The Apostle Paul warned repeatedly about those who would bring another gospel, different from the one he preached. He even went so far as to say in Galatians 1:8,
“Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
Clearly the peril of receiving a distorted gospel is so great that we are instructed to utterly cut off and have nothing to do with the one who willfully preaches it. (In 2 John it says not even to give him a greeting.) Often, however, those who have the ’other gospel’ are not intentionally preaching error. They are simply repeating what they have been taught. What they need is not rejection, but someone to reach out to them and show them the truth.
Imagine, then, that you have a conversation with someone and detect that his gospel is different from yours. The encounter might go something like this:
Q: I can sense from the little I know about you that you sincerely believe in Jesus. But just exactly what do you believe?
A: Well, that’s a pretty broad subject ...
Q: That’s true. I’ll try to be more specific. What, for example, do you say that a person has to do in order to be saved?
A: Hmmm ... There are Bible verses that speak of what a person must do ...
Q: Well, I think this question will help bring clarity: do you think God requires anything from you besides simply believing that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins?
A: Yes, we believe that He requires more than that.
Q: That’s what I thought. Let me share with you a little bit from the Word, then. Let’s look at Ephesians 2:8-9. It says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” Have you ever read that?
A: Oh, yes, definitely ...
Q: Well, you can see right here that salvation is a free gift. It’s only by grace and through faith. And so there are no works required. If there were works required, someone could boast, right?
A: Well ...
Q: John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It doesn’t say anything about doing works, does it? All you have to do is just believe. This is grace.
And Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” If there was something other than just simply believing required, then it wouldn’t be grace anymore, would it?
A: Well, that’s not the message we heard ...
Q: I didn’t think it was. But consider what happened to the Galatians. People started preaching works to them, telling them they had to be circumcised, so Paul said in Galatians 5:4, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."
Paul warns of a great danger here. And you’d do well to pay attention. In fact, if I were you I wouldn’t pay any attention to people who say that God requires more than simply believing. Such people put you under the curse again and make you work for your salvation. You don’t want to be under a curse, do you?
A: Oh, no. Definitely not.
Q: So tell me, who are these people and what have they been telling you that you have to do?
A: Well, one thing that the apostle John tells me is that if I don’t obey the Son, I won’t see life. Could I see your Bible? It’s right here in John 3:36 (20 verses after John 3:16), “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
And then over here in Hebrews 5:9, it tells me that the Son “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.” So, I am told that He requires obedience.
Q: Yes, but you can’t just take a couple of scriptures out of context!
A: And in Acts 3:22-23, Peter quotes Moses concerning our Savior, “To Him you shall give heed in everything He says to you,” and, “every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.” So it seems like God is pretty serious about His Son being obeyed ...
Q: But you can’t take those things and start making them prerequisites to salvation. Salvation is not by works, but by faith alone — apart from any works whatsoever. You can’t earn your salvation.
A: We’re not talking about earning salvation. We’re talking about obeying the gospel.
A: Obeying the gospel, like it says in 2 Thessalonians 1:8, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus."
Q: But that just means obedience in the sense that when you hear the gospel, you receive it by faith and accept its terms — in other words, believe what it says.
A: Not at all! What it means is that the good news doesn’t consist of doctrines to be accepted in your mind, but rather commands to be obeyed in your experience. God has a right to expect obedience, doesn’t He? He’s not unrighteous. He doesn’t give commands that can’t be obeyed by those who walk according to the Spirit, as it says in Romans 8:4. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know God.
Q: How can you say that? Nobody has ever been able to obey the Law!
A: Our Master did.
Q: Yeah, but He was God!
A: He is MAN.
A: Yes, a human being.
Q: Ohhh ... Then you’re saying that He wasn’t God? You’re saying that He was just a perfect man who kept the Law?
A: You’re asking two different questions. First, we are saying that He is the incarnate Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. But we are also saying that it wasn’t because of divinity that He was able to obey the commands of God. He came in the flesh.
The Spirit we speak in says, “He came in the flesh,” just as it says in 1 John 4:1-3. He suffered as a man; He loved as a man; He ascended as a man; He sits at the right hand of His Father as a man; and He will return as a man. He came in the flesh. He obeyed God as a man. He left us an example to follow in His steps. And so it is possible for us to obey His commands, as human beings. This is the spirit in which we speak.
But another spirit says, “He did everything because He was God.” And that spirit does not confess His manhood. In fact, it undermines obedience to Him by putting His example beyond the reach of our imitation. And according to 1 John 4:1-3, that spirit is of the antichrist.
Q: Well, all I’m trying to get at is this thing about having to keep the Law in order to be saved. Putting people under that kind of bondage is just what Paul was talking about in Galatians 1:6 when he said, “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel."
Paul goes on to explain that the “different gospel” he is speaking of is one that tries to find salvation through works of the Law, particularly circumcision. He says it most clearly in Galatians 5:4 and 6: “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace,” and “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircum-cision means anything, but faith working through love."
So, someone who tries to find justification through works of the Law is severed from Christ and fallen from grace!
A: That’s absolutely right.
Q: But don’t you see that that’s exactly what you are doing? It doesn’t matter if you do works of the Law or not. All that matters is grace and faith. So when you said that you have to obey the Law in order to be justified, you were proclaiming a gospel that is cursed, and the only ...
A: Excuse me, but we aren’t saying that a person has to keep the Law in order to be justified. We are only saying that God requires obedience. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:19, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commandments is what counts."
So there’s more to salvation than simply accepting the fact that His Son died for our sins. The demons believe that fact for certain, but they aren’t saved by their belief.
Q: But salvation is a free gift — saved by grace through faith — it is not the result of anything we do. That’s what is says in Ephesians 2:8-9. So how can salvation still be a free gift if God requires more than just believing?
A: Eternal life is a free gift. But who is it given to? A lot of people think that eternal life is like those coupons you find in a little rack in the grocery store. There’s a sign there saying, “Free — take one!” Anybody who comes along and wants a coupon can have one. Even if they never intend to buy the product that the coupon is for, they can still have the coupon.
Some people think that all they have to do is pick up their Eternal Life coupon and they’ve got their ticket to heaven. They’ve got Eternal Life and the devil can’t take them to hell no matter how much they disobey God and obey the devil. They think that “accepting” the “free gift” is what salvation is all about. No risk, no obligation, totally free — just pick up the coupon — just believe that Jesus died for sinners. “That’s me,” they say, “I don’t want to die for my sin. I’ll be glad to let Jesus pay for my sins. What a relief!"
But that kind of thing isn’t a free gift — it’s a promotional gimmick. God requires something of those He saves. It has nothing to do with earning eternal life by your deeds. Anyone who thinks eternal life can be earned doesn’t know how much it’s worth. It’s not even within our buying power. It can only come as a free gift, bestowed by a gracious God on those who are powerless to get it themselves.
But He doesn’t give eternal life to those who “believe” that Jesus died for their sins and yet continue living in disobedience. That’s why Hebrews 5:9 says, “He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation ...” and why Acts 5:32 speaks of “the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him."
Q: Well, I don’t know about that. I think you’re just interpreting one or two isolated verses to fit your doctrine of works. You’d better be careful. Paul said in Galatians 3:10, “All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse, for it is written, ’Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’” You start emphasizing anything other than grace and faith and you’ll find yourself in bondage to the Law to obey every jot and tittle.
A: So, have you come to know the Son of God apart from obedience?
Q: Yes, I have. I’ve come to know Him through faith.
A: How do you know that you’ve come to know Him? Is that just your own subjective feeling?
Q: Well, Ephesians 3:17 says, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” And Romans 3:28 says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
A: So, suppose someone told you that the only way you could have any assurance of knowing Him is if you obey His commands. What would you say to that person?
Q: I’d say the same thing I’m saying to you. I’d answer him with the Word of God.
A: Hmmm ... Could I see your Bible?
Q: Certainly. Here.
A: What do you believe about this passage right here? It’s 1 John 2:3-4.
Q: Read it.
A: Okay. “We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says, ’I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him."
Q: Let me see that ...
A: Do you think that John is talking about works here?
A: You see, we don’t believe that anyone is justified or comes to know Him through works of the Law, any more than you do. The apostle John certainly didn’t put people under the Law.
Q: But, I don’t ... I mean, I’ve never seen ... I mean, I’ve read that before, but I never ...
A: I understand. I really do. There are a thousand ways to misunderstand the Scriptures. And it’s only with great difficulty that we can find the narrow way.
We used to think a lot like you do about these things. But we’ve come to understand a few things. We see that the problem with mankind isn’t their moral misdeeds. It is the independence and lawlessness of heart that causes those sins. The “other gospel” that Paul faced was one that tried to make people conform outwardly before they changed inwardly, saying that circumcision was necessary in order to be saved.
Common sense tells you that being born uncircumcised is not a sin. You don’t have to go against your conscience to be uncircumcised. So it wasn’t part of the gospel that our Master proclaimed. His gospel dealt with the inward condition, not the outward form.
That doesn’t mean that He didn’t command us to do certain deeds, however. His commands are not optional. There’s a penalty for disobedience.
Q: I think I can see where I misunderstood you. I thought you were saying that you had to obey before you were justified. But you’re saying that He expects obedience after you believe.
A: Not exactly. You can’t separate it out so neatly. Believing isn’t an act of the mind, but of the will. You choose to trust absolutely in the Son of God and His message. In making that choice, you are choosing to obey. And the first thing you must obey is what our Master said you must do in order to be His disciple. In that obedience, you find life. Of course, you have to receive His sacrifice. But you can’t have it unless you receive His headship over your life.
And the kind of “belief” that isn’t expressed in obedience carries with it no real assurance of salvation. James 2:14 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” And again in verse 24 he says, “You see that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone."
Q: But what are you saying a person has to do to be saved? What deeds are necessary?
A: It really isn’t complicated. Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So, if you call on His name you will be saved.
Q: That’s it?
A: Well, you have to believe in Him, too, because the next sentence in Romans 10:14 says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?"
Q: I don’t get it. How is that different from what I said in the beginning? What about obedience?
A: We’re getting to that. Romans 10:14 goes on, “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” There is no scriptural basis for anyone to get saved by reading a tract, or even the Bible. So a real, live, flesh and blood preacher must proclaim the message, for as Romans 10:17 says, “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message ...” That’s clear, isn’t it?
Q: Absolutely. Go on.
A: But it can’t be just any message, and it can’t be just anyone preaching. Romans 10:15 says, “How can they preach unless they are sent?” Those who preached the “other gospel” that Paul had to deal with were not sent. Paul was sent. So those who received the false preachers were “severed from Christ,” while those who received Paul were commanded to obey Christ, as he said in Romans 1:5, “... we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake."
Q: Hmmm ... So how do you know whether someone is sent or not?
A: Well, first of all, if someone is sent, he will be carrying out the Great Commission. Are you familiar with the great commission?
Q: Oh, yes. Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation."
A: That’s right. It is recorded there and in Matthew 28. Mark 16:16 goes on, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved...” And Matthew 28:19-20 says, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you ..."
Those who carry out the great commission, then, preach a message that calls people to be baptized, become disciples, and obey all our Master’s commands. Today you see many people preaching a message that calls their hearers to believe, to ask Jesus into their heart, to say a sinner’s prayer, etc. But few say, like the man who preached to Paul in Acts 22:16, “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name ..."
Q: But isn’t that a minor point of doctrine? Can’t a person be saved without going through the ritual of baptism?
A: If baptism is a ritual, the only thing it could do is sever you from Christ, like a ritual of circumcision. But if you are obeying the gospel, baptism washes away your sins in the blood of the Lamb.
If you look at Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost (one of the few written records we have of the good news being preached by a sent one), you can see the normal place of baptism in receiving the good news. In Acts 2:38, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
The Holy Spirit, and the eternal life he seals us for, come as a result of forgiveness, which comes from reaching the blood of our Savior by being baptized into His death. Baptism is the normal response of someone who repents as a result of being “cut to the heart” (as it says in verse 37), which is the normal result of receiving the message of a preacher who is sent. Still, if baptism seems minor to you, certainly becoming a disciple isn’t minor. And who today proclaims a message that calls people to do what the Son of God said they must do in order to be disciples?
Q: What do you mean?
A: In Luke 14:33 He says, “No one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” And in verse 26 and 27, He says anyone who does not “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life” and does not “carry his own cross and come after Me” cannot be His disciple.
Matthew 10:37-38 makes it clear that if anyone doesn’t find God’s only Son worthy of abandoning everything, then that person is not worthy to follow Him and be covered by His blood.
But in Mark 10:29-30, He says, “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for Me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life."
Q: But I thought eternal life was a free gift!
A: Eternal life results from a gospel that people actually leave possessions and relationships for. According to this gospel, a person knows he is repenting from his selfish, sinful existence because he gives up his own life and everything he has. Giving up all is the normal outcome of obeying the gospel preached by a sent one — because a sent one brings you out of the kingdom of darkness where everyone lives for self (like the Prince of Darkness does) and into the Kingdom of God where you live no longer for yourself, “but for Him who died and rose again on your behalf.” (2 Corinthians 5:15)
This literal abandonment of everything may seem like foolishness to some people, but it is the practical reality behind our Master’s words, “deny yourself and take up your cross.” It is also the historical reality of the first disciples when they obeyed those words and were saved. And, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 says, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
Q: So, you’re saying that anyone who fails to proclaim these things is not fulfilling the Great Commission?
A: That’s right. And unless those disciples who abandon all are taught to obey all our Master’s commands, the Great Commission isn’t being fulfilled, either. This doesn’t just mean teaching what His commands are, but training those disciples, exercising authority over them, so that they obey all His commands.
Q: But, nobody’s doing that!
A: If no one is doing it, then everyone is living in disobedience to the word, and no one will escape death.
A: Our Savior said in John 8:51, “Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he shall never see death.” So you would tend to think that everyone who didn’t keep His word would experience death.
Q: So, who is truly sent to preach the gospel these days? The way you’re talking, things look pretty gloomy.
A: One thing is for certain. If someone were sent, he wouldn’t put his own name on what he was doing. Our Master said in John 7:18, “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.” This is part of the gospel — the Gospel according to John — but today we see many supposed preachers of the gospel who have their names up in lights, or printed on posters, or tacked on to their ministries. Is it even possible that they could be preaching the true gospel? Or is there something false about them?
Q: I think I’m beginning to understand something.
Q: The “other gospel” that Paul dealt with added something to the gospel and so perverted it. But today it seems there is another “other gospel” which leaves things out of the gospel, and perverts it just as much...
A: That’s right.
Q: Or even more so. The “other gospel” of Paul’s day lured disciples away from heartfelt obedience and into external form. But today’s “other gospel” keeps people from becoming disciples in the first place.
A: And so, do you have an answer to your question of what a person has to do in order to be saved?
Q: Yes — receive the true gospel from a sent one and obey it. But how can I know for sure a preacher and his message are true?
A: Our Master had a wonderful answer for that question. He said in John 7:17, “If any man is willing to do His (God’s) will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself.”
This is such a wonderful promise. God is searching the earth for people whose hearts will turn toward Him. He wants to help them do His will. That is the whole purpose of grace in the New Covenant. He wants His will done on the earth as it is in heaven, so He gives grace. And grace is the power to obey, to do His will.
So, if anyone has set his will to do God’s will, no matter what the personal cost, then as it says in John 7:17, God will see to it that such a person recognizes the messenger He is sending.
And so this leaves you with one last question: Are you ready, if it means that you lose your family, your property, your friends, your life, your dreams, your personal sovereignty, or even your own ideas of what God’s will ought to be, are you ready to do His will?
Q: That’s a good question ...