I was talking today to a couple of people about the doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved‘ and we came to the conclusion that such a discussion was almost pointless. Almost. At least, what I mean is that there is always going to be both a time and a place for such a discussion but the outcome of the discussion will never really matter, in the whole scheme of things. I could have a conversation – nay, an argument, with anyone on the subject and feel totally justified in doing so. However, the topic is actually unanswerable, regardless of what some preachers might have to say on the subject. There is nothing definitive in either testaments that categorically state that we can either lose our salvation or that it is impossible to lose it once we have it. There are passages that can be interpreted either way, but nothing definitive. And, it has struck me that this is the case for the vast majority of topics upon which believers are divided – we agree on all the things that are clear cut and evidential, but the grey areas are the problem.
The truth is, the real problem is not the grey areas of Scripture – those notions and ideas and concepts of which the mystery is yet to be revealed; these are not the problem. The problem is us, and our insatiable need to rationalize everything until it is explained, understood, and filed away in the cabinet. In other words, we like to set the things we believe, in stone. We love doctrine and theology and everything else that needs an explanation or a fancy title. I’m just starting to realize just how far removed all of that is from the person of Yeshua. Yeshua never did this. He never did it to justify Himself, and He never did it in order to explain what He meant to others. For much of the time He spoke in parables – riddles that were designed to simplify the things of God. Paul used a similar method by drawing upon the cultures to which he was writing. In fact, when you stop and think about it, there is nothing in either the old or new testaments which you could describe as an intellectual explanation of the simple things of the gospel. That didn’t start happening until much later, and none of it qualifies in any way as Scripture.
It is true, however, that some of what Paul wrote does read in a complicated way, but it isn’t because he was intellectualizing it. It is more likely that the translators were trying to bend the original text into justification for their own leaders’ positions. For example, Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus appears at first glance to be incredibly complicated, which doesn’t seem to fit in with his simple approach to telling the gospel and encouraging others. It is not until you start to investigate that you realize that it is possible that the translators had their own (or someone else’s) agenda at the forefront of their mind. For example, the Greek word oikonomia appears three times in the letter to the Ephesians. In the translation I have open in front of me (New King James Version), the word is rendered twice as dispensation and once as fellowship. In other translations, the word is often rendered as administration or stewardship. The truth is, the word oikonomia literally means the ‘order of the household‘. What the entire letter to the Ephesians is all about, is Paul explaining to them the mystery, which God had revealed to him, about the body of Christ, or, if you prefer, the household of God. I am sure that when Paul dictated this letter to his scribe, he didn’t mean for the same word to have three different meanings. Paul was using a cultural reference – that of the patriarchal household or community which was known throughout Asia Minor, to liken it to the church and how the order of things work. Whoever translated it either failed to see the cultural reference, or had an agenda to hide it.
Now, this doesn’t in any way negate the letter to the Ephesians. In fact, it makes it even more important because if we can learn to simplify it, instead of complicating it with endless theories and doctrines, then we can get closer to the true gospel. The very moment we start to intellectualize the things of God, we have lost their true meaning. The establishment of doctrines and theology is against God, in exactly the same way that the building of the Tower of Babel was.
I accept that Paul does make reference to doctrine, and, in much of what he says of doctrine is in reference to good teaching. However, he also makes it clear that doctrine isn’t always a good thing:
“And He (Yeshua) gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors (actually shepherds) and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to effective working by which every part does for the edifying of itself in love.” [Ephesians 4:11-16 NKJV (my brackets)]
Phew! That is one of the longest sentences in the entire New Testament. I only include it all because I wanted to make reference to the being ‘tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine‘, and felt that it would be inappropriate to take that line out of context. I’m not convinced that what Paul dictated was in any way this complicated. There appears to be a great deal of words to say something relatively simple. The point I am trying to make is that doctrine can be used to carry people away from the true purpose of the church, which is to build up one another in love. Paul calls this the ‘trickery of men‘. I am inclined to think that some of his own letters have fallen prey to such trickery in their translations. That complicated and lengthy sentence puts people off from trying to understand it. And that is not in line with anything that Paul taught elsewhere.
That is merely one example of how we tend to complicate things that should be really simple. There are many others, not just in the translations of the New Testament writings, but in every volume written about them afterwards. We try to show just how clever we are by understanding something that never needed explaining in the first place. When I was at university my Politics lecturer said this of philosophers – that they are blind men, in dark rooms, looking for something that isn’t there. I think that it would be prudent to apply that to anyone who attempts to build edifices of doctrine and theology out of the most simple and beautiful good news of God. Myself included.
The writing of this series, which is now drawing to a close, has been an attempt on my part to understand what went wrong – to show myself how the church went from what it was that first morning of Pentecost, to the dreadful state it is in today. God has shown me, as I’ve written each part, that I am also part of the problem – I too like fancy explanations of things that I don’t really understand. There is nothing child-like in needing to understand and explain the things of God. I can never understand God. I might grasp a glimpse of something, but it will only be when my life as I currently know it is over before I understand in full. Through the glass, darkly, as Paul says (1st Corinthians 13).
It had been my intention, when I set about writing this series, to explain it all. My intention. God, it seems, had another intention. His intention was for me to see the futility of trying to explain it. He just wanted to show me how simple it is when I try not to understand and explain.
It is difficult to shake off the need to understand and explain, especially for anyone with an over-analytical mind, like me. I will finish the series, because what I now understand about what happened to the church between Pentecost and today is exactly what God has shown is wrong with my own walk – the church, consistently, over-complicated every issue by trying to understand it, and then by attempting to quantify it all into theology or doctrine or to intellectualize it. The divisions, the schisms, everything which divides that which was designed to be one, was the grey areas which God has deliberately left unexplained so that we could learn to simply trust in Him and what He says.
We have become like petulant children, demanding to know how a magic trick is performed. And when we don’t get an explanation, we make something up. And because it is our own opinion, it is both subjective and arbitrary. It’s fine if people share your opinion, but as soon as you come up against someone who has a different opinion, division arises and the ‘of one accord’ is gone.
God doesn’t want us to understand some of the mystery. He wants us to trust Him. We don’t need to know whether someone can lose their salvation – that’s exclusively between them and God alone. It has nothing to do with anyone else.
You will be aware, I am sure, that the apostle Paul tried to keep things simple. His approach, despite having all the training in all aspects of Hebrew theology, was to count it all as loss; to trade it all in just so that he might know Yeshua. He only preached Christ crucified and nothing else. His gospel was simple, but mighty in power. Just like His God. The Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, as you know, but of power. The wisdom of man is nothing. Before God, we are all nothing. To even want, like me, to be able to explain what I had hoped to explain, is the very height of arrogance. Secretly, I would have been hoping it made everyone who read my explanation think that I am super-spiritual.
I am not.
I am just trying to find my way back to the narrow path.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to see the whole picture. In order to try and gain some kind of healthy perspective on all of this, I often think of Abraham, to whom the promise was first made. He never saw the Promised Land in the way God promised it. Nor did his son, Isaac. And nor did Isaac’s son, Jacob. But Abraham never asked God for an explanation. He simply believed what God had said and got on with it. Sure, there was a wobble or two, but, for the main part, Abraham believed God and accepted that if it wasn’t to be in his lifetime, that he would still receive the promise in the world to come. I have a tendency to want it all now. I need to stop trying to figure it all out and be more like Abraham. I just need to believe.
I’ve been looking a great deal at Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. And after writing about the church in the last part, I’ve been thinking that they tend to get a bit of a rough deal of it in this day and age. Modern preachers tend to seize upon the sins of the Ephesians and make a great deal out of them. They batter them over the head for losing their first love (see Revelation 2:1-7), and then try to scare their own congregations into repentance for doing the same. We are so quick to judge that we tend to only see the sin and not the commendation of Yeshua. This church was able to discern false teaching and false apostles; they were able to prevent the deeds of the Nicolatians polluting their number. Such feats are surely to their credit?
It is time for the church to learn to be like the Ephesians – to test and reject everything that is not of God. We need to overlook their shortcomings and focus upon the Ephesians’ strengths – that they were built upon a strong foundation of a simple gospel. They were not founded upon endless doctrine and theologies. If they were, they would have surely welcomed in the false teachers and false apostles and even the Nicolatians.
I need greater discernment. I need God’s wisdom and not man’s. I don’t need to get caught up in man’s doctrines about whether we are once saved and therefore always saved. I need to get caught up in the love of God and the hope of that which is to come. Nothing else matters. All that matters is that I get my relationship right with God. If I do, then He will flow out from me to reach others. But, unless my relationship is right, how then can He ever fill me? If there is too much of me, or another man’s doctrine in my mind, how will He ever be able to renew it?
I realized yesterday that little matters apart from having a right understanding of the gospel – that Yeshua died in my place; that the punishment which was due to me, He took for me; that because He didn’t deserve to die, Death could not hold Him; that the power of the Holy Spirit raised Him from the dead; that that same power now lives in me because I accepted that I have sinned against God and repented of that sin; and that my life now belongs to Him, and that my purpose is to serve Him at His good pleasure.
Paul tells the church at Ephesus just what he had been praying for them:
“…that the God of our Lord Yeshua, the Christ, the Father of Glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your hearts being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power towards us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principalities and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.
And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be Head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” [Ephesians 1:17-23]
You have a choice now, as do I. I can re-read that prayer of Paul’s and think about what it means. Then I can choose to either complicate it (surely the translators have already done that?), or I can simplify it by just believing what it says…that wisdom and revelation only comes from God (and not from man), and that He will give it freely to His children in order for us to know that the salvation He has made available to us will come as an inheritance in the next life. In the meantime we should be aware that He lives in us with the same power which raised Him from the dead, and that because He lives in us, He has victory over everything which tries to defeat us. He is the Head of the Church. No man holds that post. Only Him.
I will draw this series to a close in the next part. I have made myself redundant. There is no need to continue to explain all the ins and outs of what the church did wrong. It is simple really – we stopped listening to God and started listening to man.