T. PIERCE BROWN
Yesterday my three granddaughters were playing out in the yard on a trampoline close to the woods. They heard a hiss and a rattle and the dog barked, so they ran in the house, screaming, “Rattlesnake!” My son, who doubted their hysterical report, took his shotgun and went to investigate. There was a rattler, about the size of his wrist, with five rattles. After appropriate treatment, it ceased rattling. When he showed me the remains, I thought of the Old Serpent, the Devil, who sometimes warns us before he strikes. Then I stayed up until aboutmidnightreading some articles in a publication that leaves the image that it is always searching for truth, but can never hope to find it. All conclusions seem to be tentative except the ones that relate to the conservative brethren in the church who still strive to give a Bible answer to questions that relate to salvation. Those conclusions seem to be firm and certain. They are that most of the brethren are ignorant, outdated in viewpoint, which is formed by their cultural roots rather than by biblical truths.
The editor was scoffing at the idea that the church be distinctive. He affirmed that he had rather be biblical than distinctive. That statement is very close to being an oxymoron. He seemed totally unaware that to be biblical is to be distinctive. The Lord’s church is distinctive simply because there is nothing else in the world like it. It came into being by the authority of Christ, and is regulated by that authority. No other religious organization is in that category. The editor, and apparently all of his staff writers, seem to take the position that the Lord’s church is simply an outgrowth of the Restoration Movement and is merely a sick denomination, arrogant and presumptuous in the conclusion that “Ye shall know the TRUTH, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). All the writers seemed to conclude that we cannot know the truth, and that a man may become free from sin just as well by obeying false doctrine as by obeying the truth, regardless of 1 Peter 1:22, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth unto unfeigned love of the brethren, love one another from the heart fervently.”
One article explicitly taught that Luther, Calvin and Wesley will go to heaven because they seemed to be honest, sincere and trying to do the Lord’s will the best way they could. He asked, “Who could do better than that?” He did not bother to explain how Saul of Tarsus was honest and sincere, but was still chief of sinners. Nor did he seem to be aware that a person who pronounces that a certain individual is saved eternally is placing himself in the position of a judge just as surely as one who pronounces that the person is lost.
None of the writers, nor any others of the “change agents” of which I have read, seem to understand that although we do not have the right nor responsibility to pronounce the destiny of any specific person, we do have both the right and responsibility to give the Bible teaching about a specific kind of person. For example, the Bible teaches that all thieves and liars have their part in the lake of fire, along with the fearful and unbelieving (Rev. 21:8). Now, suppose a little ten year old boy decides to stop by his neighbor’s watermelon patch and eat a melon. As he starts to run down the hill to get in the shade of a tree, he falls and breaks his neck and dies. Do you know whether he will be lost in eternity? Is it your business to make a pronouncement about it? Does the fact that you do not know how accountable he was mean that you must cease to preach and teach that all thieves will have their part in the lake of fire?
Suppose there is an eighteen year old boy who seems able to read and write and understand how to get in out of the rain, but not much more. You tell him about Jesus and that Jesus wants us to “Repent and be baptized for the remission of our sins” (Acts2:38). He dies without doing that. Is it your business to determine how much he knew, understood, believed, desired and did? The truth is that God’s final judgment will be in terms of a man’s ability, knowledge, attitude, opportunity, will and obedience to what he knows or can know of God’s word. There may be other factors we could list. About the only factor we can determine is what God’s word says, and most of us do not seem to know much about that. We certainly are not given either the responsibility or privilege of applying any of those factors in the final judgment day. You have the right to assume that from what you think you know of Solomon, David, Martin Luther, or my grandmother and how you think God’s word will be applied to them in judgment day that you can or can not find hope for them. But you have no right to this kind of reasoning: “Martin Luther was a great, honorable, God-loving Bible student. He was not immersed for the remission of his sins. He will certainly be saved in eternity. Therefore baptism is not essential.” You have no right to this kind of assumption: “Everyone is wrong about some things. If anyone ever gets to heaven it will be in spite of being wrong. Therefore, being wrong does not matter.”
There are so many things wrong with those kinds of statements that we cannot properly deal with all of them. Let us look at a few. First, your judgment of Martin Luther or O. J. Simpson has nothing at all to do with their guilt or innocence. Second, how do you know that Luther was not immersed for the remission of his sins? I have read some of his statements that sound something like this: “A person is saved only by faith. Repentance and baptism are acts of faith. May those rot in hell who teach that baptism is only a picture of salvation that you already have. Baptism in the New Testament was always by immersion.” So, you do not know what Martin Luther believed or did, partly because of his contradictory statements at different stages of his life. What he believed at one time, he may not have believed at another.
Third, no matter what you believe or know about Luther, you have no right to make any statement about his final eternal destiny, for only God knows how to apply all the factors that will be used at that time. Jonah may have assumed that when he said, “Ninevehwill perish” that God had no right to apply His will in a just and appropriate way and preventNinevehfrom perishing. But Jonah was wrong.
Fourth, when we teach that Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. He that believeth not shall be condemned,” all who have any reason know that the statement is a general one that we have the responsibility to teach, but that it does not apply to everyone. It does not apply to Abraham. It does not apply to babies. It does not apply to those who do not have the intelligence to be taught. There may be many others to whom it does not apply. Trying to decide who they are, or to what extent this applies to some particular specific or hypothetical person is not our right or responsibility. Our responsibility is to teach it without compromise, speculation or doubt. It is sad beyond expression that some brethren are saying the equivalent of this: “Since I assume that some person will be saved in eternity without doing what Jesus said do to be saved, then I must assume that it is improper for me to teach the necessity of doing what Jesus said to do. If I should teach that anyone is lost for failing to obey the gospel, then I am unloving and judgmental.”
How does all that relate to the rattlesnake I mentioned at the beginning? It relates in two or three ways. First, they may be closer than you think. Second, they sound a warning if we have enough sense to listen. When you hear anyone who sounds as if he does not understand the difference in the Lord’s church and some denomination, you should take special care. Whether we call him a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a rattlesnake makes little difference. Third, if rattlers are not stopped, they may do much damage. Fourth, just because there are rattlers all around does not mean that we should cease all productive activity and just look for them. There are those who have almost quit preaching the gospel, for all they do is hunt for rattlesnakes.
We should learn to maintain the proper balance. One needs to learn that he can pick the flowers, walk in the woods and enjoy life although there may be rattlesnakes around. One can preach the word without always taking time out to take pot shots at others. But we should watch and pray, and always be alert for the warning signs of departures from the faith, and false brethren who will lead astray, if possible, even the very elect.