Does the Eternal Require the Same Thing From Everyone?

Most long-time believers are familiar with these scriptures:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph 4:4-6).

He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1John 2:4).

...the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32).

From the above scriptures, someone might reason:

1) I know I have the Holy Spirit,

2) So I must be in the body of Christ,

3) So I must be keeping his commandments (repenting and being forgiven when I “slip up”),

4) Therefore those who are not keeping all of the same commandments in the same way that I am keeping them must not be in the Body of Christ and must not have the Holy Spirit.

Unfortunately, many individuals and religious groups follow reasoning similar to this. They are so convinced of the correctness of their own study of the scriptures, that they believe that no one else can be a part of “the church” that Christ said he would build (Matt 16:18).

When you talk with someone who thinks this way, it is interesting to ask them these questions:

1) When were you “converted”?

2) Have you learned any new important Bible truth since that time?

3) If there is another person today who understands doctrines the same way you did when you were first “converted,” could he have the Holy Spirit? (It is amazing to see how many people will accept their own limited doctrinal understanding when they first believed, but will not accept the same thing in others.)

4) Do you know of any people who have had a doctrinal understanding similar to yours for the past 1900 years?

This writer has never heard anyone rationally try to answer “Yes” to the fourth question. Indeed, it is hard to find any evidence anywhere of any group that has held the same beliefs for 1900 years. So how do we reconcile the statement “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it”? (Matt 16:18.) Either we must conclude that there have been a few individuals with the right doctrines for the past 1900 years, but they have been completely lost in history, or we must conclude that the Church is constructed of individuals with the Holy Spirit, but with varying beliefs.

Actually, we do not need to speculate on this issue. While the scripture certainly defines in an absolute sense what is sin, it is also clear that individual sin is based upon that individual’s knowledge of what is right:

If I had not come and spoken to them [corrupt leaders], they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father (John 15:22-24).

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41).

Notice that the scripture really says that they would have “no sin” if they did not understand the truth. (Obviously, it means “no sin in this area”—if the same people stole something that day, they would have sin because they understood that commandment.) Nevertheless, they would not be accountable for sin that they clearly did not know about. Does that mean that the person most ignorant of the Bible is the least sinful—because he does not know he is doing anything wrong? Physical penalties of sin often occur, even when a person is ignorant of them. The entire chapter of Hosea 4 is about the evil that befalls people who are ignorant of sin. It contains the famous passage “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (v 6). The scripture below indicates that there is a lighter punishment for sinning in ignorance:

And that servant who knew his master’s will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more (Luke 12:47-48).

If a person receives a “few stripes” for each of hundreds of things done wrong in ignorance, it will still total to a great many stripes. Throughout the Bible we find explanation of sin and the difficulty it causes for the sinner as well as those affected by the sins. Nevertheless, we can see in scripture and history that the Eternal does not reveal all truth to everyone. The people who lived while the Old Testament was being written did not have the whole Old Testament to read—they had none of the New. Many who heard Jesus did not understand what He taught (Luke 8:10).

How does the Eternal decide to whom He will reveal which truths? Even Jesus seemed to indicate that the decision was out of his hand:

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in the Spirit and said, "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight” (Luke 10:21).

The truth of the matter is we do not know how much or how little truth the Father chooses to reveal to people with whom He works. The Apostle Paul had great knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Acts 22:3; Gal 1:14). He was directly trained by Christ (Gal 1:12-13). Even with all of this, he said “we see through a glass darkly” (1Cor 13:12). If Paul realized that he understood only a small part of Eternal truth, how little do we understand now? Calendars, Holy Day observance, Sacred Names, and a host of other areas where we write long papers, he could simply recall what Christ did.

Obviously, we are responsible to do those things that we know to be true: “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). But it is not our job to decide whether other people can have the Holy Spirit or not. “Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Rom 14:4).

If we judge other people as “unconverted” because they have a doctrinal error, how will we be judged if we, in the resurrection, are found to have a doctrinal error? “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matt 7:2). If we are judging other’s conversion based on doctrine, then we had better believe that our doctrine is nearly perfect. It is much better for each person to diligently do what they understand, than it is to judge others for not having our understanding.

Do we treat everyone who claims to believe in the Bible as a believer? No, but we should acknowledge that such people might be believers. They may just be greatly deceived in some areas. Many of the brethren mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3 were participating in evil. But at the same time we acknowledge that they might be believers, we can also acknowledge what we perceive as their doctrinal error and why we cannot, in some cases, fellowship or work with them.

There are congregations where people may meet together nearly every week of the year, but have a disagreement as to when to keep the Passover. For this reason, they meet separately on that night. Each person is living in faith by their own understanding of the scripture, yet there is much cooperation. It is possible that one or both of them are wrong about how to keep the Passover—but if each has studied and sought the Eternal for the right understanding, then they will be punished with “few stripes”—because they were doing what they believed to be right.

On the other hand, if someone believes in worshipping on a different day than you do, it will be hard to worship together. However, you may be able to cooperate on a project to help hungry or sick people in your town. You do not have to look down on, those, you work with just because they do not understand the Sabbath. If the people, you work with (and those, you work for) see your good works, they may ask you to explain from the Bible which day you keep as the Sabbath and why. Those with other practices will not be able to explain it from the Bible.

Finally, you may find some people who agree with you on many doctrines, but have serious errors with which you believe you cannot participate. They may believe in a different Jesus, they may be participating in demonic activity, they may believe salvation is available to only a select few, or they may be completely unfit examples of the way the Bible says a believer should live. We do not need to condemn these people as “rejected by God,” but we can say that we will not work with them in their present state. Numerous scriptures teach us with whom we should work, and with whom we should not. We also need to pray for the gift of discernment of spirits (1Cor 12:10) and divine guidance in each of our lives (James 4:13-15).

Additional insight on how the Eternal deals with people can be gained from the three parables found in Matthew 25. Most are well known, but it is always worth re-reading them. These parables were given immediately after the prophecies of great destruction in Matthew 24. In the end of Matthew 24, our Savior is clearly readying his disciples for how they will be judged. We will consider these parables in the light of with whom we should work and with whom we should not.

The first parable (Matt 25:1-13), is about the five wise and five foolish virgins. Apparently these virgins worked together and knew each other well. They may have all thought that they were in the group that was going to be the “Bride of Christ.” But it was not being in the group that counted, it was their own personal preparation that made the difference.

Matthew 25:14-30 is about the talents. Some servants were given more talents than others according to the Father’s own choosing—just as some people are given more truth than others. These workers apparently had no knowledge or interaction with each other. Those who doubled their talents were rewarded similarly. The person with one talent was rejected—not because he did not have enough truth to start with, but because he did nothing with what he had. The distribution of Bibles, production of Bible study aids, basic Bible teaching, and caring for the poor and sick has been done by people with a vast array of beliefs—sometimes showing very little Bible understanding. This author has often wondered if those Sabbatarians with a greater understanding (those with five talents) will not be judged more harshly for accomplishing less. What would the Master say about a man to whom he gave 5 talents and the man made only 1?

The final parable (Matt 25:31-46) shows that there will be people who will be doing the Eternal’s work and apparently not even know it. They are surprised that their love and care of others was interpreted as love and care for Christ. Others are rejected simply because they did not have love and care for others—how much truth they knew does not seem to enter in.

Is it fair, then, that those who have studied the Bible a lot have to obey so much of it to be saved? Is it fair that others will be saved knowing and obeying so little of it?

First of all, it is important to realize that we are rewarded according to our works (Matt 16:7; Rom 14:12, 1Cor 3:9-15, Rev 22:12). There is no “little” good work of which our Savior and Judge does not take notice (Matt 10:42). But the question is still a fair one, and we have an answer to it in the Bible. In John 21:18-21, our Savior explains to Peter that he would be killed by people opposed to him. Peter then asks what would happen to John. What was the answer?

Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me” (John 21:22).

We must trust our Father to know how much knowledge to give us, and to show us how to use that knowledge for Him. Praise Him for His wisdom! May He give all of us the strength to understand and follow Him!

—Norman S. Edwards