In a limited discussion it is physically impossible to answer completely every aspect of a topic of this magnitude. We will try, however, to reply to the basic areas addressed by Mr. Heaster in his opening statement and at the same time to focus upon the general teaching of Scripture on the subject of salvation.
Our primary concern is to avoid building our confidence on a false premise; i.e., a premise drawn from any school of human philosophy and not from the Bible, the Bible being our only source of inspired knowledge today. What possible value can there be in relying upon the shed blood and righteousness of Christ for our salvation, unless we are absolutely sure this is the God-designed arrangement for us? The matter is of supreme importance because it concerns our eternal salvation; upon it we are staking our entire hope of future life. If we err, we will have lost all, for we have but one life, and it is soon over.
Picture a narrow bridge-walk across a wide, deep canyon. When you walk out upon that bridge, you want to know that it is structurally sound. If its supports are half rotten, you want to know it. You really do not care if everyone in the community thinks the bridge is safe; you want to know the facts. For when you walk out upon that bridge, you are trusting your life to it. In the same way, when we accept a teaching about salvation, we want to be sure that it has a solid foundation, because we are staking our life upon it. If the foundation proves to be rotten even if everyone around us believes it is solid-we will not trust it.
We are convinced that the teaching of the Christadelphians upon the subject of salvation is largely the same as that held almost universally throughout Christendom. And that doctrine has its foundation not in the Scriptures but in the time-honored creeds formulated by Ireneus, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Ambrose and the other Church fathers during the early centuries of our era, who were, in turn, influenced by the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and other pagan philosophers. The thinking of many of the Church fathers was a syncretism of Christian and pagan ideas, which they packaged under the name of “Christian,” but which was wholly foreign to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The inspired writings of the prophets, apostles and Jesus were not their sole source of knowledge.
Widespread among the pagans was the belief that the suffering of a god was of greater efficacy than the suffering of a human or animal victim. Thus the early believers were able to see in the death of Christ a supreme instance of a Deity sacrificing Himself for the sins of the human family to secure their forgiveness and salvation; hence the doctrine of the Atonement, which in time became the central dogma of the Christian Church.
The strangest fact is that Jesus Himself never said that forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God were to be consequences of His death. Nor did He ever say that the purpose of His life (or death) was to be a sacrificial atonement for sin. On the contrary, Jesus taught the absolute necessity of an upright, pure and holy character, and repentance as the sole basis for forgiveness (see Luke 24:47).
We readily agree that certain passages in the New Testament seem to say that the literal death of Christ is instrumental in our salvation. This has several causes:
- translators who believed the doctrine of the Atonement taught by the Christian Church;
- the firmly established preconception of the doctrine of the Atonement in the minds of most Christian believers today;
- a general misunderstanding of Biblical terms as literal which the writers intended to be symbolic and figurative, which are, by Peter’s description, “hard to be understood” (II Pet. 3:16).
Numerically, the passages in the above category are relatively few, compared with the many hundreds of texts which describe clearly the standard of character which God requires, loves, or commends. Either we must say that the Bible teaches two (contradictory) plans of salvation, or we must find a way to reconcile one group of passages with the other.
Because of the widespread acceptance of the Atonement doctrine throughout Christendom, it is all but impossible today to set prejudice aside and read the Bible with an open mind.
Hence our next question: How often is the idea of the atoning death of Christ read into rather than out of the Bible? How many texts would unprejudiced readers find to “prove” that Christ died to atone for our sins if they could read the Bible without this thought already in mind?
Take, for example, a few of the passages quoted by the Christadelphians in this debate, and the conclusions they have drawn: Heb. 10:4, “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins,” and their comment: “Therefore the sacrifice of the body of Jesus was needed.” Could any reading Hebrews 10:4 draw such a conclusion if the theory were not already firm in their minds? The passage says nothing whatever about “the sacrifice of the body of Jesus.” Or John 6:53, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” and their comment: “We must intensely associate ourselves with the sacrifice of Jesus.” John 6:53 says nothing about Jesus’ death or sacrifice.
Or take John 1:29: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” and their conclusion that reference is being made to Jesus’ death for all mankind—when the passage contains no mention whatever of Christ’s death. Or take their citing of I Cor. 10:1-2, that “[Israel] were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” and their conclusion that this means that “the blood of Jesus brings salvation for the new Israel.” Such conclusions, if drawn from these texts, must be read into the passages, for they cannot be read out of them— they are not there.
We must also be careful not to make statements which cannot be supported. For example, the Christadelphian statement that “The Bible stresses that salvation is through the sacrifice, not the example, of Christ.” We ask, Where does the Bible even make such a statement, with or without any “stress”? Or the Christadelphian statement that “Our salvation is obtainable because of the fact that Jesus offered Himself—His life, His blood, His very soul.” Here is another statement wholly without Bible support.
If Our Salvation Depends Upon The Merits Of Jesus Christ…
Then why was Paul so concerned about qualifying himself for the crown? He had been serving Christ many years when he wrote, “I therefore so run, …so fight I, …lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (I Cor. 9:26-27). If Christ’s blood had effect on anyone’s salvation, it surely should have had on Paul himself
—Or why did Paul write, “I have not yet reached perfection, but I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me ….I press towards the goal to win the prize”—was not such effort needless, if Christ’s righteousness was imputed to him by God’s system of justification? (Phil. 3:12-14, NEB). If perfection was Paul’s through Christ automatically, or if his own virtue and obedience did not matter to his salvation, why was he so concerned to achieve it?
—Or why did Paul write, “If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead”? (Phil. 3:11). Would this not be a meaningless statement if his salvation was sure because of the merits of Christ?
—Or why did Jesus in His letters to the seven churches warn each that they must “repent,” “hold fast,” or “be faithful unto death,”—or lose their crown? (Rev. 2:5, 16, 25, 10). What need for the warning, “I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Rev. 2:4), if they were saved by the righteousness of Christ?
—Or why was every blessing in those letters prefaced with the condition: “To him that overcometh”? (See Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21.) And why this admonition: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2) —if being “perfect before God” was not required for salvation?
—Or why did Jesus say, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24) —if entering were as simple a matter as accepting Christ’s imputed righteousness?
—Or why are we commanded to “walk worthy” of our high calling in Christ (Eph. 4:1-2) if our salvation is already won for us? Or why is the eternal reward, of being made “equal unto the angels,” reserved for those who shall “be accounted worthy” (Luke 20:35-36), if our individual effort is not a direct condition in our salvation?
—Or why should we “fear” lest we come short of obtaining the promises of God (Heb. 4:1), if we can claim those promises through the righteousness of Christ?
—Or why did Paul write to his brethren who were believers that he was enduring “for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory”? (II Tim. 2:10). They were elect, they were believers, they were in Christ, but their salvation was not yet sure.
—Or why should there be any “if” in the context of salvation if it is as simple as being baptized into Christ and receiving His merits? Why did Paul write to the Colossians that Christ had reconciled them “in the body of his flesh through death” and then go on to say “If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled”? Why was there any if— if by what he had just said he meant that their salvation was secured by Christ’s literal death? (Col. 1:22-23).
—Or why is it written of the faithful bride of Christ, “his wife hath made herself ready,” or that she is arrayed in “fine linen, clean and white”which is “the righteousness of saints” (Rev. 19:7-8) —if the credit rightfully belongs to Christ, and the righteousness is His, not hers?
—Or why does the Bible repeatedly state God’s method of rewarding “every man according as his work shall be” (Rev. 22:12) if our salvation does not depend wholly upon what we do, i.e., our own virtue and obedience? This principle is repeated in Scripture not once or twice but more than fifty times. What right have we to disallow it?
Much as we would like to think otherwise, we have to conclude that there is more—much more—to obtaining salvation than the simple formula of being baptized into the righteousness of Christ, or receiving merits He won for us.
The Use Of Figurative Language In Scripture
Figurative or symbolic language is common in everyday speech. Suppose we hear that “the door closed suddenly on a promising career.” A picture is created in our minds which we relate to the situation described. Or if we hear that a man “lost his shirt” in a business venture, we readily understand the meaning.
The Bible writers also used symbolic or figurative language, which can be readily understood if studied in the context of the overall teaching of the Bible.
The Apostles, having witnessed firsthand the dramatic life, death and resurrection of their Lord, were so deeply impressed by it all that in writing and teaching they drew heavily from His experience. His “life,” His “death,” His “crucifixion,” His “blood,” His “resurrection” —all were terms which they used freely and with deep significance to describe every believer’s commitment. Were we to take these terms literally we would destroy their meaning. For example, they wrote of “our old nature” being “crucified with him (Jesus Christ), that the body of sin might be destroyed” (Rom. 6:6). No one understood from this that every believer must be literally “crucified.”
Or when describing how new is the believer’s life in Christ, they called it a “resurrection” or “life from the dead,” so complete was the change from the old life to the new (Rom. 6:2-5). Again, they spoke of the new way of life as being newly begotten by the Word of truth (see I Pet. 1:3; I Cor. 4:15; James 1:18). So drastic was the change from the old way of life that being “in Christ” was like being a whole “new creature” (II Cor. 5:17).
In the same way, the term “death” was a fitting description of the old life completely given up, sacrificed, what Paul called a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). Paul, describing his daily battle with his own nature, said of himself, “I die daily” (I Cor. 15:31). No one thought he was literally dying every day. Rather, he was describing how completely he was giving up himself and his natural desires, instincts and affections. Again he wrote of himself, “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20), and again no one pictured him on Golgotha with Christ. Using the same terminology he commanded his brethren to “put to death” their earthly tendencies (Col. 3:3-5, RSV).
Jesus Himself used figurative language when He said: “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53). If we take these words literally, as alluding to His physical flesh and blood, we accuse Jesus of advocating cannibalism and also must conclude that He was talking to people who were literally dead because He said “Ye have no life in you.”
But no, Jesus was not speaking of things physical. Rather, His hearers were not spiritually alive because they were not partaking of the spiritual flesh and blood which He was offering them.
What was the spiritual flesh and blood that could produce and support spiritual life? Jesus Himself answered when He said, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). His “flesh and blood” were His words, His teachings these support spiritual life, just as physical flesh and blood support physical life.
In the same message, Jesus explained His point even more clearly: “As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me” (John 6:57). We live by eating of Jesus in the same way that Jesus lived by eating of His Father.
”The life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11) so the life of the spiritual flesh is in spiritual blood. How appropriate, then, that the Apostle should use the term “blood” with a symbolic meaning of life (spiritual life), also of that which supports or imparts spiritual life, i.e. the words of Jesus, His wisdom, His teachings. The heavenly wisdom, as spiritual blood, performs the functions that support and maintain spiritual life just as physical blood does for physical life. For example: The spiritual blood, or word of God, is the sanctifying medium. We read in Revelation that the saints “washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). Either we must have literal robes made literally white in literal blood (impossible!) or we must have spiritual robes made spiritually white (clean) in spiritual blood. What performs the functions of blood in a spiritual sense? Jesus explained it when He said, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:17, 19). “The truth,” His word, was the sanctifying medium. Paul said the same when speaking of Christ’s relation to the Church, “That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). He sanctifies and cleanses His church (His people) by the word.
- The spiritual blood, or word, cleanses from sin. The apostle John wrote in I John 1:7, “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Jesus said the same in these words: “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3). Peter said the same when he wrote, “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth” (I Pet. 1:22). Obeying the truth was the means of cleansing.
- The spiritual blood, or word, gives life. Jesus said, using blood as a symbol for His words: “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53). The Psalmist said the same when he wrote, in plain language, “Thy word hath quickened me” (Ps. 119:50).
- The spiritual blood, or word, saves. The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). “By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you” (I Cor. 15:1-2). Likewise spiritual blood, or the word, saves (redeems). “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7).
Pastor Ruth Sisson