GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 613 • February 9, 2021
DIFFICULT PROBLEMS THE CHURCH NEEDS TO TALK ABOUT – 5. SIDETRACKED SAINTS
The term “sidetracked” is railroad terminology. It means that a railroad car or cars, or whole train, have been diverted to a side track away from the main track. Such a car or cars are, at least for a time, “out of service.” The term has also come to mean taking the wrong track instead of the right one, the designated one. There are several ways in which side-tracking may occur: the engineer may choose a side track, or someone may put him on the wrong track by working a switch without the knowledge of the one operating and guiding the train.
Christians are often sidetracked too. Sometimes without knowing it; sometimes deliberately and without caring. By sidetracked here we mean those who have fallen along the way and are out of service, and those who are traveling on a side track, not the right road, not the way that leads to heaven (Matthew 7:13-14).
The reasons so many saints get sidetracked are too numerous to list, but some of them need our attention. First, the side track of dependence. Too many depend upon someone else to keep them on the right track. Many go off on a side track because they trust some preacher or elder, or some other Christians to guide – often not knowing that trusted person is also on the wrong track, maybe as part of an invalid church or religious group: faithful to their chosen group but not part of the stipulated way of God. Being sincere and true to your chosen way and your conscience is no guarantee of being right with God. One of the major errors – a most destructive error – of denominationlism is “join the church of your choice” and maintain its requirements for membership, and you’ll be OK with God too. It isn’t your conscience that makes you free. It isn’t the popular or prevalent opinion that makes you free. It is the truth that makes you free (John 8:31-32). God does not accept your way or any way except His own – He does not approve and accept any who take any way but the way He stipulates. There are or may be many ways that seem right to people but end in death and destruction (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25). The idea that all churches lead to heaven is the devil’s lie, not God’s truth. If the person or church you trust is on the wrong track you will also be on the wrong track if you follow him. One must apply himself, apply his own mind and will to the truth, if he expects to have God’s approval (2 Timothy 2:15). One who follows the blind will end where the blind one ends, and that may be in the ditch of destruction and despair (Matthew 15:14).
There is also the sidetrack of misplaced loyalty. Some feel that, even though they have been warned, admonished, and offered correction – even though they know their current way and condition are wrong – they ought to be loyal to someone or some group simply because they have been loyal to them in the past. But one must be worthy of our loyalty. We are not advised, certainly not required, to follow someone we know or suspect is leading us astray. Only God is worthy; our loyalty must be only to God, not to any man or church, or surrogate (Galatians 1:10).
There is the sidetrack of misplaced emphasis in worship. The most common example of this has to do with the communion of Lord’s Supper. Some feel that if they manage to partake of the Lord’s Supper they are excused from the other activities of worship. The Lord’s Supper is presumed to be the essential part and all other acts are peripheral, adjunctive, optional extras – beneficial and pleasure-giving, but not necessary and therefore irrelevant. There are two basic reasons for this travesty of worship.
First, it has been taught and emphasized by the oldest denomination, Catholicism, that it is the central and sufficient act of worship when accompanied by a certain ritual and liturgy of set repeated prayers and incantations – the service itself is called “Mass” or Eucharist in which the elements of bread and wine are said to be transmuted into the actual literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, so that his flesh, blood, body, soul, and divinity are present in what still appears to be bread and wine. This sanctified and transmuted body and blood is offered up as a sacrifice (the sacrifice of the Mass) to God in behalf of those who will receive it. This leads to the second “justification” for this travesty of communion: ingesting the bread and wine is sacramental, a conveyor and conveyance of grace. By it one receives and renews one’s spiritual life in Christ – which cannot be said of other acts of worship. However, even this is hypocritical in some communions since only the officiant priest is allowed to have the wine; congregants can only receive the bread, and only if they are first absolved from sin and are thus pure so that they do not pollute the sacred elements. So the “laity” (all who are not priests under holy orders) can receive the bread – the body of Christ and its benefits, but cannot receive the wine – the blood which is the life of Christ and its benefits. Excommunication – the denial and withholding of “holy communion” – is a way of depriving one from the possibility of heaven and consigning him or her to irrevocable hell by denying access to the sacred elements necessary for sustaining spiritual life. What power and potency – the power and prerogatives of God himself – are supposed to reside in the bread and wine and the power of the priest to give it or withhold it. Small wonder that getting this communion is considered to be so important by the supposed cognoscenti: if one has communion he has a guarantee of life and salvation that is not available without it. But even a casual reading of the Bible (not recommended and sometimes forbidden by the hierarchy) shows that God makes no such distinction, and we have no right to do so either (1 Corinthians 11:26-29, Colossians 3:16-17, etc). This sacrilegious distortion of communion is a blasphemy, not a sacrament.
A second sidetrack of misplaced emphasis has to do with baptism. I have heard more than once, from some of our own preachers and teachers, that “baptism now saves us” – quoting a snippet from 1 Peter 3:21. It is denied that once one is saved he is always and forever saved – the mantra of believers in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That doctrine is rightfully denied. But the equivalent teaching that once you have been (properly) baptized you are guaranteed salvation (can’t lose it?) seems to be acceptable to some. So people are able to bury their dissolute, ungodly dead without fear and in faith that they will go to heaven because, “After all, thank God, he/she was baptized” (often as an unknowing infant incapable of personal choice). That too is sacrilege and blasphemy.
The last example we will list here is the sidetrack of selective service. This is dangerous because it is so subtle. It is true that no one can do all the things he is capable of doing all the time, or perhaps at any one time. So one must choose which work will be best for him to do at any given time. The trouble is that one tends to choose the easiest work or the one which gives him more personal pleasure and gratification but not the one most needed or most beneficial to others – or even most pleasing to God – at that time. There is no set formula for choosing which works to do, but maybe this will help: Start with ability, what you are able to do (Matthew 25:15). Don’t expect to do – you probably will not be expected to do — something you simply cannot do. A second element is opportunity (Galatians 6:10). Opportunities are dependent on ability and circumstances. So, when something needs to be done and you are present and able to do it, do it. Ability plus opportunity often results in responsibility (Matthew 25:34-46, Galatians 6:1, Hebrews 10:25, etc) – you may be called to account for why you did not do it, since you were there and you were able to do it.
Another aspect of this sidetrack is the assumption that good works can compensate for improper things one may have done or for the absence of things one should have done — if you have more good works than bad ones you’ll be accepted and saved. You know in which category that concept belongs too, don’t you? Being profitably engaged in immoral or forbidden works cannot be rectified by giving a portion – even a very generous portion – of the proceeds to the church. God does not want and will not accept one’s ill-gotten gains in lieu of righteousness.
Apply the good, better, best rule in selecting from among various needs and opportunities. Do not be satisfied with doing what is good or better – do the best you can do in everything. Test and prove everything and hold to what is good while rejecting everything that is not good (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). If this pattern is followed faithfully and applied diligently in our lives, we will seldom if ever be sidetracked from the will of God.