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Saving Faith

Saving Faith

by Rick Shrader

This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 1996 issue of The Baptist Preacher under the title, “Why are there pious pretenders in the pews?”

In exalting faith, we are not immediately putting ourselves in contradiction to modern thought. Indeed faith is being exalted very high today by men of the most modern type. But what kind of faith? There emerges the difference of opinion.

Faith is being exalted so high today that men are being satisfied with any kind of faith, just so it is faith. It makes no difference what is believed, we are told, just so the blessed attitude of faith is there.       (J. Gresham Machen, 1923)1

Almost two years ago I wrote an article entitled “Worshipping Worship.” I thought it was time to write a follow-up on worship, so I pulled my “worship” file and perused the entries of the last two years. It has become a huge file with men of varied stripe offering comment and observation. Fundamentalists and evangelicals especially have been justifiably critical of the irreverence in today’s “worship style.” But I’ve noticed (as have many others) that there is an issue that mirrors worshipping worship, and that is trusting in trust or faith.

The nature of saving faith

An Easter article in our local paper was titled, “Many experience rebirth of faith at Easter time.” It seems a man was returning from his faith in the “material world” to a “sense of freedom and comfort” in his Catholic church. He said, “It’s not a change in belief but a change in the method of adoration.”2 The troubling fact is that such a faith has no object. Faith becomes its own object! It is faith in the ability to have faith which, of course, is not faith but works.

When the ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together) document appeared in 1994, the only good news was that the issue of saving faith was pushed to center stage. Sadly, many who call themselves “evangelical” have lost the distinctive of their name by proposing that the “good news” is that salvation is in one’s content of faith rather than in one’s object of faith. But I would also suggest that fundamentalists have often been as guilty in proposing that salvation is in one’s confession of faith. That, as well, is a trust in trust rather than in Christ. It seems to me that both errors can pack the pews with pious pretenders.

The Bible basis of saving faith

The New Testament furnishes us not only with examples of genuine faith, but with examples of unsaving faith. John 2:23-25 shows us a group of people who “believed” in the content of Jesus’ message, but John makes it clear that they were not regenerated (James reminds us that the devils “believe” in this way). Acts 8:13-24 shows us a man, Simon, who “believed” and was baptized but, it turned out, his public confession was not enough to bring him to salvation. On the other hand, Hebrews 4:3 speaks of “We which have believed” and have entered into rest. Alexander Maclaren commented, “He does not mean, ‘we which acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world,’ but we who, acknowledging, let our hearts go out to Him in trust, and our wills bow down before Him in obedience and submission.”3

When I say that saving faith is not in the content alone I mean that it takes more than just believing that the facts are true regarding Jesus Christ to get saved. When I say that saving faith is not in the confession alone I mean that it takes more than just mouthing some words about Jesus Christ to get saved. The liturgical churches have often been guilty of the former, and the non-liturgical churches have often been guilty of the latter. One error creates an evangelism where faith, or trust, is in the ability to understand, while the other is in the ability to say so.

The vocabulary of saving faith

One biblical (and historic) way of defining saving faith is by using the three Latin words notitia, assensus and fiducia. The Baptist theologian, Augustus Strong, reminded us of these in his 1907 Systematic Theology.4 Recently, R.C. Sproul has defended saving faith against the ECT agenda by using these words.5 I find the three-fold (four, counting confession) definition in the New Testament.

Notitia means knowledge. One must hear of Jesus Christ before he will ever be saved. Faith cannot come before “hearing” (Rom 10:17). Heb 11:13 describes the saints as “having seen them afar off,” i.e., the promises which told of salvation. Obviously, no one can believe if they do not know that salvation is available.

Assensus means to give assent to something or agree. After one hears the message, he may or may not agree as to its validity. Many have never believed that the gospel story is actually true. Heb 11:13 (in KJV & TR) reads, “and were persuaded.” Rev 1:3 has, “Blessed is he that readeth (notitia) and they that hear (assensus). In 1 Cor 14:25 Paul said that prophecy was better than tongues because then someone can interpret and give the meaning so that a visitor may be “convinced of all” that is said.

Fiducia is trust or what Strong calls the “voluntary element.” Heb 11:13 says that they “embraced” the message of salvation which they had “seen” and were “persuaded of.” J.O. Buswell, in his Systematic Theology, stresses at length what he calls this “cognitive element” of faith.6 This is not just a hearing of the gospel and is more than just admitting that the gospel story is true. It is to realize that Jesus Christ can be your Savior and for you to want that more than anything else. (Note: This is where repentance comes in this progression. Paul, in 1 Cor 14:25, says that at this point the man will “fall down on his face.” The Thessalonians, in 1 Th 1:9, “turned to God from idols.”) Sproul speaks of this moment as a change in “perceived value.”7 Now, for the first time, the sinner sees Christ as something to be desired and to grasp with his whole heart.

The confession of saving faith

The Bible adds one more concept to these three, and that is confession. Hebrews 11:13 says that at this point “they confessed.” Rom 10:10 (a passage that deserves a fresh study) says that “with the heart man believeth unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto (‘because of’) salvation.” Obviously there are no magic formulas for saving faith. Confession is just that, a public display of what the heart secretly has believed. If the belief is real, the confession will definitely follow.

True saving faith takes place when a sinner has exercised fiducia. After having learned of Christ and become convinced that His claims are true, he is willing to give up anything and pay any price to have Him. When this kind of faith takes place, confession will not only follow but will be impossible to silence; invitations will not have to rely on trickery; lordship will not be a problem; godly living and separation from the world will come naturally because a selfish nature has been overcome by a new nature in love with Christ.

The outgrowth of saving faith

Why does Peter (2 Peter 1:5-7) tell us to “add to your faith virtue?” Because a person who has true faith wants, first and foremost, to please the One with whom he has fallen in love. This simple obedience is virtue. Why does he then say to add “to virtue knowledge?” Because now this person wants to know what he should do to produce such virtue. And the progression continues through agape love.

If you think I am suggesting that a real problem in Christendom today is not that we are becoming too exclusive of all “faiths,” but rather that we have become too inclusive of any partial expression of faith, you happen to be right. And could this not be a vital reason why we see so many saying they have faith but having no interest in virtue? And because there is no virtue, there is little interest in knowledge?

This unsaving kind of faith is simply trust in trust, a faith in faith, but it does not have Jesus Christ as the lovely object and desire of reception. I don’t know how widely this may be the case in our church, but it must cause us some concern. A.W. Tozer wrote, “To the question ‘what must I do to be saved?’ we must learn the correct answer. To fail here is not to gamble with our souls; it is to guarantee eternal banishment from the face of God. Here we must be right or be finally lost.”8

1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdman’s, 1959) 141.
2. Fort Collins Coloradoan, April 3, 1994.
3. Alexander Maclaren, Exposition of Holy Scripture, Vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1959) 304.
4. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1907) 836-844.
5. R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995) 75-88.
6. J.O. Buswell, Systematic Theology (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) II, 175-186.
7. Sproul, 86.
8. A.W. Tozer, The Best of A.W. Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1978) 100.


Is Repentance Necessary?

Is Repentance Necessary?

by Rick Shrader

It is a telling sign of our time that we have to ask ourselves this question.  But when every other teaching that makes us uncomfortable is taken away, why should we be surprised when sinners are no longer told they need to repent?  This view is being taught today largely by what is called the “Free Grace” movement.  It was made popular in 1989 when Zane Hodges, then of Dallas Seminary, wrote his book Absolutely Free!  By claiming that preaching repentance as a requirement or prerequisite for faith would be preaching works for salvation, Hodges virtually eliminated repentance from salvation.  He wrote, “Thus, though genuine repentance may precede salvation, it need not do so.  And because it is not essential to the saving transaction as such, it is in no sense a condition for that transaction.”1

The disdain for repentance was heightened by Chuck Swindoll’s book, The Grace Awakening, in 1990 but it was an attack on Christian standards and good works after rather than before salvation.2 Today, however, most of this teaching comes from the Grace Evangelical Society and its Executive Director Bob Wilkin.  In a current article on the GES website Wilkin admits, “Throughout Church history nearly every theologian has taught that repentance is essential for salvation from hell. . . . Unhappily, this view knew little or nothing of grace.”3 It is certainly amazing that all the theologians for the last two thousand years have missed this teaching, but Wilkins and others have finally discovered the true teaching on salvation.

The Free Grace movement is a definite reaction against some expressions of Lordship Salvation.  This author is not in total disagreement with criticisms of Lordship Salvation.  Even Darrell Bock, in debating Wilkin over this, referred to “soft” Lordship and “hard” Lordship.4 Some views of Lordship come close to a works salvation by adding extra hoops for the sinner to jump through in order to prove that he is ready to believe.  But this only highlights two extremes regarding Free Grace and Lordship.  Free Grace errs by placing repentance after faith, and Lordship (often) errs by putting Lordship before faith.  As to the latter, it is possible that a sinner may truly be saved even though he is asked to promise more than is necessary (as long as he is not trusting in his ability to keep the promise) but it is not possible to be saved if he has never come to a place of repentance for his sin.

Salvation is certainly by faith alone.  But as is often said, faith is never alone.  Repentance and lordship are both integral elements of the gospel.  Both are vitally linked to faith.  Repentance, however, is attached to faith at the front end and cannot be moved to the back.  Lordship is attached to faith at the back end and cannot be moved to the front.  Picture a bridge that crosses a great chasm.  The bridge is faith.  There is a road leading up to the bridge, without which no one can get to the bridge.  That road is repentance.  No one can place saving faith in a Savior who has not first come to the understanding of his own sin and lostness.  The bridge of faith would be useless without this road leading to it.  The road on the other end of the bridge is lordship.  After one experiences faith, lordship will naturally follow,5 else faith, the bridge, stands alone and takes one nowhere (James 2:20).

All illustrations come short at some point, so we should emphasize again: Repentance is a vital “up front” part of the saving act whereas lordship is a natural consequence of it.  In faith the sinner is asking to be SAVED FROM sin.  Lordship, though not of necessity promised up front (also not something the sinner has necessarily denied) is something he will find himself easily given to once the bridge of faith is crossed.  To the sinner at the time of salvation, (as the road that brings one to the bridge differs from the one which will take him from it) sin is something he is familiar with because of bitter experience but lordship is something he knows nothing of and yet is about to joyfully discover.

The Necessity of Repentance

Douglas Groothuis wrote, “Restraint is the price of civilization, and we are casting off restraint.”6 Not only has America become a country of civilized barbarians, but our churches are becoming houses for paganized Christians, as any of us who lived through the last half of the twentieth century has sadly observed.  Laws and restraints have been rescinded or removed; manners and deportment have been practically erased and forgotten; respect under authority and humility under tutelage are now seen as oppressive and legalistic, even un-American.

Into this environment comes a movement like this that gives theological teeth to a culture of narcissism and self-esteem.  In the best-case scenario our churches have been stripped of godliness and have winked at worldliness among believers.  In the worst-case, our churches are being filled with unbelievers who, having a form of godliness, have denied the power thereof.  Our churches and our religious movements were supposed to see and warn the people as these days came upon them.  But they have rather taken the easier road of appeasement and success.  But one does not have to look far to see that this huge experiment has not worked.  We are losing our young people not saving them from a perverted generation.  We’ll either have to redefine being holy as God is holy or we’ll have to take drastic action in our churches, action that will not be very popular.

The book of Romans

This book ought to be the primary text for the subject of repentance.  After the apostle Paul described his own apostolic ministry in the gospel of Jesus Christ, he began to describe the gospel as the power of God unto salvation and the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith (1:16-17).  But such a gospel cannot be comprehended without first writing of the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness (1:18).  This subject of the world’s sinfulness will take Paul through chapter three, verse 20 before he can come back to the subject of salvation by faith. We are not ready to be saved until we see that God has proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God (3:9-11).  It is not until we realize that there is no difference: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (3:22-23) that we can be justified freely by his grace (3:24).  All the world is condemned by one of three laws.

The law of nature

First Paul deals with the heathen who has never heard of God, the Bible, or the gospel.  Yet this man is without excuse because of the law of nature.  For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse (1:20).  David had already declared, The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork.  Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.  There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard (Psa 19:1-3).

By this law God prepares the unlearned and unknowing man for the gospel by proving to him that he is without excuse before a holy God.  It cannot of itself reveal grace and faith or the gospel message, but it can prepare for faith by proving sinfulness.  Alva J. McClain wrote, “Every man has the same revelation.  It is the evidence of creation.  When a man can look out at the created universe and fail to see the power, the Godhead, and the divinity of God, he is a man who is holding down the truth—not because he cannot see it, but because he is unrighteous.7

In this day of evolutionary belief and atheism the sinner is convinced that he is the highest product of an upward process rather than the fallen creature of a holy Creator.  Repentance would be the last thing he would want to hear.  Our society is opposed in every way to the law of nature found in God’s creation.

The law of conscience

Secondly Paul writes to the moral man who insists he is not as bad as most others in the world.  He is educated, informed, cultured, and erudite.  But Paul says he is inexcusable (2:1) because such people show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience  also bearing witness (2:15).  The moral rights and wrongs in the world open windows for reflecting on where morality and absolute truth come from.  A people without a conscience for these things is a people without God.

This postmodern world is known for its rejection of moral absolutes.  Even among believers we find the “Emerging” church movement which caters to postmodernism and questions even the truth of God’s Word.  They are certainly happy with setting old-fashioned repentance aside and having a faith which costs nothing and admits nothing.  It is a conscience which can be easily seared and not so easily pricked.

The law of Scripture

Specifically Paul addresses the Jewish readers and reminds them that they have the Law of Moses as well as all the Scripture.  Confident that they are a guide to others, they are reminded that they break the same laws themselves (2:21-23).  The “curse of the law” is that unless it is kept entirely one is “guilty of all” (Gal 2:10).  It is this Word of God that pierces even to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb 4:12).

Polls continue to show that even Christians are losing their faith in the Word of God.  Inspiration is doubted or redefined, methods of interpretation allow for anyone’s belief to be accepted, and disallowance of application forbids modern sins to be named.  It is no wonder that a gospel without repentance, even though clearly contrary to Scripture, is easily accepted.

The Receiving of Faith

Paul proclaimed that before faith may be desired, every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God (Rom 3:19).  Salvation is more than a head knowledge about the facts of Christ.  “Believing” has an ethical element, a “receiving” element to it.  John records that when Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.  But Jesus did not commit (lit. “believe”) himself unto them, because he knew all men (John 2:23-24).  They believed in their head, but not with their heart.  They gave assent to the facts but did not commit the keeping of their souls to Him.  John concluded his book by using the word “believe” in both ways, But these are written, that ye might believe [the facts] that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [receiving] ye might have life through his name (John 20:31).  Repentance is that part of faith that creates the thirst and makes clear the need to receive forgiveness.

And So . . . .

Vance Havner may have been right when, in the 1960s, he wrote, “We have made it easy for hundreds superficially to ‘accept Christ’ without ever having faced sin and with no sense of need.  We are healing slightly the hurt of this generation, trying to treat patients who do not even know they are sick.”8 May the Lord grant us patience with such patients, but also the courage to confront with the real solution to their sin, repentance, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

1. Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free!  (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1989)  146.
2. See Dr. Ernest Pickering’s excellent rebuttal, Are Fundamentalists Legalists?  A review of this is on my website.
3. is the official website for the Grace Evangelical Society.
4. See “Debate” on GES website.
5. Norman Geisler in his Systematic Theology points out that Lordship would use the term “inevitably” here, while Free Grace would say no lordship is “necessary.” (vol. 3, p. 521)
6. Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in CyberSpace (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1997) 91.
7. Alva J. McClain, Romans (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1973) 65.
8. Vance Havner, Hearts Afire (Old Tappan:  Revell, nd) 51.


Absolutely Free

Absolutely Free

by Rick Shrader


Written in 1989, this book has been the declaration voice of the Free Grace Movement.  At that time Hodges was the long-time professor of New Testament Greek at Dallas Seminary.  Since his departure from that seminary he has been influential in founding and writing for the Grace Evangelical Society (GES) which advocates the Free Grace position.  The subtitle to this book is, “A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation,” having appeared on the scene just one year after John MacArthur wrote The Gospel According to Jesus.  Hodges’ main thrust is to show that Lordship, either before or after salvation, is unnecessary as proof or evidence of salvation since a believer may remain in a carnal state his entire life.  Hodges uniquely interprets James chapter two as having nothing to do with false faith, but only with Christian faith.  “’Can faith save him?’  But James is not talking here about salvation from hell.  Why should he?  He and his readers were born again” (124).  He also uses John the Baptist as an example of a believer who denied the very faith that saved him and yet remained a believer.  He says, “To put it plainly, at this critical juncture in time, John the Baptist does not believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  Instead, he questions this truth.  Does he then have eternal life?  Of course” (106).

In addition, Hodges explains Romans 10 as having nothing to do with salvation.  “So the salvation Paul has in mind here is broader in scope than simply salvation from eternal damnation.  Instead it embraces the whole range of spiritual and personal deliverances which a risen Lord is able to bestow on those who call upon Him for it” (196).  Such is the tortured interpretation Hodges uses to denounce the Lordship teaching.



The Nicolaitans Today

The Nicolaitans Today

by Rick Shrader

The job of doing Bible exposition not only involves interpretation (finding what the passage means) and illustration (highlighting the meaning with real life situations) but also application (exhortations to action based on the truths found in the text).  The application of a text can easily be ignored because this is the harder thing to do.  No one feels pressured by Bible study or story-telling, but reproof, rebuke and exhortation may bring antipathy from the hearers.  The angel told John that the Scripture would be sweet to the taste but would grow bitter as it is digested, processed and lived out (Rev. 10:1-11).

In a day of relativism, positivism, syncretism and diversity, direct application of Biblical principles to specific situations in people’s lives is the first thing to go.  Confrontation becomes a real deterrent to the success game these days as people, Christian and non-Christian, do not like spiritual truths presented in such a personal manner.  However, in the second chapter of Revelation the Lord Himself directly applies familiar Old Testament truths from the life of Balaam (2:14) and Jezebel (2:20) to the compromises and sins of the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira.  He also applies a newer label, the Nicolaitans, to the sins of Ephesus and Pergamos in the same manner, even adding that their practice was something that He Himself hated.

The Problem

The church at Ephesus had been the strategic center of Asian evangelism since Paul founded the church in Acts 19.  It is probable that most of the Asian churches were started as mission projects from Ephesus.  But in the thirty years since, while remaining busy and active in good works (nine different expressions of their Christian works are given in 2:2-3), they had grown cold toward what should have remained as their first love—the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.  Unless they took specific steps (2:4) to remedy the problem they would lose their place of blessing.  Part of the pressure brought upon the Ephesian church was the growing doctrine of the Nicolaitans.  Ephesus still “hated” this contemporary expression of worldliness while Pergamos had begun accepting it and Thyatira had fully incorporated it into the church.  Wm. M. Ramsay, in his notes on Pergamos explains,

The honourable history and the steadfast loyalty of the Pergamenian Church, however, had been tarnished by the error of a minority of the congregation, which had been convinced by the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  This school of thought and conduct played an important part in the Church of the first century.  Ephesus had tried and rejected it; the Smyrnaean congregation, despised and ill-treated by their fellow-citizens, had apparently not been much affected by it; in Pergamum a minority of the Church had adopted its principles; in Thyatira the majority were attracted by it, and it there found its chief seat, so far as Asia was concerned.1

As Paul left the Ephesian elders in Acts 20, he warned them For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock.  Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:29-30).  By AD 95 these wolves had come to be known as Nicolaitans.

The Definition

It is not entirely clear where this group of deceivers got their name.  History has given us a few choices, one of which or a combination, is probably correct.  1) One view, which goes as far back as Iranaeus, relies on the ancient writer Epiphanius who wrote that the name is taken from Nicolas, one of the first deacons (Acts 6:5), who fell into immorality and apostasy which was still affecting the church at that time.2 2) A second view was that Nicolas himself was a good and moral man who used an unfortunate expression for “abusing the flesh,” by which he meant to mortify the flesh but which his followers perverted into “indulging the flesh.”3 By this time they were practicing having common wives and idol worship as morally acceptable.  3) A popular view is that the name “Nicolaitan” comes from nikao, “to consume” and laos, “the people.”  In that case it would be the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Balaam” which also means “to conquer” or “consume the people.”4 4) Some take this to be a Gnostic group which followed Cerinthus and was being propagated by a local man whose name happened to be Nicolas.5

A highly possible conclusion is that this was a licentious group who had mixed with the pagan practices of the day including eating meat offered to idols and committing fornication (2:14, 20) and came to be associated with the name “Nicolaitans” because of local history and closeness to other similar groups.  They seem to be equated with the doctrines of Balaam and Jezebel by context and the text (verse 15, houtos, “thus you have”).  The following descriptions of the Nicolaitans and their beliefs are worth repeating here.

Albert Barnes describes them:  “By plausibly teaching that there could be no harm in eating what had been offered in sacrifice—since an idol was nothing, and the flesh of animals offered in sacrifice was the same as if slaughtered for some other purpose, it would seem that these teachers at Pergamos had induced professing Christians to attend on those feasts—thus lending their countenance to idolatry, and exposing themselves to all the corruption and licentiousness that commonly attended such celebrations.”6 Alan Johnson quotes Fiorenza, “The Nicolaitans are according to Revelation a Christian group within the churches of Asia Minor and have their adherents even among the itinerant missionaries and the prophetic teachers of the community.  They claim to have insight into the divine or, more probably, into the demonic.  They express their freedom in libertine behavior, which allows them to become part of their syncretistic pagan society and to participate in the Roman civil religion.”7 William Smith is more specific in his application when he writes, “Mingling themselves in the orgies of idolatrous feasts, they brought the impurities of those feasts into the meetings of the Christian Church.  And all this was done, it must be remembered, not simply as an indulgence of appetite, but as part of a system, supported by a ‘doctrine’ accompanied by the boast of a prophetic illumination (2 Pet. 2:1).”8

We should note again, that what was adopted by the entire congregation in Thyatira had just become a doctrine for a few in Pergamos.  In Ephesus, however, the decision was still being made whether  this teaching that they had always hated (and no doubt Pergamos and Thyatira had also at one time) would be allowed in the church.  Ramsay adds a note that sounds familiar where worldliness pushes its way into the church:  “It is clear also that the Nicolaitans rather pitied and condemned the humbler intelligence and humbler position of the opposite section in the church; and hence we shall find that both in the Thyatiran and in the Pergamenian letter St. John exalts the dignity, authority and power that shall fall to the lot of the victorious Christian.”9

The Application

As I have noted, the Lord makes an application from Balaam and Jezebel directly to the worldliness of Pergamos and Thyatira.  The label of “Nicolaitan” was a modern description of the growing worldliness and dying love in Ephesus.  We ought to be able to make the same kind of application from the first century directly to our day as He made from Balaam and Jezebel to their day.

1) Worldliness had become a doctrine in the churches.  They had found a way to justify their practices with a teaching that the culture and customs of the Greeks and Romans were not something to be shunned.  Ramsay writes:

It was evidently an attempt to effect a reasonable compromise with the established usages of Graeco-Roman society and to retain as many as possible of those usages in the Christian system of life.  It affected most of all the cultured and well-to-do classes in the Church, those who had most temptation to retain all that they could of the established social order and customs of the Graeco-Roman world, and who by their more elaborate education had been trained to take a somewhat artificial view of life and to reconcile contradictory principles in practical conduct through subtle philosophical reasoning.10

Our churches today have established a “doctrine” that the world’s culture is morally neutral except where an overt sin is specifically mentioned by name.  All other applications of Scripture to culture and life have become out of bounds.  To our generation music in all its forms must remain morally neutral, only the words can be right or wrong; the body can be uncovered by parts, and as long as the whole body isn’t uncovered all at once, it can’t be called nakedness (if it is it conveniently becomes the looker’s “problem”); crude language of any kind is now allowed as long as God’s name isn’t specifically mentioned—and even then it is permitted as an exclamation; all worldly places of amusement, revelry and exhibition are allowed as long as a person’s thoughts don’t get too carried away; separation is now seen as an historic mistake foisted upon the church by extreme fundamentalists!  If challenged by anyone about these or similar issues of worldliness, the apologetic is always to point out that no one can be 100% consistent and therefore it is wrong to “judge” the sin at any level.

Just as Nicolas’ statement of mortifying the body was turned into indulging the body, our churches have turned separation from outward things into separation of the mind only; where our use of methods was within a Christian life-style, it now includes anything the world also uses; where worship meant falling prostrate before a sovereign God, it now means screaming, dancing, waving, laughing and applauding before a God who changes as we change.  Surely this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans!

2) Idol worship had become a harmless cultural adventure that believers could take or leave because of their superior understanding.  John Gill wrote, “Dr. Lightfoot conjectures, that these Nicolaitans were not called so from any man, but from the word Nicolah, “let us eat,” which they often used to encourage each other to eat things offered to idols.  However this be, it is certain that there were such a set of men, whose deeds were hateful.”11

How can we doubt that today’s churches are eating the meat offered to idols when they attend all the places of worldly and ungodly entertainment, watch things like American Idol, cheer for the most ungodly heroes, and then bring such “meat” back into the churches by copying those “idols” with their own Christian singers, preachers, entertainers and self-centered showmanship.  Surely this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans!

3) Immorality became a commonly accepted practice.  The Jerusalem council knew that fornication went hand in hand with eating things offered to idols (Acts 15:28-29).  Balaam knew that if the Israelites fell for one they would fall for the other.  Alan Johnson writes, “The prevalence of sexual immorality in first-century pagan society makes it entirely possible that some Christians at Pergamum were still participating in the holiday festivities and saw no wrong in indulging in the ‘harmless’ table in the temples and the sexual excitement everyone else was enjoying.”12 Today’s polls and surveys will continue to flood in that show immorality as high in the church as out of the church. We cannot keep feeding our young people the idol meat of the world without it resulting in copying the indulgences of the flesh.  Surely this is the doctrine of the Nicolaitans!

The Solution

The Lord’s formula for recovery is simple:  Remember, Repent, Redo or Remove! (vs.5)  The probability of the Asian churches all following it was as remote as it is today.  It is this writer’s opinion that our culture is not more innocent than it used to be, nor is it more morally neutral, nor has today’s church become spiritually stronger than their first-century counterparts.  Within my life-time alone conservative churches have made an obvious 180 degree turn while using the same terminology and printing the same literature.  But saying it doesn’t make it so.  Ephesus, Pergamos and Thyatira were all commended for their good works.  But these did not nullify God’s judgment for their participation in worldliness.  God is not a pragmatist.  His means and ends have always been equal.  These are the warnings of a Savior who walketh among the seven golden candlesticks (2:1); the One which hath the sharp sword with two edges (2:12); the One who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet like fine brass (2:18).

1. Wm. M. Ramsay, The Leters To The Seven Churches Of Asia (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, nd) 298.
2. See Barnes’ Notes and Wm. Smith’s Dictionary for examples.
3. See John Gill’s Commentary for an example.
4. See Alan Johnson and John Walvoord for examples.
5. See R.C.H. Lenski for an example.
6. Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980) 76-77.
7. Alan Johnson, “Revelation” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) 435.
8. William Smith, Dictionary of the Bible (Hartford: S.S. Scranton & Co., 1899) 626.
9. Ramsay, 301.
10. Ramsay, 299.
11. John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, vol. 6 (London: Wm. Hill Collinridge,1853 ) 941.
12. Johnson, 441.


Repent Or Else!

Repent Or Else!

by Rick Shrader

Although I have read a lot of Havner lately, the reason for buying and reading this book is because I have been reading some things on revival.  This is Havner’s commentary on the letters to the seven churches of Revelation.  In those letters, the Lord repeats the admonition to the churches: “Repent or Else.”  Havner, being an old Southern Baptist, always kept close to the church.  He writes,  “True church revival is where the church hatches and mothers her own chicks.  It has been said that it is hard to win to the church those not won through the church.”


When A Christian Sins

When A Christian Sins

by Rick Shrader

I love to read these practical books from past but recent Christian leaders (written in 1954).  I think great preachers preach even in their writings.  This is a one-evening read that will encourage you for days to come.  Rice was one of those independent evangelists whose orthodoxy and scholarship made him acceptable to all.  Yet his down-to-earth style made him easy to understand.  I liked,   “Keep short accounts with God! . . . If everything else in the kitchen is clean and in its place, the dishes of one meal can soon be washed and put away.”


Speaking To Those Who Are Never Wrong!

Speaking To Those Who Are Never Wrong!

by Rick Shrader

Our existence is more real to us than the existence of anything else because the existence of everything else is evaluated in terms of its usefulness and attractiveness to our purposes. Everything is subordinate to our will. To do evil is to attempt to retain that perspective and relation to others. To refuse to do evil is to recognize that we are not at the center and that all things are not to be judged with ourselves at the center.

Diogenes Allen1

I have thought for some time that people do not believe that they are actually wrong about anything they do. In this regard we all remain narcissistic children, fully convinced that each decision we make is justified by circumstances around us. A mother asks in vain why a two-year old hit another child. The reason is always justified in the child’s mind and any crying that follows is only because mother was not able to properly assess the situation. In this morning’s paper, Lawrence Taylor, ex-professional athlete and convicted drug user, said plainly, “I am not sorry for anything I have done.” Adult circumstances differ only in degree, not in kind.

Though God tells us plainly in His Word that we are born in sin, it is the one thing we do not want to hear. Eve thought it was wrong of God to keep her from fulfilling her desires and Adam blamed Eve for his decision to participate in the sin. Since then humans have been convinced that all their decisions are really justified, it is only circumstances that make our decisions appear to be bad ones. We may be forced at times to say we are sorry or to make restitution for our misunderstood actions, but that is not at all the same as believing we were wrong. Perhaps the only true admission of wrong-doing that humans ever come to is called repentance. And perhaps that is why there is so little true repentance these days.

The attitude I am describing is selfishness. It is at the root of our sinfulness. It goes against the very fiber of our nature to take blame, to admit that we are wrong, to be sorry for the action itself, not just for the consequences. In fact, without the help of the Spirit of God no one ever does admit such things, for to admit that would be to repent of our sins. This is the root of paganism! We see it all around us today from the highest offices to the lowest grade school rooms. And it is the most natural thing to see in a society apart from God.

I have said before that I believe the current paganism in America can actually afford us better opportunity to preach the gospel of forgiveness through Christ’s blood than what we have known in recent times. The New Testament was written to pagans, not some form of Christendom. It was a world of naturalism, mysticism and humanism, not a world conditioned to think of themselves as born in sin and in need of redemption.

Our gospel demands repentance. It demands a volitional, moral decision to give up on yourself and throw yourself on the mercy of Christ. This is becoming a more radical concept as our society becomes more pagan! David Wells wrote, “It is obvious that the pagan mind had no moral categories superseding the relativities of daily life. Pagans made no appeal to moral absolutes. They determined what was right experimentally.”2 The Apostolic endeavor (as well as the New Testament itself) was designed for such a world and it worked perfectly.

I believe, however, that in order for us to be as successful, we must be careful and accurate in some areas as well.

1. We must center on the moral arguments for God’s existence, not only on creation. That God’s creation shows His eternal power and Godhead will always be true, and that the complexity of nature gives testimony to a complex Creator as well. But knowing that humans are created in God’s image, and that they will always have a conscience void of fulfillment as they try to live against God’s moral universe, we ought to preach loud and clear to this need.

Ravi Zacharias has stated that as he has spoken on university campuses around the world, it is the discussions of moral absolutes and the existence of truth that bring more questions than any other topics.3 Schaeffer wrote, “In the area of morality we find exactly the same thing. Man cannot escape the fact of the motions of a true right and wrong in himself; not just a sociological or hedonistic morality, but true morality, true right and wrong.”4 The pagan morality of our day will only become more and more antithetical to Christianity as time goes on.

2. We must be convinced as believers that covetous desires are the height of hypocrisy. We will have a hard time pointing out the selfishness in others by congratulating and rewarding our own selfishness. This heart of ours is deceitful and desperately wicked. Even Paul admitted, “I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom 7:7). Thomas Watson, an old Puritan writer, called covetousness “The mother sin”5 and showed how all ten commandments are underpinned by this most basic human fault. The breaking of each commandment is a covetous act done for some selfish gain.

I think it is no secret that our churches and our evangelistic efforts are often mere fronts for feeding our own ego. We have a innate desire to be seen and applauded that hounds us constantly. An older writer said, “The enemy whom the Christian combats is his own heart: for he is required to turn arms against himself. He must suspend all sentiments of self-love; he must become his own executioner, and, to use the ideas and expressions of Jesus Christ, he must actually deny himself.”6

If we are to bring the sinner to the place of repentance, in an age which denies moral obligation and exalts self-worth, we must give up our own selfish ambitions. It may be true that we can attract pagans by showing aggressive ambition, but we cannot bring them to repentance. If the cross is lifted up rather than ourselves, God will use us to bring men to himself.

3. We must be willing to accept the vilification which will come our way if we preach the need for repentance. We are seeing this kind of hatred for morality directed socially at the “religious right” and politically at conservatives, but I wonder if we find it directed at us purely because we speak for Christ? In Peter’s first epistle written to suffering Christians, he admonishes the believers in every chapter to accept suffering as Christians, not as law breakers, “for if you take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (2:20). Since Christ has suffered for us, we are to “arm” ourselves “with the same mind” (4:1).

It was October 19, 1856, as Charles Spurgeon was preaching to twelve thousand people in Surrey Music Hall that someone yelled “Fire!”. Seven people died trying to escape the bogus alarm, and Spurgeon was terribly vilified as a “ranting charlatan.” After days of soul-searching and agony, Spurgeon emerged from the ordeal while walking with his wife in the garden, and said, “How foolish I have been! What does it matter what becomes of me if the Lord is glorified? If He is exalted, let Him do as He pleases with me. Oh, wifey, I see it all now.”7 That is the true evangelistic spirit that we find in the apostles throughout the book of Acts!

Our generation of believers may meet the Lord in the air! This generation of pagans has only one chance at salvation. We who love heaven more than earth, we who hate the garment spotted by the flesh, must have this kind of compassion, making a difference! That ministry of compassion must somehow convince the pagans that they are wrong, that only repentance from their selfish sins is acceptable before a holy God.

1. Diogenes Allen, Christian Belief in a Postmodern World (Louisville: W/JKP, 1989) 106.
2. David Wells, No Place For Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 268.
3. Ravi Zacharias, a tape series called Truth, Evangelism and the Postmodern Mind (May, 1998) tape 1.
4. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1971) 127.
5. Thomas Watson, Exposition on the Shorter Catechism (downloaded from Banner of Truth, Edinburgh).
6. Jacques Saurin, “Christian Heroism,” Orations, IV (New York: Collier, 1902) 1752.
7. William J. Petersen, “Meet Charles and Susie Spurgeon” a chapter in a collection of short biographies called C.S. Lewis had a Wife, Catherine Marshall had a Husband (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985) 144.