocating responsible involvement in both arenas. Yes, we can and should render unto Caesar, but we do so as godly men and women, impacting the realm of Caesar for its ultimate good, rather than allowing the realm of Caesar to impact us for evil. The passage does not say what some have attempted to make it say. Jesus is not promoting separation of “church and state,” but rather responsible, godly involvement in both.
One of the most compelling passages with regard to involvement of Christians in the political process, however, is without a doubt Romans 16:23. Here Paul is sending greetings to and conveying greetings from various Christian men and women. “Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, a brother.” The NIV translates the passage this way: “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works…” The Greek word used is “oikonomos,” which, when used politically, referred to a “manager, steward, treasurer.” Thus, Erastus was an official of the city of Corinth (from which this powerful epistle to the Romans was written in late February or early March of 58 A.D., near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey). Greek scholars differ as to the exact position held by Erastus. “Denney defines Erastus’ position as city treasurer; Vincent, probably the administrator of the city lands; Robertson, the city manager” [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, “Romans,” p. 265]. David Lipscomb, who, as previously noted, was greatly opposed to Christians involving themselves in the affairs of state, suggested Erastus was simply the church treasurer, and not the city treasurer [A Commentary on Romans, p. 279]. This, in my view, is little more than textual manipulation and misrepresentation for the purpose of trying to validate an untenable theory. By the way, this man mentioned in Romans 16:23 is “not to be identified with the Erastus of Acts 19:22 and 2 Timothy 4:20″ [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, “Romans,” p. 457].
“Erastus was the treasurer of the city of Corinth and attended to its affairs of property. He was a person of consequence in the city” [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, p. 925]. He was “a notable figure because of his public office” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 169]. “He may well have been a high-ranking and influential government leader – the city treasurer. If so, he would have political power, prestige, and probably some wealth” [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 431]. It just so happens that scholars know for a fact, from archaeological discoveries in Corinth, that during this very time there was indeed a city official named Erastus. “A paving block preserves an inscription, stating that the pavement was laid at the expense of Erastus,” and it states he was the “Commissioner of Public Works” [Oscar Broneer, The Biblical Archaeologist, December, 1951]. From Romans 16:23, therefore, we know that Paul sends greetings to the saints in Rome from a city official in Corinth who holds an elected office, one invested with great responsibility and authority. Erastus is a Christian. Paul nowhere condemns his service to the city of Corinth, nor does Paul condemn his participation in the political affairs of his community. It is not even suggested he should abandon that involvement. Indeed, one may even imagine Paul is somewhat pleased that a Christian is in that position of responsibility, for, after all, Paul makes a point of mentioning (and not disapprovingly) the political position of Erastus. And after all, isn’t it far better to have a Christian in such a position than a non-Christian? If not, why not?! Thus, to the individual whose comments I shared at the beginning of this article I would simply say, “Continue involving yourself in the political process of our land … and do so as a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Let your light shine. Be a leavening force for good. Brother, we need more like you.”
Words are simply inadequate. How does one even begin to put into words the tremendous, life-altering impact of a man like Edward William Fudge? A humble, quiet, unassuming man, always ready with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, yet blessed with a depth of insight into the marvelous grace of God and the hope that is ours through faith in Christ Jesus that has led countless believers to a greater hope and appreciation with respect to the Father’s redemptive gift of life in the Son. Only at the great reunion of that longed for Resurrection Day will his impact on his fellow life-travelers be fully realized and appreciated.
So many disciples of Jesus are far more qualified than I to attempt a tribute to such a man. They could easily enumerate his many and varied accomplishments during his earthly journey better than I. I am merely one lone voice in the vast crowd of appreciative spiritual sojourners who can testify to how deeply Edward touched my heart and opened my eyes to a greater grasp of God’s grace and our hope of immortality.
I love how his beloved wife Sara Faye eulogized him in a message to his “gracEmail family” on November 26, 2017: “It is with a heart of profound sadness and triumphant hope that I write to inform you that our precious Edward has been released from his mortal body and rests in the sheltering arms of His Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whom he loved and served all his life. Saturday morning, November 25, 2017, God granted him the gift of an easy passing with his loved ones beside him. … Edward was a remarkable man whose gifts were many. A brilliant thinker who could engage any scholar on that level, a consummate professional writer who could pack more into three paragraphs than anyone I ever knew. … But most of all, he was a Jesus man, as he termed it, who loved God with all his heart, believed even through the most difficult of times and circumstances, and loved to spread the good news of God’s redeeming grace far and wide. He gave glory to God for every good thing in his life, aware that he was a sinner saved by grace, and prayed often for Jesus to come quickly. He was confident in his salvation through the blood of Jesus, and sure of Jesus’ triumphant return on that great Resurrection Day.”
Sara Faye and Edward enjoyed a loving relationship that had lasted over half a century, and they were a true example of a man and woman who were “fellow heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Just a few weeks before his death, Sara Faye wrote to me saying that she and Edward had been discussing one of my most recent “Reflections” articles, and Edward had some insights he wanted her to pass along to me. I always treasured such times when I could tap into his vast reservoir of biblical understanding. I was especially blessed to be able to spend some quality time with him a few years back at “The Tulsa Workshop” where he and I were both speakers. A photo was taken during that meeting that I will always cherish (Edward and I are with a mutual friend: Rob Ford, an elder from Edmond, Oklahoma).
Perhaps Edward’s greatest contribution to the cause of Christ, apart from his powerful personal example of daily devotion to the Lord, was his work in the area of eschatological and soteriological understanding known as “Conditionalism,” which was a very logical and biblical alternative to, and refutation of, the more traditional view of the nature of man and his ultimate, eternal destiny. It was here that I first encountered Edward, and it was here that he helped facilitate the transformation of my own thinking.
Every now and then something occurs in a person’s life that has a lasting impact upon them; having the potential to alter the course of their lives. For me, one of those momentous events took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1986. I was the minister for a little congregation of about 150 members. It was a great group, and my family and I stayed there for eight years (1984-1992). One morning, as I was studying in my office, Dave England, one of the members, walked in, placed a book on my desk, and said, “Would you read this and tell me what you think?” He then turned and walked out, giving me no indication as to his own views of the book. I picked up the book and looked at the cover. It was by Edward Fudge, someone I had never heard of, and the title was “The Fire That Consumes.” I set it aside and continued with what I had previously been doing.
Some time later I noticed the book on my desk and picked it up again. As I flipped through it I realized this was a presentation of a position on the nature of man and his eternal destiny with which I was completely unfamiliar, and, frankly, somewhat skeptical. It seemed radically different from what I had always been taught to believe, although I must admit that I had never been completely comfortable with the traditional teaching on this subject, especially the view that God would torture people endlessly and find some satisfaction therein.
Over the next few days I read the book. Then I read it again, this time much more carefully. After that, I picked up my Bible and literally went through every verse, from cover to cover, over the next several months, examining the Scriptures to determine if “these things be true” (as did the Bereans in Acts 17:11 with the astounding teachings of Paul). To make a long story short, I could not refute this view of the nature of man and his eternal destiny. Indeed, the more I studied it over the coming years (and I studied it extensively and in great depth), the more convicted I became that Conditionalism (the view that man was by nature mortal, and that immortality was a promised gift conditioned upon being “in Christ Jesus,” and that eternal punishment was an everlasting loss of life itself, not just a “life of loss”) was a powerful Truth our traditional teaching had tragically subverted.
In the decades that followed that encounter in my office in Santa Fe, I have become increasingly vocal in my support of what I am convinced is the biblical teaching on the nature of man and his eternal destiny: an understanding for which I am forever grateful to Edward Fudge. I have done considerable writing and teaching on this subject, and have always shared with those I taught just how significant an impact Edward had on my thinking. Over the years, Edward’s ministry and my own somewhat paralleled one another, and he was even gracious enough to make reference to my work in his third edition of “The Fire That Consumes” (p. 352-353). In 2014, I compiled my own writings and teachings on this topic into a 308 page book titled “From Ruin To Resurrection,” and Edward honored me by agreeing to write the Foreword to this book, even stating in that Foreword that “Al Maxey is perhaps the most influential popular presenter of this ‘Conditionalist’ (biblical) understanding in the Churches of Christ today.”
How does one properly say “Thank you” to another disciple of Christ for the impact he or she has had on their life? Again, words seem so inadequate to express the depth of love and appreciation felt. Maybe Edward expressed it best in the obituary that he wrote for himself, and which Sara Faye shared with his many friends: “Always trust God – He is real, although invisible, and that is the most important thing you can do. Be nice to each other and support each other. I love you and will see you on Resurrection Morning! Blessed be the name of the Lord.” When Edward sent me a copy of his third edition of “The Fire That Consumes,” he wrote this in the front of the book: “To my friend and fellow servant of Jesus Christ our life, Al Maxey, with appreciation for your faithful ministry of the Word, and in hope of immortality at the last day.” Perhaps, then, our greatest tribute to this beloved brother is to always trust our God, to be nice to each other and support each other, and to share with others the gift of God’s grace: life everlasting in the Son, which will be fully realized on that great Resurrection Morning! Until we meet again on that Day, my friend, rest in blessed peace!