Dearly as all who love God would desire to break down the barriers which separate us on account of our unhappy divisions, that cannot be accomplished unless we get out priorities right.
Recently there was published an extremely significant statement of the aims which governed the ministry of one who has now departed from us, the late A. E. Knoch. Much in it is admirable; but it has one flaw, a fatal flaw which first weakened and presently began to destroy through schism the declared aims of his ministry. It speaks of grace and love, of prayer and praise, faithfulness to God and His Word, "mutual forbearance and love," patience, meekness and humility, subjection to God. It even says: "Let us not insist on our rights but rather forego them when this will serve the saints." Admirable! Yet this was the only reference to the word "right" in the entire statement, and the word righteousness does not appear at all in it.
How different the Apostle Paul. He uses the word dikaiosunE, righteousness, no less than thirty-six times in his opening epistle, Romans, alone; and twenty-four in his other epistles. The General Epistles have it eighteen times. The very first reference to the word in the Greek Scriptures was from the mouth of the Lord Jesus Himself. It was fitting for Him to be baptized by John the Baptist. Why so? "To fulfil every righteousness." (Matt. 3:15).
There, clearly set out, is the objective, the ultimate aim, of the Lord Jesus when He began His ministry. The Apostle Paul's emphasis on righteousness in Romans tells the same story. Why so? Because the Evangel is based on righteousness, which itself depends on faith. The Hebrews Epistle testifies likewise. What God says to the Son (Heb. 1:9) at the start is: "Thou lovest righteousness and hatest unrighteousness." (What a pity the Concordant Version spoils this contrast by having "injustice" instead of the latter!). And this epistle (Heb. 7:2) reinforces the lesson of Rom. 5:1—that being made righteous out of faith we may be having peace with God—by emphasizing that Melchisedek's kingship is first of righteousness, thereupon of peace. That is God's order of priority. Any substitute is an open breach of that order and therefore is of the nature of apostasy.
This is where the weakness of the statement of A.E.K.'s aims becomes all too plainly manifest; for though righteousness is not referred to even once, peace is mentioned four times.
A very revealing statement is made: "We hoped that among our friends, dissensions would cease, now that we no longer based fellowship on doctrine." When this idea was first mooted, many years ago, it seemed unanswerable. All the sects came into being on doctrinal grounds. Base fellowship on grace and love, not on doctrine; and we supposed that all excuse for schism must vanish. So it appeared then; but soon something also appeared: fierce controversy, followed by schism, not because of direct doctrinal differences, but because one brother went further towards accuracy in translating the Scriptures than others were prepared to tolerate.
So, a few lines after the statement quoted above, another appears:
This becomes evident if we attempt to carry the idea to its logical conclusion. In what way do we differ from decent-living Buddhists and Muslims? In doctrine, simply that.
And, indeed, we see some measure of realization of this truth in that writer's own words, "among our friends," just before the passage just quoted. So there is after all, a doctrinal tie. Though not stated, fellowship is based by him on holding Christianity in common and even in referring to Scripture as ultimate authority in common.
So that statement of aims by A.E.K. is, in this respect,question-begging. He has, all along, based fellowship on doctrine, however strongly he may have disclaimed it, though no doubt he did not realize it.
"We cannot expect those who deny grace to act graciously." Neither can we expect those who fail to put righteousness, what is right, first, to act righteously. It is on this alone that peace depends, as also do loving tolerance, patience, meekness and humility. Any lack of these virtues is the result of failure to, perceive the supreme standing of righteousness, and this failure is itself the result of lack of faith, of believing God, which is the absolute essential for righteousness.
Though with the best of declared intentions, A.E.K. had failed to get his ideas clear because he had failed to get his -priorities right. To show grace to others is possible only to those who have received God's grace and who are made righteous gratuitously by His grace. Grace in us is the fruit of righteousness, not something not dependent on it, that we can display whether we are right with God or not.
Seen in relation to God Himself, everything we have comes from His grace. But this, most emphatically, does not mean that we can, as it were, instantly take over His grace and make it our grace—just that. To be able to act graciously, we must have, first of all, His righteousness, we must have been put right by Him and, having been put right, we must see to it that we act accordingly and are right in our relationships with others. And for that we need faith, we must believe God as Abraham did. We cannot expect those who lack faith—real, full faith—to act as if they possessed it and to display the righteousness that proceeds from faith, and from faith alone.
To ask someone whose life and conduct is not righteous to act graciously is to demand an impossibility.
Just as Romans has more to say about righteousness than any other book in the Greek Scriptures, so it has more to say about adikia, unrighteousness; and a horrible recital it is. Yet there is one passage where we get an association with grace, Rom. 6:13, 14: "Neither be presenting your members to the sin, as implements of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as alive out of dead ones, and your members as implements of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be mastering you, for you are not under law but under grace." Now all this is addressed to us "who died to sin" (6:2) and all that means (6:3-11); and this in turn takes for granted that we have been made righteous out of faith (5:1). Our subjection to grace, right through these two chapters, is something that results from our having been made righteous. Then, and then only, may we refrain from presenting our members to the sin as implements of unrighteousness, but, instead, as implements of righteousness to God. From this standpoint righteousness comes first and foremost, and subjection to grace the consequence of righteousness.
Note: it is "the sin" in Rom. 6:13 and, going backwards, in every occurrence of the word till Rom. 5:13. In v. 12 it is the sin again, back to 4:8 and 3:20 and 3:9. Sin itself is associated either with man's failure to be righteous, or with law, in all these occurrences.
This is what I meant when I wrote of getting priorities right. It is pointless and futile to talk about "acting graciously" until we first consider acting righteously, and see to it that we do so act.
To decline to base fellowship on doctrine is in essence to attempt to base it on nothing whatever, because practise depends on doctrine. Faith is the doorway through which it is necessary to pass before any fellowship in the Christian sense is possible. We are not called into some sort of ethical fellowship, a community whose basis is mutual forbearance and love. These should be our aim; but they are not, and cannot be, the starting point of fellowship, but its fruit.
There were strifes among the Corinthians (1. Cor. 1:11). These showed themselves in partizanship. Did the Apostle Paul tell them each to keep to his chosen leader, to be gracious to each other and keep the peace, but not to bother about differences of opinion; to be full of loving tolerance and not to worry about doctrinal differences? Not by any means! His answer to them was: "God is faithful, through Whom you were called into fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Now I am entreating you, brethren, through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that you all may be saying the same thing, and that there may be no schisms among you; but that you may be attuned in the same mind and in the same opinion" (1. Cor. 1:9, 10). That is plain enough. Our calling is into fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, not into some vaguely independent society of people with all sorts of beliefs. There is a fixed standard; so in accordance with it we must be saying the same thing—being in the same mind and in the same opinion.
This is no visionary idea as some would have us think, but a plain statement of fact. And, lest anyone should be guilty of some stupid sort of literalism, Paul goes on to illustrate his meaning. He sets the fellowship of God's Son, on the one hand, over against, on the other, attachment to some leader—himself, Paul; or Apollos, or Cephas—as if that leader led a faction which each reader is urged by one or other of the sectarians to join. He even specifies those who say, "I of Christ"; as if there were, or ever could be, a "Christ faction" distinct from all other Christians; though, in these decadent days, some sects talk as if there were. All that sort of sectarianism belongs to what is fleshy. It is a process of walking according to man, not walking according to God.
All this Paul develops at length in the first four chapters of I. Corinthians; for this aspect of his argument is summed-up in 1. Cor. 4:6: "Now these things brethren, I transfer in figure to myself and Apollos because of you, that in us you may be learning not to be having a bias above what has stood written, that no one may be puffing up for the one against the other."
He had, moreover, just written something else. Paul and Sosthenes were deputies of Christ and stewards of God's secrets. And through him, in the teaching of his epistles, so are we. Thus, he goes on: "Here, moreover, it is being required in stewards that one be found faithful." That is the ultimate test: faithfulness in our stewardship of God's secrets. Yes, not only so, but refusal to have bias above what God's Word actually says.
During a fairly long life I have read many things about these matters, and I have become ever more firmly assured that all sectarianism comes from a bias beyond what God's Word actually says. We all, at times, hit on some bright idea about Scripture, a novel theory that appeals to us as going some way towards solving a problem. That is all to the good. It is the way to better understanding of the Word. But at the entrance of that way lies a pitfall: bias in favour of what we have ourselves created. That we must avoid at all costs. The moment we even entertain the idea of setting our own discovery on a sort of pedestal, we have become a sect and started a schism.
A weakness of A.E.K.—as his ideas have always appeared to me—was his excessive self-reliance in matters of the mind. I gathered long ago that he did not think highly of commentaries, and declined to consult other translations when the Concordant Version was prepared. Such a frame of mind is not only wrong in itself, it was a most serious mistake in practise. Not only did it amount to contempt for the labours of other members of the body of Christ, it injured his own labours and harmed himself. That attitude of mind appears in this question of the proper basis of fellowship. Hitherto all Christians had maintained unity within their sects on a creedal basis; for experience had shown from the very start that this is the only way. But all these sects are wrong! Granted. But in what way are they wrong: in having a creed, or in having a faulty creed?
The remark by A.E.K. that I described a while back as "revealing" supplies the answer, an answer that he eventually reached in the light of long experience. In full, it reads: "We hoped that, among our friends, dissensions would cease, now that we no longer based fellowship on doctrine. And, indeed, we have had sweet fellowship with many who were not one with us in all of our interpretations, although, in some cases, the fellowship was necessarily limited because of a great divergence in teaching. Yet the essential unity was maintained in mutual forbearance and love. We are thankful that, in many instances, this continues to be the case." Note the "not one with us in all," "necessarily limited," "in many instances." The reason why unity could be maintained in those many instances is plainly that in them the differences were sufficiently slight to be bearable.
We cannot expect those who deny the need for repentance to repent. Consequently, those who are influenced, however mildly, by the views of J. J. B. Coles, so often mentioned in this magazine, have an exceedingly strong inducement to push aside the teaching of the Gospels, Acts and 1. and 2. Corinthians has something that does not belong to them or directly concern them, at any rate where it is inconvenient. So they are able without compunction to shrug off such Scriptures as Acts 17:30, regardless of the fact that here the Apostle Paul was addressing Gentiles and saying that "God is now charging to the whole of humanity, all, everywhere, to be repenting." Similarly, Paul informed Agrippa that "to those in Damascus first, besides in Jerusalem also, as well as the entire province of Judea, and to the Gentiles, I reported that they should be repenting and turning back to God, practising acts worthy of the repentance" (Acts 26:20). Note the pointed inclusion of the Gentiles in this. Moreover, 2. Cor. 7:9, 10 and 12:21 bear the same testimony, one wholly in line with the message of the Gospels.
However squeamishly some may shrink from facing things which they find uncomfortable, the fact remains that repentance is the inescapable prelude to faith, and so to righteousness, and so to peace, and so to going on to maturity.
It is right and proper and ideal that we should go on to maturity; but we cannot do this if we refuse to start in the way God has chosen.
This fact is all too seldom appreciated. Paul could not speak to the Corinthians as to spiritual but as to fleshy, as to minors in Christ (1. Cor. 3:1-3). He had to give them milk, not solid food. Those to whom Hebrews was addressed were in the same condition (Heb. 5:12). Such folk are "untried of a word of righteousness"; tragically, they are simply unable to discriminate between what is ideal and what is evil.
We should leave the rudiments of the word of Christ, not foundation-laying again. Yes, again. But those who have not experienced that foundation at all, who know nothing of repentance from dead works and faith on God and the rest of what is recited, are in no position to go on to maturity. We cannot do again what we have never done at all. We cannot leave the rudiments of the word of Christ if we have never known them. To start on the road, to change the figure, there must be a starting point. All this, be it noted, was primarily an exhortation to Hebrews. How much greater, then, the shame on us who possess Paul's Evangel and ought to have mastered it through and through, if we have to admit that we are in the same state as they and the Corinthians were; and as so many are. Such "believers" have no excuse.
Yet so many of these people affect to despise those foundations, of which they personally know nothing, and imagine they are going on to a maturity of which they know even less and which is permanently beyond their reach while they persist in such a frame of mind. A distressing example of the consequences of such an attitude was seen when many brethren attempted to create a bond of unity around the 1930 Concordant Version and then reacted severely against Mr. Alexander Thomson when he exposed some of the many errors in it. If they had cared for what is right, for righteousness in the truest sense, they would have welcomed his efforts to improve the version, instead of ostracising him as they did and continue to do.
The first requirement for all of us is righteousness. This can be achieved only by faith, by believing God. In turn, this faith is possible only through a change of mind, repentance, a turning away from the things of self to God. This is our creed; and for the purpose of unity, that is all the creed we need.
Once that foundation is well and truly laid we can build up maturity upon it; and with maturity we can have what eluded A.E.K., that practical unity which depends on the tie of peace which in turn depends on righteousness—not on loving tolerance, etc., for they are the fruit of righteousness.
R.B.W.Last updated 26.5.2006