'Grace alone' discussion confuses salvation with justification

The writer, a frequent writer for The Journal, is a member of the Denver Conference of the Church of God (Seventh Day). Mr. Knight's series on "primitive Christianity in crisis" appeared in five consecutive issues of The Journal from February through June 2000. See also a related article, "Advocates of Protestant Evangelical Theology Resign Positions in Denver Conference of CG7," Dec. 31, 2000.

By Alan Knight

ANTIOCH, Calif.--This article is prompted by a letter that appeared on page 2 of the Jan. 31, 2001, issue of The Journal under the heading "Get Real, Alan," in which Bruce Hawkins takes me to task for reporting on the spread of evangelical Protestantism in the Church of God (Seventh-Day).

The letter is an impassioned defense of Jesus' mercy and the New Testament doctrine of justification by grace alone.

My response to Brother Hawkins is that I agree with him 100 percent, and I applaud his skill in so eloquently expressing this central truth, which is the basis of our hope of salvation. What, then, is the problem? Why should I "get real," and what do I have to get real about?

The disagreement arises over the question of acceptance of Protestantism as a bona-fide form of Christianity. This is one of the central issues at the heart of the conflict swirling within today's CG7.

Brother Hawkins argues in his letter that, since evangelical Protestantism believes in the New Testament truth about justification by grace alone, we should accept Protestants as our Christian brothers and sisters and participate in ecumenical activities with them.

The problem is that justification by grace alone is not the same as salvation by grace alone, and salvation by grace alone means different things depending on who is speaking.

In evangelical Protestantism, "grace alone" is inseparably linked to the doctrine of eternal security. Generally the argument goes that, if we do not earn salvation, then once salvation is granted we can't lose it, regardless of how horrible and willful our sins become.

Get real, Bruce

Martin Luther, who has become a Protestant spiritual hero in some CG7 circles, eloquently and frankly expressed the doctrine of eternal security in a letter he wrote in 1521 (translated as letter No. 99 in the Wittenburg Project).

In it the venerable founder of the Protestant movement says: "Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger . . . No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery a thousand times each day."

On the one hand we have our hero Martin Luther who tells us we can murder, rape and pillage 1,000 times each day and be saved, and on the other we have Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:20-21 compiling a list of sins that will prevent salvation if we willfully and chronically indulge in them.

Forgive me if I indulge in throwing back the same terminology used against me. I don't mean to be insulting. But, really, Brother Hawkins and all those who take a similar position in the CG7 and in Worldwide and many other churches, get real! Do you believe in Martin Luther and evangelical Protestantism, which preaches the same eternal-security doctrine to this day, or do you believe the New Testament and Paul and Jesus Christ, who inspired him?

If we accept the true doctrine of justification by grace alone, and if we learn to appreciate Jesus' love and mercy, does that mean we also must or should participate in ecumenical union with churches that teach such horrible heresies?

Even more important, does the New Testament say anything directly about it? What is the New Testament position on ecumenical cooperation with Protestantism?

Brother Hawkins raises an interesting point when he complains that we often seem to focus more on the Sabbath than on the weightier matters of the Spirit: on humility, love, forbearance and mercy. To that I can only say amen. I totally agree. Those of us with a Worldwide Church of God background surely know what he is talking about.

Essence of Christian apostasy

This brings us to an important question. What is the essence of Christian apostasy? How do you identify Christian apostasy? Does it hinge on the Sabbath, as some believe, or on Christmas or the Easter bunny or the other pagan customs we hear so much about?

I would like to share with you an advance look at the second volume to be published (God willing) by ARK Research, which will be a follow-up to Primitive Christianity in Crisis, the book I published last year.

The second volume is tentatively titled Heavenly Christianity: The 'Other' Gospel.

In one chapter of this volume I plan to analyze how the apostle John defined gnostic-Christian apostasy in his first and second epistles, and it has nothing directly to do with the Sabbath. Conversion to Sunday worship didn't seriously get under way until the second century.

We need to remember that the condemnation of gnostic-Christian heretics in the New Testament, written in the first century, was in almost if not all cases directed at Sabbatarian Christians. The earliest Christian gnostics, called protognostics by scholars, participated with the apostolic church, attended Sabbath services and believed in and taught many of the truths of the New Testament. The spirituality of the inner man was one of gnostic Christians' strongest themes.

Yet the New Testament, as in Jude and 2 Peter, condemns them in the strongest language. If it had not yet affected Sabbath observance, then exactly what was the teaching that was so horrible?

In the limited space of this article I can provide only the briefest summary of this important issue.

We know that the epistles of John talk about gnostic Christianity because he repeatedly refers to the doctrine of docetism, a characteristically gnostic doctrine that claimed that Jesus was a combination of two beings: a mortal man, Jesus, and a spirit, Christ.

This concept is mentioned in 14 verses scattered over five passages in 1 and 2 John. The rest of these two letters seems to be devoted to a constant repetition of New Testament spiritual themes: love, our mystical union with Jesus and the Father, and what it means to "know" Christ.

It almost seems a disjointed tour through spiritual topics with repeated stops along the way to jump on the gnostics for teaching docetism.

John's message

Making sense of 1 and 2 John comes through recognizing what John is doing. Simply, he is deliberately repeating himself. We see this in his repeated condemnation of docetism.

To get the full message, then, we need to analyze what else John is repeating. When we do that we find three themes.

  • The first is docetism.
  • Another is his linking of spirituality to obedience to the Commandments, which he mentions more than half a dozen times.

Why does John do this? If he is going after gnostic Christianity, the answer is obvious. Gnosticism taught that to achieve spirituality you have to reject the law. The law, said the gnostics, makes you focus on material things and blocks the spiritual development of the inner man.

Gnostics taught morality and righteousness, but they said that becoming moral and righteous is a natural process granted by God that occurs only when you reject the law and turn solely to the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Protestant theologians try to get around these passages by arguing that John was equating spirituality with obedience. In other words, having love in your heart fulfills your obligation to be obedient.

Yet the context of many of these passages demonstrates how artificial and bankrupt that argument is. For example, 2 John 6 the Revised English Version clearly expresses the sense of the argument: "What love means is to live according to the commands of God."

  • The third theme is quite a surprise for most people. We tend to read right over it. John several times uses the phrase "from the beginning." This and related phrases occur at least a half-dozen times. A classic example is 1 John 3:11: "For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another."

Combining the themes

When we put all three themes together, we discover John actually has constructed a single, coherent argument.

Gnostic Christians taught that there were two revelations of Christianity. The first came from Christ during His earthly ministry. But, they argued, we can't trust what Jesus said during His life on earth. That is where docetism comes in.

The message of Christ the Spirit, they say, was changed and obscured by the mortal man Jesus. Worst of all, Jesus was a Jew. He was a good and moral Jew, but He contaminated the true message of Christ with His ideas about the law He carried over from the Old Testament.

That is how gnostic Christians got around Jesus' earthly ministry when He taught things such as how to spiritually observe the Sabbath.

The gnostic Christians' fundamental idea was that Jesus' earthly ministry was deficient, so one must pick and choose individual ideas from His earthly ministry and interpret them to get at the real truth.

But, after Christ ascended to heaven, He was freed from the material contamination that obscured Jesus' earthly ministry. Now a second and fully spiritual version of Christianity has been revealed, which we receive directly from the Holy Spirit.

One of the most basic changes that Christ produced in the second, more-spiritual, revelation of Christianity (say the gnostic Christians) is that there is no law. Spirituality in the New Testament is entirely separate from law.

Defining Christian apostasy

So how does John define and summarize gnostic-Christian apostasy?

He follows three trains of thought.

  • First is the gnostic-Christian idea that Jesus' earthly ministry and the lawful spirituality of His teaching are deficient. In the first century that concept was explained by the doctrine of docetism. Today the idea survives but is justified in a slightly different way, as we will see.
  • The second definition of Christian apostasy, according to John, is the doctrine that the deficient Christianity taught during Jesus' earthly ministry was replaced by a second, more spiritual, revelation of Christianity after the resurrection.

That is why John repeatedly insists that the spirituality he preaches is "from the beginning." He means that New Testament spirituality comes from Jesus' earthly ministry, not from a second revelation that began after the resurrection as the gnostics claimed.

  • Finally, John defines Christian apostasy as the teaching that New Testament spirituality is unrelated to obedience to law.

Modern examples

Do we see these themes present in modern Protestant as well as Catholic theology?

Yes, and, worse yet, we see these themes taught within some of our own Sabbatarian churches.

Some in the CG7 teach that there is no law under the New Testament. Some even teach that that there came a second revelation of Christianity after the resurrection and that Jesus' earthly ministry cannot be trusted.

Their explanation is that during His earthly ministry Jesus functioned merely as an Old Testament prophet to the Jews. This is the modern replacement for docetism as the rationale for rejecting objectionable portions of Jesus' earthly ministry.

The buzzword in the CG7 for the second revelation of Christianity is "spiritual Christianity."

The unreal Jesus

The apostle John brings all three themes together in his second epistle, in which he condemns progressive revelation, one of the primary doctrines of Protestantism. Notice in 2 John 9: "Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God."

Scholars argue over what "the teaching of Christ" means and what "going beyond it" (progressive revelation) means. John is obviously referring to docetism, which he mentions in the immediately preceding passage (verse 7).

But, immediately before that, John also mentions the other two themes: that love and spirituality are indispensably connected to obedience and that they were linked "from the beginning" in Jesus' earthly ministry (verses 5-6).

A problem is that theologians fail to understand the role docetism played in the apostasy of the apostolic church. Docetism was the key to progressive revelation. How could you justify introducing so many new teachings that directly contradicted the earthly ministry of Jesus?

Many of the members of the apostolic church had seen Jesus personally and heard Him preach. There had to be an explanation; the gnostics found it in docetism.

Christ's union with the Jew Jesus explained the mistakes present in His earthly ministry.

Docetism was a radical idea that died with classic gnosticism in the fourth century. But the original gnostic teaching that Jesus' earthly ministry was deficient and replaced by a second revelation beginning after the resurrection survives and flourishes in our midst.

What does the New Testament say about this apostasy? 2 John 10 says Jesus regards this original gnostic-Christian apostasy as so evil that we should not even allow ministers who teach it into our homes.

"Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching," John warns.

If evangelical Protestantism defies John's definition of Jesus' original and correct teaching, which it clearly does, isn't it obvious what Jesus' will is in regards to ecumenical cooperation with Protestantism?

Sabbath not the issue

Those of us with a WCG background remember that when the WCG first turned to evangelical Protestantism its leaders stoutly denied they were abandoning the Sabbath.

Today in the CG7 some who embrace evangelical Protestantism also proclaim continued loyalty to the Sabbath.

But the Sabbath is not the key issue. The Sabbath gets caught in the crossfire and almost always is eventually discarded, yet the Sabbath is not the main question.

According to Jesus Christ, speaking to us through the apostle John, the key to recognizing Christian apostasy is the three elements defined in 1 and 2 John.

When we apply that standard, we see apostasy coming long before it has the chance to wreck a church. By the time it gets around to dumping the Sabbath, it is probably too late.

The other gospel

The New Testament more than once warns against the introduction of "another" gospel. One of the most prominent and devastating "other" gospels floating in the apostolic church was the "mystery of lawlessness" promoted by gnostic Christianity.

What I find most amazing is that both then and today the mystery of lawlessness is openly promoted as another gospel.

Those who teach it often make no attempt to hide that it is a replacement for the first gospel, the gospel of the Kingdom preached by Jesus during His earthly ministry. They conveniently ignore the truth that genuine New Testament spirituality was present from the beginning in Jesus' earthly ministry.

The teachings of love; the spiritual magnification of the law; Christ living His life within His followers, abiding in Christ and the Father and They in us: All are present in the Gospels (for examples, see John 15 and Matthew 5).

The error of legalism

Another important lesson can be learned from the apostle John. Notice how he openly and boldly embraces the spirituality of the New Testament.

It is a sad but historical fact that many lawful Christian movements react against the lawless theology of gnostic Christianity and Protestantism by running to the other extreme and falling prey to forms of legalism.

John is careful to refuse to fall into that error.

He refuses to deviate from the teaching that Christian morality is encompassed in love and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Brother Hawkins is absolutely correct in championing these spiritual principles, and I want to be careful not to imply that he espouses any of the apostasy of Protestantism. He clearly states that he disagrees with the idea that there is no law.

But the assumption that this means we should participate in ecumenical fellowship with Protestants is a terrible mistake. It is a direct contradiction of Christ's instruction to us and inevitably ends in tragedy.

Church Links  -  Addresses  -  Church Logos  -  Finances  -  Photos  -   Memorial

The Study Library  -  In Transition  -  Messages Online  -  Live Services

Back Issues  -  Subscribe  -  Email List  -  Ad Rates  -  Site Map

© The Journal: News of the Churches of God