Unfortunately, this will be the least practical chapter of this entire book.
The information in this chapter is important. It is desperately needed, and it will scratch an itch inside every believer that longs for unity and holiness in the body of Christ.
However, the full effect truths in this chapter can only be put into effect by the body of Christ at large. At best, you can put only put it into practice in your immediate circle of acquaintances.
Perhaps that will be enough.
It will be wonderful if it is.
There is a verse that it is amazing that we ignore. Perhaps we only do so because we have trouble understanding how it could possible mean what it says.
I want to help you believe what it says.
The verse is 2 Timothy 2:19, and it reads ...
The foundation of God stands firm, having this seal: "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Let those who name the name of Christ depart from unrighteousness."
This verse says that there are only two issues that are worthy to be inscribed on the foundation of God: The Lord knows the ones that belong to him, and those who call upon King Jesus are supposed to flee unrighteousness.
Let me ask you a question. Is this what we emphasize today?
Think about it. Would it be fair in any way to say that today we make knowing the Lord and departing from unrighteousness and only those two things foundational to what we teach?
I want to show you that the apostle Paul meant it when he said those two things are foundational. I want to show you that these are the things that he emphasized, that Christ emphasized, and that all the apostles emphasized.
What about ...
Are none of these things foundational?
We can see in Scripture that if someone flat out denies that Jesus was crucified, does not receive the Holy Spirit, and rejects the fact that Jesus comes in the flesh, then that person is denying the faith. I think it's clear that John would describe such a person as an antichrist (see the way he deals with those in error in 1 John).
Today, however the difference between the Baptists and the Pentecostals is not that one of them denies there is a baptism in the Holy Spirit. They simply differ on how it happens.
Those two denominations also do not differ concerning the Scriptures on faith. Pentecostals believe John 3:16 as readily as Baptists do.
Presbyterians differ from both denominations on the mode of baptism, preferring sprinkling to immersing, but they do not differ on the fact that Christ calls us to be baptized.
Nonetheless, all three groups have found those issues sufficient reason to divide from one another. If individuals from those denominations are sufficiently fervent in their devotion to their church's doctrines, they will argue vehemently and shout angrily at one another over these issues. Worse, even if they manage to avoid outward displays of emotion, they will coldly separate, this one going to this church and that one going to that church.
Yet Jesus thinks that his reputation is staked on our unity (Jn. 17:20-23).
I have met a lot of people who believe that there are many foundational doctrines. Because of those "foundational" doctrines, they justify their separation from other believers.
But do they really believe those doctrines are foundational?
Apparently, the doctrines of eternal security and whether the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a second experience are sufficient for the Assembly of God and the Southern Baptists to meet separately over. Yet I have regularly attended churches belonging to both denominations, and it is a rare Southern Baptist or Assembly of God member who would say that members of the other denomination are not Christians.
That being true, the question I want to ask them is, if Jesus will accept them ...
Why won't you?
So let me ask you as well. Will Jesus let people into heaven who disagree with you and your denomination on eternal security, water baptism, and the baptism in the Holy Spirit?
If so—if Jesus will eternally fellowship with those believers in heaven, and if he is giving them his Spirit so that they are born again in the present time—then how can you avoid fellowship or choose a different church than they do.
As it turns out, most of those denominations who claim that their doctrines are foundational don't really believe they are.
If a doctrine doesn't affect whether we are Christians, then it is peripheral.
Unity, on the other hand, is not peripheral. It determines whether the world will believe that Jesus is of God (Jn. 17:20-23), and, according to Scripture, divisions and schisms will keep us out of the kingdom of heaven! (Gal. 5:19-21).
Dare we risk division over doctrines that our actions admit are not foundational?
Personally, I think we are very confused about what sound doctrine is.
In Titus 2:1, Paul tells Titus to speak the things befit sound doctrine. It's really pretty amazing what those things are.
In verses 2 through 10 he describes numerous things that have to do with behavior. Older men have to be sensible, self-controlled, and strong in faith, love, and patience. Older women have to behave like the holy women they are, avoid too much wine, and teach good things. Younger women have to love their husband and children and be self-controlled and chaste. Young men, in the same way, are to be self-controlled and sensible, and Titus—a young man himself—is to set an example for them in good works.
Paul doesn't stop there. He adds that servants should serve their masters well and not pilfer things from them.
Finally, he concludes with subjects that we modern Christians, with our ravenous intellectual appetites, have turned into mere academic, theological issues: grace, the atonement, and the return of Christ.
But what does Paul say about these things?
Thus, it is clear than in a chapter that Paul says concerns "sound doctrine," everything he has to say is about our behavior.
Or, as I like to put it, behavior is better than belief.
What use is it, brothers, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can such faith save him? ... Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being alone. (Jam. 2:14,17)
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. (1 Sam. 15:22)
I know that when I was a young Christian, every mention of works brought up a picture of Jehovah's Witnesses going door to door.
The apostle Paul, however, when he talks about behavior that may justify Gentiles at the judgment, mentions conscience.
What do our consciences teach us to do (assuming they're properly trained)?
Our consciences teach us to share, to be kind, to be polite, to guard the feelings of others, and to love. In short, our consciences teach us to do to others what we would want them to do to us.
Every law is summed up in the golden rule, and it does not include going door to door passing out magazines or even sharing the Gospel. Paul even tells believers to be quiet and attend to business (1 Thess. 4:11). God does send some people to preach the Gospel (some: Rom. 10:15), but this is called a ministry or service, not doing good works.
Jesus describes the sort of good works that matter to him in his description of the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. James 2:16 and 1 Jn. 4:20 give us a similar picture: righteous behavior involves loving people, doing for them what we would have them do for us.
I want to ask that question—What will keep you out of the kingdom of God?—both for God's kingdom in this age, the church (Col. 1:13), and for the kingdom in the next age.
In the next age, God has made it clear that the judgment will be according to works and not anything else.
There are many verses on the judgment in the New Testament, and every one makes it clear that it is what we do that matters. Matthew 25:31-46; John 5:27-29; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7-9; Ephesians 5:5-7; 1 Peter 1:17; 2 Peter 1:5-11; and Revelation 20:11-15 are just some of the passages that address the fact that our final judgment is based solely on our works.
So what is the role of faith?
This will be addressed more fully in the chapter on the two stages of salvation (and until that chapter is written, you may see Christian Salvation on the Christian History for Everyman site), but here's a brief explanation until then.
All of us inherited a sin nature by our birth as children of Adam. Paul describes the tremendous power of sin within our bodies in Romans 7. The result of this is that no one is perfect, we all stumble in many things, and we fall short of the glory of God.
Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that the judgment needs to change. God is full of mercy, and the judgment has always been fair.
We need to change!
Jesus offers to change us. He offers to give us a new birth (Jn. 3:3-8) and make us new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), no longer mere sons of Adam but children of God (1 Cor. 3:3; 15:45-49; 1 Jn. 3:2), created to do good works which God has prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph. 2:10).
Thus it is that the righteous requirement of the Law can be fulfilled in us if we walk by the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). We can put to death the deeds of the body by that Spirit (Rom. 8:13). If we walk by that Spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).
As new creatures, born again and facing a merciful God in a fair and just judgment, the Spirit of God will allow us to appear before the throne of God blameless (Jude 24), having walked in the light and being constantly cleansed from sin (1 Jn. 1:7).
This won't just happen. God expects us to add virtue to our faith, to combine knowledge with our virtue and walk in self-control, to persevere in that self-control, and to let all of that grow into godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. He expects us to do this diligently if we expect to be rewarded with entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus the King (2 Pet. 1:5-11).
This isn't a popular teaching, but as an amateur historian with a focus on the 2nd century church, I would argue that at one time it was the only teaching around. In fact, I did not come up with this on my own, but I discovered this teaching about faith from the 2nd century church, and it answered all my questions about faith and works in Scripture.
As you can see by the references I put above, there are a lot of Scriptures that say this. Believing what I have taught right here will leave you with no "difficult" verses at all, whereas holding to modern views of the role of faith and works produce dozens of "difficult" verses.
Note, before we go on to discuss what keeps us in the kingdom of God in this age, that there is nothing else that can claim to be brought up at the judgment. Not our faith, not our understanding of the atonement, not a single theological issue, nor even our possession of or by the Holy Spirit is ever even mentioned in the context of the final judgment.
The Gospels and the letters of the apostles occasionally discuss reasons for putting someone out of the church.
Again, with one possible exception, the issue is always behavior.
For example, in Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus describes a situation where a person could be treated "like a foreigner or tax collector." It involves a situation where the person has not only sinned against a brother or sister, but has also refused to listen to one or two others and even to the whole church.
Paul, too, tells us that certain people need to be put out of the church in 1 Cor. 5. He gives a list of possible trespasses, but in the end he sums up the people that are to be "put out from among you" as "that wicked person" (v. 13).
Where things become a little more difficult to interpret are in the so-called pastoral epistles, 1Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.
There Paul discusses people "whose mouths must be stopped" and who "teach things which they ought not" (Tit. 1:11). He mentions those that "teach differently and do not agree to sound words ... the words of our Lord Jesus the King," and he says to Timothy, "From such withdraw yourself" (I Tim. 6:3,5).
But what are the things they're teaching? What is it that needs to be stopped?
In Crete, where Titus was staying, Paul says these are "unruly" (1:10). The Greek word there is anupotatktos. The Strong's definition for that word is "not made subject,"b "cannot be subjected to control," and "disobedient."
In the next verse, he says they're greedy for money. In v. 16, apparently referring to the same people, he says, "They claim to know God, but in works they deny him." The very next verse begins chapter 2, which we discussed above. There, contrasting what Titus should teach with what the "unruly" were teaching, he discusses sensible thinking and love. He brings up none of the theological doctrines we are used to thinking of as being the problem with false teachers.
It's just the same in the letter to Timothy. He refers to the false teachers as greedy for money and men of corrupt minds (1 Tim. 6:5). In contrasting what Timothy should do with what these false teachers are doing he says, "Flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, humility" (6:11).
No surprise, what the false teachers would not consent to is "the teaching based on godliness" (6:3). Earlier, when he speaks of those who depart from the faith in the last times, they are said to be "speaking lies in hypocrisy" (4:2).
Everywhere we turn, the problem with false teachers in the same.
In Romans 16, we are warned to turn away from those who cause dissension and stumbling blocks "contrary to the doctrine which you have learned" (v. 17). But what is their problem? According to Paul, they "serve ... their own belly" (v. 18).
In Jude, in a verse we all know, we are told to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (v. 3). Again, who are we contending against? "Ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into loose living" (v. 4).
Even in a passage like 1 Corinthians 15, where the issue is clearly that false teachers are denying the resurrection, it is obedience to King Jesus that is put at the forefront:
Don't be deceived, bad company destroys good habits. Awake to righteousness and stop sinning. (v. 33-34a)
Finally, Jesus sums it all up very well. He tells us to beware of false prophets. How will we know them? "You shall know them by their fruit" (7:16, 20). Then he concludes the discussions of false prophets by saying ...
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will tell me, "Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name? Didn't we cast out demons in your name and do many works of power in your name?" Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you? Depart from me, you who exercise lawlessness." (7:21-23)
Belief matters, but Jesus and his apostles are looking for the teaching and the belief that is "based on godliness"; the belief that produces behavior, because to obey is better than sacrifice.
One of the worst false teachings of our modern day concerns grace. Just as the false teachers were "turning the grace of God into loose living," so one particular modern doctrine has turned the grace of God into an excuse for loose living.
Grace and works are not antithetical to one another. In fact, the very purpose of grace is to produce works (Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 2:11-12).
Grace and works are only in opposition to one another when it comes to entering the life of Christ. Becoming a disciple involves being born again (Jn. 3:3,5; Jam. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23). (Ed. note: I include all those references to answer Shane Claiborne's—I highly recommend his books—allegation that we've based 'born-again theology' on just one verse). Scripture also calls it becoming a new creature or new creation. We will never work our way into being born again. That can happen only by accessing God's grace by faith.
Once, however, we are born again and have received "the grace of God that brings salvation," then that grace "teaches us that denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live sensibly, righteously, and godly" (Tit. 2:11-12). Once we are "his workmanship," then we are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10).
Have you ever admonished a brother, in simple obedience to Christ's command (Luke 17:3), and had him respond with, "Remember, brother, we are under grace"?
I have, repeatedly.
It shows a complete misunderstanding of grace. The proper response to this false idea is, "Yes, I do know we are under grace, which is why I'm admonishing you. God is giving me the grace to tell you the truth in love, and if you will let him, he will give you the grace to listen to and obey his message. I wouldn't be able to exhort you like this if you weren't under grace because you wouldn't have power to obey."
Sin will not have power over you because you are ... under grace. (Rom. 6:14)
Hallelujah! Isn't grace wonderful!
I have spent this chapter arguing that what really matters is our behavior. Primarily, Jesus and the apostles threatened to put people out of the kingdom of God—whether that be the church in this age or Jesus' kingdom from heaven in the next—for behavior, not belief.
This does not mean that we can take this to excess. There are teachings that must be stopped in the kingdom.
John mentioned a couple in his first "general epistle" (1 John). He says that if you deny that Jesus came in the flesh, then you're an antichrist.
Of course, John is referring to a particular group of people (gnostics) that said a lot of other things and were not living in righteousness. Nonetheless, he makes it clear that a person that denies that Jesus came in the flesh is to be rejected.
With standards like these, the entire Christian movement founded by the apostles managed to remain one body for several centuries!.
Even three centuries after Jesus' death, at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, the mandatory theological beliefs of Christians could be summed up in a long paragraph. In fact, to this day, the Nicene Creed is still repeated as the basic theology of Christians in numerous Protestant denominations as well as by the Roman Catholics.
Those mandatory doctrines included simply the following:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father; that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God and Light from light; true God from true God; begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father; by [him] all things were made, both which are in heaven and on earth: who for the sake of us men, and on account of our salvation, descended, became incarnate, and was made man; suffered, arose again the third day, and ascended into the heavens, and will come again to judge the living and the dead; also in the Holy Spirit.
This statement of faith was not a novel idea conjured up by a council led by an emperor.
Before Nicea, each church had a short list of mandatory doctrines like these called the rule of faith. The above creed agreed upon by the Council of Nicea is simply a slightly modified version of the church in Caesarea's rule of faith.
I am emphasizing these limited basic doctrines to point out that our modern divisions and schisms, which we pass off with the mild term "denomination," are unjustifiable scripturally. When Jesus' reputation in the world is staked on our unity (Jn. 17:20-23) and when such divisions are said to keep us out of God's kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21), how can any denomination claim to be a "Bible-believing" one?
This does not mean that we must simply accept everyone that will agree to the Nicene Creed.
As I've been saying this entire chapter, your behavior tells most what you believe.
Paul accused the false teachers in Crete of denying God by their works (Tit. 1:16). He commanded the Corinthian church to put the wicked out of the church (1 Cor. 5:13).
Jesus once said that unless we count the cost—forsaking all our possessions and denying our parents, siblings, wives, children and even ourselves—we cannot be his disciples.
Nowadays, we appear to believe Jesus is wrong. Apparently, we think he was too harsh. I've even heard Christians teach that Jesus said that under the Law, so it doesn't apply to Christians.
How foolish! It only applies to Christians!
New wine is put in refreshed wineskins; they're the only ones that can handle the new wine (Matt. 9:17). The new teaching that Christ brought would require his followers to be more righteous than what was required under the old covenant (Matt. 5:17-48); only new creatures would be able to handle that new wine. It is for this reason that he said, "You must be born again."
Somewhere we began to believe that Jesus died so that we wouldn't have to live up to the righteousness found in the Law. No, friend. He died so that we, by the Spirit, might exceed the righteousness in the Law ...
What the Law could not do, because it was weakened by our flesh, God did. By sending his own Son in the form of our sinful body, as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in our body so that the righteousness of the Law could be fulfilled in those of us who do not walk by the body but by the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3-4)
Don't take this too far. As James says, "We all stumble in many things" (Jam. 3:2). If we sin, Jesus is our advocate with the Father, who will forgive us and cleanse us from every sin (1 Jn. 1:7 - 2:2).
Nonetheless, grace is the power of God that enables us to overcome sin (Rom. 6:14) and teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires (Tit. 2:11-12).
Grace is most definitely not a license to sin!
We are supposed to exhort one another every day (Heb 3:13). We are supposed to consider—to pause and think about—how to spur one another on to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). We are supposed to rebuke a brother or sister if we are sinned against (Luk. 17:3).
And if our brother or sister refuses to repent, even after being talked to by others, they are supposed to be treated as a non-Christian (Matt. 18:15-17).
And because behavior matters, we have all the more reason to preach grace because it is only by grace that we become "his workmanship, created in King Jesus to do good works" (Eph. 2:10).
There are many modern denominations that have seen that it is sin to divide over issues that are not foundational, the sort of issues that divide Baptists, Penecostals, Presbyterians, Charismatics, the hundreds of sub-denominations of those groups, and most independent denominations. Many modern denominations have rejected the doctrinal divisions that mark most Protestant denominations.
But in the process they have failed to preach a Gospel that provides the power for good works, and they have failed to require a life marked by the righteousness of God.
Division is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21).
Unity, at least in the church, comes only from the Spirit of God (Eph. 4:3).
Thus, division is going to happen naturally among those who have not been delivered from the flesh by the Spirit. It will also happen naturally among those who have not been taught the commands of the King (Matt. 28:20) nor how greatly he cares about unity.
Unity is not something that is going to happen just because we've learned some things.
Unity is going to be an expected, normal product of people who have devoted themselves to Christ, received the Spirit of God, and are walking in obedience to him. Such disciples will experience the love of God being poured out in their hearts in abundance by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5).
Such disciples will already have unity, and they must simply preserve it (Eph. 4:3).
I have written this chapter on sound doctrine so that we can be delivered by our consumption with minor details, even though some of those details seem terribly important to us.
We do not need more reasons to destroy the unity that the Spirit of God brings.
We especially do not need doctrinal reasons to divide.
According to the Bible, if we will walk in the unity that is brought by the Spirit of God—if we will stay out of the way of that unity, let it work in us, and strive to preserve it—then it will eventually cause us to "all come to the unity of the faith" (Eph. 4:13).
The apostles trusted the power of the Spirit implicitly.
John tells us that when people try to seduce us, then together "the christening" (or "the anointing") will lead us into everything we need, and it will be true and not a lie (1 Jn. 2:27; where all the yous are plural, none singular). Paul tells us that if we speak the truth to one another in love, then we will be protected by deceitful, scheming men and the fickle winds of doctrine (Eph. 4:13-14).
Today, we have the cart ahead of the horse.
Today, we work for unity of doctrine, arguing with one another in hopes of intellectually agreeing with one another, and then being able to participate in the unity of the Spirit.
That doesn't work, as should be obvious by looking around.
It is not enough for us to have the Bible. The Bible is dangerous to any of us if we refuse the unity of the Spirit. While John promises that together the christening of God will lead us into truth, we are told in Hebrews that alone we are subject to a deception that comes from inside ourselves (Heb. 3:13). Only the exhortation of the brethren—not you alone with your Bible, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—will protect you from the deceitfulness of sin.
I am not saying to avoid the Bible.
Let me repeat that. I am not saying to avoid the Bible. As you can see, I am appealing to it constantly. I wouldn't give you all these Bible references if I didn't want you to look them up and see if what I'm saying is true.
It is better to be alone with a Bible than to be alone without one. My point is only that having the Bible does not replace fellowship, nor guarantee that you will wind up believing what is true, and it is the Bible that teaches that point.
John Calvin once argued that he was forced to abandon the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church because of the horrible state of affairs in his time (see his letter to Cardinal Sadolet). I agree completely that he needed to do that.
Don't be mistaken, however. It was not scriptural insight into Protestant doctrines that led him to that conclusion. Idolatry, corruption, and utter disregard for the Word of God were rampant. It was behavior, not belief, that drove John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other reformers to abandon the corrupt Roman Catholic Church.
All of us who follow Christ know what it is like to meet someone, exchange a few words, and know that we are spiritually united with that person.
We must feed that.
Only that unity comes from heaven. That unity will prove to the world that Jesus is the Son of God (Jn. 17:20-23). That love from heaven will bring us together, and together the Spirit of God will direct us into every truth that we need. Those things will be Scriptural; those things will be true; and those things will be different than what we will find if we simply go to the Bible on our own to find our own truths—no matter how much we claim to be depending on the Spirit of God as we do so.
The Scriptures teach that we are wasting our time building if God isn't building the house; we are wasting our times fighting spiritual battles if God isn't guarding the city (Ps. 127:1).
In front of all of us is a testimony of unity that comes from heaven. It unites all spiritual, sold-out disciples of Christ.
But we have not learned to trust it.
We have been trained instead to trust doctrines that have been taught to us by men. We have been trained to trust our interpretations of Scripture. We try to depend on the Spirit as we interpret Scripture, but it does no good because we are missing the point. Unity in the faith is a produce of unity in the Spirit, not a product of study, no matter how spiritually dependent we try to be as we study.
So I am calling you to learn the real foundational doctrines of Christianity, the ones—and only the ones—that cause Jesus to reject a person. The Nicene Creed is a good guide, and some version of it has been used for that purpose by churches as far back as we can find.
But we must be able to tell the difference between those who deny the resurrection and those who simply have a different understanding of the time frame (pre-, mid-, post-, or non-trib, etc.). We must be able to tell the difference between those who reject Christ and those who simply disagree with us on some aspect of his relationship with the Father, something none of us thoroughly understand.
That last comment of mine, concerning the relationship between the Son and the Father, will be a hard one for some people. Modern "cult watch" groups have made the issue of the Trinity the mark of what is and is not a cult.
Yet, the person who could fairly be called the founder of all such groups, Walter Martin, once said that he asked his own students in a Bible college to write a definition of the Trinity. He laughed as he said that when he read their responses it was the biggest collection of heresy he'd ever seen.
We can all laugh with him because any of us with experience with such questions in Christian circles can imagine the kind of answers he got.
But it's not funny because he and his intellectual descendants have cut off numerous people for the exact same kind of "heresy."
Why should a Bible college student be a Christian even though his description of the Trinity is way off, but a Jehovah's Witness cannot be because his description of the Trinity is way off?
Again, don't get me wrong. The Jehovah's Witnesses as an organization is a heretical, non-Christian organization. They are off on many more issues than the Trinity, and they are worldly, carnal, and corrupted by power. Individually, however, writing off a person for believing the Jehovah's Witness version of the Trinity appears to me to be going too far. Such error is easily correctible by the Holy Spirit if we come together in spiritual unity and humility.
And I say this despite the fact that I know that the Jehovah's Witness understanding of the Trinity was specifically condemned at Nicea.
In the end, we must know who has rejected the basic message of the faith—that God's Son has come to earth as man to die for and save sinners, been raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, and will come again to judge the living and the dead—and those who simply disagree with us on some aspect of that faith, however important that aspect may be.
We must be able to tell whom Jesus the King has rejected and who has been rejected simply by us and our doctrinal biases.
Finally, we must remember that in the Scriptures, sound doctrine is primarily focused on obedience to Christ. Sound doctrine is teaching that proclaims and produces godliness through faith in Christ. Corrupt teaching is primarily that which excuses and promotes carnal living.