By Tom M. Roberts
Like Abraham’s wells (Gen. 26:18) which had to be cleaned out and renamed by Isaac because they had been filled with debris by the Philistines, the biblical doctrine of grace must be rescued from the clutter of denominational debris. Grace, as essential to our spiritual life as water to a dying man, is often hidden and kept from view by such clutter. We need a restoration of pure teaching on the “true grace of God” (1 Pet. 5:12). Jesus is the Water of eternal life (John 4) and grace is the extension of this “living water” to sinful man. Jesus can be said to be the personification of grace, the unmerited favor of God. Whatever grace is, it can be no more or less than that expressed in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. Those who would define grace in philosophical and theological terms other than that taught by Jesus are throwing stones in the well of pure grace. Like Isaac, we need to redig the wells and rename them. Let us be sure that we “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). When this is done, by the grace of God, Jesus will become “in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life” (Jn. 4:14).
Some of the ancient and modern Philistine debris that clutters the knowledge of grace are:
Taught as theological doctrine by some and believed by many (listen to most funeral eulogies), grace is extended to all men, good and evil alike. God is seen by the Universalist as a doting, permissive, indulgent Fatherfigure who will be displeased by how some men live, perhaps, but will, at the Judgment, permit all men into heaven. Becoming popular in the 14th-15th centuries in Germany and England, universalism was known to Clement of Alexandria and Origen (2nd Century). In 1712, Jeremiah White of Trinity College wrote a book with the self-explanatory title, The Restoration of All Things, or A Vindication of the Goodness and the Grace of God, to be Manifested at last in the Recovery of His Whole Creation of Their Fall. In America, the doctrine was espoused by James Relly (1722-1778) who believed that the suffering of Jesus on the cross provided “finished salvation” once and for all.
The Universalist Church in America was organized in 1779 by John Murray. In 1803, the “Winchester Profession” was completed and today, headquarters are in Boston, Massachusetts. No discernible difference is found between the Universalist and the Unitarian; in fact, ministers often hold dual memberships and a merger is often discussed.
The apostle John condemned the antiChrist (1 Jn. 4) who denied that Jesus lived in the flesh as a man. This early error had its roots in the belief that mankind corrupted himself so thoroughly in the Fall (Gen. 3) that his entire being (body and soul) was stained. Such inherent corruption was passed along, genetically, to future generations and all flesh became evil by nature. In the view of the antiChrist, Deity could not inhabit a sinful abode, thus Jesus could not be Incarnate. Augustine, a few hundred years later, picked up this heresy and expounded upon it, opposed by Pelagius. Augustine saw grace as an “enabling power” that made it possible for man to do good. Without it, he was not able to do good, any good. Consequently, man, apart from “grace” had no free will, no faith and could not act morally until God restored this tipower” (grace) by the Holy Spirit. Only after the Holy Spirit acted upon his corrupt nature could man, thus enabled, act so as to believe and “do” any good work.
If man has no free will; if man has no power to comprehend truth and act upon it; if man cannot believe except and unless God gives him faith by the Holy Spirit direct and apart from the Bible, then man can do nothing – God must do it all. Salvation is wholly of grace.
Such error is part of the debris that obscures the “true grace of God.”
After the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius (which Augustine won, leaving his imprint on developing Catholicism), other men added to the rubble.
James Arminius “remonstrated” against Confessions ofFaith in Holland which included Augustine’s beliefs. He, in turn, was opposed by the Synod of Dort (1618) which rejected “Arminianism” and produced documents advocating their own positions. Since Arminius challenged five points of the Confessions, the Synod’s response was issued in five points, giving birth to the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Martin Luther and John Calvin (1509-1564) had protested Catholic doctrine because they believed it to have drifted away from Augustinian philosophy. In fact, both the Reformation and the efforts of the Synod of Dort against the Remonstrants were attempts to maintain “pure” Augustinianism. Calvin’s explanation in his Institutes of Christian Religion so popularized his beliefs that, today, we refer to these doctrines as Calvinism even though they did not originate with John Calvin.
Whatever they are called, like the rose by any other name, they smell the same. Building on the fallacy of the loss of free will and “enabling grace,” Calvinistic creeds take man completely out of the picture except as a passive sinner, unable to act or think in such a manner so as to make a decision about his salvation; God must do it all. This is the modern view of grace: justification by faith alone; salvation wholly of grace. Millions now living do not know of the “true grace of God.” It is hidden under the accumulation of centuries of Philistine debris.
There are Calvinists in the church of Christ, enemies in the camp, casting stones of error into the well. However well-intentioned, some brethren are teaching the very things faithful brethren have been attempting to clean out. Unlike denominational teachers, they aver not to be Calvinists. Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. wear the badge proudly. But our brethren who teach the same doctrines, using the same terminology, claim to be insulted when so identified. But Isaac knew a Philistine when he saw one, and so can we.
Calvinism is a logical system and pulls one inexorably into the depths of its consistency. Brethren who want to espouse a little will accept a lot. A brother may misunderstand how righteousness is imputed, but unless he gets his thinking back on the Bible, he will proceed to inherited sin and corrupted nature. He may want to broaden the “umbrella of grace” so as to include the pious unimmersed but he might end up accepting that baptism is not essential to salvation. (We speak not just in generalities.) He may claim to promote only the security of the believer but if he goes beyond the comfort of the Scriptures, he may wind up teaching once saved, always saved. What may we say more of those who would deny the doctrine of Christ on the free-will of man, moral agency, the nature of sin, how sin is accounted before God, the nature of righteousness, how righteousness is accounted before God, faith, works, law, fellowship with error, and many other such things? Surely, they hinder a proper understanding of grace and the proclamation of it.
I suggest that we begin with the perception, as Abraham’s well was still the source of water in spite of the debris, even so Christ and His word is still the source of the grace of God in spite of all the denominational error. Truth is truth in spite of all the error in the world. Truth, unperceived, is still truth (the world is round even if I don’t know it); truth, misunderstood, is still truth (the Lord’s church is not a denomination); truth, denied, is still truth (Jehovah is God in spite of the claims of the atheist). Exactly so about the grace of God. Unperceived, it is there. Misunderstood, it can be known. Denied, it is affirmed throughout the word of God. In one sense of the word, God’s grace never needs restoration; like the universe, it exists by the fiat of God. But in the sense of our study and with the environs of human weakness, we must work to restore a knowledge of the true grace of God to lost mankind. Many have been denied access to grace by error; others have been led astray. We all need to turn to “the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you the inheritance among all them that are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Let us establish our hearts that God’s grace is there, as solid as the universe, until time is no more.
A second place of beginning is that of properly “speaking as the oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). A concept that cannot be united with a scriptural word(s) is not a Bible concept or truth. In acknowledging the apostles’ inspiration, Paul stated that the Holy Spirit was “combining spiritual things with spiritual words” (1 Cor. 2:13). “Justification by faith” is a Bible truth, provable by passages of Scripture. “Justification by faith alone” cannot be found in the Bible; it is a concept without a foundation. Singing is scriptural; playing on an instrument is not. Local church autonomy is a concept of truth for which scriptural words may be found; the papacy is not. Non-biblical words must be invented for concepts and practices which the Holy Spirit has not authorized. This is also true about a study of grace. Some brethren are being very loose in their language as they teach about grace. One hears about “imputing the personal righteousness of Christ,” “umbrella of grace,” “man’s corrupted nature,” “sin and righteousness being transferred,” “automatic cleansing of sins,” “sin not being charged to the believer,” and many similar statements. If we must borrow terminology from the sects to phrase our beliefs about grace, we had better take care. If God intended us to know something about grace, He was able to state it in understandable terms. If these terms are not sufficient for us, it is an indication that we are not satisfied with grace as God established it. But remember, God does not bend the dispensation of grace to our human definitions.
Third, there is no substitute for Bible knowledge. The Scriptures teach: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32); “be not foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17); “whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). These passages could be multiplied. But many of us are woefully ignorant about such matters. When we “ought to have our senses exercised to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14), we don’t recognize error when it it taught. We mirror today, the situation about which the Hebrew writer lamented when he tried to teach concerning the priesthood of Melchizedek and found his listeners “dull of hearing.” How distressing, likewise, to know that many brethren do not recognize rank Calvinism when they hear it. Calvinism is an ugly, evil doctrine when stripped of its sophistry. It denies the true grace of God and would put us in bondage to total depravity, inherited guilt, limited atonement, individual predestination, justification by faith only and once saved, always saved. Such ideas turn the “grace of God into lasciviousness ” (Jude 4). To avoid this pitfall, we must know the truth. Preachers and churches may change with time, but God’s word is always the same. We must still “search the scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).
Finally, know specifically the subject of grace. Don’t study about it; study “grace.” Use a concordance. Use a Bible dictionary. Apply passage to passage; keep them in context and harmonize them with the rest of God’s word. The grace of God is an extension of God Himself: it is possible because He is a merciful God. All God’s grace in salvation is realized in Jesus Christ. God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3ff). Man is a sinner, therefore he ought to die (Ezek. 18:4). But we are saved “by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8,9). We are saved by grace in that Jesus was given to die in our stead, taking our punishment (Isa. 53). This is the mercy of God expressed in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, who learned obedience (Heb. 5:8,9) to present to God a body prepared for that purpose (Heb. 10). That sacrifice atoned for our sins, the anti-type of the bloody animal sacrifices. Once atonement for sin had been made, reconciliation was possible (2 Cor. 5:17-2 1) and we are called unto God by the gospel message (2 Thess. 2:14). The proper response of man to the grace of God is faithful obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Because we believe and obey, our sins are forgiven (Rom. 4:1ff) and, since we are forgiven, with no sins charged to us, God puts righteousness to our account. It is possible for us, therefore, to stand before God as His redeemed, saved by His grace. Because of this marvelous gift, it is possible to have that “well of water, springing up unto eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). The water from Jesus is greater than the water from the well of Abraham or of Jacob. Let us strive to speak with one voice about this grace so that lost men and women will not be hindered in their search for mercy.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 16, pp. 496-497, 501
August 21, 1986