Unsaved Believers

By Luther Blackmon

If I can show that somebody in the New Testament “believed on Christ” and was not saved, I will have shown that “believing on Christ” is not all that stands between the sinner and salvation. And when this is shown, it will disprove the cardinal doctrine of orthodox denominationalism, that salvation is by “faith only.” The Methodist Discipline says, “We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works and deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort” (emphasis mine-L.B.; Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church, Articles of Religion, Article IX, page 29, 1944 edition). Baptists believe the same thing, namely that one is saved “at the point of faith and without further obedience.” In fact, this is a matter of almost universal agreement in Protestant denominationalism. But it is not the truth. The New Testament does teach that we are saved by faith, but it does not teach that we are saved by faith only, or “at the point of faith and without further acts of obedience.” There is a difference. But for the time being, let’s get back to the “unsaved believer.”

In John 12:42-43, the Bible says, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers many also believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” I don’t believe anybody thinks that these people were saved. They refused to confess Christ: they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God. Yet they “believed on Christ.” This is the very same expression found in Scriptures like John 3:16, 3:36; Acts 16:31, and many more. These rulers “believed on Christ,” but they were not saved. Yet Jesus said in many places, that they who “believe on him” shall have eternal life. I can hear someone say, “Yes, but these rulers didn’t have ‘saving faith.'” I agree. And that is the point and purpose of this little tract: to show the difference between the faith that saves, and the faith that does not save. The rulers in John 12 are not the only ones in the New Testament who believed and were not saved.

In Acts 2, Peter preached to an assembly of Jews who did not believe in Christ. Beginning in verse 22, he made a three-fold argument on the Deity of Christ. Then the apostle summed it all up in verse 36 and reached this conclusion: “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly” (believe with confidence, L.B.) “that God hath made that same Jesus whom ye crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The sermon had its desired effect. The next verse says, “Now when they heard this they were pricked in their hearts and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, men and brethren what shall we do?” They were convinced that the man they had caused to be crucified was truly the Son of God. They BELIEVED! But were they saved? Not unless one can be saved without repentance! Not unless they were saved without having their “remission of sins!” Their question, “What must we do?” brought this answer: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Here are some people who believed and were not saved. Not yet. Why? Because their faith was not yet obedient faith.

Some others who believed, and were not saved when they believed, are found in Acts 11:21. “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed and turned to the Lord:” Notice, they believed AND turned to the Lord. They believed before they turned to the Lord. If they were saved the moment they believed, they were saved before they turned to the Lord. But nobody, I hope, believes that one can be saved before he turns to the Lord.

Another unsaved believer was Saul of Tarsus-at one point, that is. Saul is a fine example of a man who was doing what he believed was right, but who was sinning in doing it. He was on his way to Damascus to carry out a wicked mission, persecuting God’s people, the church. As he journeyed, he saw a light from heaven; he fell to the earth; he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest . .. and he trembling and astonished said, Lora, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise and go into the city, and there it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:4-6). Notice that the Lord told Saul to go into the city (Damascus) and there it would be told him what he MUST do. Watch what he was told to do. The Lord sent Ananias to him in the city. When Ananias came to Saul, he told him to “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Let me explain here that the conversion of Saul is told in three chapters, Acts 9, 22, and 26. You have to read all three to get all the facts. It is in chapter 22 that we have what Ananias told Saul to do. “Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins . . . .” But Saul was a believer before he was told this. He saw the Lord (1 Cor. 15:8). He heard Him speak; he heard Him say, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” If there is anyone who thinks that Saul had not yet believed, I wouldn’t know how to teach him anything. Yes, Saul, was a believer, but not a saved believer — unless he was saved before his sins were washed away; unless he could be saved without doing what the Lord told him he MUST do. No, the water didn’t wash away his sins. The blood is the only thing that will do that. But the blood does not wash away the sins until one is “baptized into the death of Christ.” It was in death that Jesus shed His blood (Jn. 19:34). We are “baptized into his death” (Rom. 6:3). That is why baptism is used here in connection with the “washing away of sins.” That is why Saul was not saved until he was baptized. He was until he was baptized, an “UNSAVED BELIEVER.”

Someone says, “Ananias called him ‘brother Saul’ before he was baptized.” He was a brother Jew. Paul later called some of the men in that mob that was trying to kill him “brethren” (Acts 22:1; 23:1). Peter called those unbelieving Jews who had crucified Christ “brethren” (Acts 3:17).

I heard J. Frank Norris say that Saul was saved on the Damascus road when he saw the light. His proof was Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:8, where he spoke of seeing Christ: “Last of all he was seen of me as of one born out of due time.” Mr. Norris referred Paul’s “born out of due time” to the new birth. The idea of being born again “out of due time” is preposterous. That would mean that there are certain seasons when a fellow can’t be saved. Salvation is not seasonal, like dove hunting. Paul was speaking in 1 Cor. 15:8 of his being qualified to be an apostle. In order for one to be an apostle, he had to be a witness of the Lord’s resurrection (Acts 1:22-23). This is; why the Lord appeared to him. Note Acts 26:16: “. . . For I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness . . . .” Paul was not made an apostle when the others became apostles. He had not seen Christ after His resurrection, as had the other apostles. So he referred to his apostleship as being born out of “due time.”

One of the strangest things to me in all my experience with religious people is the way some of them will fly into the face of plain statements of Scripture in order to escape the force of the Bible’s teaching on baptism for the remission of sins. Nearly every religious body practices baptism-or what they call baptism — and in most instances one can’t get into their churches without it. But they seem to think that it is almost sacrilegious to consider it essential to salvation. They say salvation comes before baptism; that baptism is just an outward expression or sign of an inward cleansing; that the blood cleanses, by faith, and then one is baptized to “show forth” to the world that he has been saved. But that AIN’T what the Bible says about it.

The Kind of Faith that Saves

I said earlier that the purpose of this tract is to show the difference between faith that saves and faith that does not save. The Bible teaches that salvation is by faith. Over and over the Lord promised eternal life to the believer. But what kind of believer has eternal life? We have shown already that some “believed on Christ” but were not saved. What is the explanation?

In the Bible, when salvation is said to be by faith, the word “faith” is used in a comprehensive sense. It includes the obedience necessary to express faith. Faith in this sense then includes the action of faith. Abundant proof of this will be given later, but let me say now without fear of successful contradiction, that in this way, and in no other, can the Bible teaching of salvation by faith be understood. As long as men continue trying to explain away the obvious meaning of certain Scriptures, the doctrine of salvation by faith only reduces to utter nonsense certain passages of Scripture. If one is saved by “faith only” then he is saved without repentance, because “faith ONLY” doesn’t mean faith and repentance. Then all those passages that demand repentance are meaningless. In Mk. 16:16, Jesus said,”He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” He joined faith and baptism together with a coordinate conjunction and made them equally related to “shall be saved;” and most any fifth grade student knows this. But the faith only advocates arbitrarily declare that faith is essential but baptism isn’t. They would read the passage this way: “He that believeth shall be saved and then be baptized.” Jesus said, faith-baptism-salvation. Man says, faith-salvation-baptism. In Acts 2:38, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized, everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” We showed earlier that these Jews were believers when they asked the question, “What must we do?” So the advocates of “salvation by faith only” would have to say that the Jews were saved before they asked the question, and before they were told what to do for the remission of sins. If they did not believe on Christ, then Peter gave them the wrong answer. He should have said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” But he didn’t say that. He said, “Repent, and be baptized . . . for the remission of sins.” If these Jews were already saved, they didn’t know it, because “they were pricked in their hearts” by Peter’s sermon and asked “men and brethren, what shall we do?” Do, for what? Well; they didn’t want to know what to do for leprosy. ‘What must we do to be rid of the sin of killing the Son of God?’ If they were saved, Peter didn’t know it, because he told them to “Repent, and be ,baptized . . . for the remission of sins.” If they were saved, the Holy Spirit didn’t know it, because he was guiding Peter to say what he was saying.

Preachers have done about everything to this passage but take the scissors and cut it out of the book. They say that “for the remission of sins” means “because of remission of sins;” that “for” in the passage looks back to remission. They were to be baptized because their sins were already remitted. But the preposition efs, which is translated “for” in this passage, never looks back. It means here “in order to” remission of sins, and all the real scholars admit that. Edgar J. Goodspeed was a Baptist and one of the world’s leading Greek scholars. He was one of the committee that translated the American Standard Revised Version. He translated Acts 2:38 thusly: “Peter said to them, you must repent and every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, in order to have your sins forgiven.” This is in his own translation of the New Testament. Copies are available to show any skeptic. I was told that a Baptist once wrote Mr. Goodspeed and asked him how he, a Baptist, could translate Acts 2:38 that way. His answer was, “I translated Acts 2:38 as a scholar, not as a Baptist. And the reason I translated it that Way is because that is what the -passage says.” Goodspeed was a modernist, but he knew what the text said. Horatio B. Hackett, another Baptist scholar, in his commentary on Acts, said on 2:38, “in order to the forgiveness of sins, we connect naturally with both the preceding verbs. This clause states the motive or object which should induce them to repent and be baptized. It enforces the entire exhortation, not one part to the exclusion of the other” (emphasis mine L.B., The American Commentary on the New Testament, Vol. IV). Hackett used the phrase, “in order to the forgiveness of sins” instead of “for the remission of sins,” and said that he connected it naturally with BOTH PRECEDING VERBS. What verbs? Repent and be baptized. It ill becomes a “top-water” preacher — if I may borrow a phrase-to fly in the face of scholars like Goodspeed and Hackett and say that repentance looks forward to forgiveness and baptism looks back to it. These two verbs are joined together and sustain the same relationship to “for the remission of sins.” They cannot be separated without doing violence to both Scripture and Grammar. Whatever repentance is FOR, baptism is FOR; whichever way repentance LOOKS, baptism LOOKS. And if a fellow were not trying to defend an erroneous theology, he would never think of trying to separate them. Another thing about this “for the remission of sins” is this: one finds the very same language in Matt. 26:28, where Jesus said, “This is my blood of the new testament which is shed for the remission of sins.” If “for the remission of sins” in Acts 2:38 means “because of remission of sins,” then it means the same thing in Matt. 26:28, and one has Jesus saying that He would shed His blood “because of remission of sins”-He shed His blood because the sins of the world were forgiven already. With reference to Goodspeed and Hackett, some may ask, “Why do scholars like that, knowing that this contradicts their doctrine, continue to remain in churches which teach salvation by ‘faith only’?” The only reason I can think of is that they just do not let their theology and their scholarship mix. They likely think that if one is a good fellow, religious and pious, that it matters not whether his theology is in harmony with the Bible-a fatal error according to the Scriptures.

Examples of Faith in Action

I promised earlier to give proof that the faith that saves includes whatever acts of obedience are required to express the faith. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is filled with such examples. Verse 7, “By faith Noah . . . prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.” “By FAITH Noah PREPARED an ark.” He did not simply believe and cause the ark to appear. But he believed and BUILT. And the BUILDING was counted as an element of the faith.

Verse 30, “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been compassed about seven days.” But Joshua 6 shows that the whole army of Israel had to march around the walls for a week, a total of thirteen times, and then priests blew on the ram’s horns, and the people gave a shout before the walls fell. But the Hebrew writer said that the walls fell “BY FAITH.” So the marching, blowing the horns and the shouting were all included in the expression “by faith.” These were acts of obedience required to express their faith. And the walls did not fall until they had DONE these things.

In Gal. 3:26, 27 Paul said, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Notice that he said they are children of God “BY FAITH in Christ Jesus.” But the next verse said they were “BAPTIZED into Christ.” Therefore, their baptism “into Christ” was a part of the faith by which they became children of God, or entered into Christ. Baptism is an act of faith, a constituent part of the faith that saves. When one is baptized, he is still “saved by faith.” I say again, that it is only in this way that the Bible teaching of salvation by faith can be understood. If repentance and baptism are acts of faith by which we are saved, just like marching, blowing horns and shouting were a part of the faith by which the walls of Jericho fell, then we can understand what the Bible means when it says that we are saved BY FAITH, and yet makes repentance and baptism conditions of salvation. But if we are saved by FAITH ONLY, and “without further obedience,” then no man on earth can explain passages like Acts 2:38, Mk. 16:16, and cases of conversion like Saul’s, without perverting and wresting the Word of God, and plain rules of both Greek and English grammar.

Obedience and Works

A lot of people have been taught and have accepted the teaching, that if one must be baptized to be saved, he is saved by works. And they remind us that the Bible says that we are not saved by works. This is a misunderstanding of passages like Eph. 2:8,9 and Titus 3:5. “By grace are ye saved by faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.” Then, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”

Paul was not discussing obedience to the Gospel in these passages. In the Ephesian passage, he was showing that man cannot “earn” salvation. On God’s part it is a matter of “grace,” or unmerited favor. Man was helpless to provide salvation for himself. The provision has to be of God. Everything God has done for us-the gift of Christ-the church-the Gospel-is all summed up in the word “grace”-God’s grace. And no matter how many conditions God sees fit to impose on those who would be saved, salvation is still by grace. On man’s side it is by faith. And as we have shown before, all that we do in obedience to the commands of God is summed up in the word “faith,” because it is our faith in God and in His Son, His Word, and His provisions that moves us to obey Him. This is what is taught in Eph. 2:8. This verse, “By grace are ye saved through faith,” is the epitome of the Scheme of Redemption. It shows both the Divine side and the human side: BY GRACE-God’s part; THROUGH FAITH-man’s part. “Not of works” means one could never do enough works to earn his salvation or to bring God under obligation to save him. If one could, then salvation would be a matter of debt, and not a matter of grace. The works by which we are not saved, are the works that stand over against grace; the works that would nullify grace. One can see, that if we could earn salvation, then we would not need the grace of God, and hence such works would stand opposed to grace. But God does not need our “works of righteousness,”-as Paul expressed it in Titus 3:5. This is what Paul had in mind in Rom. 4:4 “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace but of debt.” In this chapter Paul was showing that justification is not by works of the law. He used Abraham to prove it. He showed that Abraham was justified by faith (his faith counted for righteousness) before he was circumcised and certainly before the law of Moses was given. Then, certainly it was not unreasonable that God would justify the Gentile as well as the Jew, by faith, without the works of the law. The fellow who tries to prove by Rom. 4:4 that baptism is not essential to salvation has missed the whole point in the apostle’s teaching. But this is sometimes done.

If Eph. 2:8 and Tit. 3:5 and Rom. 4:4 mean that baptism can’t have anything to do with salvation because baptism is a work, there are some other passages that don’t make sense. Peter told the house of Cornelius in Acts 10:35 that “In every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him.” Then, before he had finished his sermon, he “commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (10:48). Remember that when the angel told Cornelius to send for Peter he said that when Peter would come “He will tell thee words whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved (Acts 11:13,14). The words that Peter told him included the command to be baptized. If baptism is a work, what kind of work is it? I read in the Bible about the works of the flesh, the works of darkness, the works of the devil, the works of the law, and the works of man’s righteousness — the prophet said man’s righteousness is as filthy rags — but you wouldn’t put baptism in this crowd would you? If baptism is a work, it is a work of God’s righteousness, and Peter said that those who work God’s righteousness are “accepted of him.” Baptism is never called a work. It is an act of faith-saving faith. You may have been told that my brethren in the church of Christ believe that water washes away sins. I repeat that only the blood of Christ washes away sins. But sins are washed away in the blood when we obey God’s command to be baptized, because we are baptized into His death (Rom. 6:3). You may have been told that we teach that one may “work his way into heaven.” I have shown that salvation is not earned. We teach no such thing. God’s grace is our only hope. But God’s grace does not preclude obedience to the Gospel of His Son. This obedience must be of faith.

Finally, may I say that there are many of my brethren who need to realize that they, too, are “unsaved believers.” Faith does not end when we arise from the water of baptism. Neither does the obedience of faith. The second chapter of James should be read often. There are too many of us who like to chide our religious neighbors about their “faith only” religion, when we are not any better off. Our faith stopped working a long time ago, and a faith that doesn’t work is a dead faith, whether it be the faith of the alien or the Christian. And a dead faith won’t save you, my backsliding, unfaithful, indifferent, cold-hearted, brother, any more than the dead faith of the man who refuses to be baptized.

Truth Magazine XXI: 23, pp. 360-363
June 9, 1977