The last book I wrote was also the shortest I’ve ever written, entitled, “God, Are We Good?” What prompted me to write the book is the awareness that most of my neighbors and extended family members know little Bible. What they think they know has most often not come from their personal study but from what others have said, most of which boils down to personal opinions. Thus, opinions are shared and used as a basis of biblical knowledge, which is a dangerous situation. Jesus is quite clear in Matthew 7:13-14 that most humans are not going to heaven. But how many people are even aware of this passage? Few. Hence, the motivation to write the book. I have given and sent copies to friends, family members and neighbors in the hope that they will read and learn some of the most basic, yet most serious, teachings of the Bible about salvation. Ignorance does not remove responsibility and accountability before God.
As I wrote my little book, I became more aware of a tension I feel in my own historical perspectives about salvation. I believe what Jesus said in passages like Matthew 7 with all my heart. The narrow road is the narrow road, and we will not be on it without a serious commitment to Jesus as Lord of our lives. My convictions about these matters are deep and certain. Yet, in one area, I do have tensions, and I was honest in writing about them. My background in the mainstream Churches of Christ was decidedly doctrinally oriented. Nothing was more important to most of us in this fellowship of churches than getting our doctrines straight and in total alignment with what the Scriptures taught—or what we thought they taught. Since my present family of churches had its origin in the mainstream churches, we too have maintained a significant focus on being doctrinally correct.
The first full length book I wrote in 1995 was “Prepared to Answer,” a book addressing a number of doctrines I believe to be in error. I softened some of the wording in a later second edition, but I was and am still comfortable with what I wrote then. I do believe that doctrine of all types matters and that the determination of which spiritual teachings are true and which are false must be determined by the Bible and not by human opinion. That said, this one area of tension remains—a tension involving the conversion process.
How Do We Get Saved Spiritually?
In “God, Are We Good?”, I have a chapter about how we get saved spiritually in the first place. To me, the biblical pattern is easily discerned and should be virtually impossible to miss. Certain teachings are left somewhat ambiguous in the Bible, but this topic is not one of them. Yet, most of the Christian oriented churches don’t teach the plan of salvation the same way I do and as we as a family of churches do. That is a mystery to me. I just don’t understand why this is the case, and yet it is. The Bible is crystal clear about the necessary commitment to Christ and his way of life. The level of commitment Jesus described in passages like Luke 9:23-26 and Luke 14:25-33 is not negotiable; without it people are lost. Anyone not committed to producing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24) but is rather producing the acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19-21) cannot be saved. These latter verses leave no doubt about the matter. “19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
My tensions enter when I see the biblical commitment being lived out by those whose conversion experience doesn’t line up with the Bible as I understand it. For example, my hospital experience demonstrated that more people than I might imagine are serious about Christ. Erin, one of the sisters in my local church group, had a large banner printed up to encourage me and then took it to a marriage retreat being taught by my old friends, Roger and Marcia Lamb. Many attending signed the banner and most of them wrote short but encouraging notes. Joy brought the banner to my hospital room and taped it in a location so that anyone who entered my room saw it almost immediately.
The Perfect Banner for Sharing
This prompted many conversations and opportunities for me to share my faith. I was surprised and encouraged by the number of medical workers and students who seriously engaged in spiritual discussions with me. The last medical students who came in to interview me as a patient were refreshing. One of them, a young woman, said that she was a part of the campus ministry in the medical school and had just returned from a mission to South Texas. As they were getting ready to leave, she asked if we could pray together. Several others had done the same during my stay. She held both of my hands and led one of the most spiritual prayers I had heard in a long time.
In our short time together, we didn’t discuss doctrinal issues. This wasn’t the time nor the place. I did tell many people about my website, and many of them promised to look it up. Plenty of articles are found on it which cover both doctrinal and practical spiritual issues of all types. The probability is that most of the people whom I encountered in that setting have a different view of the conversion process than I do. What about them? How would God answer them if they asked the question posed by the title of my book? Therein lies my tension, how to view the combination of commitment to Christ and doctrinal accuracy.
One chapter of the book describes my tensions and gives three examples I have heard from three well respected leaders in our family of churches (left unnamed). I’m not the only one feeling those tensions. The next chapter in the book describes the tensions I would feel if I were on the other side of the issue. Knowing what I know and believing what I believe, I simply couldn’t be on the other side. But what of the examples used by those unnamed leaders who believe as I do about conversion? One referred to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 9:6, “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” We have our ways of explaining this context, but my friend asked the question of why we would think Jesus wouldn’t do the same from heaven? His forgiveness of the thief on the cross was about the same as what is called “deathbed forgiveness.” It is obvious from that thief’s comment that he knew enough about Jesus to know that he was innocent. He might have known a lot. Of course, Jesus knew everything about his life and we don’t, but the point is that Jesus can forgive whomever he wants to forgive. Period.
The second example I used from comments made by a leader came from a casual conversation the two of us had. In his profession, most of those in his professional setting were professed Christians, and many of them were serious about their commitment to Christ. My friend said that he felt more in common with many of them than with many of those with whom he attended church on Sundays. The latter ones may have shared his doctrinal beliefs, but their lives didn’t compare favorably to many of those in his professional association. Although a very conservative person doctrinally, he made the statement that he had hope for those whose doctrine regarding salvation differed from his, but he didn’t feel that he could give them hope. In other words, he couldn’t assure them that they were good with God. Yet, he believed that they most likely were. I have quoted him many times, for I feel the same. I will always teach exactly what I believe the Bible says on any matter, but only God is the Judge. He will do what is right and it might not be exactly what we expect.
The third example was offered by a dear friend whose level of Bible knowledge and spirituality are unquestioned. Here is his quote found in my book.
“Just imagine such a person with this type of committed life coming before God in the end and hearing him say, ‘You had a heart for my kingdom. You lived out the Beatitudes. You went the way of the cross. But your theology of baptism was off. So, I’m sorry, you can’t be admitted to heaven.’” My friend could not believe such an interchange would ever happen.
PS – An Unusual Book Ending
Surely you can identify with his conclusion. Although I dedicated a chapter to the tensions I would feel if I were on the other side of the issue, the above quote led me to end my book with a section I termed a “Postscript.” A postscript is something you think of later and add, which is exactly what I did sometime after finishing the book. I will include some pertinent quotes and observations from that postscript.
Broadly speaking, sin is breaking God’s laws in our personal life and in holding and/or teaching erroneous doctrinal beliefs. Life and doctrine are both important, and they may be compared to the wings of an airplane. A plane cannot fly without two wings, and our lives cannot please God without life and doctrine aligned with what he commands. Are both equally important?
But here is my question in closing: is forgiveness of both types of sins (life and doctrine) available in equal measure? We know and teach that God’s grace toward our personal life sins is exceedingly broad. When you consider that through sins of commission, we sin by our words, our actions, our thoughts, our motives; and through sins of omission, by what we leave undone, it is simply overwhelming to contemplate. Yet, we teach and preach that God will forgive us through the blood of Christ for all of it if we claim Jesus as Lord and have strong intentions to please him, with the direction of our lives demonstrating those intentions.
Moving over to the sins of a doctrinal nature, are we now in a different arena, where God’s grace is no longer quite so amazing? We base our hope for heaven not on our performance, but on God’s grace, a grace that shapes our desires to please him and determines the direction of our lives. Thus, his mercy shows itself in our lives as desire and direction rather than as performance and perfection. Will his grace motivating that same desire and direction be sufficient to overcome sins of a theological doctrinal nature? If not, why not?
I closed the book by quoting 1 John 2:1-2 where we are assured that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and then ended with these final comments.
Are those sins of the whole world only life sins and not theological sins? All I can say in closing is that I am a sinner and in need of abundant mercy, and am thus quite content to leave the ultimate judgment to God about who is right with him and who is not. I can do no more and no less than strive with all my heart to follow his teachings with both my life and my doctrine and urge others to do the same. Thankfully, God will take it from there.
When I meet and spend time with spiritually minded people, regardless of their doctrinal beliefs, I feel a real kinship with them. I focus on the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christ follower and rejoice in our shared commitment. If we are able spend enough time together, I will get around to discussing doctrines and doctrinal differences, but I don’t start there and don’t make that my major focus. I also will introduce them to my website and ask them to scan through the article titles, read some of them and communicate with me about that experience. But I am not their Judge and I’m not going to act like I am. I am thankful and encouraged to interact with anyone who loves my Jesus.