BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES OF UNITY AND FELLOWSHIP
by: Joe R. Price
Doctrine, Grace and Salvation
Some brethren disagree over whether doctrine affects
salvation and whether we should warn others of false doctrine.
Galatians 1:6-9 affirms that we are removed from the grace of Christ when we accept teaching which is different from what the apostles of Christ preached and what was received from them in the first century. This being the case, how much of the apostolic doctrine can one differ with and remain in the grace of Christ: 1%? 5%? 30%? 50%? 80%? 90%? Must a person be in error on every point of doctrine before Gods grace is forfeited in his life? The Holy Spirit teaches us that doctrinal error causes one to fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). Therefore, doctrinal error is sin against God. The hypothesizing, speculating, conjecturing and rationalizing of men will not alter this God-given truth (1 Tim. 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 1:13-14).
How much of Gods will did Nadab and Abihu violate before they died before God? (Lev. 10:1-2) How much error did Uzzah commit before it cost him his life? (1 Chron. 13:9-10) Was straying from one point of truth enough to jeopardize the salvation of Hymenaeus and Philetus? (2 Tim. 2:17-18; cf. 1 Tim. 1:18-20) How much did the rich young ruler lack which prevented him from inheriting eternal life? (....one thing you lack.... - Mk. 10:21)
Grace does not save us from unrepented sin. A view of grace which allows man to rest comfortably in error while rebuking those who contend earnestly for the faith does not please God (Jude 3). Such an approach turns the grace of God into lasciviousness (Jude 4).
In Galatians 3:10, the apostle wrote, For as many as are under the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them. This is not an indictment against exhorting Christians to obey all the commands and truth of God. It is an explanation of what it means to be saved by the works of (the) law, namely, sinless perfection. That is what it takes for a person to be just under a system of law. This fact is not at all at odds with the Christian keeping the commandments of Christ as a dutiful servant, loving his Master Jesus Christ (Lk. 17:10; Jno. 15:14; 2 Jno. 6; Eph. 2:8-10). The grace of God instructs us how to live (Titus 2:11-12). Unless our lives and teachings are in harmony with the word of His grace, we will not stand in Gods grace (Acts 20:24, 32; Rom. 5:1-2).
Saved By Grace, Through Faith
We are most certainly saved by grace, through
faith (Eph. 2:8). The Law of Moses produced a knowledge of sin, but did not possess
a mechanism for the absolute removal of sin (Rom. 3:20; Heb. 10:1-4). Law condemns --
unless one perfectly keeps (never violates) law (Gal. 3:10; Rom. 4:1-2, 4). But, it would
be a mistake for us to conclude that when Jesus brought grace into the world it eliminated
mans responsibility to obey Gods law (Matt. 7:21-23; Heb. 5:8-9). It did not.
Truth is a companion of grace in John 1:17. Both came through Jesus Christ. We do not seek to elevate truth over grace. The Scriptures teach us that grace and truth are companions. To stand in Gods grace we must abide in Gods truth (Jno. 8:31-32). When we forfeit truth we fall from grace (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:4; Titus 2:11-12; 1 Pet. 5:12; Jude 3-4).
Galatians 5:4 affirms that seeking justification by law causes the Christian to be severed from Christ -- to fall from grace. Now, please note in Galatians 5:6 that faith working through love is what gives us strength in Christ. Is there any room for grace within the boundaries of a faith that works? Absolutely, for verse 7 says You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? When the Galatians were obeying the truth they were strong in Christ and in His grace. When they turned to the Law of Moses for justification, they became impotent in Christ, severed from Him and fallen from grace. Likewise, when we obey the truth of the gospel in faith, we abide in the grace of God. When we do not obey His truth, we fall from His grace (Acts 20:32; Titus 2:11-12).
Can one live in disobedience and remain in Gods grace? Can a Christian engage in the works of the flesh and remain in the grace of God (cf. Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 6:1-2)? By no means! If understanding and obeying divine law is not essential to remaining in the grace of God, then what prevents one from walking in the works of the flesh and still entering heaven (Gal. 5:19-21)? But, since we know one cannot commit sin and inherit the kingdom of God without forgiveness, we also conclude that one cannot disobey the word of Christ and remain in the grace of God (Gal. 5:6-7).
Could the Galatians have committed adultery - a work of the flesh - and remained in the grace of God? (Gal. 5:19-21) No, they could not. The point of disagreement among some brethren on this matter is whether the word of Gods grace has adequately defined adultery. Has truth been revealed to us in such a way that we can understand it? For instance, can we know from Scripture what constitutes the sin of adultery so that we can avoid it and stand in the grace of God? The answer to both questions is yes. Some, by their views on grace and the nature of revealed truth, deny it. This is one of the issues currently facing brethren who disagree on marriage, divorce and remarriage. The disagreement is not about demanding salvation by perfection. Although some try to make that the issue, it is not the issue! Nobody among us demands salvation upon that basis (Eph. 2:8-9).
Salvation by Perfection?
The Pharisees and Judaistic teachers thought that
through the Law of Moses they could find eternal life (Jno. 5:39). That would have
required perfect law-keeping -- sinless perfection -- a feat no one can claim (Rom. 3:9,
23). Whenever we first committed sin, we forever eliminated perfect law-keeping from our
By advocating an understanding of and obedience to truth we are not promoting legalism or 'salvation by perfection.' Instead, we are applying the words of Christ when He said, If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (Jno. 8:31-32)
The impossible yoke of which Peter spoke in Acts 15:10-11 was the notion that the law of Moses was a means of salvation. The history of Israel proved otherwise. They were sinners against the law -- not justified by it. All persons, whether Jews or Gentiles, can only be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 15:11).
Living strictly under law, man is found to be a sinner and deserving of death (Rom. 3:20; 6:23). If man could be saved by law-keeping (and remember, sinless perfection is the only way to accomplish that) then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21; 3:10-11).
This principle of truth does not relieve the requirement of Gods grace that commands man to live in careful obedience (Heb. 5:9). Let us now look more closely at Titus 2:11-12:
"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age,..."
One cannot refuse to deny lust and ungodliness and be
saved by Gods grace! When one denies sin and worldly lusts, he is keeping the law of
God, since God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Does this mean one
earns his salvation (salvation by works, that is, perfect law-keeping) when he obeys
Gods command to repent of sin?
NO! We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do (Lk. 17:10).
One must obey the law of Christ or grace will not be received. This is how salvation by grace through faith operates (Eph. 2:8-9). Some brethren are suggesting that by promoting obedience to the commands of Christ we are somehow advocating salvation by perfect law-keeping. This is not true. The question must be asked, Is faith a requirement for one to obtain Gods grace? If so, does this mean that when one has faith that grace is no longer grace? Of course not. Yet, some among us are criticizing obedience as a law of works that does not effect the matter of fellowship and unity of brethren (cf. 2 Jno. 9-11).
How truly discouraging! We must now spend time opposing and exposing Calvinistic doctrine to gospel preachers and other brethren in Christ! Grace is not a license to sin, nor does grace allow fellowship with error (Rom. 6:1-2; cf. Amos 3:3). This is fundamental to the faith (Jude 3-4; Heb. 6:1). However, as one brother recently put it to me,
which way will you have it? Are we saved by grace or by our perfect works? By grace or by perfect knowledge? By grace or by our perfect doctrinal correctness? Right here are your passages that show we can disagree on matters of doctrinal things. In fact, if you want passages, just read the books of Romans and Galatians, along with Eph 2.1-8, Phil 3.1-9, Tit 3.5, etc.
In answer to which way will you have it we affirm that we must have it Gods way without the false definitions and constructions men are passing off as salvation by grace. The Bible teaches there are works of faith without which one will not be saved (Jas. 2:22-24). Faith without works (obedience to the commands of God) is dead (Jas. 2:17, 26). We know nothing of Gods grace except through the teaching of "the word of His grace, which includes the terms and conditions for abiding in His grace -- "the true grace of God in which you stand (Acts 20:32; 1 Pet. 5:12). We are justified by faith when we obey Christ. As a result of our faith, we stand in His grace (Rom. 5:1-2).
Noah was an heir of the righteousness that is according to faith (Heb. 11:7). Did the fact that he had to obey Gods word and build the ark diminish or take away from Gods grace? (Gen. 6:8, 14, 22) Not at all, but only as Noah built the ark as God commanded was he and his family saved. If he had not obeyed God, he and his family would have perished with the sinful world.
Now, if we can understand that simple yet profound example of saving faith and Gods grace, why are some stumbling over ones need to obey Jesus in the matter of marriage, divorce and remarriage? To obey Jesus is not to advocate salvation by perfect works, perfect knowledge or perfect doctrinal correctness. It is to follow the example of Noah and put ones faith in Christ into action. It is a matter of obeying every command given to us by our Savior, just like Noah did (Jno. 14:15; Lk. 17:10). It is obeying the instructions of Gods grace, just like Noah did (Tit. 2:11-12).
One cannot be out of harmony with the apostles doctrine and still stand in the grace of God (Rom. 5:1-2; 2 Jno. 9). If this is not true, then testing the teachings of men against the objective standard of Scriptures has not only become an unnecessary excersise, but also an intrusive, divisive action (1 Jno. 4:1, 6; Matt. 7:15-23; Gal. 1:6-10). Such a conclusion cannot be drawn from the teachings of the word of God.
The True Grace of God
An understanding of Gods grace is vital as we
apply Gods principles of unity. We have no right to extend or offer Gods grace
where He has not done so, or to whom He has not done so. Neither do we have the right to
define His grace in any way other than it is defined in the holy scriptures.
The scriptures teach us that true grace of God includes the commands of God. One such verse reads:
By Silvanus, our faithful brother as I consider him, I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God in which you stand. (1 Peter 5:12)
So, Peter affirms that what he briefly wrote to the saints (the epistle of 1 Peter) was the true grace of God. Therefore, by observing what the apostle wrote in his inspired epistle, we can determine what comprises the true grace of God.
A study of 1 Peter reveals that Gods grace includes obedience in holy living (1 Pet. 1:13-16); abstaining from fleshly lusts (1 Pet. 2:11-12); submitting to civil government (1 Pet. 2:13-17); husbandly and wifely responsibilities (1 Pet. 3:1-7); putting away worldliness (sexual immorality, social drinking, drunkenness, and associated riotous conduct, 1 Pet. 4:1-3); abstinence from idolatry (1 Pet. 4:3); hospitality (1 Pet. 4:9); and the autonomy of local churches and their oversight (1 Pet. 5:1-3). These are but some of the instructions Gods grace teaches us so that we may stand in the true grace of God (Tit. 2:11; 1 Pet. 5:12). We cannot violate the word of His grace and still abide in the true grace of God" (Acts 20:32; 1 Pet. 5:12). Any attempt to extend fellowship and unity beyond the boundaries of revealed truth, and then to justify it on the basis of Gods grace, has failed to properly define the true grace of God. One cannot disobey the commands and instructions of the Lord and yet claim His grace. Furthermore, we are not given Gods approval to have fellowship with those in such a condition (2 John 9-11; Eph. 5:8-11).
When we obey Jesus in faith, we do not establish a righteousness of our own. Noah did not do so when he obeyed and built the ark. Abraham did not do so when he prepared to offer Isaac in obedience to Gods command (Heb. 11:17; Jas. 2:22-24). These men, and many others, obtained Gods grace because in faith they obeyed Gods word.
Now, for an application which is drawing a lot of attention these days, namely, marriage, divorce and remarriage. According to the principles of truth we noted above, the Christian who will not obey Christs teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage has ceased to live by faith, and has thereby forfeited fellowship with Christ and the salvation found in Him (2 Jno. 9). He is not presently standing in the true grace of God. When we move away from obeying and teaching the revealed gospel of Christ, we remove ourselves from the grace of Christ (read Gal. 1:6-9). And, that includes our practice and teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage (remember, Peter wrote about marriage in his discourse on the true grace of God, 1 Pet. 3:1-7). If not, why not? You see, standing in grace does not mean God accepts us in spite of our sin (1 Jno. 2:1-2; 1:9 apply here)! Can we agree to disagree with God and still be saved? No! (cf. Amos 3:3 on the inability of walking together where agreement does not exist.)
We stand in the true grace of God when we obey Gods commands in faith (cf. Acts 20:32; Rom. 5:1-2). This does not mean we are saved by our own righteousness (that would require sinless perfection, Rom. 4:1-5). We are unprofitable servants who have only done their duty before our Master (cf. Lk. 17:10). Like Abraham, we are sinners who are saved by grace through faith. Since we are commanded to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we cannot convince ourselves that regardless of what I know, believe and do, Gods grace will save me (2 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 6:1-2, 14-16; Tit. 2:11-12). Obtaining grace from God does not mean that He will accept us in spite of our sin!
Some brethren, in altering their view and application of
Gods grace, charge that such a view of grace requires perfect knowledge and amounts
to a self-defined righteousness. For instance, one brother wrote,
your kind of righteousness.....says I may have sinned in the past and so I need grace for that, but I am so perfectly knowledgeable now that I dont need it for my present life. Or at the very least it says that while I may need grace in the areas of my actions (i.e., to live up to that which I believe), I don't need any grace in the area of knowledge, for I am perfect in knowledge.
This is a false charge which does not properly define grace. For instance, if I dont need grace in my life, why would Peter command me to grow in grace and in knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18)? The scriptures do not pit knowledge against grace, nor do we when we teach that grace is only obtained through faith - i.e., faithfully obeying God (Jas. 2:21-24; Rom. 4:1-5). The above argument is ineffective because it begs the question. The question is not whether grace and knowledge are opposed to each other, but whether God will overlook sin and error in our lives (teaching and conduct which is in violation of His revealed truth) and save us anyway. This is what the people in Matthew 7:21-23 pleaded for, but it is not what they received.