By Mark Nitz
I appreciate the opportunity to state what I believe concerning these important matters. This article is not intended to be a point-by-point response to the material by brother Willis. Though he questions my motives and integrity as a Christian, I will not question his. I write this article with a calm, deliberate spirit; simply to set forth clearly what I believe to be the truth. I represent no one but myself, nor have I joined any “movement.” I am simply one man in Christ giving his understanding of these important issues. I realize full well the consequences of my venturing upon such an effort (Jas. 3:1) and, therefore, proceed with great caution, realizing I must one day give an account to our maker for my life and teaching (1 Cor. 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 5:10). Please consider what I say in light of God’s word.
With the wealth of material already written on these subjects by men of more ability than myself, it is doubtful that I can shed new light on these issues. However, I have observed that much of what is written, as is often the case, seems to advocate extreme positions. Some offer assurance and comfort to those yet outside Christ. Some leave the impression that obedience has no part in one’s salvation. Others leave even the Christian who makes a sincere effort to please God at all times, without hope and assurance, uncertain as to his relationship with God. Some seem to advocate that the Christian must discern all the errors of his life and specifically repent and confess them before forgiveness can be had, leaving the child of God (especially the babe in Christ) in a state of despair. I believe the truth lies between these extremes. It involves no compromise of truth, yet gives the joy and peace of mind the Lord intended as one searches for and meticulously practices God’s will.
“Salvation By Grace Through Faith”
I do believe in salvation by grace, through faith, at baptism and for good works – a summary of Ephesians 2:8-10 and Colossians 2:11-13. Through faith in the sacrifice of Christ, God can declare one who is a sinner to be righteous. God does so by forgiving him of his sins (Rom. 4:7-8; Heb. 8:12). I do not believe that the perfect deeds of Christ’s life are imputed to the believer, but that He bore the punishment for our sins, paying the debt that we owed.
Therefore, just as Abraham’s faith was accounted to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5; Gal. 3:6), those who put their trust in Christ may also be counted righteous (Rom. 4:23-25). This eliminates any ground for boasting on man’s part (Rom. 3:27). This means that “eternal life in Christ Jesus” is a “free gift of God,” not wages earned for a job well done (Rom. 6:23).
Faith and Good Works
Who can deny that faith and good works go hand in hand? One who refuses to obey does not believe and, therefore, cannot remain justified (Jas. 2:14-26). However, the good works for which we have been “created in Christ Jesus” are not to be viewed as earning something we do not already have. They are not adding to the price already paid for our redemption – that is, the blood of Christ (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). They are the fruit of faith or what Paul calls “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). One’s faith prompts him to meticulously obey the law of God, not only observing the “weightier matters of the law” but not leaving the other undone (Mt. 23:23-24). Strict observance of law is not legalism. Legalism is making salvation dependent on law and one’s ability to keep it. Legalism is trusting in one’s own performance for salvation. When one begins thinking he is saved because he is right about all questions and issues, his hope is on shaky ground. The “man of faith” who has the “mind of the spirit” strives for perfection, all the while remaining humble, cognizant of his own short comings and, therefore, depending wholly upon the grace of God. He therefore sings with assurance, “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me” and “In my hand no price I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” Men of faith realize that after they have done all they are still “unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do” (Lk. 17:10).
Therefore we conclude that good works are important, yea essential for salvation in Christ (cf. “I by my works will show thee my faith” – Jas. 2:18). Yet, we do not depend on our keeping of them for salvation for we always “fall short of the glory of God,” causing us all the more to trust in the cross of Christ and seek forgiveness through the means He provided.
Repentance And The Christian Walk
After becoming a Christian, “In many things we all stumble” (Jas. 3:2) and “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). Yet we can stand justified through the forgiveness of our sins by continued faith in Christ. This faith will cause one to repent, confess, and pray for forgiveness as Christ commands (Acts 8:22; 1 Jn. 1:9). This repentance does not demand a perfect knowledge of God’s law (else how could I grow – 2 Pet. 3:18) or the perfect ability to discern one’s errors (“Who can discern his errors?” – Psa. 19:12). One should confess specifically the sins he is aware of. However, through lack of perfect knowledge and discernment he will not be able to identify all sin in his life. Can these sins of ignorance be forgiven? Are we hopelessly lost, being incapable of perfection and unable to identify all sin in our life? Can we not say as David, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults” (Psa. 19:12) or as the publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk. 18:13)? The Lord said, “This man went down to his house justified.” I see no reason why the twentieth century Christian cannot pray the same prayer and receive the same forgiveness.
While I believe all sin committed by the child of God leads toward death (separation from God), I do not believe God automatically and immediately cuts off the Christian the moment he sins. Death occurs when sin is “full-grown” – the time of which only God can judge infallibly (Jas. 1:15; Rom. 6:23). There is sin which does not bring death (1 Jn. 5:16-17); that is, sin of which one is willing to repent. The position that some espouse demands that the instant the Christian sins he is “severed from Christ” (Gal. 5:4), “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4), in a state of condemnation (Rom. 8:1), and his name is removed from the “book of life” (Rev..20:15). Some believe that the moment the Christian sins -whether willfully or ignorantly; by commission or omission – he ceases to walk in the light and is, therefore, lost until he recognizes and specifically acknowledges such sin, repents, confesses to God and prays for forgiveness. I believe brother Roy Cogdill stated the truth very clearly in his debate with D.N. Jackson: “It is pertinent to notice that he did not say that we are cut off the instant we commit those sins but that we will be cut off if our attitude is such that we cease to acknowledge our sins and cease to pray to God for forgiveness” (as quoted by Eugene Britnell, The Sower, Vol. 27, No. 1 [January 1982], p. 4).
Some would have us believe that the “man of faith” who has the “mind of the Spirit” and who “presses on” toward perfection, yet sins through ignorance, is in the same condition as the alien sinner. Actually with this position he is in a worse condition for, in keeping with their theory, since he is ignorant of his sin he is unable to specifically confess and repent of it in order to be forgiven. No wonder so many live daily with fear and doubt as to their relationship with God. With this position, assurance (which is promised to the faithful child of God – 1 Jn. 5:13) could only be attained when one reaches the state of perfect knowledge (both of God’s law and one’s own life) – a position some are already teaching.
Of course, the man of faith presses on toward perfection (Phil. 3:12-16), following the example of Christ (1 Pet. 2:21-22). He gives himself whole-heartedly and without reservation to the Lord, earnestly striving to do all He commands. His faith prompts a meticulous study and application of the Scripture to every aspect of the Christian life, but not with the horrifying fear that would accompany the concept of being justified by works. Rather, he has a peace of mind and joy of heart as he studies carefully and open-mindedly, being always penitent and adjusting his life to walk in the light, realizing that the faith that prompts this kind of obedience to God is the basis of forgiveness. Such a one is saved, not because God unjustly overlooks his sins, but because of the forgiveness of those sins through Jesus Christ.
What is the responsibility and condition of one who presses on and yet falls far short of perfection? Is he lost until he reaches the level of knowledge whereby he can identify all sin in his life? Must he have everything figured out before he has any assurance of salvation? To the Christian Paul says, “Only whereunto we have attained, by that same rule let us walk” (Phil. 3:16). The New English Bible translates this, “Only let our conduct be consistent with the level we have already reached.” God does not expect the impossible out of us. He tells us to grow, study and mature, all the while keeping the “mind of the Spirit.” One “walks in the light” by his walking “whereunto he has attained,” thus being conditionally cleansed from all sin by the blood of Christ. If he did not walk according to the level he had reached he would have ceased walking in the light, thus breaking fellowship with God (1 Jn. 1:6-9). This does not minimize points of doctrine. Neither does it lead to doing as did the Pharisees in making some commandments “great” and others “least” and by our distinction emphasize some and disregard or minimize others. Instead, such an understanding should cause one to study and carefully apply completely, for walking by faith demands it.
Fellowship Among Those In Christ
Fellowship (“joint participation”) may be viewed from two standpoints. One may be said to have fellowship with every brother on the face of the earth in receiving the blessing of Christ, having common an acceptable relationship with God. However, in another sense fellowship involves doing things together and in this sense restrictions will come. It is an error to assume that because we may have fellowship with all Christians in the first sense that we unreservedly have fellowship with all Christians in the latter sense. We must refuse to jointly participate with anyone in anything we believe to be wrong. We must never do anything that violates our conscience for to do so constitutes sin (Rom. 14:23). Since membership in a local church involves participation in collective activities, one could only hold membership where the collective activities are things he could do with full assurance they are right.
All truth, even that derived by means of New Testament examples and necessary inferences, must be followed meticulously. Since I believe it is wrong for the church to support human institutions and to sing praises to God with an instrument (1 Jn. 3:4), I could not be a member where either of these practices were engaged in. However, I do not categorically say that all in such churches are going to hell. I am not the lawgiver and judge. It is not my place to decide the eternal destiny of people. My obligation is to be a doer and teacher of the law of Christ, not the judge (Jas. 4:11-12; 1 Cor. 9:21). I will leave that to the only one who can do it infallibly, to the only One Who knows the hidden things and the hearts of men – God Himself. I preach specifically and pointedly that the aforementioned practices are wrong, being without authority. I believe unforgiven sin will cause people to be lost. However, I believe it is possible that some in these churches are asking for and receiving forgiveness of these sins. If one is truly in Christ and is striving to please the Lord in all things (and I recognize that the number in these churches may be diminishing), he receives the same benefits of Christ’s blood as do all Christians.
When one becomes a Christian, he may be involved in many things that need correcting (cf. dressing immodestly, dancing, mixed swimming, smoking, membership in a Masonic lodge, religious observance of Christmas, etc.). I do not necessarily judge that the babe in Christ who has not yet studied the applicable verses is bound for hell. He has the responsibility to study, to grow in knowledge, and to learn, walking “whereunto he has attained.” As he does this he must be penitent toward all sin, including that of which he is unaware. God does not simply overlook his sins but as he walks by faith, penitently asking forgiveness, God promises forgiveness. Of course, this does not apply to those who do not “press on,” those who sin willfully or those who are not studying to permit opportunity to learn. One who has stopped growing or is not walking consistent with the level he has already reached is not the true man of faith and, therefore, has no basis for forgiveness.
Please note that while I do not judge these individuals as going to hell, I do not judge them to be going to heaven. Only God can judge such matters. I am simply saying that I believe all of us are in the category of having imperfect knowledge and, therefore, at times sin, being ignorant of so doing. We are all in the category of Paul, “Delighting in the law of God after the inward man; but seeing a different law in our members, warring against the law of the mind.” We can rejoice with Paul as he says, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25). If confessing the sins we are aware of, coupled with a general repentance of the things we are not aware of (such as in Acts 2:38 and Lk. 18:13) and always keeping a penitent heart (Psa. 51:16-17), will not meet the requirements of repentance, who then can be saved and how?
For the individual, every issue is important. While issues involving the “work and worship of the church” may disrupt fellowship to a greater degree, they are of no more importance than private issues over which a Christian struggles to find the truth. Whether it has to do with membership in a church supporting an institution, singing praises with an instrument, praying with a covering, participating in carnal warfare, smoking, use of the Bible class arrangement, use of individual communion cups, etc., regardless of the issue, the individual must study God’s word and conscientiously apply it to his own life. Walking by faith will not permit him to participate in anything he believes to be wrong. When he sees specific sin in his life, he specifically repents of it. Yet he realizes that there are many other sins he has not yet become aware of and with a penitent heart towards God asks forgiveness toward all.
We must guard against the attitude that would have us cut off all association with all except those who agree with us wholly for we will finally have fellowship with no one. A limited fellowship is possible with many. We should do all possible to keep lines of communication open with brethren. We should cultivate brotherly feelings that will be conducive to opportunities to teach one another where some are undoubtedly wrong. However, we must not gloss over, but rather recognize our differences, and guard against, compromising or minimizing the differences, realizing every point of the teaching of Christ is important.
Concerning Restoration Review And Firm Foundation
I have always been taught that truth is truth regardless of who teaches it. I do not believe we have a “corner” on all truth. I actually read books that have not been published .by the Guardian of Truth Foundation. I have commentaries in my library other than E.M. Zerr published by Cogdill Foundation (this is not to belittle his excellent work; see his outstanding comments on 1 John 1:6-10). When Albert Barnes, the renowned Presbyterian scholar, teaches the truth on some point, I rejoice and accept it, not because he said it, but because the Bible teaches it.
My letter to brother Garrett (an excerpt of which was published) was not intended to identify myself with him, Ketcherside, or any movement they may have started. I realize I could have better expressed myself in portions of it and am sorry for any wrong impressions it has left. I was simply expressing appreciation for some truth they have accurately stated and have helped me to see. I happen to disagree with their ecumenical approach to unity, their “gospel-doctrine” distinction, the implications of the “brother-in-prospect” concept, and the tendency to overlook real differences among brethren. As already stated, I do not accept the Calvinistic view of imputation. I have explained this thoroughly to brother Willis yet he insists that my letter has “identified” me with the “grace-unity movement.”
Concerning my article which appeared in Firm Foundation, having spent much time in researching and writing what I believed to be the truth, I wanted as many people as possible to read it. Am I limited as to whom I may teach? The same article was sent to and printed in “conservative” papers. I would have sent it to the local newspaper or even Christianity Today if I thought they would print it. I will continue, as I am sure is the case with most gospel preachers, teaching the truth through any means available to me. Brethren who read Firm Foundation need to know the truth on faith and works as do “conservative” brethren. Is it not somewhat sectarian or Pharisaical (Lk. 15:1-2) for brother Willis to insist that my teaching be confined to one of “our” papers?
Many faithful brethren have read the article and have found it to express the truth as they have understood it. In any other context I doubt that the article would have attracted such a negative reaction. I am sure that brother Willis means well. However, in his well-intended search for “Neo-Calvinists” he feels he has found the proof of one in my article. Possibly “Calvinism” is in the eye of the beholder.
Brethren, this is but a brief description of what I believe to be the truth one these important questions. I certainly do not claim to have all knowledge and look daily for further enlightenment from God’s word.
Now is not the time for radical and reactionary extremes. The legalistic view of repentance as espoused by some, focusing salvation upon man’s own ability and performance, strikes at the very core of the gospel. On the other hand, some seem to compromise the truth we do have. Love for brethren does not produce compromise. Indifference produces compromise. True love will respect God’s truth and work to another’s good.
Let us keep open minds, teach with longsuffering, reprove, rebuke and exhort. Let us, “Grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” all the while serving with joy and peace of mind, not trusting in human merit but in the grace and mercy of God. “Blessed is the man who trusteth in the Lord and whose hoe the Lord is” (Jer. 17:7).
Guardian of Truth XXVII: 10, pp. 294-296, 305
May 19, 1983