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 you 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


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post! All I have felt after leaving the WCG 12 years ago is liberation. With liberation, comes peace and freedom from fear, which was and IS the only way these splinters keep their members.

Byker Bob said...

I really had to laugh about the envelope analogy. Actually, it does not relate to the Armstrong experience so much as it does to the mainstream Christian tradition. Sending in and requesting the prize is the moral equivalent of requesting that Jesus' sacrifice be applied to your sins.

If HWA had been the benefactor dispensing the prize money, we all know how reality would have played out! One would have been required to mail in the request in a #10 envelope made of virgin paper, with security lining, and rounded corners on the flap. One would be required to print out the request from a rich text format, on an hp 920 deskjet printer from the black cartridge in 12 point Arial bold font, all caps. The envelope could only be sealed with a lightly moistened sponge containing demineralized water, and the required stamp would be an eternal first class stamp with the American Flag. This should be taken directly to the primary Post Office in your city or town, and taken to the desk, with the request that it be hand cancelled.

To receive your prize, you would be required to set up an account at a local branch of Chase Bank, and provide all of the proper numbers necessary for electronic transfer of the funds. The prize money, minus pre-deducted tithes and generous offering, would appear in your account within 10 working days of receipt of your request.

That's the way legalism rolls with regard to freebies!


xHWA said...

LOL on the HWA envelope requirements, BB!