Zane C. Hodges1
In his famous epic poem the Odyssey, Homer describes Odysseus’ danger-filled return from the Trojan War to his home in Ithaca. Among the legion of dangers he faced was the whirlpool called Charybdis.
Odysseus was warned that his ship must pass between two great rocks no farther apart than a bowshot. On one rock dwelt the monster Scylla that could snatch six men off his vessel at one time and devour them. At the foot of the other was the whirlpool. It was called the dreaded Charybdis because it,
…sucks the dark waters down. Three times a day she spews them up, and three times she swallows them down once more in her horrible way…you must hug Scylla’s rock and with all speed drive your ship through, since it is far better to mourn the loss of six of your company than that of your whole crew.2
Reluctantly, Odysseus took this advice and, although he suffered the loss of six of his men, he passed safely by Charybdis. Thus Odysseus escaped the whirlpool’s deadly trap.
II. A THEOLOGICAL ANALOGY
A whirlpool, in fact, is an extremely appropriate figure of speech to describe the enormous confusion that characterizes today’s Evangelical views of eternal salvation. This roiling vortex pulls into itself not only individuals, but whole churches, denominations, and Christian organizations. A cacophony of voices extols virtually every theological view that the human mind can imagine.
But of course it is not really the human mind that produces this confusion. Paul tells us in 2 Cor 4:3-4:
But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.
The simple decisive fact is this: Satan vigorously seeks to prevent the salvation of the lost. His stratagems are many, but one of the most obvious involves the preaching of unclear and/or false gospels by those who profess to be Christians. This happened quite early in the history of Christianity. Luke records that when the leaders of the early Church met to discuss the inclusion of Gentiles, there were different opinions. We learn in Acts 15:1 that one such opinion was given by a certain group: “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’”
Naturally, these men could not have gotten inside the door at the Antiochan Church if they had not been professed believers in Jesus Christ. What’s more, they used Christian terminology. Here the word saved was their crucial term.
Their doctrine, however, disenfranchised Jesus. Apparently, these teachers did not deny that He had a saving role of some kind, but they plainly held that faith in Jesus Christ was not enough for eternal salvation. It was necessary to add to that faith circumcision, that is, submission to the Law of Moses. Thus Jesus Christ was not for them a sufficient or adequate Savior. At best He was a co-Savior, along with the Mosaic Law.
According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, one of the meanings of “disenfranchise” is to “deprive (someone) of a right or privilege.”3 A gospel presentation does exactly that when, like the message of the legalists of Acts 15, it deprives Jesus personally of His unique right and privilege to be the exclusive object of saving faith.
III. THE NAME OF JESUS
In a previous article, I noted that Jesus repeatedly presented Himself alone as the object of the faith that obtains eternal life (e.g., John 3:16; 6:47; 11:25-27).4 In fact, in the very first reference in the Gospel of John to an “object” of saving faith, we meet this inspired statement:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12, 13, emphasis added).
Very simply stated, the people who received Jesus were those who believed in His name. That is to say, they trusted in the Jesus presented in John’s Gospel for eternal life. As this verse makes clear, this belief in His name resulted in a birth from God Himself, that is, it resulted in regeneration.
The name of Jesus is equally effective today. In fact, the Jesus of God’s Word has been exalted by God so highly that His name is far above every other name in the universe. No person or being, whether in heaven, on earth or beneath the earth, has the honor God has given to Jesus. Since He alone has this supreme honor, the name of no other person or being can even be compared with the name of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul expresses this truth unforgettably in Phil 2:5b-11. In that passage, Paul speaks of:
…Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (emphasis added).
This is a marvelous and inspiring text. Clearly the exaltation of the name of Jesus is based on His impressive condescension in leaving the presence of God, to whom He was already equal, and becoming a man who submitted to the death of the cross. Thus His incarnation, His servanthood, and His crucifixion are the basis for God’s magnification of His name. For the reasons specified here, the name of Jesus has become the sole name to which the knee of every intelligent creature must someday bow.
But a strange and bizarre thing has happened in some Evangelical circles. For many, the magnificent work of the cross is not what Paul showed it to be here—the basis for the exaltation of the name of Jesus.
Instead, in those circles, the cross itself has been lifted up and has become a co-equal object of faith along with the exalted name of Jesus. Thus we have professed Evangelicals saying that the name of Jesus alone, apart from knowledge of the cross, can no longer save the sinner. The sinner must also believe in His sacrifice on the cross.
This is an affront to the name that God has exalted above every name.
IV. THOSE WHO BELIEVED IN HIS NAME
Among those who “received” Jesus in the sense specified by John 1:12-13 were the disciples themselves. After John the Baptist, it is these men who, as believers in Him, first stand out clearly on the pages of the Fourth Gospel. And, as John 1:13 shows, these men had believed in His name and were therefore “born of God” (1:13).
In fact, following the testimony of John the Baptist (1:19-34), we meet some of them in person. Thus, in 1:35-51 we are introduced to Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. John’s report about these men exhibits his usual mastery of narrative technique as a vehicle for truth. Here we see clearly what it means to believe in His name.
Andrew, we are told, announces to Peter that, “We have found the Messiah” (1:41). He then promptly “brought him to Jesus” (1:42, italics added).
Next we learn that “the following day” Philip reports to Nathanael, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45, emphasis added).
Finally, Nathanael meets Jesus in person and declares, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of lsrael!” (1:49).
With these simple examples, the Fourth Evangelist deftly shows us that Jesus personally is the object of the faith of these three men. They know who the Messiah is. He is Jesus of Nazareth. The three confessions, therefore, serve to illustrate the main point of John’s book as expressed in 20:31:
…but these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name (emphasis added).
Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael have discovered that the name of the Messiah [the Christ] is Jesus of Nazareth. That discovery had brought them eternal life!
But there is a lot they have not yet discovered. For one thing, Philip cannot answer the objection of Nathanael: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (This objection is repeated, with a no answer[!], in 7:41, 42, 52.) Philip is apparently ignorant of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem and also of the fact that Mary had been a virgin at the time. He here calls the Messiah, “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (1:45). Even Nathanael himself still does not know the actual facts when he makes his great confession.
Of course, we now understand that Jesus could not possibly have been our Savior if He had not been born of a virgin at Bethlehem. Prophetic Scripture specifies these requirements (Micah 5:2; Isa 7:14). But still, despite their theological ignorance, these disciples believed in His name and were born of God.
As a matter of fact, it is equally clear that the disciples of Jesus who believed in His name did not anticipate His death at all, much less that His death would be for their sins. Their confusion on this point is clearly pointed out even in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33; Luke 18:31-34). Indeed, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus had temporarily lost their faith in Jesus when He was crucified (Luke 24:19-21).
According to the Fourth Gospel, in their final hours with Jesus in the Upper Room and on the way to the Garden, the disciples did not have a clue in this matter. They ply Him with questions like: “Lord, where are You going?” (13:36); “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake” (13:37); “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”(14:5); “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?” (14:22).
Finally, we hear them saying to one another, “What is this that He says to us, ‘A little while and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me;’ and ‘because I go to My Father?’…We do not know what He is saying” (16:17, 18). And even after Jesus rose from the dead, John informs us that only then did he himself believe in the resurrection (20:8). He writes, “For as yet they [the disciples] did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (20:9).
Obviously then, when the disciples believed in the name of Jesus this did not include belief in His virgin birth or in His sacrificial death for our sins or in His resurrection.
Belief in His name was enough!
V. DISENFRANCHISING JESUS
Many Evangelicals in various ways vigorously resist the obvious conclusions to be drawn from the Biblical material we have just examined. Some make the completely spurious claim that the terms of eternal salvation have changed since the cross. But this claim is arbitrary dogmatism at its worst and is totally without any Scriptural support.5
Worse than that, it demeans and disenfranchises the saving name of Jesus Christ.
Let me make this point in the form of a logical syllogism that refers to eternal salvation. In this syllogism, “A” stands for believing in the name of Jesus for eternal life, and “B” stands for believing in His sacrificial death for our sins. The syllogism is as follows:
Major premise: “A” was completely effective before the cross.
Minor premise: “A” is not effective today without “B”.
Conclusion: “A” now has diminished effectiveness.
How ironic! According to Paul, as a result of our Lord’s incarnation and death, God has highly exalted the name of Jesus (Phil 2:5b-11).But in the theology of some dispensationalists, the elevation of belief in the sacrificial death of Christ to the level of a co-condition for eternal salvation decreases the saving effectiveness of Jesus’ exalted name.
In this sad result we see clearly how parallel are these two statements:
“Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).
“Unless you believe in the sacrifice of Christ for your sins, you cannot be saved.”
Both statements deny the saving sufficiency of the name of Jesus.
Our conclusion here is dramatically reinforced by the exact nature of Apostolic preaching as it is recorded in the Book of Acts. It will come as a surprise to many to learn that not a single speaker in the entirety of Acts, from Chap. 1 through Chap. 28, ever refers to the death of Christ as a sacrifice for our sins. Not even one! As more than one student of Acts has observed, Acts has no theology of the cross (theologia crucis).6
To be sure, the death of Christ is often mentioned, but usually as a prelude to the fact of His resurrection. In Acts, the death and resurrection of Christ are primarily evidence for who Jesus really is. This is clearly seen in the first great sermon of the post-Ascension age (i.e., in Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost). Peter says not a word about the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death in his entire sermon (as reported by Luke). Instead, after describing the death of Christ as a grave sin of his Jewish audience (Acts 2:23), Peter declares Jesus to be risen in fulfillment of prophetic Scripture and to be now exalted to God’s right hand (Acts 2:24-35).
Peter’s climactic statement in Acts 2:36 focuses on the name of Jesus: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (emphasis added).7
The apostles preached the name of Jesus.
VI. A CROSSLESS GOSPEL?
Those who preach simple faith in the name of Jesus for eternal life are often accused by theological legalists8 of preaching a “crossless gospel.” But the very term is dishonest rhetoric. I know of no grace preacher who does not proclaim that the cross of Christ is essential to God’s plan of salvation. If the cross of Christ is essential to man’s eternal well being, a gospel based on that fact is not “crossless.”
But theological legalists are desperately short of sound Biblical arguments. In such cases, it is often more useful to substitute rhetoric for real Scriptural analysis.
Since Scripture does not support the theological proposition that there can be no salvation today apart from believing that Christ died for our sins, these legalists are driven to use rhetoric and emotionally charged appeals to support a doctrine they cannot truly find in the Bible.
That’s tragic. For in reality, their doctrine is part of that dreadful whirlpool of confusion that seeks to swallow up the saving sufficiency of the highest name in the entire universe—the name of Jesus.
1 Editor’s Note: Zane Hodges was a frequent contributor to the JOTGES. He went to be with the Lord in November 2008. He wrote this article shortly before his passing. It sat in a file until it was recently discovered.
2 The Illustrated Odyssey, trans. E. V. Rieu (New York, NY: A & W Publishers Inc., 1946), 148.
3 The New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford: University Press, 2001).
4 Zane C. Hodges, “The Hydra’s New Head: Theological Legalism,” Grace in Focus (Sept/Oct, 2008).
5 A recent book advocating a theology that should be called theological legalism is J. B. Hixson, Getting the Gospel Wrong: The Evangelical Crisis No One Is Talking About, Foreward [sic] by Earl D. Radmacher, [n.p.], (Xulon Press, 2008).
6 Acts 20:28 doesn’t do it, either. We must import theology from outside Acts to find substitutionary atonement here. Besides, Acts 20:28 is spoken to Christian elders!
7 For a discussion of Acts 2:38, see my book, Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege: Faith and Works in Tension, Second Edition (Dallas, TX: Redencion Viva, 1992), 117-19.
8 Editor’s Note: As this article points out, what Hodges means by a “theological legalist” is a person that requires a belief in some theological doctrine, other than faith in Jesus alone, in order to be saved from hell and receive eternal life. A belief in the death of Christ for one’s sins is an example of such a theological doctrine.