19 Mar 2009

Walter Scott and the Origins of the Five Finger Gospel

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Church History, Grace, Mission, Preaching, Restoration History, Unity, Walter Scott

Walter Scott (1796-1861)

Walter Scott (1796-1861) is without a doubt one of the most influential persons in our Stone-Campbell photo album. Though his DNA flows through our spiritual veins he is often marginalized in our history. The literature on him is small compared to Alexander Campbell. Scott’s influence is seen in that it was he that suggested the title to AC’s Christian Baptist. He became the evangelist for the Mahoning Baptist Association in 1827 which made him a legend. His pen was prolific sending out his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, The Evangelist (1832-1842 with breaks), The Gospel Restored, The Protestant Unionist, and The Messiahship, The Union of Christians on Christian Principles.

Walter Scott was more than an evangelist, he was a theologian. He was a poet in love with the Lord Jesus. He was, it seems to me, torn between two worlds, Enlightenment rationalism and his emotions. I like to call him an Emotive Rationalist. Scott was baptized by George Forrester, a Haldanean preacher, in 1819. In 1821 visiting a “Scotch Baptist” church in New York City he came into contact with Henry Errett’s booklet On Baptism that played a key role in his (and Campbell’s) theological development. He would serve as the first president of the first college in the Stone Campbell Movement, Bacon College {named for the Philosopher Francis Bacon}.

In 1827, Scott accompanied Alexander Campbell to the annual meeting of the Mahoning Baptist Association. At this meeting Campbell nominated Scott to be the evangelist for this association for the coming year. Thus at the age of 31 Scott embarked on an adventure that would alter the SCM. On November 18, Scott preached near New Lisbon, Ohio and William Amend was the first person to respond to the “Ancient Gospel.”

Ancient Gospel

Scott believed that Jesus the Messiah was the Golden Oracle of the Christian faith. Jesus was to be lifted up and people called to respond to him. Jesus the Messiah was the creed of Christianity. Faith in him was the requirement of entrance and the term of fellowship for Christianity. In a nutshell the Ancient Gospel, was according to Scott, arranged into Six Items:

Faith in God’s Messiah
Repentance toward God
Baptism in Jesus’ name

Remission of Sins … God’s gift
Gift of the Holy Spirit … God’s gift
Eternal Life … God’s gift

This two fold division is important (more about this in a moment). Scott was immensely successful. So successful that a worried Alexander Campbell asked his father to visit with Scott and listen to him preach. Within a year Scott would baptize a thousand people with his new order of salvation. For the rest of his life he averaged around a thousand baptisms a year, which translates into about thirty thousand folks confessing the Messiah in response to his preaching. Scott cut through the confusion and agony of many seekers who never received an assurance that they had been “elected” by God to his Family. We could simply believe the creed in Scott’s preaching. It was a fresh wind blowing on the Western Reserve. It is one of our greatest gifts to the wider Christian world.

Becomes Five Finger Plan of Salvation

As with all schemes however mutation often takes place over the course of history. Scott’s formulation never looses sight that Christ is the 080420image3object of our faith, adoration and love. Scott’s formulation tells what God has done, is doing and will do in the future. We have respond in Faith to the Golden Oracle. We repent of our sin to God. We in our Faith are baptized in the name of the Messiah. As a result God Forgives/Remits our sin. God grants the gift of himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. And God seals us to his for Eternity.

As others adopted Scott’s method the Ancient Gospel markedly shifted emphasis however. As my friend Jeremy Folding once said what we have now is the Five Finger Discount! The formulation is as follows in most 21st century Churches of Christ and even today:

Be Baptized for the Remission of Sins

Even a cursory glance shows this is a radical “departure” from the original formulation. It is a human centered formula. In Scott the emphasis is on what God does in response to faith in the Messiah. The Holy Spirit and Eternal life (critical gifts of grace in Scott) simply disappear altogether. Remission of sins has been converted from a divine gift to being part of a command to be obeyed. This is more than a subtle shift in Scott’s Ancient Gospel.

Scott Has Concerns

Walter Scott was not oblivious to this diminishment of his formulation. Increasingly the focus was primarily on baptism “for the remission.” Baptism became the Golden Oracle rather than Jesus the Messiah. An incipient legalism was creeping in and clouding the vision, or so Scott believed. The “Ancient Gospel” had been “watered” down … In 1844 he wrote to Jacob Creath, Jr these words

Our main thought at that time [1827, BV] was to push back the christian [sic] profession on to its original basis–the Messiah. We did this, and the people were received to the remission of sins on the primitive faith of Jesus as the Son of God. But although this was the actual and practical restoration of the central truth in our religion to its proper place in the christian system, many failed nevertheless to see it, and were carried away wholly by the easier and more popular generalization of faith, repentance, baptism, &c., till, in fact, they do not know their own principles when they are advocated.” [1]

Hearing, Believing, Repenting, Confessing, being baptized should not be misconstrued as the Golden Oracle or the gospel. Scott pointed us first to the WHO of our faith and never let his hearers forget what God had done, is doing and will do for us. Remission is the gift of God not some command we can humanly fulfill. The Spirit is essential to our lives and the eternal hope … how did we loose sight of it all?

Perhaps we should think afresh what is the creed of Christianity … Christ is the Golden Oracle, not baptism … and just how we present the ancient message of Faith.

[1]Union, Protestant Unionist (25 September 1844), p. 292.

9 Responses to “Walter Scott and the Origins of the Five Finger Gospel”

  1. Mitchell Says:

    Great thoughts Bobby! I’ve often wondered how the “plan of salvation” would be stated had Scott lived and taught in our time with the popularization of the three point sermon. The five finger plan works as an outline to teach the entire truth but its not the end all and be all. There is so much more to the story, as you have so eloquently told.

  2. Mitchell Says:

    Also, congrats on your nomination at the Tulsa Workshop Bloggers awards!

  3. kingdomseeking Says:

    I still frequently run accross Church websites among our fellowship that have a link titled “What Must We Do To Be Saved?” And of course, the link does not provide the same answer that Paul and Silas gave to that jailer (Acts 16.29-31). Instead the link provides the 5-step formulaic response to hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized and it does so with proof-texted scripture quotations to go along. With this one move, we make salvation into a human endeavor. Salvation becomes about what we do.

    Thanks for the post!

    K. Rex Butts

  4. Gardner Hall Says:

    It has always been disturbing to see what some call “the plan of salvation” reduced to response rather than provision as if the latter were taken for granted.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    As we have moved across the country and been in several churches it has been on my heart recently how vastly different each church is on this very topic of salvation. We have huge women’s events to vacation bible schools battling how one becomes part of the family of God. We have the sinner’s prayer being taught everywhere yet those who administer it know not of it’s origin. We have watered down the road that there is no direct teaching of what one must do. Why are churches afraid of teaching the Plan of Salvation that includes baptism? Why are key verses like Acts 2:38 blacked out of pastor’s bibles? I don’t get it. How can you read scripture in it’s whole and not know how to become a follower? Why are churches reinventing the wheel? Are they afraid of offending? Offending who? Satan? Yikes.

  6. Phil Says:

    Too many are trying to remove acts of faith from salvation. Belief is required action. Repentance is a result of true belief. We must confess our belief of Jesus as the Son of God. Those who truly believe will obey the commandment of baptism. Without belief there will be no repentance, confession or baptism. True belief is more than lip-service, it is an obedient
    faith. Simply follow the examples of conversion in the book of Acts and don’t go by what “my preacher says”. Only go by what “the preacher says” if he is preaching what the Bible says.

  7. Donald J. Clairmont Says:

    Also, he looked forward to the establishment of the Jewish state. Here is what he said: “The great tribulation’ is yet future. It pre-supposes the Jewish nation restored to Palestine in unbelief, to serve Gentile political ends, and brought there by the active intervention of a great maritime power (Isa. 18).”

  8. Dr. Bill Rosnett Says:

    In considering the “Five Finger Exercise”, and comments made, I want to add that, yes, the elements of hearing (our willingness to pay attention) faith (our putting faith in Jesus), repentance (our choice to turn from sin) can be, perhaps, viewed as a human centered formula, but I want say that baptism is not in that vein. Baptism is something I submit to, not something I can do to or by myself. It points out that, in the end, salvation is what God works in person, beyond anything that a person does and makes the gifts of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit more special.


  9. Ed Dodds Says:

    Five-Finger Exercise and gift of the Holy Spirit

    While working as an evangelist for the Mahoning Baptist Association between 1827 and 1830, Scott developed a simple mnemonic illustration for the gospel plan of salvation that has been used in the Restoration Movement ever since.[1]:675[3]:338 Based on Acts 2:38, Scott believed that salvation requires faith, repentance and baptism.[1]:675 As an evangelist, he would first come into a community and find a group of children.[3]:338 He would ask them to hold up a hand, and then point to each finger and say “faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit.”[3]:338 Once the children had learned the mnemonic, he would ask them to tell their parents that he would be preaching that same gospel that evening.[3]:338



  1. The “5 Step Plan” and the Gospel: Part 2—Church History | CALEB COY
  2. ARE THERE DIVISIONS WITHIN THE “CHURCH OF CHRIST”? | Answering The Hard-line Church of Christ

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