Just what is 'that old-time religion'? The Bible exhorts us to 'contend for the faith once delivered to the saints' (Jude 3). What was that faith? When was it delivered? Who delivered it? Do you agree with some Christians that the teachings expressed by the founder of their Church are unchangeable? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ("Mormons"), for example, faced this challenge many years ago. So too did the Seventh Day Adventist church. And the Jehovah's Witnesses. Right now, indeed, the Church of England is torn by similar challenges.
And even within the Roman Church there are still rumblings from the changes instigated by Vatican II!
However, simple analysis surely dispels this notion.
Why, for example, so many denominations? Were all these leaders "inspired" in widely different - and conflicting - doctrinal directions by the same Holy Spirit of truth? And, if they claim inspiration, why do a few sometimes admit error - evidenced by a doctrinal change? Isn't it just possible, therefore, that the "great teacher" simply got it wrong - or only partially right? Was he (or she) infallible? He may have claimed divine inspiration. But could his view perhaps be colored by background, by prejudice, by limited scholarship or simple lack of access to all the facts? Could he even have deliberately set out to deceive?
Few Christians would quarrel with Jude's exhortation to "carry on a vigorous defence of the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's people" (Jude 3, Williams trans.). It's surely a praiseworthy goal to which all of us should aspire. But we must be quite clear what it means!
We are exhorted in Scripture to "grow in knowledge" (2 Peter 3:18). Doesn't this imply that we may have imperfect knowledge of "truth"? That perhaps truth garnered in one generation can be buried through persecution, martyrdom, deception - and lost to the next generation? And later be rediscovered? No church can remain as some kind of doctrinal fossil!
In fact, the questions as to what was that faith, when was it delivered, and who delivered it are at the very heart of the matter. Let's consider them.
Who Is Right?
What specific "doctrines" the Bible teaches is largely irrelevant in this study. [An outline of the Churches of God beliefs is available in our Statement of Beliefs] The central fact is: there is a single, specific body of belief, of teaching (doctrine), that is original Christianity. A study of the twentieth century's some two thousand plus Christian denominations might appear to give the lie to this! Can the Holy Spirit be guiding both Pope John Paul and his implacable foe, Dr. Ian Paisley? The Church of England and the Brethren Church and the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses - and The Churches of God? And guiding them into different and opposing teachings?
Do the Scriptures - which are "given by inspiration of God" (II Timothy 3:16) - teach one group to baptize infants, and another to immerse only adults? Or one to insist on salvation by faith alone while another demands "works" also? One to venerate images or the crucifix, another to abhor them? One to speak in tongues, another to regard this as demonic? One to celebrate the Mass and another to consider it pagan?
Notice these examples are of mainstream Christianity. Include other groups claiming to be Christian and we could also contrast those who observe Sunday with those who consider the seventh day as the Sabbath (many millions of Christians, in fact!), those who keep Christmas and Easter with those who consider these festivals 'pagan', Trinitarians with non-trinitarians, the immortal soul concept with "soul sleep" - almost ad infinitum!
With such variation - who is right? Is anyone? And if all represent "the truth" (and do any proudly proclaim themselves to be teaching error?) where does that place the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit perhaps confused? Clearly not. There is only one expression of the truth, of the mind of God. Wrote the apostle Paul, "There is ... one Spirit, one faith..." (Ephesians 4:5).
The challenge, surely, is for the church of God to extract the nuggets of truth from the Scriptures! That is where truth lies. Not from added traditions, not from the ravings of some prophet or prophetess, not from long-hidden plates dug from a mountain-side, nor from hoary traditions of "the Fathers".
Sanity and stability can return only when we recognize that we dare not add to - nor detract from - the Word of God as expressed in the Old and New Testaments! There lies "the faith once delivered"!
The Holy Scriptures
First, let's look at the writings of our "Old Testament".
Few Christians would challenge the idea that these writings represent the foundation of New Testament teachings. For example, there are in the New Testament (NT) over six hundred direct quotations and references to the Old Testament (OT). And there's little teaching in the NT that is not securely rooted in the "Holy Scriptures" - that is, the thirty-nine books into which modern versions of the OT are divided. Even such an "advanced" and Christian teaching as "love your neighbor as yourself" first found written expression by the pen of Moses - Leviticus 19:18 - some fifteen hundred years before Jesus quoted it!
Indeed, the apostle Paul wrote to his "pupil" Timothy that these same Holy Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) are "inspired by God, and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in doing what is right" (II Timothy 3:16). The first Christians initially had no other writings from which to learn the truth! At Thessalonica they were commended by Paul for "carrying on a daily study of the Scriptures [i.e., the Old Testament]" to see if Paul's message were true (Acts 17:11). This is hardly the view of most twenty-first century Christians!
Jesus himself identified these Scriptures as "the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44-45). In the language of those times, he thus described the entirety of what Protestants today call "The Old Testament" and which the Jews term "The Holy Scriptures".
The Old Testament, then, is certainly a reliable source for discovering "the faith once delivered to the saints". Without it the writings of the New Testament would be largely gobbledygook - incomprehensible! Yet most Christians all but ignore it, relegate it to history's dust-bin.
Inspired New Testament
The primitive Church of God relied on the Old Testament writings, but supplemented by the words through letters and sermons - of the apostles and prophets. At that time God was directly inspiring these men to lay the foundation of Christianity. Wrote Paul to the Ephesian Christians: "...for you are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself the cornerstone" (ch. 2:20). Indeed Paul claims that the words he spoke were "in words taught by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:13).
All this was, of course, predicted by Jesus himself.
In his final counsel to the disciples prior to his death, Jesus told them: "...when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into the whole truth" (John 16:13). He also told them, "But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (14:26). This enabled them to preach and teach - and later to have written down - the whole counsel of God. They were inspired to perfectly recall all Jesus taught them during their three and a half years in his company before his death. And also that burning instruction he imparted to them in the nearly six weeks following his resurrection (Luke 24:32, Acts 1:3). Indeed throughout their lives the Holy Spirit guided them into all truth.
It was therefore to these men and by these means and at that time that the entire structure of Christian belief was laid! Paul urged the young evangelist Timothy to entrust to reliable men the same teachings Paul had imparted (II Timothy 2:2). There was no room for variety of belief in the fundamentals of the faith!
Do you want to know what Jesus taught? Look to these Scriptures! Ought you to accept a "new" teaching? Only if it is perfectly in harmony with the writings of the Old and New Testaments! And should you abandon a traditional teaching or doctrine of your church? Only when the change is clearly proven without shadow of doubt from the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
No Infallible Teachers
In our day we need both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
For there are no living witnesses to the life and words of Jesus. Not since the death of the apostle John at the end of the first Christian century have there been living apostles whose words are directly inspired by God. The leaders of the churches of God are "inspired" in their words and teachings only as they reflect the written Word of God-though God gives insights in regard to the application of His Word for our times. There are, today, no infallible teachers! Sadly, though, there are many who assume such a role. And many thousands - even millions - who willingly and gullibly are deceived by their claims!
Too often Christians will flit to a new but powerfully-presented doctrine without thorough examination of the Bible texts! Paul urged: "Prove all things. Hold fast to what is good" (I Thessalonians 5:21). Elsewhere he says: "For a time is coming when men will not tolerate wholesome instruction, but, wanting to have their ears tickled, they will find a multitude of teachers to satisfy their own fancies, and will close their ears to the truth and will turn away to fables" (I Timothy 4:3). Quite an indictment!
Could You Believe A Lie?
The apostle Paul gave a solemn warning that's of special application today. Writing to the church at Thessalonica about the crisis at the close of this age - our day - he warned of a corning time of worldwide deception perpetrated by a "lawless man". This wretched being "is produced by the spirit of evil and armed with all the force, wonders and signs that falsehood can devise. To those involved in this dying world he will come with evil's undiluted power to deceive, for they have refused to love the truth which could have saved them" (II Thessalonians 2:9-10).
I need but remind you that Jesus said "Your Word is truth" (John 17:17)!
If we fail to measure our beliefs against the yardstick of the divinely inspired Word of the Living God then we could be in deep trouble. For the apostle Paul went on to tell the Thessalonian Christians that for those who don't love the truth "God sends upon them, therefore, the full force of evil's delusion so that they put their faith in an utter fraud"!
A fearful warning indeed. Failure to love God's Word leads to a fatal dementia in which we end up believing downright lies.
Do you "love the truth"? Are you willing to compare your beliefs with the inspired Word of God? When you hear "new doctrine" from whatever source - are you, like the Bereans (Acts 17:11), "eager to search the Scriptures [for the Bereans this meant the Old Testament!] to see if these things were so"? Or do you simply accept your church's teachings without question?
In the Scriptures God has given us all we need to know about himself, about the way of salvation, about how we ought to behave. Admittedly there are areas where the fine details are cause for legitimate debate. But the broad brush-strokes of vital truth are clear for all who have the spiritual eye to see. It is there for us to prove - personally!
Yet virtually the whole of Christianity, while faithfully applying the Bible principle of service to others, feeds off traditional teachings that are unadulterated pre-Christian beliefs gift-wrapped in Christian clothing. Both Old and New Testament are relegated to the dust-bin!
Where do you get your beliefs? How do they compare with the Scriptures? Are you certain your view of Christian doctrine isn't just a veneer of Bible-sounding words that hide ancient lies? Let all of us who claim to be Christ's fine tune our love for the truth, and earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the church in the Scriptures!
And if you are not yet committed to Jesus Christ and to his teachings, you are invited to investigate further. True faith is built on the foundation of sound Bible knowledge. Without this knowledge you could "believe" - but be deceived. Just like "the demons" (James 2:19)!
To comment on this article or request more information, please contact James McBride by e-mail at the comment form below.
For PDF or mailed copy, see CGOM. Excerpt from New Horizons Vol. 5 No. 3, May-June, 2001. Edited by James McBride of the Churches of God, United Kingdom.
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