What I Have Learned in 50 Years as a Theologian (Part 2)

By Jack Cottrell

Previously (in the February 7 issue) I discussed what I have learned in 50 years as a theologian under two headings: Fads vs. Fundamentals, and Truth vs. Relativism. Here I will conclude by discussing Law vs. Grace.

In six years of seminary work (at Westminster and Princeton), I was especially drawn to Reformation studies and was thus introduced to the doctrine of grace in ways that were new to me. I also spent much time studying the book of Romans. In my first semester of teaching at Cincinnati Bible Seminary (fall 1967), Lewis Foster asked me to teach a course called New Testament Theology. I decided to focus on soteriology (sin and salvation), concentrating on grace and building the course on Romans 1-8.

After three years I changed the course name to The Doctrine of Grace, and have now taught it more than 70 times. I have also given scores of church seminars on grace. Thus this is the one subject I have probably learned the most about in my career as a theologian.

Reluctantly, I have concluded that traditional Restoration thinking is seriously flawed in reference to grace. We have embraced specific doctrines that are grace-denying and that communicate the idea of salvation by works. Some will feel insulted by this judgment, but I stand by my conclusion. Thus I have devoted much time and energy attempting to reshape the way we should be teaching about sin and salvation. Here I will summarize my main points.

Positive Principles

First I will list the main positive principles of grace salvation.

• Sin causes a tension within God’s nature, transforming his holiness into wrath and his love into grace—both of which are directed toward the individual sinner. The purpose of the incarnation is to resolve this tension via the substitutionary atonement of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

• Every sinner has two main problems: (a) guilt and condemnation in relation to God’s law, and (b) a sinful (depraved, sin-sick) condition of the soul. The content of saving grace is thus a double cure: (a) justification or forgiveness through Christ’s blood, and (b) regeneration and sanctification through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

• We sinners become and remain justified only by grace, through faith in Christ’s redemptive work. Everyone needs to rethink the doctrine of justification by faith. We in the Restoration Movement need to take it more seriously. Protestant churches in general need to understand it as Luther did, rather than in Zwingli’s perverted sense (which is the common view).

• Sinners are justified by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (his satisfaction of the law’s requirement for penalty), not by our own personal righteousness or law-keeping.

• Every Christian should have assurance of salvation; a right understanding of justification by faith is the key to this assurance.

• When Paul says we are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14), the word law does not refer to any law code (especially the Mosaic law code), but to the law system of salvation. This distinction between law codes and the law system is crucial for a proper understanding of grace.

• There are two ways to enter Heaven: through the law system or through the grace system. The problem is that the former is no longer viable for anyone who has sinned (i.e., everyone, Romans 3:23). This is why anyone who is saved (in Old Testament times and New Testament times) is not under the law system, but under the grace system (Romans 6:14).

• Though we are not under the law system as a way of salvation, we are still under a lawcode that we are absolutely obligated to obey. In the New Testament era our law code is the moral law in general and all new covenant teaching about how to live a righteous, holy life. The faith that justifies is a faith that works, i.e., that makes every attempt to obey these law commands.

• Sinners are saved by grace (as the basis), through faith (as the means), in baptism (as the time), for good works (as the result). See Ephesians 2:8-10; Colossians 2:12.

• For its first 1,500 years, the Christian world (including Martin Luther) saw no contradiction between salvation by grace and salvation in baptism. Huldreich Zwingli, in 1523-25, created a whole new view of baptism that separated it from salvation.

• Salvation by grace through faith in no way contradicts salvation in baptism.

• The argument that baptism is a work and therefore cannot be for salvation is based on a false definition of works as Paul uses the term. Thus the key to accepting baptism as a grace event is a correct understanding of works. The key to this understanding is Paul’s distinction between “works of law” (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16) and “obedience to the gospel” (Romans 10:16, English Standard Version; 2 Thessalonians 1:8).

Three Serious Errors

I will now briefly explain three serious and interrelated errors about salvation that are typical of Restoration thinking.

• “How the sinner becomes saved is different from how the Christian stays saved.” The idea is that we are initially saved by grace, but we are kept saved by our works. This is called Galatianism because it was basically the view of the Judaizers, against whom Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians.

It was taught by Alexander Campbell, who said “sinners are justified by faith and Christians by works.” In the latter case, “nothing else comes in review on the day of judgment” (“To ‘Paulinus,’ Letter III,” Christian Baptist [IV:10], May 7, 1827). Campbellspecifically taught that the “terms of admission” into the church are different from the terms of admission into Heaven (“The Three Kingdoms,” Christian Baptist [VI:11], June 1, 1829).

Though we probably do not realize it, our traditional “plan of salvation” implies this false distinction. We tell sinners that they may become Christians through faith, repentance, confession, and baptism (the first four fingers of the “five-finger exercise”), which in fact are the biblical acts of obedience to the gospel. But when we add the fifth finger of “holy living,” this switches gears completely, implying that we stay saved by obeying the commands of our law code (i.e., by “works of law”).

When Paul says we are justified by grace through faith apart from works of law (Romans 3:24, 28), he means we become justified and stay justified in this way. The latter point is especially important: as Christians we stay justified (forgiven) as long as we continue to trust in the saving blood of Jesus Christ.

• “Baptism is for the forgiveness of past sins only.” This false idea has been present in Christendom since the second century. It has always been common in the Restoration Movement. The idea is that in baptism all our past sins are washed away, and we thus enter the saved state. But the next time we sin, we lose our salvation status and are again under the wrath of God until we do something to become forgiven again. This unhappy cycle continues until we die, and we are constantly in fear that we will die when we are in the unforgiven stage of the cycle.

There is absolutely no biblical teaching that baptism is for the forgiveness of past sins only. We are baptized for the forgiveness of sins, period. In baptism we enter into a state of grace (Romans 5:1, 2), a state of forgiveness, a saving relationship with Jesus that continues as long as our faith in him remains alive. It is not just our sins that are forgiven; WE are forgiven persons—even when we sin—because of our faith in Jesus. One may cease believing and thus lose salvation, but individual sins cannot be equated with such apostasy.

• “Forgiveness for post-baptismal sins is possible only by obeying 1 John 1:9.” The early belief that baptism is for the forgiveness of past sins only, necessarily led to speculation as to how Christians can receive forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. This ongoing speculation ultimately led to the formulation of the Catholic sacrament of penance, which embodied most of the works-salvation views that the Reformation opposed.

In the Restoration Movement we have developed our own version of penance (a mini-penance!), based on 1 John 1:9. We have erroneously understood John to be teaching that each individual sin puts us as Christians back into the state of lostness, from which we can be rescued only by confessing that specific sin and by repentantly praying for its forgiveness. After committing such a sin, we are lost until we go through this ritual.

This false idea, along with the previous two, has probably done more to obscure grace in the Restoration Movement than anything else. And I believe it is the result of a wrong interpretation of this text. Verses 8 and 10 show that John is talking not about the confession of specific sins, but about the (ongoing) confession of the fact that we are sinners, as in the case of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:9-14). In this parable, the Pharisee is the epitome of 1 John 1:8, 10 (“I have no sins!”), while the tax collector shows what 1 John 1:9 means (“I am a sinner!”).

In summary, we stay saved by continuing to trust in Christ’s atoning work; individual sins do not separate us from the grace of God. Part of this continuing trust is the continuing confession of our sinfulness and thus our continuing sense of need for grace.

Jack Cottrell has served as professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary since 1967. He holds a PhD from Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary and has just published his 20th book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace, available from College Press.

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