By Mike Willis
Expecting that this series of articles would express doctrinal positions with which some would disagree, I sent this material to several readers to examine beforehand. There are several comments which need to be made prior to concluding this series which I noticed as a result of their having read this material. Some suggestions were made with reference to adding needed comments and some raised objectionable questions with which I need to deal. Hence, this concluded article proposes to wrap this series up.
There are some of God’s laws which are absolute and some which are relative. For example, one is either immersed in water in obedience to God’s absolute commandment to be baptized or he is not; he has either obeyed this commandment or he has not. On the other hand, one is commanded to be hospitable (1 Pet. 4:9). There are some who are more hospitable than others; some of us open our homes nearly every week to someone in obedience to this command while others do not practice hospitality quite so often. Yet, both might be hospitable. The violation of the commandment to be hospitable is sinful; however, determining when a violation has occured might be difficult to a third party, although obvious to God and the violator. Furthermore, in regard to relative commandments (such as patience, temperance, love, etc.), the Scriptures indicate that God expects the Christian to constantly be maturing in these graces (1 Pet. 2:1-2; Heb. 5:11-14). Though a man will obviously fall short of the perfection of Christ with respect to love, for example, he is not therefore necessarily guilty of sin.
On the other hand, the commandments of Christ which are absolute are of such a nature that there is no room for growth in that area. How can one grow in respect to being immersed in water? How can one grow in respect to observing or not observing the Lord’s supper on the first day of the .week? One either obeys these commandments or he does not.
It is also rather interesting to note that the divisions which have occurred within our ranks do not pertain to matters of individual growth toward maturity. Rather, they have occurred over matters relating to absolute commandments of God’s law. One either uses mechanical instruments of music in worship to God or he does not; one either supports human institutions from the church treasury or he does not; one either supports church supported recreation or he does not; one either participates in the sponsoring church arrangement or he does not. These issues do not pertain to one growing in the graces of God. They pertain to areas of absolute obedience. Hence, they may be dealt with on that basis in contrast to those areas in which one is expected to constantly be growing before God.
Fielding The Questions
A number of questions were submitted to me by some of those who read this material which I would like to answer. In so doing, I shall try to confine myself to giving book, chapter, and verse answers. I am not interested in hearing anybody’s hypothetical cases; hypothetical cases can be invented to circumvent any commandment of God from baptism to obedience to an ethical commandment. Furthermore, no advancement in knowledge of God’s word will occur through a discussion of hypothetical cases. Hence, I shall try to confine myself to the Scriptures in answering these questions, to the best of my ability. I would like to also suggest that any responses to my answers to these questions should be concerning a discussion of the Scriptures, not hypothetical questions, one’s “think so’s,” or any other form of human reasoning. Now, let us look at the questions.
1. How do you suggest that sins of ignorance be handled? Can one repent of a sin which he is unaware? To me, this is one of the most difficult questions being raised in this entire discussion. One would be very arrogant to imply that he knows everything about God’s word; consequently, humility demands that we leave open the possibility of being guilty of some sin which we are committing in ignorance.
There appear to me but two possibilities which one can take with reference to this issue: (a) To say that the man is guilty of sin but somehow automatically forgiven because he is trying to live a righteous life; (b) To say that the man is guilty of a transgression of God’s law and, therefore, separated from God until he repents of that sin and prays for forgiveness.
Those who take the former position (a) are forced to deal with this conclusion: one can be guilty of any sin under heaven, from using mechanical instruments of music in worship to fornication, without being separated from God so long as that individual is honest and sincere. That this is simply not the teaching of the Bible is evident from a consideration of a number of verses. 1 Kgs. 13 relates the story of a young prophet of God who believed a lie and, consequently, lost his life because of his disobedience of God. The saints in Ephesus who were ignorantly using texts of magic were guilty before God and required to publicly confess their sins in order to stand justified before God (Acts 19:17-18). Saul of Tarsus was guilty- of sins committed in ignorance (Acts 9, 22, 26); certainly the Lord held him responsible for them (1 Tim. 1:13). The Lord revealed in a parable that the servant who did not know his Lord’s will but was, nevertheless, disobedient would receive punishment from God (Lk. 12:47-48). Each of these verses shows that one bears the guilt of any sin committed in ignorance.
However, some brethren teach that these sins are forgiven to the man who is habitually repenting, confessing, and praying. Do not misunderstand this statement: these brethren are stating that the sin is forgiven because the man generally repents, confesses his sin to God, and prays for forgiveness even before this individual repents of this given sin, confesses it to God and prays for forgiveness. Hence, a man who is generally walking in the light and who becomes involved in some kind of sin through ignorance is forgiven of the sin the moment he commits it. Brethren, where is the specific passage which teaches this? I have not seen it; although I have considered 1 Jn. 1:7-2:1, I do not believe that it teaches this. The logical conclusion of this position is that you must extend the right hands of fellowship to everyone else who is “walking in the light” but involved in some particular sin of ignorance. Hence, unless you are capable of showing that all those involved in using mechanical instruments of music in worship, the support of human institutions from the church treasury, and the sponsoring church arrangement are (1) guilty of presumptuous sins or (2) insincere, you are obligated to extend the right hands of fellowship to them! Are you ready for that? If there is another alternative, please state it!
The other alternative available in dealing with sins of ignorance is to state that whatever sins are committed in ignorance separate an individual from God. (b). To show that this is the teaching of Scripture, please consider the following:
a. Matt. 15:14. “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” The teachings of our Saviour leave no doubt regarding the condition of those involved in ignorant sins; they are lost.
b. Acts 17:30-31. “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.” Ignorance did not excuse the pagans. Where is the passage that would imply that it would excuse the Christian?
c. Gal. 2:11-14. This passage discusses Peter’s hypocrisy in not eating with the Gentiles when men from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch. Others, following the example of Peter, were carried away by his conduct to act in the same way, including Paul’s beloved companion Barnabas. There is no intimation that those who followed Peter’s example were insincere. Whether through ignorance or through a weakness of the flesh, they sinned. Paul sternly rebuked these men to the face. In this same epistle, he wrote, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (6:1). The implication is that such sins separate an individual from God.
On the basis of these New Testament Scriptures, I am persuaded that the individual that is guilty of sin, whether committed ignorantly, through a weakness of the flesh, or presumptously is separated from God because of that sin. Let me further state that this is what the law states. God may chose to exercise clemency in regard to nonpresumptous sins; He has not revealed that He will but He certainly has that option open to Him. It is not my business, as a gospel preacher, to preach what God may do; it is my obligation to preach God’s revelation. Hence, I confine myself to teaching what God has revealed. I can hold out no hope for any man who dies with the guilt of sins having been committed upon his soul.
2. If one takes the position that one’s sins of ignorance are forgiven by God, how will this affect the subject of fellowship? It is certainly going to affect the subject of fellowship. First of all, whatever position one concludes with reference to himself, he will have to grant to every other baptized believer. Hence, if he believes that his sins of ignorance are somehow forgiven by God without the sin being stopped, then he must grant the same thing to every other baptized believer. The result is this: the good, honest, sincere person in the most liberal church stands acceptable in God’s sight because his transgressions are covered by this prayer for forgiveness of his hidden faults.
So far as fellowship is determined, the fellowship of an individual is no longer based on whether or not one is walking in God’s commandments, but in “the attitude of his heart” even while he continues in sin. Hence, the individual with a good, honest heart but involved in sin can be fellowshipped, but the individual presumptously practicing the same sin cannot be fellowshipped. Frankly, brethren, I am not going to be put in the position of judging a man’s heart, which I would necessarily have to do in the event that fellowship was based on his attitude of heart apart from his actions and conduct. Rather, I believe that fellowship is determined on the more objective criterion of whether or not the individual in faith and love is obeying God’s commandments. I can see whether or not the individual is obeying the word of the Lord, although I cannot see his attitude of heart. It is my conviction that the fellowship of the saints is determined by one’s obedience to God’s will, which in itself manifests his attitude of heart, rather than in judging whether or not a person who is guilty of sin has a good, honest, sincere heart.
3. Doesn’t this position mean that there is no genuine assurance except for those who perfectly obey and pray? First of all, please notice that there is a contradiction in this question. If a person perfectly obeys, he does not need to pray for forgiveness. There is no such thing as perfect obedience. Hence, to combine the two – perfect obedience and prayer for forgiveness – is simply to contradict one’s self in his question.
But, rewording the question to avoid this contradiction, let me state that I know of no assurance that can be offered to the man who has not obeyed the word of God or obtained forgiveness for his disobedience. The only genuine assurance of salvation which a man can have is when he can give book, chapter and verse for what he is doing in obedience to the Lord and when he stands on the promises of G6il’s word to obtain forgiveness of his sin when he has disobeyed the Lord. If someone knows a passage which can give a man an assurance of salvation while disobeying the Lbrd, please send it to me and I will consider it.
The man who knows that he is saved is the man who, for example, reads Mk. 16:16 and obeys it. There is no assurance for the man who has not obeyed that commandment; no man has a right to give an individual who has not obeyed that commandment an assurance of salvation. Similarly, there is no assurance of salvation available for the man using mechanical instruments of music in worship because he can not give book, chapter and verse for its usage. There is assurance of salvation available for the man who obeys Eph. 5:19. I have no right to give the individual who uses something not authorized in worship an assurance of salvation; I perform no service to him when I do this.
Hence, our assurance of salvation can only come so long as we are standing on the promises of God’s word, obeying His commandments, and trusting His grace to forgive our acts of disobedience. There is no assurance of salvation to the man standing on the sinking sand of man’s opinion for what he practices in worship or in the work of the church, disobeying God’s command and trusting in some hypothetical case for grace in addition to the gospel.
4. If this be the case, then man is constantly going in and out of grace. The biblical picture of a Christian is not that of going in and out of God’s grace. First, the New Testament does not teach that each Christian must constantly sin. Second, the following biblical texts show the seriousness of a Christian committing sin:
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted (Gal. 6:1).
But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (I Cor. 9:27).
Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscience and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience (Col. 3:5-6).
In addition to these cases, please also consider the case of Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:13-25) and Peter (Gal. 2:11-14). Each of these cases demonstrates that the Christian does fall from grace on the occasions in which he is guilty of sin! That is exactly why he needs the blood of Christ!
While we are speaking of the “picture of a Christian” which is in the New Testament, I wish that someone would kindly direct me to the “picture” of the man who is ignorantly guilty of the sin of perversion of worship, church government, or some other kind of sin (doctrinal or moral) but, nevertheless, standing acceptable before God. What passage draws that picture for me? Where is the picture of the man who worships in a manner that is contrary to God’s word for years but who is acceptable to God? Book, chapter, and verse please!
5. This view requires that certain classes of sin be made a test of fellowship or else every brother will have to be disfellowshipped because all, are guilty of sin. It requries neither. This is true because the Bible does not teach that fellowship should be broken as a result of every sin.` The fellowship can be broken only -after a certain pattern of work has been done. Matt. 18:15-17 reveals how cases of individual differences can lead to a breach in fellowship; 1 Cor. 5 reveals how matters of immorality lead to a breach of fellowship. In both cases, a confrontation of the individual who was guilty of the trangression occurred. He was given opportunity to repent and refused. Then, he was subject to discipline, not before. Hence, the fellowship of the saints is not broken upon the event of sin having been committed alone. The fellowship is broken when the sinner obstinately refuses to quit practicing his sin, in exactly the manner as it has been broken in hundreds of local congregations with regard to such matters as the usage of mechanical instruments of music in worship, church support of human institutions, and church sponsored recreation. Disfellowship is the last step, not the first one!
6. Doesn’t this position mean that you are going to have to withdraw from those who are guilty of smoking and social drinking? Let me take these one at a time since the nature of the violation of Scripture differs in the two cases. First of all, with reference to social drinking, I find that it is a specific violation of I Pet. 4:3 (AV – banquetings; NASB -drinking parties). Hence, there is no question of whether or not a given individual is violating the Scriptures in that case; it is an absolute law which is either obeyed or violated. Hence, social drinkers need to be confronted with their sin and admonished to repent. If they refuse to do so, they should be disfellowshipped.
Secondly, smoking is somewhat different. The violation of Scripture which occurs with reference to smoking is 1 Cor. 6:19. The body is the temple of God; Christians are under obligation to God to treat the body in such a way that it is not damaged through abuse. Smoking is wrong because of the physical damage which it does to the body. The problem which I have with reference to smoking is in determining just exactly when an individual has so sinned against God with reference to his body. Does this occur when he smokes two packages of cigarettes a day? One package? One cigarette? When someone can determine with certainty the exact point when 1 Cor. 6:19 has been violated, then we are obligated to treat this sin in exactly the same manner as we would treat any other sin. Let me hasten to add that any other sin against the body, such as gluttonly or neglect of one’s normal test, would have to be treated in the same manner.
Brethren, we simply must come to grips with the fact that there are some sins which a person commits and which separate him from God which a third party cannot detect. Although the guilty party is aware that he has done these things and God is alienated from him thereby, a third party might never been able to detect with certainty that sin has been committed. For example, how do you know exactly when your brother has been guilty of lust? In such matters, we simply must realize that we are dealing with matters pertaining to judging one’s heart and are unqualified to speak authoritatively. Nevertheless, we have the obligation to continue to preach that these sins separate a person from God when committed.
7. This understanding of how one’s sins separate him from God treats the sins of a believer in exactly the same way as they treat the sins of an unbeliever. Does the Christian have any advantages over the unbeliever? The initial statement regarding this position, i.e., that it treats the sins of the believer and unbeliever exactly alike, is correct. Sin is sin whelther committed by Christians or non-Christians. Sin has the same effect upon all men; it does not have one effect upon one group of people and another effect upon another group of people. Whatever sin does for one man, it does for ail men. I cannot see any means whereby God can treat one man’s sins in one way and another man’s sins in another way.
The second part of this question can be answered in the affirmative. The Christian definitely has an advantage over the non-Christian. He has an Advocate to plead his case before God (I Jn. 2:1); the non-Christian has no Mediator, Intercessor, or Advocate. However, Christ Jesus has promised to be an Advocate to the man who is confessing his sins (i Jn. 1:7); I know of no passage which teaches that Jesus pleads the case of a man who has not repented and confessed his sin. Do you know of such a passage?
8. In your previous article, you distinguished false teaching from sin. When does false teaching become sinful? First of all, let me document that not all false leaching is sinful. Rom. 14 discusses the division in the church at Rome regarding eating meats. One group taught and believed that one could not eat meats; the other group ate all meats. Paul never censured either :group for false teaching, although one group had to obviously be teaching wrong doctrine.
False teaching becomes sinful when it leads one to commit sin! The abstinence from eating meats does not cause one to sin. Hence, this false teaching did not fall into the same category as that mentioned in Rom. 16:18. Similarly, if I teach that Methuselah died at 965 years of age rather than 969 years of age, I have not thereby caused anyone to sin, although technically what I have taught is false teaching. Hence, the problem of false teaching must be related to the problem of sin.
Secondly, false teaching must not be bound upon the consciences of other men. Not even the abstinence from eating meats (something which was not sinful in itself) could be bound on the consciences of other men (1 Tim. 4:1-3). The Corinthians had some who did not get married (1 Cor. 7); although Paul taught them that it was not wrong to abstain from marriage, he wrote to Timothy that one had “departed from the faith” when he taught that one was not permitted to marry (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Hence, things not taught in the scriptures, or false teaching, cannot be bound on the consciences of others.
However, in cases where one’s misunderstanding of a biblical text does not relate to personal salvation or damnation, I have no reason to break fellowship with him with regard to that matter. If anyone knows of a better way of dealing with this difficult subject. I would be glad to hear it.
9. This position demands that every sin be enumnerated in order to have it forgiven. I do not think that this conclusion necessarily follows; if so, I wish that someone would show me which premises necessarily lead to that conclusion. That one cannot specifically enumerate every sin of which he is guilty on every occasion is evident to all of us. The man who is out of service to the Lord for a number of years obviously is not able to remember every specific act of transgression. Hence, he could not specifically confess every individual sin.
Perhaps paralleling this with the repentance prior to initial salvation will help us to understand this point. When a person comes to Christ, repenting of his sins (Acts 2:38), he receives Christ’s forgiveness despite the fact that he cannot specifically remember every sin of which he has repented. Indeed, repentance is nothing other than the change of mind which occurs when the individual resolves in his heart to obey what God has commanded on any and every subject. He has resolved to quit living to please self and Satan in order to begin living in order to please God. This kind of repentance can be made by an individual who has been out of service to God for a number of years just as it can be made by the man seeking initial salvation.. Hence, the idea of a specific enumeration of sins is not demanded by the belief that repentance, confession and prayer are the conditions of forgiveness.
10. I object to the usage of the term “automatic forgiveness” to describe the position that one’s sins are forgiven because he is walking in the light. I do not use this term derogatorily. Yet, I think that it is an accurate description of the belief being discussed. Here is my understanding of it: a man is guilty of sin whose habitual manner of life is to do what is right, repent of any sin which he commits, and confess that sin to God. This view states that this man is not separated from God because of his sin since the man’s usual manner of life is to try to please God. Furthermore, should that man die prior to repenting of that sin, confessing it to God, and asking forgiveness of it, he would, nevertheless, go directly to heaven.
Hence, this view grants forgiveness of sins to an individual before and without repentance, confession, and prayer. The man who is generally a believer who is striving to do what is right is automatically forgiven because he is a believer who is striving to do what is right. To deny that this is conditional forgiveness is no more absurd than to deny that the “once saved, always saved” doctrine of the Baptists is conditional forgiveness; the latter simply grants forgiveness to the “once saved” man without him meeting the conditions of repentance, confession and prayer in the same way as the latter view does. The only difference in the two views, so far as I can determine, is that the view held by our brethren does recognize that one can turn his back in open rebellion to the Lord and fall from grace. However, both views treat sins of ignorance and weaknesses of the flesh in exactly the same way!
Inasmuch as I have felt an obligation to answer the questions raised by the view which I represent, those who hold opposing views should also feel some obligation to answer questions relative to their views. Hence, I present the following questions pertinent to the view held by some of our brethren for answers to be submitted:
- Why would you want to teach a man any new truth? If I understand the position which 1 label as “automatic grace,” they believe that the man who is practicing a sin which is committed in ignorance is saved. If they teach him a new truth, he has the opportunity to reject it and be lost or to accept it, in which case he continues in a saved relationship.
- Why teach a man a new truth when nothing is communicated to him thereby so far as personal salvation is concerned and the risk is run that he will disobey it and be lost?
- Where is the New Testament scripture which indicates that men go in and out of sin regularly without knowing it?
- Does salvation of the baptized believer depend solely upon his sincerity? Does the fellowship of the saints extend to every baptized believer who is sincerely doing what he thinks is right, regardless of what sins he may be committing? If not, by what objective standard do we determine which sincere people will be saved and should be fellowshipped?
- Why do the arguments regarding sincerity, ignorance, and weaknesses of the flesh only apply to baptized believers? Will not the same arguments be equally valid with reference to the pious unimmersed?
- Does the concept of automatic forgiveness pertaining to sins of ignorance and weaknesses of the flesh apply to moral issues as well as to doctrinal issues? If not, why not? If so, then the conclusion would follow that a pious, sincere brother who, through a weakness of the flesh, committed fornication and died in the arms of a harlot could go directly to heaven. If not, why not?
- Does the breakdown of sin into categories of those committed in weaknesses of the flesh and ignorance (which do not damn the believer’s soul) and those committed presumptiously, i.e., defiantly in open rebellion against God’s law (which damn the soul) have any Scripture to teach it? How does this distinction of sins which damn from sins which do not damn differ from the Catholic doctrine of venial and mortal sins?
Perhaps others could add additional questions to this list. However, from my point of view, each of these listed above need answering. I would like to correspond with someone who holds the view which I personally label “automatic grace” in order to get answers to these questions. If I am wrong about these matters, I certainly want to have them clarified for me.
It is my prayer than these articles will be received in the same spirit as they are written. The issues involved need to be studied carefully. Because of confusion on these matters, many have accepted conclusions which have led them directly into the grace-unity apostasy. Others who have not accepted the grace-unity doctrines hold the position of “automatic grace.” If this position can be defended, these brethren need to show us how it can be defended while opposing the arguments of the grace-unity brethren. I do not know how one can accept the “automatic grace” position and oppose the grace-unity apostasy, but maybe someone can enlighten me.
For your prayerful consideration, these articles are respectfully submitted.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 36, pp. 579-584
September 13, 1979