15 Sep 2017

Bobby, You Got to Have Balance? Whose Balance, Scripture or Sectarianism?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Christian hope, Discipleship, Grace, Luke, Ministry, Patternism, Preaching, Precision Obedience, Sectarianism
The Cross is God’s “Balance Beam”

Bobby You Have to Balance Grace with Falling from Grace

We often hear from critics when we preach or teach on God’s grace or love. It has happened this very week. They say we have to “hold everything in balance. We must talk about responsibility and hell to be true to the Bible. Preaching grace and love is fine.  But without the corresponding fact that we can fall from grace leads to apostasy resulting in denominationalism. You simply cannot be faithful to New Testament Christianity without preaching on hell” (quoting my critic).

I have heard this line of reasoning many times in my life. But I have learned over the years that these well meaning critics have a made up definition of “balance.”Usually what is regarded as balance looks nothing like the proportion of material devoted to something in the Bible itself.

Surely the Scripture itself tells us what God himself thinks is “balanced.” Since we claim that Scripture is our model, our guide, our pattern then is it not also a model/guide/pattern on the meaning of balance in Christian doctrine and preaching?

Is Scripture Really Our Model/Pattern? A Back to the Bible Test

I suggest that we lay aside all sectarian and denominational agendas, and let the Bible decide what is balanced. Isn’t that what we claim we want when we claim to be a “Back to the Bible” movement? If our teaching and preaching does not mirror the emphasis of Scripture then it is we who are out of balance, out of sync, with the word of God. 

So I did a little experiment today. I asked the following questions and got some startling answers from the New Testament.  Do the Apostles, does the entire NT, pass the balance test of his scale?  

When I shared my results with my critic he literally dismissed them out of hand.  What he meant by balance had nothing to do with Scripture but reinforcing loyalty to a religious (sectarian??)  agenda. I call it the “sniff test.”

+ How many times does Paul preach about hell?

+ How many times does Luke in Acts mention hell?

+ How many times does the New Testament as a whole talk about hell?

+ How many times does Paul/NT talk about grace?

+ How many times does Paul/NT talk about love?

If you have never done this experiment you will be shocked by the answers. My critic/s would have you to believe that “hell” occupies a significant amount of biblical teaching. The critics would have you believe that ‘balance’ means devoting nearly, if not actually, a one to one emphasis on grace/love to hell/lost/etc.  I grew up where there was significantly more emphasis placed on fear/hell than on grace and love. 

My friends that is a completely made up belief and out of “balance” with the biblical text itself. 

The Test Results from the New Testament

So if you ask “how often did Paul mention hell in his epistles from Romans to Philemon?” The answer is a big fat 0!! Yes that is ZERO! There is not a single verse in any epistle with Paul’s name attached that even contains the word “hell.”

What if we ask “how often does Acts, with the only sermons in the NT in it, mention hell?” The answer is a big fat 0!! Yes that is ZERO!

Between the epistles of Paul and Acts that is huge chunk of the New Testament there is not a mention of hell a single solitary time.  Get a concordance and see for yourself.

When Paul was chastising the Corinthians, you would think reminding them of the fires of hell would be useful to “scare the hades” out of them.  Hell is simply not a recognizable theme in the epistles of Paul regardless of what my critic claims. Paul never uses the word “hell” even once. 

The facts that emerged from our “back to the Bible” test is that the entire NT uses the word “hell” a grand total of 14x. There are 138,020 words in the Greek New Testament (give or take a couple hundred because of textual variation).  The word “hell” occurs fourteen times out of 138,020 words

Anyone want to do the math and decide on the balance on that?

So when the Holy Spirit speaks, giving us the model, the guide, the pattern the Spirit only saw fit to speak of hell, from Matthew to Revelation, 14x. All but two of those are in the Gospels and several of those are parallel passages themselves and not independent occurrences, thus the number is actually only about half that. 

The two places outside the Gospels with the word “hell” are James 3.6 and 2 Peter 2.4.

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and it is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3.6, NIV)

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when be brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;” (2 Peter 2.4, NIV)

That’s it.  The only two places in the New Testament Epistles where we find the word “hell.” I believe in the reality of hell. But it does not look like the Apostles used it very often to frighten anyone or for any other purpose.

Balance of Love and Grace Vs Hell: According to the Bible

Now are you ready for the biblical balance on grace and love?? Be prepared for some amazement.

If I asked, “I see that the NT uses hell 14x, so how often do the writers speak of grace?” The answer to this is an astounding 123x!! That is one hundred and twenty-three times.

If I asked, “I see the NT uses hell 14x, so how often do the Spirit guided writers speak of love?” The answer is a whopping 232x!! Yes that is two hundred and thirty-two times the NT writers speak of love. By the way if we expand that to the whole Bible the number climbs up to 551 times the Scriptures speak of love.

The Bible exalts, from Genesis to Revelation, the themes of grace and especially love. Grace is the function of divine love. We cannot be true to the God of the Bible, the Holy Spirit or Word if grace and love are not the foundation of every sermon we preach.

If our preaching and teaching reflected this biblical balance, my critic would not be able to criticize with a straight face.  If the Bible is our norm then why is that I can count on one hand the teaching I received on grace in my formative years on one hand.  And my most frequent recollection of the word “grace” is that it was always accompanied by the word “but.”  So we had “yes, we are saved by grace, but …”  (See my article in Grace Centered Magazine, linked here: “The Grace ‘But’).

Paul’s Notion of Balanced Preaching

The Pauline notion of balance is Titus 3.3-8. All the action, all the verbs, all the doing is the Triune God’s (Father, Spirit, Son). Baptism in v.5, is not an instrument of “Precision Obedience” but the glorious work of the Holy Spirit. Goodness, loving kindness, mercy, justified by grace. Paul says in v.8 “I want you to STRESS these things.” Why Paul? “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.”

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. BUT when the KINDNESS and LOVE of God our Savior appeared, HE SAVED US, not because of righteous things we had done, BUT because of his MERCY. HE SAVED US through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been JUSTIFIED BY HIS GRACE, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. AND I WANT YOU TO STRESS THESE THINGS, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone” (Titus 3.3-8).

This is the Holy Spirit’s call for balance and what needs to be stressed. This is the entire “plan of salvation” (a phrase that never occurs in Bible) in a few verses.  There is not a single human action even mentioned in these verses. Baptism is mentioned but it is not a human “doing” but a “God doing” in this passage. And while my critic claims that you have to stress falling from grace and hell to avoid “apostasy resulting in denominationalism,” Paul states the 180 degree opposite.

Love. Kindness. Justification by Grace. Mercy (the reader attune to the rhythms of the Hebrew Bible will recognize that Paul’s highlighted vocabulary is rooted in Exodus 34.6). Love, Kindness, Grace, Mercy, He saved us, these are the basis and ground for obedience and Spiritual growth.

Healthy Christians are planted in the love of God.

Obedient Christians are immersed in the grace of God. Faithful Christians are ever conscious of the mercy of God.

Embracing the Biblical Balance

We can never scare people into faithfulness. We may frighten them into pathological legalism but we will never scare them into devotion and love for God. Fear is not the offspring of genuine biblical teaching. John says that love casts out all fear in fact. Paul talks about obedience, but he does not scare people into heaven.  Obedience, and this is true in the “Old Testament” as much as it is in the “New Testament,” obedience is called for and based upon God’s prior act of grace towards us.  To put it as John puts it, “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19).

So to my critic. I am thankful you have been my critic. I have learned that I have not stressed, as Paul directed, God’s love and grace nearly enough according to the biblical balance.

Love saturates the New Testament 232x and the whole biblical canon. Grace flows from the Apostles 123x. Never once did a biblical writer apologize for “stressing” God’s gracious love rather they exalted it.

Now my point is not that a word count settles all things because it does not.  However this is indicative of the stress of the biblical narrative and the balance for which we want to emulate in our ministry.  Paul tells us what to stress.

Be blessed.

5 Responses to “Bobby, You Got to Have Balance? Whose Balance, Scripture or Sectarianism?”

  1. Swango Says:

    Thanks for posting this. You did well responding to your critics. It takes simple Truth and logic to see how often we should speak about Hell–if we desire to be balanced. (For me, I don’t believe balance is the answer. A better answer is to preaching toward the needs and questions of each congration.)

    I believe you said it best: “We can never scare people into faithfulness.” May we preach THIS more than we preach about Hell.

    You mentioned that Peter wrote about Hell. Well, that is how it is translated in the NIV, but that is not the Greek word Peter used. Based on my studies, Hell and Tartarus are two different places.

  2. John Poore Says:

    Bobby, Great stuff, brother!! I have believed for years that fear is never a viable motivating factor, in response to God’s love and grace.

  3. Greg England Says:

    Excellent, Bobby. Having grown up in the same area as you, and taught the same theology, patternism,a safe way that surely could not anger God, and a host of tradition, this is a wonderful response to what we had to relearn from Scripture. Love you, brother.

  4. Michael Arena Says:

    That’s why my go to Scipture is 1Tim 1:5. Quote from the NASB: “..the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscious and a sincere faith”.

  5. Dwight Says:

    Every once in a while I will hear someone say, “I miss the fire and brimstone preaching of yesterday”, but surely this is just a fondness for things gone by.
    My dad was a fire and brimstone preacher and I don’t miss it at all. The Bible is clear in its call of love, not its fear of death and Hell.
    All through the OT to the NT we read, “If you love me you will keep my commandments…”
    Now admittedly punishment is also mentioned, but not as a reason to go to God.
    Unfortunately I think this is a lot of our motivation in converting people when we preach Baptism, because we are preaching salvation, which is salvation from a fate worse than death.
    But while that is true, God wants people who are not only running from something, but more importantly are running to Him out of love for Him.
    While we often read about the prodigal son, who escaped awfulness to be with His Father, we also must be aware that His Father didn’t punish him when he returned. It took a life of punishment to realize where the true love was, so the son ran to where it lay.

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