In my last post, I began to present an argument for the truth of the Anabaptist faith (a term that I am using as synonymous with “Kingdom Christianity”). As I stressed in my introduction, I don’t want to prove that Anabaptist churches themselves are following the true faith—there is much variation among them. Instead, I am arguing for a specific view of Christianity that is historically held by Anabaptists and Kingdom Christians: that obedience to Jesus’ and the apostles’ commands in the New Testament, including complete obedience to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), is essential to the Christian faith.
I began the last article by offering a support of the New Testament’s authority for Christians. I recommend reading that article before you read this one, but you shouldn’t need that post in order to understand this post.
I will continue by arguing for an Anabaptist view of salvation and contrasting it with the Protestant view of salvation.
What Is Salvation?
The central thing that God wants is that we love him and each other, as this story from Jesus’ ministry shows:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25–28 ESV)
If, then, we know and love God and our neighbor, we will have life. However, we have not always known and loved God—before our salvation, we were estranged from him, enslaved to sin, and we were going to die with no hope of eternal life.
Yet even though we did not know or love God, he still loved us and wanted to be our Father. He offered to save us by adopting us as his children.1
So how does God go about adopting his children? He ransoms them through Jesus’ death and transfers them into his Kingdom.2 He frees them from their sins and from the power of Satan, forgiving their sins and making them holy.3 In doing so, he reconciles them back to him from their former estrangement and bondage. In fact, he gives them his very presence by filling his children with his Holy Spirit.4
Yet the richness of God’s salvation doesn’t end there. To those who love him, he offers a new life that is indestructible, so that our lives can be enriched in this world, and so that, when we die, we can have the assurance that we will be raised again, never to know death anymore.5 And because we are freed from our bondage, no power can separate us from Jesus, and he gives us grace to do good works and remain faithful to God.6 We do not need to fear that we lose these blessings except through our own choice.
How Do We Obtain Salvation?
How, then, do Christians obtain salvation? In one well-known parable, Jesus describes a sower who went out to spread the word about salvation through God’s Kingdom. Jesus explains his parable by saying
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matt 13:19–23 ESV)
This example describes people who hear the word, some of whom do not respond in acceptance of the word, and some of whom do. Of these, some of them just endure for a while, but some of them endure to the end and produce good fruit. This picture of salvation will help understand the way Scripture speaks about how we obtain salvation.
In Acts, when the apostle Peter sowed the seed of the Kingdom in his first sermon, many of his hearers responded in acceptance, asking, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter responded by telling them how to come to salvation: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37–38).
God’s requirement for being transferred into his Kingdom and brought back into relationship with him is, then, that we repent and be baptized. Also included in this step is to “believe” (Acts 16:31), which can also be translated “have faith.” The apostles did not list any other stipulations for those who sought salvation, other than to call on God in repentance and faith, and to be baptized.7
What Is Faith?
What did the apostles mean by repenting and having faith? The Greek word translated “faith” in the New Testament is a word that often means “belief,” but, depending on context, can also mean “trust,” “loyalty,” or “faithfulness.” The entirety of the New Testament shows that God does not merely desire us to believe something, but he also desires that our faith would include these virtues as well.8 Though faith may start with believing, it doesn’t end there.
This means that to have faith, as the apostles speak of it, is not just to mentally assent to something; it also implies action.9 When we truly love God and our neighbor, as God asks us to do, our faithfulness to them will work out in good deeds done on their behalf. Faith describes the familial relationship that God, as our Father, wants to have with us. It also describes the loyal relationship that we should have with Jesus as our King.
How Do We Remain Saved?
Because God asks for our love and faith, salvation is a two-way relationship that requires action on our part. When God adopts us as his children, he wants us to “be imitators of God as beloved children” and to “[w]alk as children of light” who seek what pleases him (Eph 5:1–10). He wants us to live according to the new life to which we have been raised, not according to our old earthly ways (Col 3:1–3). Those who live according to those old ways, continuing to sin, “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Gal 5:16–26). However, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Furthermore, as I hinted earlier, faith is inseparable from action. If a man is unfaithful to his wife, it’s not because he disbelieved something, but because he acted a certain way. James pointed out how closely connected the concepts of faith and works are when he wrote that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–17).
This means that, in order to continue in salvation, we need to live according to God’s commands. Jesus and the apostles are clear that the whole point of our salvation is to be a relationship of obedience.10 Just like good children do what pleases their parents, and just like good citizens obey their government, our relationship of love and faithfulness to God includes doing good works and abstaining from evil works. But what role does this obedience play in our salvation?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus described people who would hear and accept the word, but who would not be faithful until the end. Throughout the New Testament, he and the apostles warned us not to be such people, because there will be a final judgment where Jesus “will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt 16:27). On that day, Paul says,
He will render to each one according to his works: . . . There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good (Rom 2:6–10)
Therefore, to be saved in that judgment, we do not merely need to have responded to the word with acceptance—it is also necessary that we have remained faithful to Jesus’ commands. You can find more Scriptures demonstrating that here.11 There are also plenty of other Scriptures12 not explicitly about the final judgment, where the apostles write that works are a condition of our salvation.
So when we repent and are faithful to God, he forgives our past evil works. In turn, we must live in faithfulness and good works, obeying New Testament commands. What are some of these commands? When Jesus told the apostles to teach their disciples “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20), that included the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), where Jesus teaches against anger, lust, violence, and evil speaking, and where he tells us to love our enemies. Other commands are found throughout the New Testament. Later I will examine one command in particular.
But we don’t need to fear judgment for our every little mistake—God loves us as a Father, and he is abundantly merciful. Though our salvation depends on our obedience, God knows our limits; he doesn’t require perfect obedience.
Instead, like an earthly father who rewards his faithful but imperfect son, but punishes his willfully disobedient son; our heavenly Father forgives those who are truly repentant and who faithfully serve him despite their imperfection. And if a person repents immediately before death, like the thief on the cross who had no opportunity to change his ways, our Father gladly accepts even that repentance.
Furthermore, we are not working out our Christian life alone—Jesus gives us the strength to obey and to endure to the end. Even if we sin, we should not despair, because Jesus will advocate for us (1 John 2:1). But we do need to do our part and use the strength we were given to obey God’s commands.
Works? For Salvation?
In the last section, I showed that Scripture clearly teaches the important role of good works in the final judgment. However, many Protestants believe that works play no role in our salvation. Many others hold that works are important merely as a sign of faith, which actually justifies us.13 In Paul’s letters, there are a few passages that, they maintain, indicate that faith determines our salvation, and that our works have only secondary importance or no importance at all. However, the following two points should clarify the issue.
First, it is important to note that the apostles spoke of initial salvation (joining the Kingdom of God) differently from the way they spoke of final salvation (the final judgment). Earlier, I said that the apostles commanded nothing but repentance, faith, and baptism for those who wanted to be saved initially. Many of the verses frequently cited merely show that good works aren’t required before we can obtain salvation; God grants salvation because of his mercy.14
Jesus and the apostles were not contradicting themselves when they taught that we must continue faithfully if we want to remain saved; when Paul argues that salvation doesn’t depend on our actions, he is speaking of initial salvation.
Second, most of the passages cited to support the Protestant view were written about the Jew–Gentile controversy, not about works in general. In Paul’s day, many Jews said that salvation required us to follow the Law of Moses, even though Jesus and the apostles taught that the Law was not necessary.
In these passages Paul is clear that “works of the Law” (i.e., the Law of Moses) are not required for either our initial or our final salvation.15 Obedience to Jesus is necessary for our final salvation; but certainly not works of the Law.
Our Works Do Not Earn Our Salvation
But, some have objected, our works do not earn our salvation. I agree with them, because Scripture indicates this in a few ways. For example, Paul calls salvation a “gift” (Rom 3:23–24, 5:15, 6:23). Besides, we receive our salvation, not because we have not sinned, but because of God’s mercy. However, even though our works do not earn our salvation, our final salvation is conditional on our actions.
But is it possible for our actions to be necessary for salvation, yet not to earn salvation? Isn’t that a contradiction? Not at all; to argue for a contradiction is to confuse what is a necessary condition with what is a sufficient condition. See the following example:
Suppose I’d take my four-year-old child (if I had one) to Burger King as a reward for a week of helping me wash the dishes. She was so slow that she only dried a few dishes, and she even broke a $20 dish by accident. Did she earn the $10 Burger King meal that I’m giving her? Certainly not—her family is $30 poorer than before she worked! Her works are not sufficient to get the meal. I gave it to her as a gift.
However, her works are necessary. If she had instead told me, “Daddy, I believe in you and accept you as my Father, but I won’t dry the dishes,” she would probably find herself eating mashed potatoes and green beans for supper. So, just because washing dishes was necessary for my daughter to gain her reward doesn’t mean that it was sufficient.
In the same way, our works are necessary for our salvation, but they are not sufficient; they do not earn it, cause it, or merit it. God saves us; we cannot save ourselves. God knows that we aren’t perfect, and he doesn’t demand perfection of us. He works with us just like a father works with his child.
What About Faith Alone?
I have met many Christians who believe that good works are important, but who also say that we are “justified by faith alone.” However, I don’t use that term to describe my beliefs, for several reasons.
First, that phrase doesn’t represent the biggest purpose of salvation, which is that we become faithful children of God and citizens of his Kingdom. “Justification by faith alone” is a more useful term for those who see their salvation as a legal transaction rather than as a living relationship. Second, the term’s widespread use has misled many Protestants into thinking that our actions play no role in our salvation.
Thirdly, though you could, I am sure, find definitions for “justification,” “faith,” and “alone” that fit the apostolic faith, I’m not sure why you would want to. You could define “justification is by faith alone,” to mean, “We are initially saved by accepting Christ’s lordship and redemption, and not by the Law of Moses”—and the apostles would agree with you. But that’s not what most people mean when they speak of “justification by faith alone.”
Fourthly, I would especially hesitate to use the term “justification by faith alone,” since the only Scripture where the term “faith alone” appears is where James says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). I prefer to use the language of Scripture to describe Christian doctrines rather than to define doctrines using terminology that Scripture does not use.
I conclude that Jesus saves those who accept his invitation to be faithful and obedient children of God, citizens of his Kingdom. God does not want children who only believe, but children who love and obey him. Therefore, in the final judgment, he will take our works into account. This emphasis on a loving and obedient relationship with God, including obedience to the Sermon on the Mount, is the very core of Anabaptism.
So far, I have argued that the New Testament teachings are authoritative and that obedience to Jesus’ commands is necessary. In my final argument, I will look at one area where the Roman Catholic Church and most Protestants have not remained true to the teachings of the apostles.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), Jesus gave his followers many instructions for how they should live. I will look at one of his teachings in particular, one that is found in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the rest of the New Testament, which Roman Catholics and Protestants do not teach as necessary. That is the doctrine which Anabaptist churches have called nonresistance (others have called it “nonviolence”).
Nonresistance is to prefer to die oneself, rather than to kill another person. It is to choose to suffer wrong oneself, rather than to harm another.
The Kingdom of God
To fully understand this doctrine, we need to understand Jesus’ main message, the Kingdom of God. This is the kingdom through which, as I said, we are saved. Jesus’ first proclamation was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17). The Kingdom was the message that Jesus went everywhere to preach (Matt 9:35, Luke 4:43), and he said that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).
Jesus told many parables that describe the Kingdom of Heaven. Just like a mustard seed or like yeast, the Kingdom would start small and grow until it could no longer be hidden. Like a dragnet, it would draw in many people, and God would judge between them at the final judgment. So God’s kingdom will be active on the earth until the final judgment, and Jesus, as the Messiah or Christ, rules over it as God’s chosen King.
Before we were Christians, another prince, “the prince of the power of the air,” ruled over us (Eph 2:1–2). But now salvation has come through God’s Kingdom; God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Though we are freed from all other powers, citizens of God’s Kingdom are bound to follow Christ and obey his commands.
Now, a kingdom that comes from heaven will have different values than a kingdom that comes from the earth. When Jesus taught his disciples, he taught them those heavenly values, one of which is to renounce violence and force, which belongs to God’s justice rather than human judgment. Jesus said,
I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. . . . I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:38–48)
This is a command that Christians must follow. When Jesus told the apostles to teach all their followers “to observe all that I have commanded you,” this was one of those commands (Matt 28:20). In fact, Jesus wrapped up his Sermon on the Mount by saying that everyone who “hears these words of [his] and does them” is like a wise man who built on rock rather than on sand (Matt 7:24–27).
So when Jesus said, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” his command is binding. If someone attacks or defrauds us, Jesus’ followers must respond with good instead of retaliating. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and our persecutors. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for violence on our part.
Paul reiterated Jesus’ command when he wrote to the Christians in Rome that they should “[r]epay no one evil for evil” and “never avenge [them]selves” (Rom 12:17–19). He says,
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:20–21)
In other words, when we combat violence with violence or coercion with coercion, we are not actually winning—instead, we’re being overcome by evil. If I respond violently to someone who threatens me, I’m actually allowing him to define my actions. But if I respond by helping my enemy and providing for his needs, I can remain true to the higher laws of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Peter also confirmed what Jesus and Paul said: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet 3:9). He concludes, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (3:17). It’s an honor to suffer for Jesus’ Kingdom, and there are blessings in store for those who return good for evil.
Jesus didn’t ask us to do what he wasn’t willing to do himself—even when he himself was threatened with death, he did not retaliate, saying to Pilate,
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. (John 18:36)
Because Jesus’ Kingdom is from heaven rather than from this world, Jesus and his citizens don’t use the world’s methods for overcoming evil. As Paul said, we “[should] not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Though God ordains earthly governments and allows them to rule their people through coercion rather than by the laws of his Kingdom, we can have nothing to do with the unholy methods and politics of the world.
Now, our Kingdom does go to war, but our warfare takes place in the heavenly realms. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, saying,
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12)
And what are the weapons of our warfare? Paul lists them for the Ephesians: “the belt of truth, . . . the breastplate of righteousness, . . . the gospel of peace[,] . . . the shield of faith, . . . the helmet of salvation, and . . . the word of God” and prayer (Eph 6:14–18). To the world, these weapons seem weak, but they are mighty and effective. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor 10:3–4). I wish I could use this space to tell story after story of times when God’s weapons averted powerful evils. Maybe another time.
The weapons of this world are incapable of bringing light or peace. Using “necessary evils” to restrain evil will only result in further evil, but the weapons of heaven will ultimately destroy evil. But we will need to be willing to lose our lives in the process, because our methods do not ensure long life or earthly peace.
This is why the apostles’ church taught for centuries that servants of God and his Kingdom must not take up arms or retaliate, whether for personal protection or war. Some early writers wrote
We have learned not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us. Instead, even to those who strike us on one side of the face, we offer the other side also. (Athenagoras, c. AD 175).
If, then, we are commanded to love our enemies (as I have remarked above), whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become just as bad ourselves. Who can suffer injury at our hands? (Tertullian, c. 197).
[Christians] do not attack their assailants in return, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty. (Cyprian, c. 250).
[We] have learned from [Christ’s] teaching and His laws that evil should not be repaid with evil. Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than to stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. (Arnobius, c. 305).16
However, the Roman church, the very church that Paul admonished long ago to overcome evil with good, has departed from the apostolic faith to take part in crusades and countless other wars. The Protestant reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, also took part in violence and war. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches all have a long history of being state churches, and the resulting mixtures of God’s and the world’s kingdoms always used violence to subjugate their enemies.
Even now that they are no longer state churches, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches have encouraged Christians to take up arms and go to war for the sake of their earthly nations. In fact, most wars in the West for the past millennium have consisted of Christians slaughtering fellow Christians who simply lived on the other side of a national border. This very day, one of the major branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church is urging Russian Christians to go to war against Ukrainian Christians, most of whom belong to the very same church. By their actions, they demonstrate that the heavenly calling of the Kingdom of God is only secondarily important to them after their earthly loyalties.
The core of Christianity is to love God and our neighbors, and Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. Love works itself out in action—instead of responding with retaliation, anger, or evil speaking, we will bless our enemies. This was the witness of the apostolic Church for centuries, and this is the witness of many Anabaptist Christians today. I conclude that the Anabaptist doctrine of nonresistance is at the heart of true Christianity, and that no church, whatever their history, may change this doctrine.
I have presented three arguments for the Anabaptist faith and I’ve responded to some objections. First, I established that the authority for Christian doctrine and practice comes from the apostolic writings, and no church has the authority to alter or define them. Second, Christians are saved by being God’s faithful children, demonstrating their love for God through faith and good works. Finally, Christians live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and they do not take part in violence or war.
My conclusion is not that there is one true denomination and that everyone else should leave their church and go join it. Though I have argued for the Anabaptist faith, I don’t pretend that Anabaptist churches themselves are the true representation of the true faith—many Christians in many different denominations live out this faith. Therefore, I urge all Christians, as members of one body, to give our first loyalty in the Kingdom of God, to live according to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and to build the Church of God the way the apostles built it long ago. They built one unified, loving Church that saw Jesus as their King and their God.
I especially encourage Anabaptists to know their own beliefs and how to defend them. I offer this essay as a resource for your future conversations with people who hold other beliefs. Nobody will be helped if the people who know the truth are unable to convince others of the truth.
And most of all, I want to urge Christians everywhere to live in unity as those who belong to one Kingdom, ruled by one King who is worthy of all faithfulness. “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:1–6). It is for this faith that we should all dwell in unity.
- Rom 5:8, Rom 8:14–17, Gal 4:1–7, Eph 1:4–5, 1 John 3:1–3
- Mark 10:45, 1 Cor 6:19–20, 1 Pet 1:14–19, Phil 3:20, Col 1:13, Rev 1:5–6
- Acts 26:18, Rom 7:4–6, 1 Cor 1:2
- Rom 5:3–5, 5:9–11, 2 Cor 1:21–22, 5:18–21
- John 11:25–26, Rom 5:21, Rom 8:1–11, Rom 14:8–9, 1 Thes 5:9–10, 1 Pet 1:22–23
- John 10:27–29, Rom 8:34, 1 Cor 1:8–9, 1 Cor 10:13
- Mark 1:15, Mark 16:15–16, Luke 13:5, Luke 24:47, John 3:3–6, John 5:24, Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19, Acts 16:31, Acts 22:16, Rom 3:22, Rom 3:30, Rom 5:1–2, Rom 10:9–13
- See for example James 2, which helps to flesh out what the apostles meant by a saving faith. James concludes that “faith apart from works is dead.”
- Two of the clearest examples of this are Rom 1:5 and James 2:14–26. But the New Testament is full of examples where believers are expected to do good works, as my next section shows.
- Matt 20:28, Rom 6:16–18, Eph 2:10, Titus 2:11–14
- Matt 7:21–27, Matt 12:36–37, Matt 13:40–43, Matt 16:27, Matt 18:34–35, Matt 25:34–46, John 5:28–30, Rom 2:6–11, Gal 6:7–9, Rev 20:12–13, Rev 22:12
- Matt 6:14–15, Matt 10:22, Matt 19:16–21, John 3:36, John 15:1–11, Acts 10:34–35, 1 Cor 6:9–11, Eph 5:5–6, Heb 5:9, James 2:14–17, James 2:21–26, 1 Pet 3:10–12, 1 John 3:24
- It is worth noting that some Protestants agree with the reading of Scripture that I presented above—I appreciate their acknowledgement of the necessity of works for final salvation. Unfortunately, though, some of these also hold to the Calvinistic doctrines of grace, which claim that both the faith and the works of any individual are determined by God rather than by the free choice of the individual. To me, that undermines their case for works—but that’s a subject too nuanced to approach in this essay.
- Rom 9:15–18, 11:5–6, Eph 2:8–9, 2 Tim 1:9, Titus 3:5
- Rom 3:28, Rom 4:3–24, Rom 9:11, 30–32, Gal 2:16, 11–12, 3:2–9, 5:4–6, Phil 3:8–9
- Arthur Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. These quotes are from, respectively, vol. 2, p. 129; vol. 3, p. 45; vol. 5, p. 351; vol. 6, p. 415).