A FEW 'TOUGH' PASSAGES
“Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Col. 2:8.
Natural man's tendency is to explore, evaluate and interpret his world through vain, intellectual curiosity. He calls this 'research'. Now admittedly, sticking with any concept until the natural laws are unraveled and understood can lead to personal satisfaction and perhaps improve creature-comforts for mankind. But such endeavors never reach the glorious level. Even Christians sometimes use this same approach in Bible study. Understanding which comes this way reaches about the same level of awareness as the natural man's efforts. It remains mainly mental, certainly less than sublime. But how does deeper, spiritual learning occur?
Faith that is really operational in someone might be likened to the way tuning forks are tested. When a new tuning fork is brought within close range of a ringing laboratory-standard of the same design and frequency, the new one will start ringing too. And if it was made right, it will sound just like the original. You could say that the forks 'bear witness' with one another. Spiritually-sensitive Christians hear the Holy Spirit this way. (This also applies to the interactions between kindred spirits of all Christians when God is working in them.) When preachers and teachers proclaim the truth, the Holy Spirit takes it and bears witness with the hearer and thereby confirms the instruction.
Like that tuning fork which rings when it hears its laboratory standard, true understanding of the Bible comes through spiritual discernment of the mind of God through the Holy Spirit. It occurs when the Holy Spirit explains the true meaning of a Biblical passage to a sincere, yielded, God-seeking, Christian believer. It is a supernatural phenomenon called revelation knowledge. And it is glorious! It comes from knowing and abiding in Christ.
Now most Christians (even cultists) would likely agree with the above statement, all believing it is the Holy Spirit who is helping them arrive at their conclusions. But in 1 John 4:1, we are told to "test the spirits whether they are of God...". It's entirely possible for one to hear a spirit which is not the Spirit of God. Because of the presence of so many deviant doctrines and philosophies, it must be concluded that somebody is listening to lying spirits.
In fact, some denominations and certain cults have been established because of the different ways their founders interpreted the particular scriptures to be covered in this chapter. I too will admit sometimes wondering why God inspired these passages to be written the way they were. But, following patient, careful and prayerful study guidelines of these seemingly-vague and sometimes tough-to-grasp passages, will show that God's purpose here is really designed to reveal rather than hide His Wisdom to those who seek to know the truth. Remember, Jesus often masked truth in symbolic parables in order to separate His real followers from those who weren't.
Now let's look at a few of these scriptures which are designed to bind us, not blind us.
"AS BY FIRE"
"For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble — every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built upon it, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire."
1 Cor. 3:11-15.
We have learned that while soteria begins with the new birth, God does not desire that it stop there. In the on-going process, one's very life becomes the primary witness of the indwelling Christ. What one believes, says and does establishes the real testimony of a Christian. His message may be strong and deep or it may be weak and shallow. The apostle Paul had this in mind in the above passage. (Read it again.) Let me highlight a few of the truths found here.
Paul's reference in verse 11 to the "foundation" of our faith speaks of Christ. As we follow Him, our life-witness directs others to the kingdom of God. In this way, we are building on the solid bedrock which Jesus and the apostles laid down. If another becomes saved by our testimony, that would certainly be considered a worthy contribution. But Paul goes further than the new birth, as he lists and ranks other qualities of what believers put on the foundation. He varied the order of the building material from "gold" on one end to "stubble" on the other.
One could correctly say that “just being a saved person would be gold". But Paul is also speaking with respect to the spiritual quality that will exist in our life as well as in the lives of those we have something to do with leading to Christ. This brings into focus the whole Christian faith, some of which has been discussed throughout this book. I believe Paul is referring to everything that should follow the new birth: i.e., both personal righteousness and how we nurture our 'sons' and 'daughters' (new converts) onward into the deeper things of God. Now here is where the rewards due to fuller commitments come into play (i.e., benefits that arise from total surrender, obedience, discipleship, etc., i.e., lordship principles).
So, the key to understanding this passage is to realize it is talking about the thoroughness of a believer's construction work, both in his own personal life and in the lives of others. One's dedication and commitment to obey the Lord Jesus Christ is being tested in terms of what happens in the lives of those with whom we are involved. Thus the implicit questions: "Is our testimony full of truth?" and, "Are we intently pouring ourselves into those we have placed on the foundation?" The qualitative aspect of our disciple's life (including our own life), i.e., whether they become "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble", will partly be determined by the faithfulness and accuracy of our input into their lives.
Thus, we can see that it is an awesome responsibility to live the Christian way of life (as designed by God) to the fullest extent possible.
PRACTICAL APPLICATION OF GOOD SOWING
One can only reap what is sown in his heart and mind. This profound truth is taught throughout Scripture. And I believe the Church is often very weak in this area. We should be more active with what is sown than what is generally practiced. Christian friend, to prove my point and in case you have never done it, just take a new believer under your wing, disciple him on a regular basis for one year, then watch his future growth. You'll be amazed at the difference in your friend's life as compared to others who have not been loved and disciplined in this manner. If your disciple sticks with it, you may take him from a low level of "stubble" to a high level of "gold". This is the way reproducers (disciples) are made. God's plan of on-going salvation today is one of transference, just as it was in the days of Jesus, Paul and the other early-Church builders.
SOUL BURNING (the literal application in this life)
Another aspect here is that wood, hay and stubble are all burnable items. What else is Paul suggesting? Do these items perhaps represent the false faiths (cults, pseudo-christians, etc.)? Or do they picture certain areas in Christian lives which don't conform to God's holy standards? Or is it possibly both? I tend to think the latter.
"Wood, hay and stubble" can apply to those given an unsaving message. Here, the "burning" would picture hell as their final destiny. Also, "wood, hay and stubble" can refer to Christian impurity in our daily walk. In this case, the burning would be indicative of God's intervention in our present life to remove the dross from our lives in order to make us better witnesses for Him in the future. I suspect many Christians can testify based on experience that God indeed sometimes does this. (We will shortly cover other scriptures which parallel this principle.)
SOUL BURNING (the prophetic side)
However, perhaps even more importantly, we must also look at the prophetic side of the coin relative to this scripture passage. In this case, the "burning" pictures what will happen in the future. When one appears at the Judgment Seat of Christ at the end of the age, if one's treasures he has laid on the foundation of his faith in Christ (i.e., the accumulation of his soul life) is nothing more than "wood, hay and stubble", the new man will see it burn right before his eyes prior to entering God's Kingdom. Whereas, if he has placed "gold, silver and precious stones" (i.e., high quality Christian works), he will see that which he has built thereon remain, and likely expanded.
I believe Christians will have the privilege of taking that which will have been approved of by Jesus into the Kingdom of God during the Millennium when Jesus reigns as Lord and King of planet earth. The Bible says that those Jesus takes with Him into His Kingdom shall reign with Him. And I believe the position one holds in the Kingdom will partly be determined by the quality of the workmanship of one's own works in this age, done, of course, in the power and direction of the Holy Spirit. (As we go through this part of chapter 6, it would be helpful to go back and read several times the passage in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 on which the commentary is based.)
Regardless of the full meaning of the various 'building blocks', verse 14 makes very clear that there will be rewards given for faithful, Christian service. Note it: "If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward." This reward addresses a God-given compensation for Christian work after a person is saved, which will be determined at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Rewards are based on works.
HOW POOR CAN A CHRISTIAN'S SERVICE BE AND YET HE HIMSELF BE SAVED?
Now we come to one of the main reasons I have included this scripture passage. As I understand it, the main emphasis of lordship theology is the position that one must make a pledge of allegiance to be obedient (before being saved) and that his life (after being saved) must show fruitful evidence of his statement of faith in Christ before he/she can have assurance of salvation.
Clearly, this passage of Scripture doesn't teach that good works are guaranteed nor that good works will automatically flow from a Christian believer.
Verse 15 says of a Christian worker:
"If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."
What can we conclude from this verse?
1. The person must be a believer. It plainly says "...he himself shall be saved...".
2. But, we must also conclude that it's possible for a Christian to lead a fruitless life. Notice: "If a man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss..."
The man's Christian service has been less than what it should and could have been. Now whatever the "wood, hay and stubble" may exactly and totally mean, it certainly signifies poor quality workmanship on the part of the laborer. Such a person is not a faithful Christian and he will be held accountable. He is like the man with one talent who hid his gift (Matt. 25:25), and thus loses his reward. The reward he misses out on will likely have to do with the position of what he might have had in the Lord's coming Kingdom, but he will go to heaven when he dies; it says so right in the passage!
Dear reader, never forget the plain scriptural facts (not opinions) found here in 1 Corinthians 3 when considering the lordship or any other theology. Please read through this section again very carefully. There is not room here for speculation. These scriptures alone are very explicit about key concepts which relate to the saving and holding power of an omnipotent God.
"THORNS AND BRIARS"
Another 'tough' passage, but one which exactly parallels the one above, is found in Hebrews 6.
"But that which beareth thorns and briers (i.e., the earth of verse 7) is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned."
This verse is speaking about Christians who continued to live as they did before spirit salvation. Such people are carnal Christians. The "thorns and briers" refers to poor fruits coming out of them. This represents the negative impact carnal living has on one personally, as well as upon his/her circle of acquaintances [which would likely include both unsaved and saved individuals].
Christian carnality is like an explosion of TNT. It sends out destructive forces indiscriminately against everything in sight, believers and unbelievers alike.
This passage serves as a sobering reminder to believers, that all "thorns and briers" will be destroyed by being "rejected,...whose end is to be burned". For the carnal Christian, this means loss here in this world, plus loss in terms of rewards to be received at the Judgment Seat of Christ. But for the unsaved, it means everlasting burning in hell! Oh, if only we Christians could see more clearly into the spiritual realm just how devastating it is for believers to live unrighteously.
The point the author is making to the backslidden Jews can be summarized like this: "I acknowledge and speak to you as Christians. But by your activities I can't tell any difference between you and the unsaved! You people look just like 'thorns and briers'. Don't you know that the fire (hell) awaits those who refuse God's gift? God forbid that your behavior would continue to look like theirs!"
To support that this is a correct understanding, note what the author says in the very next verse:
"But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak". Heb. 6:9.
The word "beloved" indicates that the author is speaking to Christians. Although it may sound like the writer is severely admonishing them, and he is, at the same time he is actually encouraging them to consider better performance by reminding them of their positional status, as he says, "...we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation...". His meaning is clear: they were already born again. That is, their spirit salvation was already a fact. Therefore, they should stop behaving like the unsaved (i.e., the thorns and briars).
Notice the little word "nigh" here. Was the author saying they might possibly be cursed, i.e., sent to hell? No, he used the term “nigh” relative to believers in the sense that they were living much like those who would be cursed!
You see, even though it is an awful thing to realize, nevertheless, some Christian believers live so much like the unsaved you can hardly tell them apart. Their lives are very similar (nigh) in outward appearance.
The non-assurance people try to use this passage to build their case that one can become unsaved. But when the wording is carefully deciphered, we see just the opposite is being taught. Like I said, 'tough passages'. God included this instruction to stir up wavering believers. Actually, the overall text [correctly understood] further substantiates the doctrine of eternal security.
“Resting” in Christ is the key thrust of the whole book of Hebrews. The author's continual emphasis, through both straight-forward statements and by implication, is that Christians can rest in the knowledge that, once saved, they will forever remain in the arms of Jesus. (Read Hebrews chapter 4.)
Although I admit some passages are difficult to fully grasp, when each phrase is carefully analyzed and balanced with the surrounding passages, along with all Scripture, the only conclusion that can be reached is that a Christian is forever saved. I'm convinced the problem in those who reach contrary viewpoints do so because they already have serious doubts about the sufficiency of the shed blood of Jesus Christ for the remission of sin. Regrettably, the bottom line is that they approach the passage having already made up their minds not to accept the completeness of Christ's propitiatory work, thus rejecting the central essence of the true Gospel!
So, we find another passage here in Hebrews which again confirms that a believer who sincerely trusts in Christ for his salvation will be saved, regardless (perish the thought) of his performance thereafter. Any negative emphasis found in this epistle against believers is never indicative that they can lose their hope of eternal destiny, only that there will be severe consequences resulting from disobedience. Again, distinguishing the difference between spirit and soul salvation provides the solution of understanding what is being taught here.
Learning who we are in Christ, plus realizing just how incredibly solid is our foundation based on a trusting faith, ought to stimulate you and I to far greater activity in the here and now than does the fully-understood-prior-to-salvation, lordship faith. Recognition and application of Christ's deserved Lordship will come about and reach far greater potential in the life of one who rests in the all-encompassing work of Jesus Christ, than will be the case of those who prefer to think about what they must do or give up before believing and accepting Jesus, and forever afterwards always wondering if they did this to sufficient standards.
The cost of Jesus' sacrifice is unfathomable. But a sinner's sacrifice is simply a broken heart. First, a person must understand he is a sinner; second, accept the fact that Christ paid the penalty for it. The sum of these two facts, plus genuinely believing it, is the proof of spirit salvation. Meditation on this truth is better than focusing on whether willingness to be an obedient servant was satisfactory prior to the new birth.
It may sound to the reader like I'm saying almost the same thing as the lordship folks. But the crux of the controversy leads to two, quite-different conclusions. The differences concern both truth and motivation.
(1) The truth aspect is whether or not God's saving grace is manifested in the lives of those who simply trust in Jesus Christ's sacrificial death in the believer's behalf + no other commitments. I believe it does.
(2) And as to motivation, ask yourself which is better:
(a) having trusted Christ through simple faith placed in Him when you first believed? or...
(b) trusting in whether you were sufficiently-surrendered in your willingness to weigh the sacrifices that you must lay down, plus counting all the other costs of becoming a disciple of Christ?
I have chosen to believe (a). In my opinion, those who adhere to (b) are in serious danger of being legalistic, regardless of how violently they may deny or recoil at this suggestion. I'm persuaded that those who believe that GOD'S-WORK combined with BELIEVER'S-FAITH constitutes initial salvation will eventually become more obedient, more sincere, more loving, and better disciples of Christ, than those who begin with the lordship gospel.
Both these conclusions will motivate the believer. But, the (a) position prompts us to regard Christ as we walk. While the (b) position prompts self-examination as we walk. Tell me, who do you think is the better focus to strengthen your confidence? You or Jesus Christ?
SIN UNTO DEATH
"If any man see his brother sinning a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it." 1 John 5:16.
How far can a Christian drift back into sin and still maintain his eternal security? This verse will help answer the question. (In typical apostolic manner, John makes sure we understand he is referring to a saved sinner by using the word “brother”.)
Pictured here is God's faithfulness to answer prayers of faithful sons when they pray for disobedient Christians. But, if the brother’s sin is of such severity that it is "unto death", we are not to ask "life" for him. Now, what does it mean to ask life for a person? It simply means to ask the Lord to bless someone — i.e., to heal a sickness, to correct a problem they are experiencing, etc. These are prayers of supplication. When God answers such prayers from saints whose lives are right before Him in a positive manner, He is providing life for the individual.
But, in some cases, God turns a believer over to Satan to "destroy his flesh". Surely the purpose of this is to urge the wavering “brother” back where he belongs, to a life of holiness, which basically means exercising correct belief. Applied right-thinking (i.e., truth) is what sets us free. (See John 8:32.)
All sin is repulsive to God. But some sins are more detrimental as to how they affect others and ourselves. In such cases, God sometimes finds it necessary to allow devastating things to come upon them. Our prayers for such an individual should be that God will continue the process of bringing the wandering person to repentance, not remove the consequential afflictions we see He has allowed. Christians are not to "ask life" for this brother. When sin is of this magnitude, we are to interpret it as does John, "a sin leading to death". (Remember, we are talking about someone who refuses to hear the truth and who will not stop the sin he knows very well to be in violation of God's Word. Willful sin leads to death.)
"DELIVER SUCH A ONE TO SATAN"
I believe the apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 5 of the same kind of situation that John is referring to. Here, a believer was committing adultery with his father's wife (probably a step-mother). Of him, Paul says:
"In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." 1 Cor. 5:4&5.
I believe John and Paul's instructions in 1 John 5 and 1 Corinthians 5 are parallel and mutually-supportive situations. The question arises, "But who in the Church decides about these grosser sins?" This requires spiritual discernment, a gift all-too-often missing in many Christian circles today. Nevertheless, both apostles imply that Christians ought to know about such behavior. [Actually, the Bible is very clear on abominable, sinful practices. Paul and John obviously did not hesitate to make distinctions about such matters. We need to do likewise.]
Please keep in mind that this has nothing to do with the brother’s eternal destiny (i.e., spirit salvation). "Sin unto death" concerns the here-and-now (soul salvation). John and Paul agree that Satan sometimes gets the opportunity to punish believers who deliberately continue their rebellion against God, even to the extent of taking the person's life if he doesn't repent. (I think that I may have seen this at least twice. Both were ministers.)
Of course, any willful act of disobedience has a disrupting effect on our walk with God. But God is not the author of confusion. He has made very plain that certain sins represent worse "leaven" than others. For sure, we must always let backslidden saints know our love awaits their return; but we must also make clear the seriousness of their practices. The bottom-line reason the Church cannot allow those who commit "sins unto death" to remain in the midst of the brethren, is because of the contaminating effect such behavior has on others.
We must remember that even though the total sin issue was effectively dealt with by Jesus Christ at Calvary, God has seen fit to allow the forces of Satan, the world, the flesh and sin to continue their influences throughout this age. The proper exercise of faith is 'sufficient' to overcome all of these enemies. While here, the Church must deal with sin as the deadly poison it is, which is precisely what both apostles, Paul and John, present us with here.
Turning one over to Satan for destruction of the flesh is a drastic measure of God's chastisement, but in the final analysis must be viewed as an act of His mercy, obviously designed to lead the disobedient one to repentance. As Paul stated — “ that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”.
THE UNPARDONABLE SIN
We need to understand that John's comments in 1 John 5:16 does not refer to the 'unpardonable sin'. The only sin God doesn't forgive is rejection of God's free gift of salvation. In a sentence, to reject Jesus Christ is the unpardonable sin. But this does need further explanation:
The Bible says that God sent the Holy Spirit to act in Jesus' behalf. (See John 16:13.) In our age, the Holy Spirit has the unique responsibility of leading sinners to Christ. Concerning salvation, His main functions are to convict the unsaved of (1) their sin, (2) of righteousness (in Christ) and (3) of coming judgment. (See John 16:8.) It is in this 3-step manner God has seen fit to demonstrate His ultimate act of love towards lost mankind. This is God's design on how to deliver sinners of their inherited, natural sin-bent and from their sinful ways. When one hears God's truth being proclaimed, the Holy Spirit urges the unbeliever's inner spirit to believe it. Persistent and continual rejection of this action is unforgivable.
It is interesting to note that Jesus referenced the unpardonable sin to the Holy Spirit rather than with regard to Himself or the heavenly Father. (See Mark 3:29.) Of course, faith in Christ, not faith in the Holy Spirit, is what saves us. However, in our day, functionally-speaking, the Holy Spirit is the Administrator of God's plan of redemption. He takes the things of God, given through the mouths of those who preach the Gospel of Jesus, and spiritually shows them to us. If this communication is rejected, there is no other hope of eternal life for the unsaved person. Therefore, not responding rightly to the Holy Spirit's teaching is to commit a sin that is unforgivable.
The unpardonable sin in Mark's gospel (Mark 3:29) is different from what the apostle John is talking about in his epistle (1 John 5:16). Mark addresses those who refuse the Holy Spirit's work as He attempts to lead them to Christ. On the other hand, John is instructing a group of Christians as to how they should pray for wavering Christian brothers who are committing certain sins — sins that will lead to physical death if they don't quit it. The latter is called “sin unto death”. There is no way that “sin unto death” of 1 John 5:16 can refer to spiritual death. For if it did, then this would mean that a child-of-God “brother” could lose his spirit salvation (i.e., a guaranteed heavenly destiny), which has already been established as impossible.
For double emphasis on the unpardonable sin, let me explain it this way: If an unsaved person continually disallows the Holy Spirit's prompting, he is putting up a barricade which has “hell-bound” written all over it. Repeated resistance against the Holy Spirit reveals that one is, in essence, attributing the work of God to Satan. This, I believe, is the primary way the unpardonable sin is committed in our day. It is a willful rejection of the Gospel. No sinful commission is as devastating to one's future as this particular sinful act of rejection. Not believing the Gospel will send one to hell. Believing the Gospel will insure one's eternal destiny will be heaven. In conclusion then, let’s agree with the Scripture found in Acts 16:31:
"...Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved..."