GERALD COWAN ‘S PERSDONAL PERIODICALS
Number 655 • July 1, 2021
BETTER THAN THE “FIVE-POINT” FORMULA
For nearly two centuries a five point mnemonic utilizing five fingers (sometimes derisively referred to by some as the “five-finger plan of salvation” or the “five-finger gospel”) has been the de frigeur add-on to nearly every sermon or devotional, regardless of the subject matter or theme, as an “invitation” or “appeal” to those in the audience, in hope that they will respond by “obeying the gospel.” It has changed from its original form, used by American pioneer preacher Walter Scott and amended by him and emulated ubiquitously by preachers in churches of Christ in the United States, though not so much elsewhere in the world. For some it is not a “gospel sermon” if it doesn’t include or end with this ritualized invitation. It is not found, either in whole or in listed and designated parts, on any page of the New Testament. Is it, in fact, required? Is it adequate on its own or in its traditional form as a summation of the gospel and an effective stimulus to salvation-seekers? Not really. It is ambiguous, redundant, incomplete and insufficient as it stands – it is not easily or quickly understood or obeyed. I will no doubt be castigated for rejecting a traditional practice that has for such a long time “served us well” in evangelism. Let me explain my complaint and suggestion before you write me off as a non-conforming heretic. We are not saying the traditional approach is wrong – actually, there’s a lot in it that is good and needs to be kept. But it needs to be adjusted and improved to avoid being a mere inadequate add-on.
THE 200 YEAR-OLD FORMULA/PLAN
The beginning point is said to be to HEAR the gospel, hearing and listening to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17). If one has not heard the truth he can’t know what to do for salvation (Romans 10:13-15). There is no hope for the untaught, the mistaught, the unevangelized. The Lord’s command is urgent and to the point: Go everywhere and share the gospel with everyone (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15-16). Tell everyone they cannot be saved if they haven’t heard and obeyed the truth of God. We could add here: the saved may not remain saved if they fail or refuse to tell others the words from God.
The beginning point in response after hearing the gospel is to BELIEVE the gospel (Romans 5:1-4). If one does not believe what he has heard and learned it doesn’t really matter whether or not he obeys it. Obedience will not save a non-believer. Jesus clearly stated that one who does not believe will be condemned and lost (Mark 16:16). Without honest belief one cannot please God and therefore has no hope of salvation (Hebrews 11:6). But what is one to believe? Not theological babble or denominational dogmas. One must believe the Bible, the inspired word of, about, and from God concerning His involvement with mankind, His provision of a way of salvation and access to himself, His Christ, and His Holy Spirit (Hebrews 11:1). The gospel is a great deal more than a few simple truths about Jesus; the gospel is the whole message from God as contained in the whole of the Bible and in Jesus – nothing added, nothing deleted, and nothing altered (Revelation 22:18-19, Galatians 1:6-9, Romans 15:4). It is unlikely that everything one needs to know can be given in a one or two minute add-on to a conventional sermon.
REPENT, we like to thunder that out ominously: without repentance one has no hope. “Unless you repent you will perish” (Luke 13:3-5). This is one of our “bear down hard and emphasize” points. People get the idea that “if you aren’t sorry you’ll be sorry.” Is that what repentance is about, being sorry? Being sorry is not enough (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). Many sorrowing, remorseful and regretful persons are not repentant. What is repentance and how does one do it and prove the doing? Probably a whole full-length sermon and more needs to be devoted to that subject.
CONFESS. Confess what? Confess your belief and acceptance of what you have heard and been taught about God, His word, His Christ, His Spirit, His commands and requirements, and more. It is not enough just to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, which is sometimes stressed as fulfilling this requirement, based primarily on what the eunuch said when the preacher Philip told him he could be baptized if he was a believer (see Acts 8:36-37) – but this is not the only scripture reference to confession . Demons believe and confess who Jesus is and what his relationship to God is (Matthew 8:28-29, James 2:19). What benefit is there for them in such belief? The confession of Jesus as the Lord one accepts and commits himself to (Romans 10:9-10) is essential; it should be but is not the confession always asked for and required from those who are seeking salvation. The salvation-seeker will be saved by confessing the Son of God Jesus as his or her personal Lord and expressing the intention to honor and serve Him as Lord. The confession must be right – obedience to one’s acknowledged Lord and God or there’s no benefit from it (Matthew 7:21-23). There’s more to obedience than mere belief.
The final step in this traditional plan, following the order given as noted, is BAPTISM: hear, believe, repent, confess, be baptized. Many deny that baptism is essential and must be received before one can be called saved. Many insist that believing in Christ is, by itself, enough to get, guarantee, and secure salvation. May I remind you that belief is necessary, repentance is necessary, and proper confession is also necessary (one who will not confess will be denied by the Lord (Matthew 10:28-32) – and more than that is essential. Baptism now saves us (1 Peter 3:20). Here’s a fact: from Acts chapter 2 through to the end of the New Testament no accountable person is ever said to be saved without first being baptized – not baptized after being saved as a kind of confession or testimony that one has been saved (by faith and grace), but baptized prior to being and in order to be saved. Do not take this to mean that baptism by itself, apart from belief, repentance, and confession is enough to save one. Salvation is not by faith alone or by baptism alone – some insist on reading 1 Peter 3:18-21 as if it said only “baptism now saves us.” Baptism is sought and accepted as part of the plan, part but not the whole of obedience to God and the gospel of Christ.
BE FAITHFUL is added, not as a pre-requisite for salvation but as the means of maintaining it, in order to stay saved and not lose one’s place among the Lord’s redeemed, forgiven, and saved people. A key statement to this effect is found in Revelation 2:20, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” This can be put into an “if – then” format. If you are faithful unto and until death, then (when life is ended) He will give you the full and final reward. Faithfulness covers and includes everything: worship, stewardship (giving), correction of errors when known ( including confession, repentance, and forgiveness being sought from God), benevolent giving to others, and evangelism or telling others (as part of one’s confession).
HOW SHOULD THIS PLAN BE ADJUSTED OR REVISED?
It may appear I have made a reasonably good case for the plan or formula as it stands. The redundant ambiguity of HEAR and BELIEVE can better be stated as LEARN AND KNOW the truth of the gospel of God and Christ. That can be done by listening and hearing others talk about it and explain it. But even better is by reading and studying it directly from the Bible – apply your own mind diligently to the study (2 Timothy 2:15, Ephesians 3:4 When you read you can understand what I’m revealing to you). The result of learning and understanding God’s word will be FAITH. Knowing God’s word and will should lead one to see and judge properly one’s own spiritual condition, which in turn should call forth REPENTANCE, changing one’s attitude and actions, leading to OBEDIENCE to the commands and requirements of God’s will in the gospel of Christ. Penitent faith will lead one to confess the Lord, receive BAPTISM receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39), to change one’s relationship to God and Christ and the Spirit. This process of salvation makes one a member in and of the church of God and Christ – a standing secured and maintained by FAITHFULNESS to the whole gospel, which will secure one’s position as a vessel of honor in God’s house (2 Timothy 2:19-26), validate one’s personal testimony and evangelistic confession about the involvement of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Scripture, and the fellowship of saints in the house of the Lord.
The typical H-B-R-C-B appeal says nothing about the work of God, but leaves one thinking only of what he can do for himself to get salvation. It seems to end at Acts 2:38a with baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, skips Acts 2:38b and 39 about remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the ongoing promise of God, then lights again on Acts 2:40 with save yourselves. Unknown to many is that Walter Scott’s original mnemonic of five points was: Faith, Repentance, Baptism, Forgiveness of sins, Receiving the Holy Spirit. Why he changed it is not clear, but it was clearly a mistake to do so because it ignores God’s involvement. I have learned to make sure that salvation-seekers understand what is required of them and what God also does and will do to make salvation a reality. Only you can do your part – nobody else, not even God, can or will do your part for you. The world can’t, other persons (even your parents, children, spouse, closest friends) can’t, the church can’t and your preacher, priest or pastor can’t. If you don’t do it, it won’t get done, and there’s no salvation without it. No one else can do God’s part for Him. Only God can do God’s part and there’s no salvation without it. We must be workers together with God (2 Corinthians 6:1-2). Here’s something wonderful: God cooperates with us when we cooperate with Him – He even enables us to do the part He requires us to do (Philippians 2:12-13). No effective plan of salvation leaves out God’s part or man’s part – your part.
We should probably abandon any formulistic plan – no matter how many relevant parts and points we may add to it. One who doesn’t know what to do, how to do it, what to allow and request God to do, and what to expect from it is probably not going to be saved until those discrepancies and deficiencies are corrected.