THE SIX FUNDAMENTALS of Being Christians

THE SIX FUNDAMENTALS
By Coffman

Ironically, ours is an age that has indeed “gone on” to a very fanciful and indefinite kind of perfection so-called, categorically forsaking and denying the very principles outlined here as fundamental. For the generation that first received this letter to the Hebrews, a further stress of the fundamentals was not needed; but for this age, the opposite is true.

Fundamental truth of the most basic nature is openly denied or presumptuously ignored by an age that seems to feel that it has outgrown such elementary things as these; and, therefore, we may be thankful indeed for the inspired outline of things which actually constitute fundamental Christian doctrine. Some study will be given to this extremely interesting list of the foundation principles of the Christian religion:

repentance from dead works,
faith toward God,

the teaching of baptisms,

the laying on of hands,

the resurrection of the dead,

the eternal judgment.

There are two categories here, first the plan of salvation, as it has been called, including faith, repentance and baptism, and pertaining largely to alien individuals, and secondly, certain doctrines that concern all people collectively. Some make a triple division, grouping the three successive pairs to represent man’s personal relations, his social relations, and his connection with the unseen world.[1]

Objection to the view that the primary steps of Christian obedience, faith, repentance and baptism, are intended here springs from two things: (1) the order of their being mentioned (repentance first), and (2) the mention of plural baptisms. We shall note each of these. The order of faith and repentance in the steps of obedience does not depend on any word list, even of the apostles, for it is impossible for them to be reversed.

No unbeliever in the history of the world ever repented; and the mention of repentance first in this sequence cannot possibly imply any priority of its appearance in the sinner’s heart. The scriptures supply another example of clearly related actions being mentioned out of their natural sequence. Peter said of the crucifixion of Christ that it was he “whom they slew and hanged on a tree” (Acts 5:30), thus reversing the chronological sequence.

The use of the plural “baptisms” doubtless sprang from the fact that no less than seven baptisms are mentioned in the New Testament, these being: (1) the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11); (2) the baptism of fire (Matthew 3:11); (3) the baptism of John (Matthew 3:16); (4) the baptism unto Moses (1 Corinthians 10:2); (5) the baptism of suffering (Luke 15:30); (6) the baptism for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29); and (7) the baptism of the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20). The seventh of these is beyond question the “one” baptism of Ephesians 4:5; and the knowledge of these things was most certainly part of the elementary things that one had to know in order to become a Christian. Able scholars have rejected this view, Bruce, for example, insisting that “baptisms” in this place has no reference whatever to that Christian ordinance that stands at the gateway of the church; but in matters of this kind, one must be on guard against the natural bias that flows from the theological position of the commentator. Just how anyone can rule out Christian baptism as being included in “baptisms,” especially when it stands in a list of fundamental Christian doctrines, must ever appear as a mystery indeed. Westcott, an incomparable master of the Greek text, allows the obvious meaning of the word to stand, stating that

The plural and peculiar form (of the term “baptisms”) seems to be used to include Christian baptism with other lustral rites. The “teaching” would naturally be directed to show their essential difference.[2]
Repentance from dead works. Repentance is basic to salvation, on the part of both aliens and Christians, being a constant duty of all who would enter into life. It is an invariable condition of forgiveness of any sin whatsoever (Luke 13:3). “From dead works” is a reference to the class of deeds from which the conscience requires to be cleansed, as evidenced by the same description of them in Hebrews 9:14. All works are dead, in the sense intended here, except the ones motivated by faith and love of God. The works of human righteousness, the works of the flesh, the works of mortal achievement, and even the works of the Law of Moses, must all be included in the “dead works” mentioned here.

And faith toward God. Faith as a fundamental is affirmed not only here but in Hebrews 11:6, and throughout the New Testament (Mark 16:15,16). It is rather strange that faith which has been elevated to a super-status by most of Protestantism should be revealed here among the simplicities, a rudimentary, fundamental, basic thing, which one is admonished to leave and go on unto perfection! What a contrast is between this and the view of the creeds which make it the “sole” basis of salvation. Nevertheless, it would be difficult indeed to overstress the importance of faith, without which no man can please God. It is a “sine qua non” of redemption.

And the teaching of baptisms. This was noted above, but a few more thoughts are in order. Plainly, baptism is made to be in this verse a part of the fundamental teaching of Christianity; and therefore, it simply cannot be that baptism is in any sense an optional, non-essential, elective, or superficial duty; but it is a genuine obligation, as should already have been expected from the proclamation of it on so many solemn occasions as a commandment to be heeded by all people. See the accounts of the great commission in Matthew 28:18ff and Mark 16:15ff, and also the first sermon of the gospel age (Acts 2:38ff). As regards faith and baptism, the theology of the Protestant era has exaggerated faith and diminished baptism; but in the index of Christian fundamentals, one finds them securely embedded side by side in the foundation of the Christian theology. Seeing then that the Holy Spirit has made them to be among the coordinates, it must be sinful indeed to disturb the place that either of them has in God’s marvelous system of salvation. Let those who hail baptism as non-essential, or some superfluous accessory of the true faith, behold here its proper place in the foundation.

Baptism is the burial in water of a believing, penitent candidate, and the raising up again to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12); only those who believe and repent can receive Christian baptism. The purpose of baptism is to bring the believer into Christ (Galatians 3:27; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 6:3). The necessity of baptism lies in the mandate of Christ who commanded all people of all nations of all times to receive it and submit to it (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38ff). The responsibility for being baptized rests upon every individual ever born into the world. Peter commanded his hearers to “repent and have yourselves baptized.”[3] Baptism is a precondition of forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16); it corresponds to the marriage ceremony as applied to Christ and his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:25-27); it is the initiatory rite by which one is admitted to the church which is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). Although the scriptures declare that we are saved by baptism (1 Peter 3:21), it is not baptism alone that saves. Baptism without faith, or without repentance, or without the newness of life following, is no baptism. Baptism is “for” the remission of sins (Acts 2:38), and for the purpose of being saved (Mark 16:15,16); and it is to be administered in the sacred name “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20). Therefore, let every man ask himself if this sacred and holy commandment has anything to do with him!

The laying on of hands would seem at first glance to be misplaced in this list, but not at all. Absolutely essential to an understanding of the limitation upon the appearance in the early history of the church of truly inspired men who could do miracles and speak with divine authority in the church is the knowledge of the fact that such abilities came to those men through the laying on of the apostles’ hands (Acts 8:18), and from no other source whatsoever. Out of such knowledge flow epic deductions which are of the utmost consequence to Christianity. The cessation of miracles and of directly-inspired teachers, and the closing up of the sacred canon of the New Testament, and such information as refutes the notion of any so-called apostolic succession – all these and many other truths of a most crucial kind are directly dependent upon just one little fact, namely, that it was through laying on of “the apostles’ hands” that those wonderful gifts came to the church, and that that power was not hereditary, or transferable, by any other means whatever. Plenary power of a kind like that delegated to an ambassador is never transferable, but every new holder of it must be commissioned at the original source. Even the sorcerer understood this basic point (Acts 8:18ff); and the possession of that information by such a person as Simon, after such a brief contact with the faith, proves both the fundamental or elementary nature of the doctrine, and its basic simplicity as well. It was in view of that knowledge that Simon tried to buy the gift, not from Philip who had baptized him and who also had the power, and who was personally known to Simon, but from Peter, an apostle!

The resurrection of the dead is another fundamental sadly shunted aside in the materialistic age through which people are passing. This old fundamental doctrine should be hauled out of the cellar and presented anew to the secular and unbelieving society! An apostle once said, “If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The whole teaching of Christ was founded squarely on the premise of a resurrection of the bad and good alike, indeed of all people. He said,

Marvel not at this: for the hour cometh, in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28,29).
Christianity’s most successful missionary, the apostle Paul, never failed to stress this doctrine. On land or on sea, at home or abroad, in villages or in great cities, his message was always and constantly that of the resurrection of the dead. The importance of this fundamental teaching to the onward sweep of Christianity in the early centuries was marked by Gibbon in his epic history of the decline and fall of the ancient Roman empire. He wrote,

Our curiosity is naturally prompted to inquire by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of earth. To this inquiry an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author.
Gibbon then went on to list the factors which he called “the five following causes” which favored the rapid spread of Christianity; and the second on the list is “the doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth.”[4] Without the doctrine of the resurrection, the whole fabric of Christian thought dissolves into emptiness and worthlessness. No marvel then that it is listed as fundamental.

And of eternal judgment. This doctrine too, in these days, is more honored by its neglect than by its faithful proclamation. The whole concept of an eternal judgment, alas, has dropped out of the theological firmament, and from its rightful emphasis by gospel preachers. And why? Is not this also a part of the fundamental sub-structure of Christianity? Of course it is. The doctrine of the eternal judgment is taught in the Old Testament (Daniel 12:2); but it is in the New Testament that the magnificent scope and importance of it most vividly appear. Christ plainly stated that all nations would appear simultaneously before him in judgment, that he should sit upon the throne of God and separate the wicked from the righteous as the shepherd divides the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31ff). He taught that all nations would appear simultaneously with that current generation in judgment, and that the citizens of Nineveh (Matthew 12:41) and the queen of the south (Matthew 12:42), separated by centuries of time, would appear in judgment with the contemporaries of Jesus. Efforts to spiritualize the resurrection and judgment (the two go together) by making “our age” the judgment day, or “the day of death” the judgment, or “every day” to be judgment day, or such things as “historical rejections of prior social wrongs” to be the judgment mentioned in scripture is nonsense. All such devices utterly fail in the light of the concise and dramatic statements in the word of God, one of them in this epistle. “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). And as for the delusion that the second coming of Christ, accompanied by the general resurrection and final judgment, will all be realized in some vague spiritual sense such as a glorious era of world peace, social justice, and universal felicity among people, forget it. To be sure, all people would delightfully hail such a “judgment day” and such a coming of Christ; but the word of God details the second advent of our Lord in terms of a cataclysmic event of worldwide terror and destruction, an event that will not be, in any sense, “good news” for the great majority of Adam’s race; for the Saviour himself said that “Then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

Great and terrible as the concept of eternal judgment admittedly is, the most profound necessity for it is evident. Most of the truly difficult problems connected with the life of faith, and with reference to the entire system of Christianity, are directly related to the doctrine of eternal judgment. Heaven, hell, eternal punishment, eternal joy, Satan, and the problem of evil – all these things pivot in the last analysis upon the scriptural teaching of the judgment. All of the problems, great and small, eventually fade into insignificance before the pressing question, “Is this universe just?” The underlying assumption of revealed religion as set forth in both the Old Testament and the New Testament is the concept of a just universe; and time and time again it is unequivocably declared to be just (Psalms 45:6,7). The father of the faithful, Abraham, idiomatically inferred it when he asked, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). The existence of laws in the natural realm, the moral law within people, and the sacred revelation all alike proclaim the justice of the universe; and if it is not so, life indeed becomes “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth, Act V). Sanity in any true sense turns upon the question of justice in the cosmos. If the righteousness and justice of God do indeed establish his throne and undergird all things, then WE ARE SAFE; and every man shall receive the reward of the deeds done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10); if not, then any true security of the soul is a fool’s dream, and man himself is but an infant crying in the night with no language but a cry!

But if the universe is just; if the righteous shall be rewarded and the wicked punished, AN ETERNAL JUDGMENT IS REQUIRED, a judgment in which all inequities and injustices shall be corrected, an eternal judgment presided over by infinite justice, wisdom, mercy, and love – in short, the judgment revealed upon every page of the sacred scriptures, or if not revealed, then certainly implied. The widespread neglect and apparent disbelief of this doctrine suggests that it is true of our generation, as it was of those to whom this epistle was first addressed, that we “have need again that someone teach us the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God” (Hebrews 5:12)

A foundation as applied to these six crucial teachings suggests some facts regarding foundations. No less than four foundations of Christianity are mentioned in the New Testament, and these are: (1) the foundation fact that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:13-19; 1 Corinthians 3:11); (2) the foundation authority, namely the sayings of Jesus Christ, called by him “these sayings of mine” (Matthew 7:24-27), “whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20); (3) the foundation personnel, the apostles and prophets of the New Testament (Ephesians 2:19); and (4) the foundation teachings as set forth in the place before us. The multiple nature of the foundation should not be confusing, since foundations, even of almost any building, are comprised of several different things. The eternal city that comes down from God out of heaven is said to have twelve foundations! (Revelation 21:19).

[1] Brooke Foss Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), p. 143.

[2] Ibid., p. 146.

[3] Vine’s Greek Dictionary (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1962), p. 97.

[4] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Philadelphia: H. T. Coates and Company), Vol. I, p. 508.

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