For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
I do not recall precisely how much of this passage of scripture we were required to memorize in Daily Vacation Bible School, but I am quite certain that that the first phrase was committed to memory. I do not believe that verse 9 was part of the memorization package, but I do know that when verse 8 was discussed, the subsequent verse was always in tow.
Regardless of what may be the standard interpretation in any given Protestant church today, in the 1950s in my little non-denominational church, the gift of God was eternal life for anyone who confessed Christ. It did not matter much when or where this confession took place, so long as it was direct and unequivocal. Failure to confess Jesus as your personal Savior before death, however, brought about an instantaneous thrusting down of one’s soul into hell. I remember reading countless tracts, most of them illustrated in fine detail, where the horrors of the Inferno were made quite vivid and undesirable. The confession seemed to be all; once those words fell from one’s lips, one’s personal destiny was changed forever. In conjunction with the power of the confession was the absurdity of any “works” that any one might do in order to ingratiate oneself with the God of Heaven. “Works” were meaningless when contrasted with the grace and mercy of God. As a result, no one of my teachers in that country church ever suggested to me that I needed to do anything to improve my eternal lot, save to say the providential words, “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior”. Thus, I learned more about personal morality and integrity from the Boy Scouts of America than I did from my theological teachers. I do not say this to condemn the good people who taught me, but to demonstrate that that for them, entrance into the presence of God required little more than an abiding belief in Him and His Son.
As I grew older, the rhetoric became more and more strident about the importance of confessing Christ. At some point I came across another pamphlet which treated this subject in some detail. The storyline of the narrative involved two men, both terrible reprobates who between them had committed just about every sin known to man. They lived out their outrageous lives until they were quite old. As a happenstance, one of the men was taught regarding the love of God as manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ just prior to his passing away. He confessed his Savior and at the moment of death was whisked away by the angels to dwell with God for eternity. The other man, unfortunately, had no such opportunity, or was momentarily distracted when the good news became available, and at the moment of death found himself hauled mercilessly down to hell by Satan’s minions. The message was plain: no matter how vile you may have been in your life, confessing Jesus before death made all ills go away. That singular act made it possible for you to abide in the eternal glory. I knew that I was supposed to understand that the mercy of God, His grace and compassion, was sufficient to redeem any man, no matter how sin-laden he may be. I was enough of a Christian at the time to believe that the power of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ were sufficient to bring such a man into salvation, but I had some difficulty that the process was really that easy. I had some trouble with the reasoning, doubting that that two-man scenario had actually been spelled out anywhere in the New Testament.
Many years later I came across a similar story that was far more poignant to my mind. The narrative again involved two men, both of whom were honest in their dealings with their fellow men, living by the light which had been afforded them to the best of their ability. Neither of them, however, had ever been introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the time drew near to their departure from this life, one of the men hears of the redemption of Christ, and confesses the Savior with all of his heart. The other man dies without ever knowing anything of Jesus of Nazareth. The narrator of the story posed an interesting question: Why should the one good man be brought into the presence of God and the other good man be thrust down to hell simply because the first was momentarily exposed to true principles by the action of a third party? This was a stunning observation to me. It brought into focus another troubling notion that had been tacitly taught in that little church. What has happened to the hundreds of millions of people who lived before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh? I have heard that question posed to ministers of the sectarian world and the answer has been definitive: all those who lived out their lives without confessing the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior are utterly lost and damned for eternity. Even if they had no opportunity to know anything of Jesus because of where or when they were born? Yes, they are miserably condemned forever. I thought this doctrine just a little starchy, and one which made God to seem a little capricious. If it was He who determined before the foundations of the earth were laid, the bounds and limitations of the nations (see Acts 17:26), who then could be condemned for not receiving the Gospel if it were not being taught in those particular nations while they lived out their mortal lives? A minimum of four thousand years transpired from the days of Adam and Eve to the time of John the Baptist. What has happened to all those people? Since the days of Jesus and the Apostles, how many of the earth’s inhabitants have actually been in the presence of a minister of Jesus Christ? What may we say of the eternal lot of those who have not been able to choose for themselves whether or not they will accept Christ? I have since learned for myself that there is scriptural evidence that explicitly testifies that provisions have been made for all of them, that every man, woman, and child will have an equal opportunity to accept or reject the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The grace of God, the mercy of Christ, and the principles and ordinances of the Gospel are inexorably knitted together. That which is provided by God toward the salvation of men is far greater than anything a man or any group of men can do, but there is a price for discipleship; there is a requirement for those who profess to love the Lord. We will address these in future postings.