Biblical Principles of Unity and Fellowship
(Part Two of Four)

Joe R. Price

Editors Note: Watchman Magazine is running the following series of articles in the July, August, September and October issues of the Magazine. If you have not yet read Part One of the study, which appeared in the July issue, please do so by clicking here. Combined, these four articles represent a very thorough study of the subject. Enjoy!

Doctrine, Grace and Salvation

Some brethren disagree over whether doctrine affects salvation and whether we should warn others of false doctrine.

Galatians 1:6-9 affirms that we are removed from the grace of Christ when we accept teaching which is different from what the apostles of Christ preached and what was received from them in the first century. This being the case, how much of the apostolic doctrine can one differ with and remain in the grace of Christ: 1%? 5%? 30%? 50%? 80%? 90%? Must a person be in error on every point of doctrine before God’s grace is forfeited in his life? The Holy Spirit teaches us that doctrinal error causes one to fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). Therefore, doctrinal error is sin against God. The hypothesizing, speculating, conjecturing and rationalizing of men will not alter this God-given truth (1 Tim. 6:20-21; 2 Tim. 1:13-14).

How much of God’s will did Nadab and Abihu violate before they died before God? (Lev. 10:1-2) How much error did Uzzah commit before it cost him his life? (1 Chron. 13:9-10) Was straying from one point of truth enough to jeopardize the salvation of Hymenaeus and Philetus? (2 Tim. 2:17-18; cf. 1 Tim. 1:18-20) How much did the rich young ruler lack which prevented him from inheriting eternal life? (“ thing you lack....” - Mk. 10:21)

Grace does not save us from unrepented sin. A view of grace which allows man to rest comfortably in error while rebuking those who “contend earnestly for the faith” does not please God (Jude 3). Such an approach turns the grace of God into lasciviousness (Jude 4).

In Galatians 3:10, the apostle wrote, “For as many as are under the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’” This is not an indictment against exhorting Christians to obey all the commands and truth of God. It is an explanation of what it means to be saved by the works of (the) law, namely, sinless perfection. That is what it takes for a person to be just under a system of law. This fact is not at all at odds with the Christian keeping the commandments of Christ as a dutiful servant, loving his Master Jesus Christ (Lk. 17:10; Jno. 15:14; 2 Jno. 6; Eph. 2:8-10). The grace of God instructs us how to live (Titus 2:11-12). Unless our lives and teachings are in harmony with the “word of His grace,” we will not stand in God’s grace (Acts 20:24, 32; Rom. 5:1-2).

Saved “By Grace, Through Faith”

We are most certainly “saved by grace, through faith” (Eph. 2:8). The Law of Moses produced a knowledge of sin, but did not possess a mechanism for the absolute removal of sin (Rom. 3:20; Heb. 10:1-4). Law condemns -- unless one perfectly keeps (never violates) law (Gal. 3:10; Rom. 4:1-2, 4). But, it would be a mistake for us to conclude that when Jesus brought grace into the world it eliminated man’s responsibility to obey God’s law (Matt. 7:21-23; Heb. 5:8-9). It did not.

Truth is a companion of grace in John 1:17. Both came through Jesus Christ. We do not seek to elevate truth over grace. The Scriptures teach us that grace and truth are companions. To stand in God’s grace we must abide in God’s truth (Jno. 8:31-32). When we forfeit truth we fall from grace (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:4; Titus 2:11-12; 1 Pet. 5:12; Jude 3-4).

Galatians 5:4 affirms that seeking justification by law causes the Christian to be severed from Christ -- to fall from grace. Now, please note in Galatians 5:6 that “faith working through love” is what gives us strength in Christ. Is there any room for grace within the boundaries of a faith that works? Absolutely, for verse 7 says “You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” When the Galatians were obeying the truth they were strong in Christ and in His grace. When they turned to the Law of Moses for justification, they became impotent in Christ, severed from Him and fallen from grace. Likewise, when we obey the truth of the gospel in faith, we abide in the grace of God. When we do not obey His truth, we fall from His grace (Acts 20:32; Titus 2:11-12).

Can one live in disobedience and remain in God’s grace? Can a Christian engage in the works of the flesh and remain in the grace of God (cf. Gal. 5:19-21; Rom. 6:1-2)? By no means! If understanding and obeying divine law is not essential to remaining in the grace of God, then what prevents one from walking in the works of the flesh and still entering heaven (Gal. 5:19-21)? But, since we know one cannot commit sin and inherit the kingdom of God without forgiveness, we also conclude that one cannot disobey the word of Christ and remain in the grace of God (Gal. 5:6-7).

Could the Galatians have committed adultery - a work of the flesh - and remained in the grace of God? (Gal. 5:19-21) No, they could not. The point of disagreement among some brethren on this matter is whether the word of God’s grace has adequately defined adultery. Has truth been revealed to us in such a way that we can understand it? For instance, can we know from Scripture what constitutes the sin of adultery so that we can avoid it and stand in the grace of God? The answer to both questions is “yes.” Some, by their views on grace and the nature of revealed truth, deny it. This is one of the issues currently facing brethren who disagree on marriage, divorce and remarriage. The disagreement is not about demanding “salvation by perfection.” Although some try to make that the issue, it is not the issue! Nobody among us demands salvation upon that basis (Eph. 2:8-9).

Salvation by Perfection?

The Pharisees and Judaistic teachers thought that through the Law of Moses they could find eternal life (Jno. 5:39). That would have required perfect law-keeping -- sinless perfection -- a feat no one can claim (Rom. 3:9, 23). Whenever we first committed sin, we forever eliminated perfect law-keeping from our lives!

By advocating an understanding of and obedience to truth we are not promoting legalism or 'salvation by perfection.' Instead, we are applying the words of Christ when He said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Jno. 8:31-32)

The impossible yoke of which Peter spoke in Acts 15:10-11 was the notion that the law of Moses was a means of salvation. The history of Israel proved otherwise. They were sinners against the law -- not justified by it. All persons, whether Jews or Gentiles, can only be saved “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:11).

Living strictly under law, man is found to be a sinner and deserving of death (Rom. 3:20; 6:23). If man could be saved by law-keeping (and remember, sinless perfection is the only way to accomplish that) then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21; 3:10-11).

This principle of truth does not relieve the requirement of God’s grace that commands man to live in careful obedience (Heb. 5:9). Let us now look more closely at Titus 2:11-12:

.One cannot refuse to deny lust and ungodliness and be saved by God’s grace! When one denies sin and worldly lusts, he is keeping the law of God, since God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Does this mean one earns his salvation (salvation by works, that is, perfect law-keeping) when he obeys God’s command to repent of sin?

NO! “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do” (Lk. 17:10).

One must obey the law of Christ or grace will not be received. This is how salvation “by grace through faith” operates (Eph. 2:8-9). Some brethren are suggesting that by promoting obedience to the commands of Christ we are somehow advocating salvation by perfect law-keeping. This is not true. The question must be asked, ‘Is faith a requirement for one to obtain God’s grace?’ If so, does this mean that when one has faith that “grace is no longer grace?” Of course not. Yet, some among us are criticizing obedience as a ‘law of works’ that does not effect the matter of fellowship and unity of brethren (cf. 2 Jno. 9-11).

How truly discouraging! We must now spend time opposing and exposing Calvinistic doctrine to gospel preachers and other brethren in Christ! Grace is not a license to sin, nor does grace allow fellowship with error (Rom. 6:1-2; cf. Amos 3:3). This is fundamental to the faith (Jude 3-4; Heb. 6:1). However, as one brother recently put it to me,

In answer to “which way will you have it” we affirm that we must have it God’s way without the false definitions and constructions men are passing off as ‘salvation by grace.’ The Bible teaches there are works of faith without which one will not be saved (Jas. 2:22-24). Faith without works (obedience to the commands of God) is dead (Jas. 2:17, 26). We know nothing of God’s grace except through the teaching of "the word of His grace,” which includes the terms and conditions for abiding in His grace -- "the true grace of God in which you stand” (Acts 20:32; 1 Pet. 5:12). We are justified by faith when we obey Christ. As a result of our faith, we stand in His grace (Rom. 5:1-2).

Noah was an heir of the righteousness that is according to faith (Heb. 11:7). Did the fact that he had to obey God’s word and build the ark diminish or take away from God’s grace? (Gen. 6:8, 14, 22) Not at all, but only as Noah built the ark as God commanded was he and his family saved. If he had not obeyed God, he and his family would have perished with the sinful world.

Now, if we can understand that simple yet profound example of saving faith and God’s grace, why are some stumbling over one’s need to obey Jesus in the matter of marriage, divorce and remarriage? To obey Jesus is not to advocate salvation by perfect works, perfect knowledge or perfect doctrinal correctness. It is to follow the example of Noah and put one’s faith in Christ into action. It is a matter of obeying every command given to us by our Savior, just like Noah did (Jno. 14:15; Lk. 17:10). It is obeying the instructions of God’s grace, just like Noah did (Tit. 2:11-12).

One cannot be out of harmony with the apostles’ doctrine and still stand in the grace of God (Rom. 5:1-2; 2 Jno. 9). If this is not true, then testing the teachings of men against the objective standard of Scriptures has not only become an unnecessary excersise, but also an intrusive, divisive action (1 Jno. 4:1, 6; Matt. 7:15-23; Gal. 1:6-10). Such a conclusion cannot be drawn from the teachings of the word of God.

The True Grace of God

An understanding of God’s grace is vital as we apply God’s principles of unity. We have no right to extend or offer God’s grace where He has not done so, or to whom He has not done so. Neither do we have the right to define His grace in any way other than it is defined in the holy scriptures.

The scriptures teach us that “true grace of God” includes the commands of God. One such verse reads:

So, Peter affirms that what he briefly wrote to the saints (the epistle of 1 Peter) was the “true grace of God.” Therefore, by observing what the apostle wrote in his inspired epistle, we can determine what comprises the “true grace of God.”

A study of 1 Peter reveals that God’s grace includes obedience in holy living (1 Pet. 1:13-16); abstaining from fleshly lusts (1 Pet. 2:11-12); submitting to civil government (1 Pet. 2:13-17); husbandly and wifely responsibilities (1 Pet. 3:1-7); putting away worldliness (sexual immorality, social drinking, drunkenness, and associated riotous conduct, 1 Pet. 4:1-3); abstinence from idolatry (1 Pet. 4:3); hospitality (1 Pet. 4:9); and the autonomy of local churches and their oversight (1 Pet. 5:1-3). These are but some of the instructions God’s grace teaches us so that we may stand in the true grace of God (Tit. 2:11; 1 Pet. 5:12). We cannot violate “the word of His grace” and still abide in “the true grace of God" (Acts 20:32; 1 Pet. 5:12). Any attempt to extend fellowship and unity beyond the boundaries of revealed truth, and then to justify it on the basis of God’s grace, has failed to properly define the “true grace of God.” One cannot disobey the commands and instructions of the Lord and yet claim His grace. Furthermore, we are not given God’s approval to have fellowship with those in such a condition (2 John 9-11; Eph. 5:8-11).

When we obey Jesus in faith, we do not establish a righteousness of our own. Noah did not do so when he obeyed and built the ark. Abraham did not do so when he prepared to offer Isaac in obedience to God’s command (Heb. 11:17; Jas. 2:22-24). These men, and many others, obtained God’s grace because in faith they obeyed God’s word.

Now, for an application which is drawing a lot of attention these days, namely, marriage, divorce and remarriage. According to the principles of truth we noted above, the Christian who will not obey Christ’s teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage has ceased to live by faith, and has thereby forfeited fellowship with Christ and the salvation found in Him (2 Jno. 9). He is not presently standing in the “true grace of God.” When we move away from obeying and teaching the revealed gospel of Christ, we remove ourselves from the grace of Christ (read Gal. 1:6-9). And, that includes our practice and teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage (remember, Peter wrote about marriage in his discourse on the “true grace of God,” 1 Pet. 3:1-7). If not, why not? You see, standing in grace does not mean God accepts us in spite of our sin (1 Jno. 2:1-2; 1:9 apply here)! Can we “agree to disagree” with God and still be saved? No! (cf. Amos 3:3 on the inability of walking together where agreement does not exist.)

We stand in the “true grace of God” when we obey God’s commands in faith (cf. Acts 20:32; Rom. 5:1-2). This does not mean we are saved by our own righteousness (that would require sinless perfection, Rom. 4:1-5). We are unprofitable servants who have only done their duty before our Master (cf. Lk. 17:10). Like Abraham, we are sinners who are saved by grace through faith. Since we are commanded to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” we cannot convince ourselves that regardless of what I know, believe and do, God’s grace will save me (2 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 6:1-2, 14-16; Tit. 2:11-12). Obtaining grace from God does not mean that He will accept us in spite of our sin!

Some brethren, in altering their view and application of God’s grace, charge that such a view of grace requires perfect knowledge and amounts to a self-defined righteousness. For instance, one brother wrote,

This is a false charge which does not properly define grace. For instance, if I don’t need grace in my life, why would Peter command me to grow in grace and in knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18)? The scriptures do not pit knowledge against grace, nor do we when we teach that grace is only obtained “through faith” - i.e., faithfully obeying God (Jas. 2:21-24; Rom. 4:1-5). The above argument is ineffective because it begs the question. The question is not whether grace and knowledge are opposed to each other, but whether God will overlook sin and error in our lives (teaching and conduct which is in violation of His revealed truth) and save us anyway. This is what the people in Matthew 7:21-23 pleaded for, but it is not what they received.

Are Christians Sinless?

Of course, Christians are not sinless, but we are to no longer allow sin to rule us (1 Jno. 1:8-10; 3:7-10; Rom. 6:5-14). The “true grace of God” must reach every part of our lives, (see again such passages as 1 Peter 5:12; 2 Peter 3:18; Titus 2:11-12; and Acts 20:32). God wants us to resist the devil and stand in His grace (Jas. 4:6-10). This demands that our faith be a working or obedient faith (Jas. 2:24; Eph. 2:8-9).

Doctrinal and moral error (sin) forfeits one’s standing in the grace of Christ (Gal. 1:6-9). One does not stand in grace (accepted and approved by God) in spite of doctrinal and moral error. If a Christian is accepted in grace in spite of sin, why then would he ever have to confess his sins to God (1 Jno. 1:9)? There would be no need to do so! God would simply show Him grace and save him in spite of his error. Why would the Christian ever need to repent and pray if, as some assert, grace allows room for doctrinal and moral error (Acts 8:22)? But, since God does not accept those in doctrinal and moral error, He commands us not to, either (2 Tim. 3:1-5; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Jno. 10-11; Rev. 2:2).

The scriptures teach that one’s own faith is accounted to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:3-8). Thus, the gospel reveals that when we live by faith we obtain God’s grace (Rom. 3:21-26). This is not a righteousness which is based upon one’s actions or knowledge (sinless perfection). It is righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). Obeying Christ is never identified in the scriptures as obtaining “a righteousness of my own” (Phil. 3:9)! When we keep the commandments of God, we are not establishing our own righteousness -- we are conforming to the righteousness which is through faith in Christ (1 Jno. 2:3-6; 2 Jno. 6)!

Paul said: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Cor. 7:19). When Paul kept the commandments of God he was not establishing his own form of righteousness. Yet, when we advocate this truth and make a specific application to adultery, we are being charged with ignoring and perverting the grace of God (Gal. 1:6-10)! (Some are turning God’s grace into lasciviousness, Jude 3-4!) Since Paul was not establishing an alternate righteousness by advocating an obedient faith, neither are we when we follow his example (1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9). By teaching people to obey Christ’s word on divorce and remarriage we are not establishing our own brand of righteousness. We are calling people to the righteousness of God which is according to faith (Rom. 1:16-17). We are calling upon them to stand in the “true grace of God.”

Agreeing to Disagree on the Revealed Faith and Doctrine

Some brethren believe that we can disagree on matters of faith and doctrine since we are saved by grace. They define the true grace of God wherein we stand as “agreeing to disagree” on some parts of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (1 Pet. 5:12; Jude 3). It is being taught that God accepts men in spite of doctrinal error, therefore, we must accept one another in spite of differences in matters of the revealed faith and doctrine. These definitions and applications of grace and unity are foreign to the word of God.

If we are displaying the same grace toward one another that God displays towards us by “agreeing to disagree” on matters of the revealed faith and doctrine, then it is clearly implied that we can disagree with God and still be saved by His grace!! If this is true, then all who left denominationalism upon learning of their error and sin should repent of leaving those churches and return to the grace of God which allows us to “agree to disagree!” Hallelujah for “choosing the church of your choice!” I can go back to the Methodist Church and tell my parents that we don’t have to be concerned anymore about our disagreement over matters of faith and doctrine!! God in His grace will accept us anyway!!

If brethren do not wish to leave this implication, then we plead with them to give up their man-made definition of grace with its perverted doctrine of fellowship (“agreeing to disagree”). Feeling the impact of the logical extension and consequence of their doctrine, the reply has been,

No, this is not a smokescreen. It is the logical extension of the doctrine of agreeing to disagree. Whenever a doctrine can, by logical extension, be reduced to clear error, the doctrine itself is shown to be false. One cannot simply say, “That is a smokescreen,” and make it so. If we must display a grace which agrees to disagree because “God displays” that kind of grace “towards us,” then baptism can be included in this discussion. It is doctrine, yet not everyone agrees on it. (It is not as “clear” to some as it is to others.)

We call upon the “agree to disagree” proponents to apply this reasoning to themselves. Do they show “grace” and receive into fellowship the denominationalist who teaches that water baptism is unnecessary for salvation? God does not (Mk. 16:16). Yet, they will show “grace” to the person who teaches that adultery is a “non-sexual” sin (Rethinking Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage, Jerry Bassett, p. 77-78), even though that teaching is foreign to the word of God (Heb. 13:4)! Why will these brethren allow a man to redefine adultery, but refuse to allow another man to redefine baptism? Clarity? Common sense? These are arbitrary, subjective decisions which cannot be sustained by the Scriptures and which do not support the conclusion that we should define grace and unity as “agreeing to disagree.”

Imagine if a member of a congregation which defines grace as “agreeing to disagree” on matters of the revealed faith let it be known that he had never actually been baptized (some churches of Christ have such members). Further, he made it known that he disagreed with the teaching that one must be baptized to be saved. What would that church, which pleads for tolerance in matters of doctrine and the revealed faith, do in this situation? They could not be consistent if they told the man he is wrong (it would be too arrogant to oppose a doctrinal difference!). (Remember, the defenders of this “grace-unity” view assert that because we do not have apostles with us today, our own interpretation of the Scriptures is flawed. According to them, we are helpless to know with absolute certainty what is right and what is wrong.) All these brethren could tell that person is that they disagree, but would continue to work together. They would have to continue to fellowship him. This doctrine forces brethren to compromise, tolerate and accept error. This is the logical extension or outcome of the concept when put into practice. It is not a smokescreen to discuss baptism in this regard. Beware the subtlety of false doctrine! (Acts 20:29-32)

The Effort to Defend Unity in Doctrinal Diversity

Several rationales are being presented in an effort to persuade us that the people of God must agree to disagree upon at least some parts of the revealed faith if we are to accomplish unity of the saints. Here are two which deserve attention from the scriptures so that we may put our faith in the power of God and not the wisdom of men as we endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3; 1 Cor. 2:1-5).

Common Sense

The appeal to common sense to convince us we must agree to disagree upon some matters of the revealed faith of Christ goes like this: “Common sense tells us that some things in the scriptures are clear and some things are not so clear.” And of course, on the surface, such reasoning appears sound. There are indeed some parts of inspired scripture which are “hard to understand” when compared to other parts of scripture (2 Pet. 2:16). But that distinction is never used to endorse the “agree to disagree” philosophy of fellowship! To do so is to twist the scriptures in the very way Peter was warning against as he described the writings of the apostle Paul (2 Pet. 3:15-16). More difficult passages require more diligent study to show ourselves approved - not before the bar of man’s common sense - but before God (2 Tim. 2:15). So, in 2 Peter 3:18, Peter commands us to grow in knowledge (which is the result of diligent study).

If common sense is a marker for determining the clarity of Bible subjects (so that we can then decide what we must agree upon and what we can disagree about and still maintain fellowship with God and each other), whose common sense will we trust in making this important decision? The common sense of a Mormon? A Baptist? A Pentecostal? A Christian who advocates “no arranged Bible classes, no located preachers?” Whose common sense? Those who plead “common sense” as a guidepost for fellowship on Bible subjects want us to accept their common sense - make no mistake about it. But why should their common sense be elevated to this level of authority instead of yours, mine, or someone else’s?! This approach to fellowship in doctrinal diversity is bound to fail because its foundation is man, not God.

As the controversy over sponsoring churches and church support of human organizations raged, B. C. Goodpasture argued for “sanctified common sense” to defend his teaching and practice. My question is, who sanctified anyone’s common sense so that we can trust it rather than the revealed word of God? (cf. Jer. 17:5, 7)

Have we forgotten the admontion of the Scriptures, “there is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12)? Has Jeremiah’s acknowledgement of inferiority become foreign to us: “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jer. 10:23)? Our common sense must conform to revealed truth, else it is merely human wisdom which may or may not happen to conform to the truth which God has revealed (cf. 1 Cor. 4:4).

Individual and Collective Matters

Another approach being used to support and defend diversity in doctrine is that some things are individual matters and some things are collective matters.

Yes, some things are individual matters and some things are collective matters. But where is the Bible authority which gives us the right to “agree to disagree” about individual matters of morality and doctrine, but not about matters of collective action (passage please)?

Those who make this appeal will not universally apply their own guideline. For example, fornication is an individual action, yet in 1 Corinthians 5 its presence in a Christian’s life demanded that collective action be taken. Paul rebuked the Corinthians because they believed the individual’s sin did not and would not affect the collective -- but it would (v. 2, 6). The same leavening action of sin occurs today, and brethren must be warned not to take this sort of approach toward sin and error. Those who do as the Corinthians were doing fall under the same rebuke given to the Corinthians by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 5:2, 6, 13).

Trying hard to justify this faulty approach to unity, brethren are appealing to Romans 14 to support their misguided conclusion that individual action need not affect collective action. Here is how one proponent of “agreeing to disagree” on at least some doctrines presents this approach:

My dear brethren, nowhere in the Scriptures does grace mean that we may ‘agree to disagree’ over the revealed doctrine of Jesus Christ. This is not the oneness shared by the Father and Son, and it is not the oneness we are to promote. (Jno. 17:20-21; Eph. 4:1-6).

Romans 14 establishes the basis for unity among Christians in the realm of authorized liberties. In such a context, individual conscience is to be respected (14:1, 5, 13). Romans 14 addresses practices which are “clean” and “pure” before God (v. 14, 20). The activities under view in Romans 14 could either be practiced or declined with God’s acceptance, provided one did so with a clear conscience (v. 1-5, 22-23). This cannot be said of sinful doctrine and conduct, since they violate the truth of the gospel (1 Jno. 3:4).

2 John 9 still stands as a warning for us to not take comfort in going beyond the teaching of Christ:

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