If you would be so kind, please allow me to say a few more things about how essential sola fide is. A few weeks back, I did a segment with Darren Doane on Ask Doug about whether Tolkien and Chesterton were saved, followed it up with a few posts here, and then earlier this week James White interacted with my Ask Doug bit on his show The Dividing Line.
If you ask me what the gospel is, I am going to give you as much of it as I can — the person and work of Jesus, His death for our sins, His burial and His resurrection for our justification, and all in accordance the Scriptures. Now assume for the sake of discussion that I get my statement of the gospel absolutely correct. What I just declared in my proclamation is a very different question than how much of what I said has to be fully comprehended and believed by someone in order for them to be saved.
Sometimes the pure gospel is preached, but it is heard in confused ways, but the person hearing is still saved. Sometimes it is heard more accurately, but the person hearing is not saved. Sometimes the confusion is on the part of the preacher, and listeners are saved despite that. Other times the gospel is set forth with excruciating precision and everybody involved in the process, preacher and congregants alike, are all equally damned. And then there are glorious times when the preacher declares the truth, the listeners hear the truth, and God adds daily to the number of the saints.
So “what is the gospel?” is one question. A related but very different question is “how much of that gospel does God need to use in order to save somebody?” I have a friend who got saved watching a movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon back in the day, a movie in which the gospel elements would have to be described as anemic. My mother was dragged forward at a revival by a friend who had been urged to go forward herself by an elderly lady, and because she wasn’t about to go down there by herself, she grabbed my mom. My mother went home and told her family that she had gotten saved, and they asked what that meant. She said, “I shook the preacher’s hand.” But the next morning, because she was a Christian now, she got up in the morning to read her Bible, and never looked back. These are not methods I commend to you. Don’t try this at home, in other words.
God’s sovereignty in His use of slender means is not an authorization to us to make the means as slender as we can. We are not to sin that grace may abound. No, rather we should seek to make our evangelistic means as robust as we can.
I know what the pure gospel is. I also know what a bowl of sugar is. But how much sand can you put in the sugar bowl before it is no longer the sugar bowl? I don’t know, but I know there is a point where that happens, and I know that we are not supposed to test God.
“Look at it this way, and let us leave Roman Catholics out of it for just a minute. Could a man be damned because of his connection with the circumcision party? Of course. They were dogs and evil workers (Phil. 3:2). They were unruly, vain talkers, and deceivers (Tit. 1:10). That said, could a man be saved and useful to Paul in the work of the gospel despite his connection to the circumcision party? Well, again — because of God’s inexorable grace — of course. ‘And Jesus, which is called Justus, who are of the circumcision. These only are my fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God, which have been a comfort unto me’ (Col. 4:11).”
Paul says that Justus is “of the circumcision.” This cannot mean simply that he is a Jew, because that would mean that Paul himself would also be “of the circumcision.” There were members of the circumcision party who were God-haters. There were members of “the circumcision” who were not. Some of them were false brothers, and some were not.
My view — not willing to go to the stake for this one, understand — is that John Mark, the author of our second gospel was “of the circumcision.” I also think he was the rich, young ruler, but that is for another time. Mark’s gospel is the only one that records that the Lord looked at him and loved him (Mark 10:21). I also think he was the young man who ran away the night of Christ’s arrest (Mark 14:51-52), another singular detail from Mark’s gospel. But that also is something for another time.
Anyhoo, according to early church tradition, John Mark got his info about Jesus from Peter, who was apostle to the Jews. He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey and when he abandoned ship is telling (Acts 13:13). It was at the first convenient port after Paul had presented the gospel cold to his first Gentile, a conversion with no visible tie to the Jews (Acts 13:7). This also explains Paul’s strong aversion to John Mark shortly after, to such an extent that he parted with Barnabas over his possible inclusion on the next missionary journey. Paul’s concern was doctrinal, and not that John Mark had been a sissy. Before Paul and Barnabas split up, the Jerusalem Council had decided in Paul’s favor, and John Mark was apparently willing to go along with their decision, but Paul was not yet convinced that he had gotten rid of all his Judaizing cooties. Later on, years later the apostle Paul was convinced — John Mark was useful to him in ministry (2 Tim. 4:11).
I believe that John Mark, like Justus, was “of the circumcision.” I believe that before the Jerusalem Council, he was on the wrong side. After the Jerusalem Council, he was okay. But after the Jerusalem Council, some of the factions and parties were still distinguishable. And among the circumcision, it was important to distinguish the dogs from the brothers.