There’s a well-known story come down to us from India concerning a group of blind men sent to examine an elephant.
The blind man, who grabbed the tail, thought that the elephant was like a rope. The one grabbing the leg thought it to be like a tree, or a pillar. The one next to the belly declared it to be a wall, and the one at the trunk thought it akin to a snake.
Each was right, in a limited way, but all of them were wrong because they failed to “see” the big picture. They grasped a part and convinced themselves they had the whole.
Something similar seems to happens with the Bible and God’s plan of salvation. The scriptures were given to us by God to lead us to salvation (cf. 2 Timothy 3:15; Romans 1:16), but if you were to ask a variety of ministers as to how to be saved, they might very well all give you a different answer.
One, grabbing ahold of Galatians 3:11, “the righteous shall live by faith,” might well teach that justification and salvation is by faith only. Another, latching onto Ephesians 2:8, “for by grace you have been saved,” will tell you that grace is all you need for salvation. Still another might read 1 Peter 3:21 to you, “Baptism … now saves you,” and declare that the mere act of baptism is all that is required. Still another might, having studied James 1:21, observe that “the implant word … is able to save your souls,” and thus conclude that nothing is needed except having heard the word of God preached.
But all such conclusions are faulty, being based as they are on but a single point, lifted out of the context of all the other scriptures. Students who interpret the Bible in this way are falling into the same fallacy as the blind men who studied the elephant by feeling but a single part.
Jesus, once speaking of the Pharisees and their understanding of the Law of God, said “they are blind guides,” and “if the blind lead the blind both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:14) The Pharisees understood parts of the Law, but they neglected other parts they either did not like or did not understand. (cf. Matthew 12:7; Mark 7:8-9) Their refusal to see the whole of the Law made them untrustworthy guides.
The Bible must be understood as a whole, with each piece of Scripture having equal weight. Thus, the Scriptures teach that the sum of God’s word is truth (Psalms 119:160) and that all the commandments of God are true and pure. (cf. Psalms 119:151). Because of the purity and truth of all of the words of God, we should not seek to either add to them, or take away from them (cf. Proverbs 30:5-6).
But the man who takes Galatians 3:11, “the righteous shall live by faith,” and adds the word “only” to the verse has added to God’s word. He has also, by that action, nullified all other verses which might indicate that more than simple faith is necessary for salvation.
Likewise the one who reads Ephesians 2:8, “for by grace you have been saved,” and teaches a doctrine of grace only, has done the same thing. Even worse for him, Ephesians 2:8 actually mentions the workings of faith and grace together; showing it’s not one or the other, but both acting together. Likewise, Jesus said that salvation came through faith working in conjunction with baptism (Mark 16:16), and the apostle Peter explained that baptism needed to be modified with repentance to be effectual for salvation and the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38).
So yes, the Bible teaches we are saved by grace, but it also teaches we are saved by repentance, faith, baptism, the gospel, the death of Christ, the working of the Spirit, and the humbling of ourselves before God. No one item works alone in God’s plan, but rather each plays a necessary part that should not be neglected.
The scriptures are able, as Paul told Timothy, to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15), but we cannot gain this wisdom by teaching just one portion of a greater whole. We need to study all that God has said on the matter.
Earlier, in speaking to the Ephesian elders, the apostle could testify, “I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:26-27; ESV) A man who preaches less than the “whole counsel” of God is a blind leader. We should not be blind followers, following them into a pit.
The church of Christ invites you to worship with us, and join us in seeking out the whole counsel of God in His holy scriptures. We meet at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, on Wednesdays and Sundays for worship.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.