While in Montgomery Alabama for a summer meeting in 1902, James A. Harding answered several questions from the “Question Box” which was available to hearers there. He answered a few of these through the pages of The Way (“Questions and Answers,” 4 [July 17, 1902] 121-123). One concerned the name “Christian Church” (which he opposed both as a name and as a denominational body), another concerned the differences between Baptist and Christian baptism, and another on the possibility of falling from grace. The question and answer reproduced below was the most interesting and, given subsequent developments among Churches of Christ, the most surprising answer in that issue of the paper (p. 122).
“Mr. Harding, you say you believe there are people in all the denominational churches who will be saved. Please explain by the Bible how you extend hope to the individual who has accepted sprinkling for baptism.”
I extend no hope to him. Jesus said: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” Sprinkling is not baptism; it is a human substitute for a divine ordinance. It is not the word of God; it is a rejection of the word of God. God is not pleased with it; he abhors it just as he does every substitute of man’s way for God’s way. It is not from above; it is from below.
I suppose there are people among all the so-called “Christian denominations” who have believed in Christ with their whole hearts, who in deep penitence of soul have confessed his holy name, who have been buried with him in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life, who are diligently studying his holy law and who are daily striving to do his will. I say I suppose there are such folks in the denominations, because I have known numbers of such people to come out of them. It is not probable that they are all out yet; but if they remain faithful and diligent, God will be continually leading them out.
Wherever a man is, if he is daily, diligently seeking the truth, if he is promptly walking in it as he finds it, we may expect him to be saved. He will be daily dropping error, daily learning and doing more truth. But for the man who is contentedly abiding in error there is no such hope. Jesus says: “If ye abide in my word, then are ye truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31, 32). It is nowhere recorded that error makes men free.
We might ask Harding: “But what is faithful diligence that assures sanctification and gives comfort to the believer who has not yet come out of denominationalism?” His answer might be something similar to what he describes as the diligence that will preserve one from apostacy. Here is the last paragraph to his answer on falling from grace (p. 123).
It is more than probable that not more than one-half of those who truly become Christians will be faithful unto death, and so attain to the home of God. This thought ought to spur us up to great diligence in using the four great means of grace whaich God has given us, namely: (1) Diligent, daily study of the Word of God. (2) The fellowship, that is, the partnership with God and his saints. This consists in giving time, money or other needed things, sympathy, help to the poor, the sick, the distressed, and to the spread of the gospel, the building up of the church. (3) The attendance upon the meetings of the Lord’s house. Every Christian should count on attending every meeting of his congregation. Nor should he fail to do so except when he has a reason for not attending which he is sure God will freely accept as a good excuse. At this point I am sure a great multitude deceive themselves fearfully. They imagine they have good excuses for staying away, when those same excuses keep them from going nowhere they want to go. A few attend nearly every service. Nearly all could do it, if they would. (4) The prayers. The Christian should be diligent and regular in secret prayer. It is a good rule to pray regularly four times each day, morning, noon, evening and night, and at other times when occasion requires it. We should give all diligence to attending to these four great means of grace. They should be the most important things in life to us by far, inasmuch as they bring prosperity for this life, and eternal happiness in the world to come.
I explore some of Harding’s thinking on baptism and salvation in my “Gracious Separatist” article in the Restoration Quarterly. We might summarize his position something like this:
- He offers no explicit biblical hope to the unimmersed, but–in other places in his writing and debates–he leaves them to the “uncovenanted mercies” of God and refuses to say unimmersed seekers of God’s will will be damned. In fact, he cautions that “we know too little of what God is doing in giving light and inducing them to work in it, to decide upon such matters” (“Does Ignorance Excuse Them?” Gospel Advocate 24 [30 November 1882] 758).
- He believes those who have been immersed out of a faith in Christ (even if they did not know if it was for the remission of sins or not, even if they thought they were saved before their immersion) and walk in the light as they see it will be saved even if they continued to be a member of a particular denomination and did not separate from it.
- Walking in the light, or showing faithful diligence, entails using the “means of grace”: (1) reading the Bible for oneself; (2) giving oneself in ministry for the sake of the poor and the kingdom of God; (3) attending the meetings of the church; and (4) constant, daily prayer.
Given my heritage in Churches of Christ, Harding would not have been appreciated if he had expressed these viewpoints in regions of the church in which I grew up. Indeed, he would have been thought a “false teacher”–and even now would be thought of as such. Heaven is much more inclusive and the kingdom of God much broader for Harding than for many others in 20th century Churches of Christ.
Postscript: Part of the backdrop for this broader vision of the kingdom is the whole theological orientation of the “Nashville Bible School” tradition which Bobby Valentine and I explore in our book Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding.