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The “Church of Christ” and What God Requires for Salvation
Concerns about Works Righteousness and Legalism
“I’ve tried my entire life to keep all the rules and was so deadened staring at a mean, vindictive God who handed out more rules for ‘comfort’.” —-a Church of Christ sister in Phoenix
The CC seems to think that other professing Christians are lax in obedience. That may be so. A true saving faith must be a living faith (James 2). There is little room in the Christian faith for “easy-believism” which could be defined as turning one’s back on clearly understood biblical instruction. Certainly, the believer should seek to conform his life to the will of God as best as he understands it. Faith implies faithfulness. The New Testament speaks often of such concepts as the obedience of faith. The protestant reformers put it this way: Salvation is through faith alone, but not through a faith that is alone. So, we stand with you in attempting to overcome the shallow view of easy-believism in Christianity.
Actually, a case can be made that those accepting Church of Christ theology are not doing ENOUGH to satisfy God! How so? Tim Keller in his book The Reason for God explains how a legalist he knows came to understand the problem. He says that a certain young woman began attending his church who grew up in a church that taught that God accepts us only if we are good enough. She said that the new message of the true gospel was scary. When asked why, she responded:
“If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with ‘rights’—I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by sheer grace—then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
What is meant by obedience within the CC seems to be different in the CC than in other parts of Christianity. How about reading this essay by Cecil Hook:(www.freedomsring.org/fic/chap25.html ) and then tell others as specifically as you can exactly what we must do to be saved? (We do not think you can possibly comply with this request.) What are the essentials for a Christian in order to be saved
http://www.freedomsring.org/ftc/chap13.html)? Please consider this essay by Hook. Is Hook correct that God requires different things for different people?
Has obedience been so stressed so that the Church of Christ has crossed the line into legalism and fallen into the trap of the Pharisees? Does the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14) apply as Garrett suggests (www.freedomsring.org/heritage/chap34.html)?
Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15).” What is the context of this command? Isn’t it love? Have you subtly abstracted the law of God from its original context? Is your motivation for keeping Christ’s commandments the law for its own sake and the supposed results that you get from law-keeping? Or is your motivation a deep and abiding love for Jesus! Has your insistence on carefully and mechanically keeping the law robbed the essence of the New Testament of its love, joy, and life (http://www.freedomsring.org/ftc/chap26.html)!
Jesus warned the scribes and Pharisees: Woe to you! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law—justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23). If works are so important, why not emphasize the ones that Jesus emphasized—namely justice and mercy, as well as evangelism (the Great Commandment and the Great Commission)? If you will “know them by their fruit,” why not be known by these things rather than the things the CC is known for such as like a cappella singing, church attendance, separatism, water gospel, etc.? What message do you seek to send to non-Christians? Doesn’t Jesus want us to be known as those who have a radical motivation to mercy and love?
Have you added legislation to God’s law and treated it as if it were from God? If so this is a perilous danger! Have you added regulations that seek to bind the conscience? Have you added prohibitions against card playing, lipstick, dancing, wine, etc. as external tests? Where are such prohibitions in the Bible? Have you moved subtly from Godly morality into moralism? If so, as theologican R. C. Sproul explains, THIS IS A DEADLY VIOLATION OF THE GOSPEL. (Regarding wine in particular, see http://www.freedomsring.org/fts/chap8.html).
The Church of Christ’s view on justification seems confused and contradictory to us. It always seems to end up with obedience as the way one is justified. When we asked a dear CC friend—who is an elder in a Church of Christ—how he knows that he is saved, he responded, “Because I have been pleasing to God.” Can one really be pleasing to God? Is there anyone who is righteous: Mk 10:18, Rom 3:10-11, 1 Jn 1:8-10? Isn’t our justification imputed by the righteousness of Christ rather than from ourselves? As put by C. K. Moser, “If man pleads his own works, he ignores the blood of Christ. Whoever does that will most certainly be ignored by God. No insult could be greater to God than to ignore the gift of ‘His only begotten Son.’ Hence Paul wrote again and again, “Not of works.’ See Eph 2:8-9, Tit 3:5, Rom 4th chapter.” See Moser. If you don’t read any other of Cecil Hook’s essays, please read this one. We believe that he hits the nail on the head on just how we get to heaven:
We cannot help but wonder whether the CC fails to appreciate the depth of our sin. The Bible says that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked (Jer 17:9). It also says that “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (Jas 2:10, Mat 5:48). So, if you believe the Bible, your heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. And assuming that you acknowledge at least some sin, you are guilty of breaking the whole law. Right? Thus, if you are guilty of breaking the whole law, are you really pleasing to God?
In fact, since each one of us is guilty of breaking the whole law, aren’t we therefore guilty under the law and deserving of hell no matter how hard we try to keep the law? How can one possibly say that he is pleasing to God?! What seems most ironic is that in spite of its insistence on New Testament commands, the CC seems to have missed the New Testament purpose of the law—which is to show us our own sin Rom 3:20. If you have, in fact, missed the deeper penetrating spirit of the law rather than the external letter of the law, isn’t it fair to say that God is not pleased?!
There are other examples of how CC theology seems to us to contradict itself. Here is what one CC teacher says: “The church of Christ does not teach salvation by works. We teach salvation by the grace of God, which is given to those whom God says will receive it: specifically, those who humbly submit to his will.” When we asked, doesn’t the Bible make it clear that it is one’s inward character that is important (Titus 1:15), this same person responded: “Yes, and the inward character will result in humble obedience, which God requires in order for one to be saved.”
We reviewed an audio tape of a lesson from the same Church of Christ gentleman. In explaining Ephesians 2:8-9 he said that “Well, this passage must mean that there are some works that do not save,” implying that there are some works that do. But in other contexts this man said, “This of course does not mean that works can earn salvation.” Isn’t there a contradiction in these two apparently different statements? What then is a straight forward answer to how one is saved?
If a Christian can sin so as to lose one’s salvation, just what sin or sins will place him in such danger? Is it possible to know at what point one has committed such a sin and become lost again? Please be specific and give clear Bible references.
To reiterate, the CC view on justification is contradictory. The first law of logic—The Law of Non-Contradiction—says that two distinctly different or opposite things cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. So, how is it reconcilable to say that we are saved by a free gift (Romans 5:15, 5:16, 6:23) from God (grace) and at the same time imply that the gift is not free—that we are saved by our works after all? Your method of interpretation makes the Bible contradict itself at every turn. Grace does not mean grace; a free gift is not free. Man is not hopelessly sinful; but then again he is. Christ is necessary; but then he isnt’t. The law does not save; but yes it does (and only a Church of Christ preacher can interpret all the details of which works save and which ones don’t). This hermeneutic leaves the Bible in hopeless shambles.
Let us ask this question of biblical logic: Is grace necessary for salvation? If you say yes, then does it not follow that NOTHING one can do will be sufficient to save us? Thus, no matter how hard you labor to earn God’s favor, there is still something missing, namely God’s grace? If you say no, how do you deal with the over 100 passages in the New Testament that insists that we are saved by grace?
Is CC theology similar to that of Pelagius, who who in the 4th century taught that man by his own powers, without the imputation of the Holy Ghost, can turn himself to God, believe the Gospel, be obedient from the heart to God’s Law—and thus merit forgiveness of sins and eternal life? Wasn’t this theology declared a heresy even by the Catholic Church—which places a high importance on obedience—because it is contrary to Holy Scripture, being the same works righteousness theology as the Galatian heresy and the Pharasaic heresy?
In fact, doesn’t God despise the idea of works righteousness (Mat 23)?
We may be very wrong, as we often are. But those of us who look at the CC from the outside see such statements regarding justification as inherently contradictory and legalistic. It seems to us that the hermeneutic error that the CC makes is to make biblical statements about justification additive rather than reconciled. So, instead of making conflicting statements about, on the one hand, how we are saved by grace and elsewhere saying that we must be obedient to be saved—a contradictory construction—a better and non-contradictory construction would be to say that we are saved by grace through a type of faith which leads one to conform his life to the will of God. Does the Bible contradict itself? If so, it cannot be the Word of God. The distinction here may be subtle, but crucial.
The Galatian Heresy
“I was trying to convert others to a body of truth or system of doctrine more than to Christ. Often addessing those who already believed in Jesus, I sought to convince them of a code of law which I thought they had failed to recognize and understand. But I was the one who needed more insight. Jesus rebuked me along with others like me in his day: ‘You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they they bear witness of me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.’ John 5:39” —-Cecil Hook, Church of Christ preacher, from his book Free to Change.
J. Gresham Machen explained that, “Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that the keeping of the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected with faith. The difference concerned only the logical…order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God and the best he can, and then (3) is justified.” So, correctly understood, sanctification follows justification as growth follows birth. (From Christian Reconstruction by Gary North and Gary DeMar.)
Here is where we think the Church of Christ misinterprets the Bible. As phrased by North/DeMar, “A Judaizer is someone who believes that salvation is by grace through faith plus keeping the law….But no one is can be saved by keeping the law. This is the Bible’s point when Romans 6:14 says that the Christian is not under the law. This is far different from saying that the Christian is not obligated to obey the law as a standard of righteousness.
Prior to regeneration, a person is unable to keep the law and is condemned for his ‘lawlessness.’ After a person comes to Christ the curse of the law is lifted.” So it seems that the Church of Christ makes the same mistake as the Judaizers!
North/DeMar continue: “This question needs to be answered in a no/yes fashion. No! Christians are not sanctified by the law if one means that the law is added to faith to save someone (the Judaizing heresy). ‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly’ (Galatians 2:21). If there is anything that man can do to merit or retain his salvation, then there is room for boasting. The Bible says that rebellious sinners do not even add faith; it too is a ‘gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8)….’We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law’ (Romans 3:21-28).”
A Church of Christ preacher told us that “We do not need the righteousness of Christ to be saved.” This statement should horrify any Christian. How dare you minimize the finished work of of our Lord?!
CC members have told us that they choose to “emphasize obedience” in faith and practice. Why would one choose to emphasize anything? Do some passages of Scripture have more authority than others? Is the message of the Bible slanted by arbitrarily emphasizing obedience over grace, when there are over 100 passages in the New Testament that emphasize grace or faith or election as the means to salvation? (If you would like to see a comprehensive list, you may email us at email@example.com).
Are we obedient in order to be saved or because we are saved? Doesn’t the Bible teach that people are obedient because God has already saved them (2 Cor 9:8, James 2:26, 1 Jn 2:29, 1 Jn 3:9, 1 Jn 4:7, 1 Jn 5:18)?
Perhaps a more poignant question is—Are you now free (Gal 5:1)? Or do feel like you are in bondage? Is your burden easy or light (www.freedomsring.org/fic/chap25.html )? What does God really require? While liberals think the Christian faith is a country club, does CC doctrine make it seem like a prison?
Is the message of the New Testament simply that one legal system replaced another? Please see these links from those within your own tradition and offer your comment on them: http://www.freedomsring.org/fic/chap3.html, (www.freedomsring.org/heritage/chap22.html ). Are these men possibly correct that legalism is indeed the “fatal error” of CC theology?
The CC seems to make a distinction between the “law of God” and the “law of Christ,” as if there were two law systems operating in the Bible. But isn’t it correct that the Bible teaches that “the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19:7)? And isn’t the law of Christ described as perfect (James 1:25)? What law is then perfect—both the “law of God” and the “law of Christ,” because they are one and the same!
What source does Jesus quote when he declares, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”? Isn’t it Leviticus 19:18? Aren’t all Ten Commandments repeated or alluded to in the New Testament?
Please bear with us on some further thoughts on the Law of Christ. As Cecil Hook points out (http://www.freedomsring.org/fas/chap7.html ), an incorrect interpretation of this turns Jesus into a diabolical creature if we think of him giving us a law and then saving us from our transgressions of that law. It would be like someone pushing you down into a well, then throwing you a rope. Besides making Jesus into a nasty character, this idea is not biblical. John 3:17 says that “God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved by him.” So, whatever Paul means by the law of Christ, it is not meant to be something that condemns us! It must therefore mean that the law of Christ is a phrase that merely emphasizes or gives certainty to what Paul preaches continuously in the New Testament—that we are saved by faith in Jesus. This fact (belief in Jesus for salvation), then, is so certain that it becomes a law, like a law of logic, or a law of physics—something given us by God rather than a set of commands to be obeyed.
Do you think that only those laws that are repeated in the New Testament from the Old Testament are valid? Where is such principle of interpretation found in the Bible? We think that the better method of interpretation is that there are some laws that are cancelled or their importance neutralized in the New Testment (specifically the Jewish ceremonial and civil laws); the rest remain in effect (the moral laws).
Is there any new law in the New Testament, or only new forgiveness and the fulfillment of the shadows of this forgiveness found in the Old Testament? (Here are all the scriptures in the New Testament about a “new covenant” or “new law”: Mt 26:28, Lk 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25, 2 Cor 3:6, Heb 8:8-13, Heb 9:15, Heb 12:24, Gal 6:2, James 2:8-13. Do you notice a theme?)
Cecil Hook in the preceding reference link also suggests that the CC formula HEAR/BELIEVE/REPENT/CONFESS/BE BAPTIZED may be flawed, at least in the order given. Hook points out that the 3 times in Scripture that belief and repentence are coupled together in the Bible, repentance actually precedes belief! How can that be? Read his explanation. Clue: It has to do with the New Testament view of the purpose of the law.
Are we reconciled to God by what we do or by what God did to present us holy in his sight (Col 1:21-22)?
How does the CC respond to those who may accuse them of following the letter-of-the-law and not the spirit-of-the-law? For example, the Bible says we should care for widows and orphans (the letter of the law), and were astounded to hear a CC person tell us that charity should thus be limited to these groups. But Jesus gives the example of caring for the outcast and others who need help (example, the Good Samaritan) and commands us to be merciful (Mat 5:7). Is the CC attitude legalistic in this regard too, adding insult to injury to the Christian faith?
The CC has been known to define legalism as either (a) “putting human tradition above God’s commandments,” or (b) “taking one commandment out of context and twist it to make it contradict another.” Haven’t we already shown that Church of Christ theology in fact is guilty of both definitions?
Is not faith very much alive before good works are performed, and not because of good works? Christians in the historic orthodox faith thus believe that we are saved by grace through faith and strongly agree that a faith without works is dead; that is, a true saving faith will be accompanied by works. Christians also believe that faith before it has a chance to work is a saving faith—for example, the thief on the cross. The CC would have others believe that faith is dead until one rises out of the water. Thus someone on his way to be baptized could not be one whose faith is working by love. Isn’t this view therefore legalistic and contrary to Scripture?
How does one answer the following charge made by Bob Ross in his book Campbellism; It’s Histories and Heresies: “Campbellism is salvation by works because it requires one to obey—in order to be saved—a ‘gospel plan’ that in order requires (a) faith, repentance, good confession, baptism, remission of sins, and the Holy Spirit—thus requires a sacramental ordinance, and (b) requires the assistance of another person [“priest”] and thus the obedience of the one assisting.” Is this construct a tradition of man rather a commandment of God?
Christians throughout the ages have pointed out that Christianity is uniquely different from all other religions and cults because salvation is through faith and not through works. Can you see that the view of salvation through works puts the CC in close company with false religions and cults? While we are not saying the the Church of Christ is a cult, we cannot help pointing out the similarities between the Church of Christ and Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons:
They were founded at about the same time (early 1800’s) in reaction to Reformed theology.
The refusal to read “apostate” literature. (If the Church of Christ reader has refused to read the links we have provided in this article, our point is proven.)
God’s grace through Christ’s finished work on the cross only makes up the small portion left out by my man’s own meritorious works toward salvation. (See Christian Grace vs. Mormon Grace. See also Mormon document Grace vs. Works. Note how craftily this Mormon document quotes the Bible as well as Christian thinkers.)
Their group restored the true faith. (See Mormon document Restoration of the Gospel.)
Their group is the only one saved.
Isn’t salvation not of him who willeth, nor him that runneth, but of God that calleth (Rom 9:11) and of God that showeth mercy (Rom 9:16)? Isn’t believing itself the work that God requires (Jn 6:28, 29, 40)?
Here is a single question that may quicky determine whether the CC is in fact legalistic: If it would bring more people to your church to hear the gospel, would you allow instrumental music?
We suggest reading an article by John Marks Hicks of David Lipscomb University: Legalism.Then, if you are a CC member, would you consider taking this Legalism Questionnaire?
The Relationship of Faith and Works in Justification
We have attempted above to show above that the Church of Christ hermeneutic of of legalistic patternism is flawed. So how should the Bible be interpreted? Because this is so crucial, we repeat. First and foremost the Bible must be interpreted in such a way as not to be contradictory. If the Bible is contradictory, it cannot be God’s word. Let us examine a statement made to us by a Church of Christ preacher regarding justification (how we are saved):
“I completely teach, believe, and agree with this idea: No person who has ever lived, is living, or will live, can in and of himself do something by which he earns, merits, deserves, or is given salvation. Every person, however, who hears and does what God has said to do in the way that God has said to do it will be saved by the grace of God through the blood of Christ.”
Is it not clear that this statement—which is typical of how CC folks state justification—is contradictory? If grace is a free gift (Rom 5:15, 16, 18; Rom 6:23), if it is unmerited favor—then God does not require ANY work in order to be saved. As Paul says in Rom 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
St. Paul clarifies what the Church of Christ is risking in its hermeneutic. He states, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:20).” This is serious. By its legalistic patternism hermeneutic, the Church of Christ is nullifying the grace of God! It is giving too much credit for sinful man and too little credit to God and Christ’s finished work on the cross. As put by C. K. Moser, “If man must still work for salvation we have in Christ an atonement that does not atone!” See Moser.
We fully understand how difficult the concept—that our salvation is completely by Christ’s work and none of our own—is. This is incomprehensible for our Church of Christ brothers and so too for Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Jews, and every other religion. Yet the Bible insists over and over again that we are saved by faith and specifically not by our works (Romans chapters 1-9, Galatians chapters 1-3, Ephesians 2, Titus 3, etc). In fact, we count over 100 instances in the New Testament when it is stated that we are saved by grace rather than works. Yet the Bible commands us to obey! So how do we reconcile faith and works?
We have asked the CC why they keep coming back to James 2 in an attempt to show that salvation is through works, and the answer has been, because others “keep denying what it clearly teaches.” This answer implies that, in spite of insisting elsewhere that we are not saved by works, that in fact the CC really believes after all that we are. Is James contradicting the rest of the Bible? Perhaps we just can’t get it, but it seems clear to us that James himself is teaching that works are merely evidence of a true saving faith—that is, explanatory of the kind of faith that saves us?
In James 2:14 in the Greek there is a modifying adjective in front of “faith” which is left out in the King James translation, but is translated in other versions as “the” or “that” or “such.” So James is asking here, “Can such a faith save? Or, “Can that faith save?” Notice also that James does not deny that faith justifies; he simply says, “and not by faith only.” So James acknowledges that it is indeed faith that justifies. Most theologians down through the ages have insisted that the way to reconcile the biblical message of faith and works is to explain that works describe a true saving faith but do not save unto themselves?
James gives us the clues we need. First of all, James makes it clear how futile it is to think that we can be saved by our works. He insists that even one single sin on our part is equivalent to breaking the entire law (James 2:10)!
Then in verse 14 he asks an explanatory question whether a dead faith can save us? (Can that faith or such a faith save us?) Of course he means, no it cannot. Then in verse 18 he says that a living saving faith is shown by our works. So James is not saying that we are saved by works, rather our obedience is evidence of a legitimate faith.
So, there is, then, a simple way to reconcile faith and works in a way that is faithful to Scripture without making Scripture contradict itself. We are saved by a living faith—that is, one which expresses itself in obedience. Note that this is very different from saying that we are saved by faith plus works or any such construction. We are saved by grace through faith, not of works can we boast.
So what about the term obey the gospel (Rom 10:16; 2 Thes 1:8; 2 Pet 4:17)? The word for obey (Greek hupakouo) is defined in Strong’s Concordance as “to hear under (as a subordinate), i.e. to listen attentively; by impl. to heed or conform to a command or authority—hearken, be obedient to, obey” (emphasis ours). Paul is saying in the 3 instances, something like a parent would warn a wayward child, “Now listen up, buster, and listen up good! I am telling you the truth.” There is an implied result of the listening, but that is not what is being said.
This concept of “obeying the gospel” is similar to the concept of believing in Jesus. The English word translated in is the Greek word eis. This word is more correctly translated into. So John 3:16 would be correctly translated “whoever believes into Jesus will not perish but have eternal life.” But English does not have an idiom to believe into. So it is translated believe in Jesus. But it carries an implication that when you believe in Jesus you will not have mere intellectual assent, but you will put your trust in him.
So the English translation gives too little weight to the actual meaning of the word eis, but overstates the meaning of hupakouo. For both words obedience is the implied outcome for whoever believes in Jesus and the good news of the gospel, but it is not the first or primary meaning.
Obedience is the result of our hearing and believing. Thus the implication of these statements in the Bible is that we are to hear (listen attentively) and believe in Jesus so deeply that we will surrender our lives to him. Many Christians have a shallow view of what it means to believe. But this still does not mean that we are saved by our works. Obedience does not save us. We are saved by God’s free gift through the means of a living faith.
C. K. Moser gives several biblical examples of how it is faith that saves, regardless of whether or not that faith is expressed in some sort of action. He cites the stories of Jesus healing the blind in John 9 and Matthew 9. In one case, the blind man did something—washed in the pool of Siloam. In the other case, nothing was done done other than what Jesus did. Moser asks, “Were these blind men cured upon different principles? In both cases the blind received sight upon the principle of faith in Christ. In one case faith expressed by overt acts, in the other case it was not. After all it is faith that the Lord wants….Faith expressed remains faith.” (See Moser.)
What about repentance—isn’t that a work? First of all, we concur that without repentance the sinner cannot be saved. Moser continues, “But salvation is by faith. Repentance, then, must in some way relate to faith. And it must relate to faith in such a way as not to oppose it.” We argue that repentance is merely the flip side of faith. If you turn to Jesus you will by definition turn from your life of sin and selfishness. You will automatically repudiate your fleshly nature. This is the deep meaning of repentance. So, repentance is technically not a work per se. It is part of surrendering to Jesus that occurs at the point of a living faith. After we are saved by faith, we begin to show outward confirming acts such as confession and good works because of our gratitude for what God has done for us. Confession is faith expressed in words (Romans 10:9). Again, it is the faith that saves, not any expression of it.
What about baptism? Isn’t it a work? Just as repentance is technically not a “work” of man, baptism is technically, according to Titus 3:4-7, not a work of man either! Baptism is a work of God! This leads us into the next section. But before that, one last word. If we are wrong in this, our error is putting too high a view on God and his work (and too low a view on our own work). If the Church of Christ is wrong on justification, your error is putting too low a view on Jesus (and too high a view on man’s work)!
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