Friday, August 7, 2015

Get Me Off This Plane!

It’s August, which means it’s almost back-to-school time. If your house is anything like mine, it’s only a matter of days until you’re sitting at the dining room table, helping your little blessings with highly relevant homework questions like:  If Plane A leaves San Francisco at 8:40 a.m. traveling east at 525 miles per hour, and Plane B leaves Boston at 9:15 a.m. traveling west at 450 miles per hour, which plane will cross the Mississippi River first?

I felt like I got a foretaste of these afternoons last week when I read Jeremy Lallier’s “Sabbath Thoughts” blog. Mr. Lallier is a writer and editor for COGWA’s Life, Hope and Truth endeavor; the Sabbath Thoughts blog is his personal project and has more than 1,500 readers.  

In his July 31, 2015 post, Lallier demonstrates the dangers of grading personal righteousness “on the curve” by contrasting two planes speeding toward to the ground. The passengers of the first plane are oblivious to their fate, while the passengers of the second plane, who have maintained a slightly higher altitude, occasionally glance out the window to mutter at the fools in the first plane, who have no idea where they’re headed. Does it really matter which plane you’re on, he asks, poignantly.

I agree with Lallier’s sentiment (and want to state that I have nothing against him, personally). He's correct that Christians should be striving for more than just being better than their neighbor, better than their co-workers, or better than the guy sitting next to them at church. We are commanded to imitate Christ, to grow into His stature. I don’t disagree with this charge, although I disagree with the COG’s explanation of how and why.  

So what should we do?

Aim higher, Lallier says. Pull up, to put it in aviation terms. Because there is no crown for being “not as bad” as the people around you, he says.

“The crown is for those who push themselves to rise to the high standards of the word of God – for the people who do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Micah 6:8),” Lallier writes.

Wait a minute.

Try even harder? That’s your big plan? You just got done telling us that it’s not good enough just to be better. Now you’re telling us the answer is to be a LOT better? So where is the cutoff point between better-but-not-trying-hard-enough and better-and-trying-hard-enough?  Unless there is no cutoff point, and you’re telling us we have to be perfect. 

So which one is it?

This example demonstrates the flaw in all religions that teach human behavior is a component of salvation. No one can ever tell you how good is good enough. Because there is no such thing as “good enough” when it comes to salvation. Would the Father have accepted Jesus Christ’s sacrifice if He had only pushed Himself to rise to the high standards of the Word of God?

The theological reasoning Lallier uses in his “Sabbath Thoughts” post is more coherent and less blunt than predecessors like Herbert W Armstrong, who founded the Worldwide Church of God, the group from which COGWA, UCG, LCG and other COG groups descended. Armstrong was known for describing his followers as spiritual fetuses and telling them God would abort them if they did not demonstrate enough spiritual growth (see page 45 of the linked booklet if you don't believe me). One positive outcome of Armstrong’s 200-plus failed prophecies is that later COG generations have gone to college instead of hunkering down and waiting for the end. That fruit manifests itself in writing like Lallier’s - material that's less dogmatic and more intelligent. But the underlying Armstrongist implication is the same: if you aren’t good enough, you die in a fireball of jet fuel.

The COGs got part of it right. Humanity is on a doomed plane, spiraling downward because of our sin. But there’s a critical detail they fail to understand: trying harder doesn’t get you off the plane.

Pulling up might keep you off the ground a little longer or help you make more forward progress. You might delay impact for hundreds of miles, figuratively speaking. But as long as your performance is a part of the equation for salvation, you are responsible for keeping the plane aloft.

No, we don’t believe we are saved by our works, you argue. Christ’s sacrifice was necessary to wipe out our past sins. We’re only responsible for preserving that blameless status before God! Listen to yourself! It’s only cognitive dissonance from decades of COG sermons that blinds you from the realization that working not to lose your salvation is just the flip side of the same coin. 

(Ephesians 2:8-9) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Lallier seems to believe that he and other “men and women of action” can be “diligent to present themselves approved to God.” I don’t know. Maybe you guys are just better people than me. I can better relate to Paul in Romans 7:21-25:

I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!

This is Paul talking! Not Sapphira or a newcomer like Simon Magus or Bob the Gentile. This is a man who is the definition of radical life change; who was beaten, shipwrecked and stoned for the cause of Christ. And yet, near the end of his life, he is still warring with his sin. He is despondent. He sees that his track record will get him nowhere. If Paul can’t make it on his spiritual batting average, what chance do I have?

(Romans 4:1-6) What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.

There is only one way to get off the plane. Repent, stop relying on your own goodness and place your full faith in the work Jesus finished on the cross. No matter how hard you try, how high you aim, how high your righteousness batting average rises, it is all filthy rags. The only way to stand approved before God is wrapped in the garments of righteousness, the imputed righteousness that only come through faith in Christ. It will get you a heck of a lot further than that life vest underneath your seat.  

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tragedy Strikes LCG Summer Camp

It is with great sadness that we share reports from several Church of God news sites and individuals regarding the death of teen camp counselor at a Living Church of God summer camp near Delaware, Ohio.

Morgan Montgomery, 19, of Australia, was reportedly killed in a boating accident on Alum Creek Lake at LCG’s Ohio Teen Camp.  We pray for the Montgomery family as well as the campers, staff and others touched by this tragedy.

No one, regardless of religious affiliation, is immune from disaster. We do not use this incident as an opportunity to judge God’s love for Montgomery or to criticize LCG. We hope that the ministry and membership in other Church of God splinters will do the same.

God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways. We pray that He will use this tragedy for His ultimate glory.  

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gary Benjamin RIP

It is with profound sadness and respect that ABD announces the death of Mr. Gary Benjamin of Mount Blanchard, Ohio. Gary died yesterday, Thursday July 22, 2015.

If it weren't for Gary, there would be no xHWA.
You showed me what Ron Weinland really is. You taught me to think for myself. You taught me it was OK to ask questions and to dig deeper. You taught me there was more to faith than what is printed in a booklette from Pasadena.

Gary was fond of witty sayings, like, "Walk slow and drink cold water," or, "On the other hand, she had warts." He loved a good gag.

There are a very few people from the COG days who were so genuine that they retain my respect. Gary was one. He was among the best of them.

Rest In Peace, old man. And Fly to Jesus.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Why Pleas for COG Unity Will Always Fail

This week, a letter titled “An Open Letter to Leaders in the Church of God” started traveling the Internet. The letter’s anonymous author originally posted it on the social media web site Tumblr, but it has made the rounds on other social media sites as well. 

It is an intelligent, well-written letter, and I agree with it, (obviously aside from its doctrinal stance). Generally, the letter laments that the splintered Churches of God share so many core beliefs; yet are divided into scores of competing, conflicting corporate organizations. That leaders from these fractious groups act like they are God’s only true church and disparage those with nearly identical beliefs in other COG groups, often from the pulpit. That such behavior is NOT relegated only to the few “extremist” groups in the community; and that it is unacceptable and displeasing to God. 

I sympathize whole-heartedly with the author and with others who support it. I’ve made pleas like this myself in the past. You see, most of our leaders and older brethren had all the things you guys seem to be seeking – big, active congregations with physical support and meaningful relationships – at the phase of life they needed it. They don’t like the splits, but they’re used to them, and they still have enough folks left that started this journey with them 30-plus years ago to make their church life somewhat meaningful for their remaining years. 

But you, you’re just starting out in life. Years of failed COG prophecy has taught you Jesus might not be coming as quickly as Rod Meredith tells you. You want the things your older brethren had back in WCG – larger, vibrant congregations; social opportunities for you and your children; and lifelong friendships with people upon whom you can rely.  Instead, you are forced to drive at least an hour to to church each week to watch a video sermon with 23 other people. While people you know and love are meeting 20 minutes away. But they're meeting with THAT group of Laodiceans. Or at least that’s how your pastor explains it. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you are shallow or weak in the faith because you want those things. The folks minimizing your needs obviously thought they were important when THEY were in your shoes, because went to great efforts to create them. And don’t forget that The New Testament – especially Ephesians – makes it clear that the Christian life should be lived in a community so that believers can support, encourage and help one another. That 23-member congregation of people you see maybe three times a month qualifies as a community only in the strictest definition of the word. Remote, infrequent contact does little to create and cement the kind of relationships you will need to weather life’s toughest storms. 

So I get it. But I’m sorry to say, it’s not going to happen. And not just because of the egos and pride of your leaders, although the author is correct that it’s the major cause of the splintering. But even if Rod Meredith, Victor Kubik, Jim Franks, Gerald Flurry and the like set aside years of pride and infighting, repented in ashes and started working together next week, it wouldn't be enough. The problem is, the doctrinal foundation upon which the COGs are based can’t help but cause division

On the whole, the COGs teach that salvation is a gift from God, but that we must perform works of obedience in order to maintain our relationship with God.  Failure to obey can jeopardize our salvation, although no minister I know has ever been able to quantify what percentage of obedience I must maintain in order to enter the Kingdom of God. But that a minor point in this discussion. The bigger issue is that if our right standing before God is maintained through works of obedience, then we better make sure we have the correct list of works. 

The author of the Open Letter lists a number of core beliefs and signs of the “true church” – things like the name “Church of God,” keeps the Sabbath, keeps the Holy Days on the “proper days,” has a “correct” understanding of the nature of God and several others. The author then asserts that any church who stays true to these beliefs is a true Church of God. The author describes other beliefs over which some COG groups have separated “non core issues” that are nothing more than “political footballs” used to cover up their own agendas. 

I understand the sentiment. But even defining "core" and "non-core" issues is polarizing. And could be viewed as spiritually reckless by some within the very community the author is trying to unite. If the COG’s teachings on maintaining one’s justification through obedience are correct, then these “non core issues” matter. Then EVERY issue matters. Then all the “non core issues” that vary from church to church must matter, and members are right to take a stand for what they believe God requires of them.  James 2:10 tells us that if we’ve broken one portion, we’re guilty of breaking the whole thing. If we break just one “jot” or “tittle,” then we’re guilty. Slip-ups are one thing. But if every word spoken at Sinai is binding upon us (a considerably larger list than just the ones “God’s true apostle” Herbert W Armstrong cherry-picked) and we regularly ignore New Moons or many other points that most of today’s COGs consider minutia, then we are ignoring the word of God and risk of failing our Christian obligations. Man does not have the authority to parse the Sinai Covenant into manageable, modern bites.   

It’s true that power and pride are at the root of most COG splits. But there are ministers who honestly believe they are condemning their brethren to Gehenna fire when they endorse eating in a restaurant on the Sabbath or celebrating Passover on the “wrong” day. Whatever is not of faith is sin, right? How can they sleep at night if they are leading their brethren astray? They are supposed to be protecting their flock. And this is how the division will persist. If salvation is at stake, there is no room for each to be convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5). There is no such thing as foolish disputes about geneology or striving about the law (Titus 3:9). It all matters.

So the Living Church of God and others will claim that proper church government is a matter of salvation, the United Church of God will disagree, and neither will accept each other as Christians. Those in UCG will eye ministers from the Church of God, a Worldwide Association as the “spiritual wolves” UCG leadership described them, and never trust them enough to be under their authority. COGWA members will both continue to disparage their former UCG pastors and try desperately to contact their children in the Philadelphia Church of God. Who will keep pretending that they and the rest of you don’t exist.  Pride, fear and grace-less legalism will continue to feed the splintering machine. And those scattered in the COG community, increasingly disgusted with what they see, will stay scattered.

Deep down, you know what I'm saying is true.  Or else you wouldn’t be trying to fight it. You can see your future in the COGs, and it isn’t pretty. I understand. I'm not writing these things to mock anyone or to cast stones - I'm reaching out because many of you are my friends and my family. I suffered through these same feelings. My suffering is done now, but yours isn't. Still, it wasn’t so many years ago that I was locked in my own bathroom, praying, so that no one else in my family would see my tears. So that no one would see me doubting and questioning what we had been taught about God since childhood. My prayer was simple: God, lead me where you want me to go, and show me what you want me to see. Over the coming months, He helped me see that there were only three choices when it came to salvation: 

A). God requires you to find which COG group has the correct list of doctrines and then “keep” them to maintain your relationship with Him.

B). God will examine you and find you have met the “good enough,” threshold, wink at any remaining sin or doctrinal misunderstanding in your life, and usher you into His Kingdom.

C). God promises salvation to those who place their faith for salvation in Jesus Christ, not in their own efforts or record of obedience. 

I know it's hard to believe, but C really is what the Bible teaches about how we receive eternal life. It was hard for me to believe, too. In spite of what your COG leaders have taught you, believing C doesn’t mean I am anomian or antinomian. It doesn’t mean that I believe I can live my life any old way I want. It means that I no longer try to live with a foot in each covenant and that I thank God that my salvation depends upon the work and strength of the one who offers it, not the work and the strength of the person who needs it.

Until your leaders accept that they are saved by grace through faith in Jesus and nothing else, nothing additional, they will fight and divide over what needs to be done to attain salvation. Until they properly understand the doctrine of regeneration, they will keep struggling and striving to make sure they are in the Kingdom. And you, your friends, family and brethren can't help but suffer the fallout. 

God knew exactly what He was doing when He established salvation by grace through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It was His perfect solution, and it short-circuits the lamentable, destructive religious environment in which the COGs now find themselves.  The only remaining question is, do your leaders know what they're doing? 

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, June 26, 2015

Is Baptism Required for Salvation?

Baptism. It’s a pretty basic Christian concept. Jesus Himself told His disciples to go into the world and baptize other followers. But is it something we do to receive salvation?

Today we’ll look at another point in the United Church of God’s article, “Is Belief All That’s Required for Salvation?” Just like the first post in this series,the express purpose is not to criticize the United Church of God or other splinters within the Church of God community. Instead, it is our intention to demonstrate how COGs’ teachings on conditional salvation - conditions God requires man to meet in order to be saved - can be used to control, and even to spiritually abuse, its members.

Let’s take a look at the claims UCG makes in its article. They are generally applicable to what most COGs teach about baptism and the laying-on of hands. On the surface, their claims seem harmless enough, but in the wrong hands, it's easy to see how this teaching can lead to spiritual abuse in some COGs.

“Baptism is to be followed by the laying on of hands by a true minister of Jesus Christ, which allows us to receive God’s Holy Spirit and truly belong to Him (Acts 8:17, Romans 8:9). Unless we surrender our lives to God through baptism and the laying on of hands to receive His Spirit as instructed, we fail to meet – whether knowingly or unknowingly- His prerequisites for receiving His gift of salvation.”

How could that lead to abuse? Well, the more mainstream COGs usually recognize your baptism as valid if it was performed in another COG ground. But more conservative groups sometimes insist that your baptism wasn’t any good if it wasn’t done by one of their ministers. Why? Because COG teaching is that a “true minister” must lay hands upon you in order for you to receive the Holy Spirit. If it was one of those false ministers in a Laodicean group, well, you're taking your chances if the physical act of baptism and actual laying-on of hands are conditions.  Do you really want to gamble with your salvation?

Further, they may insist you meet certain conditions before they will even baptize you. Like committing to attend services with only their COG group, no matter what the circumstances. Or pledging not to contact family members from other COG groups, or outside your COG group. Or quitting a job. After all, those fun guys over at the Living Church of God recently disfellowshipped a member over his nursing home job. Basically, baptism can be dangled like a carrot over your head to control any kind of behavior or personal situation that a minister doesn't like. And if you object, they can simply refuse to baptize you and dash any hope of salvation. And the chances good that you will submit to that pressure. After all, is it really worth your eternal life?

Before we go any further, let me be perfectly clear. Jesus commanded his followers to be baptized. I recognize that, I believe it, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do it.  I've beep baptized. Twice, actually. Once in the COGs; once after leaving. So go ahead and get baptized if that's where Jesus is leading you. But understand why you’re doing it and what it really symbolizes. Do it for the right reason, and don’t let anyone use it to control your worship, your personal life and your decisions.

Baptism and Belief

So anyway, we should probably get back to the Bible. The first verse UCG writer Scott Ashley pulls out is Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.” There you have it. Those who believe and are baptized will be saved. Those who do not believe will be condemned.

Wait. What? The second half of the verse say that those who don’t BELIEVE will be condemned. It is not parallel in construction to the first sentence. On its face, Mark 16:16 does not say those who are not baptized will be condemned. Renown theologian John MacArthur, whom the COGs quote regularly, notes that baptism is not a prerequisite according to this scripture. He then expounds further on the topic of baptism in his commentary on Acts 2:38:

“Peter was obeying Christ’s command from Matthew 28:19 and urging the people who repented and turned to the Lord Christ for salvation to identify, through the waters of baptism, with His death, burial and resurrection.” MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1438.

Why? “This is the first time the apostles publicly enjoined people to obey that ceremony. Prior to this, many Jews had experienced the baptism of John the Baptist, and were also familiar with the baptism of Gentile converts to Judaism. For the new believer, it was a crucial but costly identification to accept.” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1439)

Wait. I thought Christians were baptized for the remission of sins, or to have their sins forgiven?

“This might be better translated ‘because of the remission of sins," MacArthur opines. "Baptism does not produce forgiveness and cleansing from sin. The reality of forgiveness precedes the rite of baptism. Genuine repentance brings from God the forgiveness of sins and, because of that, the new believer was to be baptized. Baptism, however, was to be the ever-present act of obedience, so that it became synonymous with salvation.” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1439)

Water certainly is a symbol of washing and cleansing from sin, and in a sense baptism does symbolize washing and purification from sins. More importantly, however, baptism symbolizes our death and resurrection with Christ, as Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:11-12 indicate. It’s true that Titus 3:5 does mention Christian salvation through the washing of regeneration. I invite any COG minister who insists that this passage is about physical baptism to explain to me how he can hold that view yet simultaneously teach that baptized COG members aren’t born again until the resurrection. If he finds a way to wiggle out of that one, he can next explain how making physical baptism part of the salvation equation jives with Ephesians 2:8-9, and how that makes baptism anything other than the church bestowing saving grace upon individuals.

“If baptism and participating in the other sacraments are necessary for salvation because they are necessary for receiving saving grace, then salvation really is based on faith plus works. In contrast to this, the clear New Testament message is that justification is by faith alone. Therefore we must conclude that no work is necessary for salvation. And therefore baptism is not necessary for salvation. ” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 973

Some claim that 1 Peter 3:21 teaches that we are saved through baptism: “And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

As usual, the COG explanation helicopters in on a single verse to make its point rather than consider the verse in context. This passage explains Noah’s Ark as a metaphor for the spiritual safety found in Christ.

“To be sure he is not misunderstood, Peter clearly says he is not speaking of water baptism. In Noah’s Flood, they were kept out of the water while those who went into the water were destroyed. Being in the ark and thus saved from God’s  judgment on the world prefigures being in Christ and thus saved from God’s judgment on the world prefigures being in Christ and thus saved from eternal damnation.” MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1915-1916. 

Why be baptized?

So why exactly do I think you should be baptized if it is not required for salvation or the forgiveness of sin? Because Jesus commanded it, and we should obey the one who died in our place. Because baptism is the outward symbol of the beginning of Christian life. Individuals who have begun the Christian life through regeneration should be baptized, after giving a credible profession of faith. (A proper understanding of the doctrine of regeneration makes this topic much easier to understand.) The Biblical pattern is that only those who have given reasonable evidence of believing and trusting in Christ should be baptized:

(Acts 2:38-41) Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission for sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousands souls were added to them.  It would appear that those who received his message confessed their belief, then were baptized.

(Acts 8:12-13) But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. Simon believed and then was baptized.

(Acts 8:35-38) Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water, what hinders me from being baptized?" Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.

(Acts 16:14-15) Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us. Lydia was baptized after God opened her heart and she responded.

(Acts 16:30-33) And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. You and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Paul instructed the jailer to believe, and once they had professed belief, they were baptized.

We know spiritual giants like Abraham and David received the gift of salvation, but we have no evidence they were ever baptized. Hebrews 11 gives us a long list of others who were saved because of their faith with no mention of baptism. We know for a fact that the thief crucified with Jesus was not baptized, although the COGs would dispute this man received salvation. In Acts 10:44-46, we see Cornelius is saved before he was baptized. Short story long, none of these men received salvation because they were baptized, and neither do you.

The Laying on of Hands

The second part of this equation is the teaching that the Holy Spirit is only imparted when a “true minister of Jesus Christ” lays hands upon you. This clearly gives ministers the potential to claim you weren’t baptized by a true minister, and that you don’t have the Holy Spirit. A minister who was baptized and hands laid upon him by another minister who had the same done to him under the authority of Herbert W Armstrong, founder of the modern Church of God movement, who was baptized by a true minister of Christ... oh, wait....  HWA was baptized by - and must have therefore received the Holy Spirit from - a BAPTIST pastor if his teachings are correct on this point of doctrine. Oops. That’s embarrassing. About as embarrassing as the fact that this false teaching once again makes salvation dependent upon something we do, in violation of Ephesians 2:8-9.

The COGs typically hang this doctrine on Acts 19:1-6 and 2 Timothy 1:6. I’ll look at 2 Timothy first, since it’s shorter. Simply put, UCG likely takes it out of context, according to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Paul, who was Timothy’s mentor, spent much of his correspondence with his protégé instructing him in his pastoral role. Here, Paul was most likely referring to the account of Timothy’s ordination, not imparting the Holy Spirit.

Now let’s look at Acts 19:1-6 and what UCG claims it teaches. During his travels, Paul came into contact with some Ephesian disciples whom had been baptized by John the Baptist but had not received the Holy Spirit.

“Paul came upon some believers in Ephesus who had been baptized by no less than John the Baptist,"  UCG states in its article, Is the laying on of hands necessary to receive the Holy Spirit? "Yet they had not received the Holy Spirit for two reasons. One is that they did not have the laying on of hands. The other was that they apparently did not fully understand the Christian way of life, the covenant into which one enters through baptism."

It's no shock that those baptized by John the Baptist didn’t receive the Holy Spirit. The last time I checked, John the Baptist died long before Jesus did, long before the New Covenant was given. Further, John’s was a baptism of repentance pointing to Christ, not the same thing as Christian baptism.

Paul’s first question – did you receive the Holy Spirit – indicates he understood that true belief and receiving the Holy Spirit always went together. This is likely why he followed up with his second question – what baptism did you undergo? These men probably believed they were true disciples, but likely followed the teachings of John the Baptist, much like Apollos, whom Priscilla and Aquila needed to correct, according to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 

Perhaps the Holy Spirit “came upon” them when Paul laid hands on them as a dramatic demonstration to them  that baptism into the name of Jesus was superior to that of John the Baptist. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit did come when Paul laid hands upon them. But this is not the way it happened every time. Let’s consider Acts 10:44-46, in which believers receive the Holy Spirit before Peter is even done speaking.

(Acts 10:44-46) While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? And then he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

 The Holy Spirit fell on Peter’s listeners while he was still speaking. He did not lay hands upon them. It would these people had believed while Peter was speaking and undergone the internal work of regeneration. Baptism came afterwards. We see another account like this in Acts 11:15-17.
But wait! If the laying-on-of-hands doesn’t impart the Holy Spirit, then why must you be baptized by a "true minister of Christ"?

Ding ding ding! That's right! You DON’T! The Bible does not make any restrictions on who can perform baptisms. Churches usually have their pastor or other ordained representatives perform baptism ceremonies, to safeguard the practice from abuse and to properly explain the symbolism to those witnessing the ceremony (Systematic Theology, p. 984). It is certainly reasonable to do so. But there is no scriptural reason the responsibility couldn’t fall to a mature, unordained believer. Especially in remote areas where no “official” pastor is available.

At the end of the day, baptism is a positive, biblical ordinance.  I was baptized once in the COGs and chose to be baptized a second time after I departed.  Regardless of any wording in the actual ceremony, the major focus of my COG baptismal counseling was my understanding of and commitment to keep "God's" rituals and ordinances as defined by the COGs as an implicit matter of salvation.. And I know many others see it that way, too, because they threw it my face after I left. I say that not as a point of anger, but as a point of fact.

If you feel like God is leading you toward baptism, by all means, do it. But do it for the right reasons. To declare that you are leaving the old man behind, not just Easter and Christmas. To signify that you are placing your faith in the shed blood of Jesus, not in keeping the holy days or the Sabbath. And never, ever let the very ordinance through which you declare yourself a servant of Christ be used to control and enslave you to men.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

Friday, June 5, 2015

Who Requires What For Salvation?

Conditional salvation. The idea sounds so logical. So noble. So right. Obedience in exchange for eternal life sounds good in theory. And Christians truly do owe their lives to Christ. Who would argue it’s acceptable to disobey the God who suffered and died in your place?

Conditional salvation is a core teaching of the Churches of God. It's a badge of honor, one they wave proudly as they mock "so-called Christianity" for placing its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith. Today, and over the next few posts, I'd like to address the topic of conditional salvation as taught by the COGs. Specifically, I'll be addressing the conditions the United Church of God claims God requires for salvation in its May-June 2015 issue of the Good News, in an article titled: “Is Belief All That’s required for God’s Gift of Salvation?”

Why does this false teaching bother me so much? Well, for starters, the Bible has strong warnings for those who pervert the gospel. Adding a works component to salvation definitely qualifies as a false gospel (Ephesians 2:8-9). But that’s more of an issue for those who publish magazines like The Good News, Tomorrow’s World, Discern and The Philadelphia Trumpet; not the average reader.

Here’s why this particular false teaching upsets me - because the COGs sometimes use it to enslave you to themselves instead of to Jesus. Because it allows your spiritual leaders to threaten you with the Lake of Fire when you disagree with them. We don’t run this blog for the awesome dental benefits. We reach out to you because you are our family, our childhood friends, our summer camp counselors, and we care about you.  At the end of the day, if you prefer to abstain from pork, well, hey, we survived just fine without it for decades. And if you decide you feel more comfortable meeting to worship on Saturday, that’s fine, too. What ISN’T fine is your minister making you feel like your salvation is in jeopardy when you object to being spiritually abused.

Do I really believe that UCG is likely to mark someone on a heavy-handed whim? Not really, especially considering they recently moved all their Armstrongist doctrines to the back shelf of their web site. It’s not likely, but it has happened. Still, members of other COG groups have not been so fortunate lately.

Word recently leaked that a Living Church of God minister told a nursing home employee in his congregation to quit his job because elderly people who show signs of dementia are often, in reality, inhabited by demons. If that wasn’t bad enough, LCG is reported to have disfellowshipped the man when he gave his employer the traditional two-weeks notice instead of quitting on the spot. This report comes as the organization has suffered months of power struggles. Last year, the Philadelphia Church of God’s no-contact policy was responsible for a suicide. Not to be left out, the Church of God, a Worldwide Association has indefinitely barred a respected young couple because they challenged its teachings on the Hebrew calendar.

Hear this loud and clear: your pastor has no business telling you that you cannot contact your family. And unless you are a prostitute, a hit-man, an alcoholic working as a bartender; or unless your job requires to act dishonestly, he has no business telling you where you can or can’t work. Accepting the COGs’ false teachings on conditional salvation makes you and your loved ones vulnerable to suffering this kind of spiritual abuse.

How? Well, let’s consider the first point of UCG article, penned by Scott Ashley. Predictably, Ashley produces the classic COG example: a philanthropist who promises to mail a $100 bill to anyone who sends him a self-addressed, stamped envelope. You are not earning it! It’s a gift, he exclaims! Sending in the envelope doesn’t make it any less of a gift. He then compares this process to the gift of salvation.

“The fact is, the Bible shows that God sets certain conditions for receiving salvation. Meeting these conditions will enable us to receive that gift, while disregarding and failing to meet them will disqualify us from receiving it.” (The Good News, May-June 2015, p. 28)

It’s true that there are two things you must do to receive salvation - repent of your sins and place your faith in Jesus, not in your own actions or goodness. If you want to call those conditions, I guess you can. But the process the COGs employ is not equivalent receiving the $100 bill. It’s like being named in a trust – a financial agreement that allows a third party (the trustee) to hold assets on a beneficiary’s behalf. This is fine if the trustee sticks to the contract. But what if he doesn’t? What if he sets up his own hoops and demands you jump through them or be marked?

Wait, Martha. Are you claiming there’s NOTHING else we have to in order to inherit eternal life? What about the 10 Commandments? We have to follow those, at the very least. I mean, Jesus even told us that in Matthew 19:16-17.

"Jesus didn't answer that nothing is required other than believing in God or in Him. He told the young man he must obey the commandments of God to receive the gift of eternal life. How plain!" (The Good News, May-June 2015, p. 28)

Really? Is that what Jesus is saying here, as Ashley claims? Let’s do what he suggests – look at the WHOLE Bible instead of an isolated verse to determine this passage tells us.

(Now, before you disregard me as an antinomian who wants to live any old way I like, let me state I believe that Jesus gave his followers commands to follow. They are not conditions to be met for salvation, but commands that a changed heart should follow, should desire to follow. The 10 Commandments were the cornerstone of the Sinai Covenant, which was intended for Israel and was abrogated at Christ’s death. But I digress).

A rich young man asked Jesus what “good thing” he needed to do to obtain eternal life. In that time, many Jews believed that a specific act of goodness could win them eternal life, according to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary. The man was quite likely asking Jesus what he believed that act might be. But there was no act that would win salvation – Jesus responded that the man needed to keep the commandments if he wanted to attain eternal life. This should come as no surprise.  Since Jesus was not yet crucified, Israel was still under the Sinai Covenant. Under this agreement, one’s righteousness was established by following the tenets of the covenant. (If you haven’t read “Confusing the Covenants” yet, you really should. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.)

Oh good, you’re back. So let’s pick up where we left off. The man asks Jesus what special thing he must do in order to have eternal life. Jesus essentially tells him there is no special thing, he must keep the commandments. Is the man sheepish, because he knows he has fallen short? Nope. He tells Jesus he has obeyed these commandments from his youth.

Now, I’m not trying to pick on this guy. I probably would have given a similar response in the past. And he may truly have lived what most people consider a good life – he probably hadn’t killed or stolen from anyone. He probably generally respected his parents.  But under the terms of the Sinai Covenant, perfect obedience was required. James 2:10 tells us that if we have broken even one part, we are guilty of violating it all.

So did this man really keep the commandments to a degree that he would obtain eternal life? What do the scriptures tell us?

(Romans 3:23) For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

(Psalm 143:2) Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous.

(Isaiah 53:6) All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

(James 2:10) For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point; he is guilty of all.

This man was likely respectable by human standards, but it was foolish for him to assert he had kept the commandments – all the commandments – to a degree that he could be declared righteous. The man’s impulsive reply shows a certain understanding of the law reminiscent of Paul’s description of his pre-conversion condition in Philippians 3:6, according to Expositor’s. This is likely why Jesus demonstrates the man’s “inadequate sense of goodness” earlier in the chapter.  Because, “In the absolute sense of goodness required to gain eternal life, only God is good,” according to Expositor’s.

“Irrespective of what "good" refers to, the man approaches Jesus with a question showing how far he is from the humble faith that, as Jesus has just finished saying, characterizes all who belong to the kingdom” as discussed in the incident with the children in verses 13 through 15, according to Expositor’s.

The gospels give us many examples where Jesus gave spiritual, rhetorical answers to people when people asked questions about rote obedience. Many failed to grasp the spiritual significance of what Jesus was saying because they lacked eyes to see and ears to hear. This is likely one of those occasions, and UCG falls into the same trap in this article.

“Jesus tells this young man, in similar vein, what good things he must do if he is to gain eternal life, precisely because he perceives his questioner has little understanding of such things. But that is still far from telling him that by doing these things he will earn eternal life,” according to Expositor’s.

Theologian John MacArthur expounds further: “Before showing him the way to life, Jesus impresses upon the young man both the high standard required by God and the absolute futility of seeking salvation by his own merit. The young man should have responded as the disciples do in verse 25 and confessed that keeping the law perfectly was impossible, but instead the young man confidently declares that he qualifies for heaven under those terms.” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1160).

Jesus saw that this man was blind to his own sinfulness. So instead he proceeded to demonstrate that the man’s money was an idol that created a stumbling block that kept him from truly following God.

(Matthew 19:21-22) Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Jesus is not setting forth terms for salvation in verses 17 and 19, but exposing the young man’s true heart, MacArthur says.
“His refusal to obey here reveals two things: he is not blameless as far as the law was concerned, because he is guilty of loving himself and his possessions more than his neighbors; and he lacks true faith, which involves a willing to surrender all at Christ’s bidding. Jesus is not teaching salvation by philanthropy, but He is demanding that this young man give Him first place. The young man fails the test. Come, follow Me. This is the answer to the young man’s question in verse 16. It is a call to faith.” (MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1160). 
Ironically, this passage demonstrates the opposite of what UCG would have us believe. Jesus didn’t tell the man to do a better job keeping the commandments, He told him to place his faith in Him rather than his wealth. We know this because a few verses later, in verse 27, Peter asks Jesus “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” What was Christ’s response?

(Matthew 19:28-29) So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on the twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

Jesus doesn’t say that everyone who follows the commandments, or is baptized, or follows cherry-picked portions of the Sinai Covenant to an unspecified degree shall inherit eternal life. He says those who follow Him will inherit eternal life. The Greek word – akoloutheo – indicates someone who moves quickly and follows in a straight line, according to Spiros Zodhiates' Complete Word Study of the New Testament. Someone who cleaved to Him, followed His lead and example. Of course the COGs would argue that His example included following the 10 commandments, and that Jesus was talking about blessings for those who gave up family or property to keep the Sabbath and Holy Days. (The latter of which, noticeably, UCG doesn’t state are necessary for salvation in this article).

Matthew 19:29 begs the question of why those in a Jewish society would have to forsake all to keep observances the Pharisees enforced to the nth degree. Unless, of course, Jesus wasn’t alluding to the Sinai Covenant at all. He is talking to His Jewish disciples, not a band of Sabbath-keepers in U.S. Bible Belt. We must be careful not to shoehorn our modern-day situation into a two-thousand year old conversation. Though God will reward those who suffer lost for Christ today, Jesus was directly addressing Peter.

We also can’t force the 10 Commandments into a New Testament salvation model. They were the cornerstone of the Sinai Covenant, which Galatians chapters 4 and 5 expressly tell us to reject. When we add them, or any other works component to secure our salvation, we risk alienating ourselves from Christ, according to Galatians 5:4. At the very least, we unnecessarily wear a yoke of bondage Christians were never meant to carry (Galatians 5:1) – a yoke that can change at the whim of church leadership.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to obey God. And that responsibility involves living an abundant life that draws others to Christ. Jesus came to free us from a yoke of bondage. When you allow your spiritual leaders to start placing conditions on your salvation, you are allowing them to put the yoke right back on.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good, honest ministers out there in the COGs. I happen to disagree with them on some major points of doctrine, but I know would give you the shirt off their back. And I don't dispute that Hebrews 13:17 clearly tells us to obey and submit to our spiritual leaders. But if we're going to invoke the authority of verse 17, we must also give just as much weight to verse 7 of the same chapter, which tells us to consider the fruits of these same leaders’ lives. We should imitate good spiritual leaders as they imitate Christ, and you can know them by their fruits. But these verses don’t mean you must submit to abuse.

Unfortunately, there are also leaders who live to control. They learned from the best, Herbert W Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God; from which the modern-day COGs are descended. They often feel justified in following his controlling example. Refusing to submit to their spiritual abuse is not the same thing as rejecting biblical authority. It is acceptable to have concerns when church leaders send you membership letters characterizing their internal political enemies as “spiritual wolves”.  It is okay to raise your eyebrows when leaders release confidential personnel files to gain political support, as UCG and COGWA did during their nasty 2010 split. The Bible has strong words for those who divide the brethren as soon-to-be COGWA leaders did when they formented the split via the Internet. It is ok to be concerned when church leaders pressure you to donate even more money by insinuating Jesus will ask you about your level of church contributions at His return. When they advise you to abandon your handicapped child at the mall. (find secondary confirmation here)
When they tell you to cut off contact with your siblings, your parents, your children or your grandchildren because they are not a part of your church. When they tell you to quit your job, and then mark you when you don't jump as high and as quickly as they would like.

Sadly, these cases are not as few and far between as they should be. There are still many in COG church leadership who equate obedience to God with obedience to their personal whims and preferences. The COGs’ skewed understanding of the Sinai Covenant and the book of James allows men like these to threaten you and control you. And if you don’t straighten up, you are in rebellion against the government of God, cut off from your friends and family in this life, and headed to the Lake of Fire in the next. Is it really worth your salvation to question a leader's judgment? Do you really want to take that chance? After all, if obedience is required, who knows how much obedience? How good do you have to be in order to “make it”? At least Muslims put a number of on it – they believe 51 percent of your works must be “good” in order to inherit eternal life. But in COG theology the message often is that you’re probably pretty close to the cutoff, and another mistake could push you over the edge.

Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler that he needed to keep the commandments in order to inherit eternal life. Instead, He demonstrated that even his best actions and intentions were insufficient where salvation is concerned, and encouraged him to place his faith in Him. Don’t make the same mistake as the young man in the story. Stop placing your faith in your own record of obedience. Step fully into the New Covenant and place your full faith in Christ .

No, salvation isn’t conditional on our record of obedience. And boy, should we be thankful for that.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11