From Five Fingers to Five Steps

Written by Jack Reese - Excerpt from "At the Blue Hole," Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

Scott (Walter Scott) accomplished much in his life. His books and articles had a significant impact in his day. He served as the president of a college. He advocated for the education of women, a rare concern in those days.

Moreover, he cared about the arts, especially music. It is not surprising, then, that he promoted excellence in church hymnody. In 1835, Scott, along with Stone, Campbell, and John T. Johnson, published the first hymnal of the combined Stone-Campbell Movement.

But with all he had accomplished, it turns out that Scott’s most lasting legacy may have been the power of his early preaching and his mnemonic framework for the gospel, easily ticked off with five fingers, which even a child could recall.

Scott expressed concern early on that his plea for the restored gospel of the first century had become, for too many preachers, a simplistic formula. He was afraid the five-finger exercise had made it too easy for hearers to miss what the gospel rested on—faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, not human works.

In his book The Gospel Restored, published less than a decade after his mission in Ohio, Scott insisted that God’s work preceded human salvation. Always. God alone did the saving. Here, Scott laid out not five fingers but a six-fold formula—faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, Holy Spirit, eternal life.

Scott believed these six acts should not be seen in light of what humans do but in light of the work of God. God is the one who accomplishes our salvation. God’s saving work awakens sinners, which leads to a trusting faith, a heart for repentance, and surrender to Christ in baptism.

But the power of Scott’s simple memory hook in his early preaching was hard to overcome. It was just too good a rhetorical device. In other words, it worked. It led to thousands of conversions.

By the twentieth century, Churches of Christ had taken Scott’s five-finger exercise and trans- formed it into the Five Steps of Salvation, now with an almost complete emphasis on human actions. To be saved a person had to (1) hear, (2) believe, (3) repent, (4) confess, and (5) be baptized for the remission of sins. After these five steps were taken, God would grant salvation. The implication was that God owed us salvation after we performed the right works in the right way for the right reasons and in the right order.

By the twentieth century, Scott’s emphases on the Holy Spirit and eternal life dropped off of the list entirely. And remission of sins became part of a command that required obedience rather than thanksgiving for the work of God. This was not what Scott had intended. His original memory device had mutated into a human-centered formula. It had begun in freedom but had ended up a tool for conformity.

I should be clear. It is not that hearing, believing, confessing, repenting, and being baptized are not important, mind you. They are. They are just not steps. They are not human works.
When conceived of as one of several steps, faith appears to be a human act, an exertion of self. But that’s not what faith is. Faith is a relinquishing of self, an excruciatingly passive act, a giving over of one’s life to God’s control, a surrender of one’s own power to God’s power, of one’s own future to God’s future.

To repent and confess is to say, I can’t do it. I have no power to accomplish my own salvation. I am a sinner, broken and unworthy. God has to do it. The very image of baptism is profoundly passive—being laid into a watery grave, “buried with Christ in baptism,” the picture of dying, of self-emptying, of surrender to a sovereign God.

The work of salvation is God’s entirely. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9). Not that human works are not important. They are. But they emerge from salvation rather than serving as salvation’s cause. “For we are what he made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10).

Seeing salvation as a series of human steps not only misses what Scott had said, it misses what Scripture teaches. Faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and eternal salvation are all gifts of God, not human actions meriting God’s reward.

But to be honest, Scott’s own preaching and writing contributed to certain understandings that have continued to impact this movement. When Scott devised his six-fold formula, he claimed that he had restored the ordo salutis, the ancient order of salvation, and that by so doing he had restored the gospel itself.

Not surprisingly, many of those who followed him focused on getting gospel matters done in the right order. If the order was not properly kept, could a person be truly saved?

This is not an idle question. Could people be saved if the order of their responses to Jesus were different than Scott’s understanding? What if one were to understand salvation in the following order: faith, repentance, forgiveness of sins, Holy Spirit, baptism, and eternal life? Could that person be saved?

In other words, if a person, trying to follow God’s will, believed that God granted salvation at the point of faith and repentance, and then was baptized afterwards as an act of obedience to God, trusting God, as a public declaration of God’s saving grace, would that person be saved? Would God bestow eternal salvation on anyone who, in faith and obedience, got all the pieces right but did them in the wrong order?

This is not an academic question. By the 1880s, twenty years after Scott’s death, a firebrand from Texas would challenge and publicly ridicule a gentleman editor from Tennessee over this very matter. But that divisive issue was years away from Scott’s life and ministry. Scott lived in a different time. He faced different issues.

Beginning in the mid-1820s, Walter Scott’s preaching was a turning point in the movement. His early evangelistic efforts in Ohio resulted in over a thousand baptisms. He averaged a thousand baptisms every year for the next thirty years. Entire congregations often converted after hearing Scott preach. That preaching, in many ways, defined the movement and set the future.

By the end of his life, in April of 1861, the movement had become a substantial presence in American life, especially in the states along the Ohio River. Which meant that by that point, as the nation began to split in two, churches in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky had decisions to make. But that was also true for churches in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas.

In the fall of 1861, thirty-five years after Scott’s stirring sermon at his first Mahoning Baptist Association meeting and less than six months after Scott’s death, hundreds of Christians convened in Cincinnati for the American Christian Missionary Society meeting. The gathering was sober. There seemed to be more pressing matters at hand than stories about toad sky-high and five-finger exercises. The war had begun, and Christians had to make decisions about the nature of their loyalties.

Jack Reese serves as Executive Minister at Northside Church of Christ in San Antonio, TX. Jack has ministered in a variety of settings for more than fifty years. He has served as a professor of preaching, worship, and ministry at three universities and has served as a ministry consultant with churches on five continents. Before moving to San Antonio, Jack headed the Foundation for Community Empowerment in Dallas, addressing issues of poverty and racism and providing opportunities for personal advancement through education. He has composed numerous hymns and is the author of several books about church and ministry. Jack is married to Lesa, who is a speech pathologist and educator. They love cooking together, singing, traveling to new places, reading geeky social science books, hosting friends in their home, working with San Antonio interfaith leaders, mentoring young Christians, and spending time with six adorable grandchildren.