Jack M. Lane
Some church organizations pride themselves on "having the truth," or "preaching the whole gospel." They tend to dismiss people in other church denominations who donít have the same understanding of the gospel, but instead go about doing good deeds and being socially pro-active. Are people in the first group somehow "better"? Is understanding "the truth of the Bible" an end in itself? Or is there more thatís required?
There are a number of churches and denominations (outside the Church of God tradition) which profess to be Christian, but who think that the Gospel message is one of social relevance, doing good deeds, feeding the poor, making a social impact, changing the political scene, and so on.
In our collective quest over the last few years to recapture the truth and make it our banner, some of us have tended to exalt "having the truth" as being an end in itself. When that happens, there is a tendency to think, "We have the truth; those other churches (Catholics and Protestants, for instance, or possibly other former churches of God) donít have the truth. God called us, and we know the end from the beginning better than they do." Itís a gratifying feeling, but when that happens, thereís a danger that other aspects of our Christian life may fall by the wayside.
THE TRUTH IS NECESSARY
Having the truth is indeed a matter of paramount importance in our religious life. But itís not the only thing.
We might begin by asking ourselves, "There are denominations which donít have the truth of the Bible as we know it, and go around doing good works instead; are they examples of the true New Testament Church of God?"
Christ answers: "Not everyone who says to me, ĎLord, Lord,í shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21) "And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men..." (Mark 7:7-8).
These and other scriptures show that having the truth of God, obeying the commandments of God, and desiring to live the life of a child of God, is what will help us make it into the first resurrection. All the good deeds in the world wonít save us.
We understand about having the love of the truth, living by every word of God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and so forth (2 Thessalonians 2:10; Matthew 4:4; 5:6). So we know that when we hear the question, "Are those denominations which donít have the truth of the Bible, but go around doing good works instead, examples of the true New Testament Church of God?", the answer is no. We canít even consider any group to be "in the church" unless they know and live by the truth of God.
We know that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws them (John 6:44); and in order to do that, the Father must first open their minds to understand the truth. There are churches or denominations which only do good deeds, because they think thatís what Christianity or the gospel is, because God hasnít as yet given them a knowledge of the truth. Those churches canít be a part of the same work weíve been called to do.
This isnít to say that theyíre not good people, or that theyíre not seeking God with their whole hearts, or that theyíre doomed. They just arenít called yet. We should always remember that we were called ahead of the rest, not instead of the rest.
Itís the Fatherís responsibility whom He will call, and when He will call them. Until that time, they canít come to Him! And the Father decides when that time will be, out of love, mercy, and compassion for the people involved.
This is a complex subject, and we have so far had only a brief and superficial answer. If we stop here, weíll miss a vitally important area of understanding. Thereís a flip side to this question, which is occasionally overlooked. It may come as a surprise to some church leaders, but having the truth is not enough!
WHAT ABOUT WORKS?
Letís suppose that having the truth is what marks a group as being truly Christian, truly called by God. Then, on the other hand, there are many church denominations that donít "have the truth" but emphasize doing good works. Does that mean that the true church of God -- the one that has the truth -- doesnít have to do good works?
Thereís a temptation to ask, "If good works donít save us, why should we do them?" Thatís like asking, "If we arenít saved by our righteousness, if our law-keeping doesnít save us, then why be obedient?" Does that sound familiar? Some of those very denominations teach this as a doctrine. Thatís also the new theology over at the large Church of God body from which many of us departed.
But what about good works? If they donít save us, why do them? Christ also told us, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
According to this, weíre not excused from doing good works. We need to be a shining light, showing forth good works, so that people would glorify God who otherwise would not glorify God; but they will glorify God, because they have seen what God can do through us!
Itís not for our own salvation at all!
Peter makes a similar statement in 1 Peter 2:12: "having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation."
The true church is to do good works; not for our salvation, but as one of the signs to show others where the true church is.
What about the word "works" in the Bible? Is it some esoteric term with all sorts of spiritual meanings?
When the New Testament writers talk about works, or doing a work, the Greek word which they usually employ is ergon, which means: business, employment, anything accomplished by hand, an act, a deed. In the KJV, ergon is translated as "work" 152 times, and as "deed" 22 times. In science and physics, ergon, or the erg, is a unit of energy usage, when something does work, expends energy, burns calories, uses electricity, or moves an object. We get words from ergon such as "ergonomics," the study of the workplace.
So when the Bible says "work" or "works," itís a literal translation, in most cases, of the word ergon. Itís not a big, fluffy religious concept. Itís what you do. Itís how you live.
There are all sorts of works. The New Testament talks about good works (2 Thessalonians 2:17; 1 Timothy 5:10; 2 Timothy 2:21), the work of God (John 6:29; Romans 14:20), the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58; 16:10), the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12), the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5), the work of faith (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
It also talks about evil works (2 Timothy 4:18), wicked works (Colossians 1:21), works of the law (Romans 9:32; Galatians 2:16; 3:2,5,10), works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19), the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11), dead works (Hebrews 9:14), and so forth.
God has works. The heavens are the work of His hands (Hebrews 1:10). He set man over the works of His hands (Hebrews 2:7). Ancient Israel tempted God and saw His works for 40 years (Hebrews 3:9). He rested the seventh day from all His works (Hebrews 4:4). And, best of all (from our standpoint), God has begun a good work in you, and He intends to see it through (Philippians 1:6).
We should walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10), have godliness with good works (1 Timothy 2:10), be rich in good works (1 Timothy 6:18), show a pattern of good works (Titus 2:7), be zealous of good works (Titus 2:14), learn to maintain good works (Titus 3:8,14).
Paul speaks of our work of faith and labor of love (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
All these and more are translated from the Greek word ergon. We are required to do a work, both individually and collectively, as a church.
And yet, we were called, not because of our good works, but because of Godís purpose and grace (2 Timothy 1:9). Godís kindness and love appeared, not because of our works of righteousness, but because of His mercy (Titus 3:4-5).
In Romans chapter 4, Paul is talking about a different kind of "work," by which one could earn oneís own salvation. But Paul reassures us that God imputes righteousness to us without those kinds of works (Romans 4:1-8)!
And yet, Paul tells us that evil men will be judged according to their works (2 Corinthians 11:15; 2 Timothy 4:14). In Revelation 20:12-13, the dead will be raised, the books will be opened, and men will be judged according to their works. And youíll recall that judgment is already on the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).
James writes about faith that doesnít have works, and he indicates itís dead on arrival. James tells us that faith helps works, and that faith is made perfect by works. He tells us that man is justified by works, and not by faith only. James mentions Abraham and Rahab as examples of people who were justified by the right kind of works (James 2).
So we can see that, although our works donít save us, God expects us to do good works. If we donít do any good works, as the Bible defines them, thereís a possibility that we could sleep right through the first resurrection.
Yes, truth is important. The scriptures tell us that we must have sound, secure, firm, steady doctrine, and hold to the traditions of the elders (that is, the first century apostles). There is no doubt that if we donít have the truth, we arenít Godís church. But having "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," is not enough.
We have always understood that people usually arenít able to understand the truth of the Bible unless God calls them (John 6:44). Although we never would have thought so a few years ago, now it becomes important to ask, "Is it possible to have the truth and yet be unconverted?" We might suspect thatís the case with some people weíve known for years, leading people, teachers, ministers, people we used to look up to as pillars, who have disappointed us mightily in recent years.
LOVE ALSO REQUIRED
Whatís been missing all these years? Why have so many failed?
We need to have the truth. We must also have good works. But in addition to that, we must have love. In Hebrews 10:24, we are told, "And let us consider one another in order to stir up [both] love and good works."
Letís look briefly in the writings of the apostle John, who is known as the apostle of love, and also as the apostle of truth. In addition to the many times John wrote about the truth, he also wrote several times in his epistles that we are to love one another (1 John 3:11,23; 4:7,11-12,20-21; 5:2; 2 John 5). In his gospel, John quotes Christ as saying, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
We can see that, like having the truth, and like doing good works, having love for one another is a sign that this is the true church. All three aspects must be present in our Christian lives. To only do good works, and have lots of love, but not to have the knowledge of Godís truth, is not sufficient. But likewise, to know the truth, but not show forth Godís love in good works, is also not appropriate.
And to know the truth of God, and yet hate a brother or sister in Christ, or speak evil of other members of Christís body, is worse yet. Anyone doing that is being disobedient, and violating a clear sign of who is a true disciple! Such a person may not be a true disciple of Christ!
Notice Galatians 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control."
A few years ago, a top-ranking false minister said, "See? ĎTruthí isnít even mentioned as a fruit of the Spirit." Of course it isnít -- "truth" is an abstract concept, while the list of spiritual fruits is a list of personality characteristics and qualities.
But to have the truth without having the fruits of the Spirit -- such as love, kindness, gentleness, self-control -- indicates that such a person may not have the Spirit at all!
Ephesians 4:15 says, "but, speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ." Wouldnít it be ghastly for someone to speak the truth without love? Would it even be possible to "grow up," to spiritually mature, under such circumstances? Does any child thrive in a loveless environment? Can any Christian be expected to thrive in a loveless environment?
Jesus said, "ĎYou shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.í This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, ĎYou shall love your neighbor as yourselfí" (Matthew 22:37-39).
Do you love yourself? Itís okay to love yourself. But you have to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself! And I think Christ has made it abundantly clear who our neighbor is (Luke 10:29-37), and that we canít just shut off or judge another member of Christís body, whether he or she is in your congregation or the congregation down the street!
"Who are you to judge anotherís servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4). And if God is able to make him stand -- maybe now, maybe later -- who are we to judge him now?
Ray Stevens, the comedian, has a funny song called "Mississippi Squirrel Revival," about the time a squirrel was running around loose in church during services at the First Self-Righteous Church. The squirrel would run across the room and then run up somebodyís leg, and theyíd jump up and yell like a good old Pentecostal. At one point the squirrel scampered over to the "Amen Corner" and ran up the dress of "Sister Bertha Better-Than-You"; she jumped up and confessed to all sorts of things! It was a hilarious song, but it had a point. The idea of the First Self-Righteous Church, and "Sister Bertha Better-Than-You," are a good object lesson.
We can read more about this subject in the "love chapter."
1 Corinthians 13:1: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels [with all the oratory skills itís possible to have], but have not love, I have become as sounding brass [a trumpet, used to call out very simple signals to alert people, but canít say any words] or a clanging symbol [just a big noise]."
Verse 2: "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge [all the truth, all the really detailed information in the Bible], and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains [even to the point of working miracles!], but have not love, I am nothing."
Verse 3: "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor [thereís a good work], and though I give my body to be burned [another good work, martyrdom], but have not love, it profits me nothing."
If we donít have love, it profits us nothing! It doesnít do us a bit of good! None of it does! Not truth, not good works, not being called, not all the righteousness (or self-righteousness) we can muster! Without a pure, sincere, unfeigned love of the brethren, itís all just playing church!
LOVE IN DEED AND TRUTH
Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom, but whoever does the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21-23). And what is the Fatherís will?
"He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy[that is, to forgive your fellowman every chance you get], and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) In other words, donít get the big head and think youíre proudly walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the Father and Christ.
This should be our goal and objective in our congregational life: "Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere [margin: unhypocritical] love of the brethren, love one another fervently, with a pure heart" (1 Peter 1:22).
This is Godís apostle talking. "Love one another fervently, with a pure heart." Not just if they live up to our ideal. Not just if they meet with our approval.
1 John 3:18: "My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth." Here are all three of these factors together in the same verse: the truth, deeds (ergon), and love (agapao). We must love -- agapao -- in works -- ergon -- and in truth.
This is how we can know if we are examples of the true New Testament Church of God. Do we have both the truth and love? And do we show it in good works?
If we do, then the apostle John says to us, in 2 John 3, "Grace, mercy and peace will be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love."
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