(February 24, 2017) Dr Jim McClure, highly esteemed theologian, expounds a present danger…
A few years ago I wrote a book which I titled Grace Revisited. The reason behind my research on this subject and the writing of the book was the inadequate understanding that was prevalent concerning this most important word in the Christian faith.
The distinguished 16th century theologian, John Calvin, helpfully made clear varying aspects of grace, such as, Common Grace, Justifying Grace, Sanctifying Grace, Election Grace, Irresistible Grace, Unconditional Grace and Irrevocable Grace.
Such an exposition helps us to grasp some of the multidimensional aspects of God’s generosity of spirit. Grace most certainly is not limited to the B B Warfield definition, ‘Grace is free sovereign favour to the ill-deserving’ and similarly worded descriptions even though they contain an element of truth. Pithy definitions of word often conceal rather than give meaning and clarification, and this is certainly true concerning the word ‘grace.’
However the word ‘grace’ has also been defined, from time to time, with new and deviant twists and this is the case regarding the definitions of some contemporary groups within the church. Regrettably such definitions are counterfeit and although they include an aspect of theological truth, their subtle distortions results in a misrepresentation of Christian doctrinal truth.
Before exploring a couple of these ‘new’ definitions, let’s recognise that (as Solomon wrote) ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Likewise the ‘new’ definitions of grace have their origins in heresies that the church has previously encountered and refuted.
One of the earliest challenges to the doctrine of God’s grace came from some of the early gnostic heresies of the 1st and 2nd centuries that championed the idea that because salvation was freely given by God through his grace, Christians were under no obligation to live according to God’s righteous requirements. This is called ‘antinomianism’ (literally, ‘against the law’) and Paul rebutted this false teaching in, for example, Romans 6:1 where he mockingly writes, ‘Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?’ and in 2 Corinthians 9:8, ‘God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that … you will abound in every good work.’
Antinomianism has subtly sneaked into Christianity in various guises throughout the centuries. The late A W Tozer recognised this and wrote –‘The creed of the Antinomian is easily stated: We are saved by faith alone; works have no place in salvation; conduct is works, and is therefore of no importance. What we do cannot matter as long as we believe rightly. The divorce between creed and conduct is absolute and final. The question of sin is settled by the cross; conduct is outside the circle of faith and cannot come between the believer and God.
‘Such in brief, is the teaching of the Antinomian. And so fully has it permeated the fundamental element in modern Christianity that it is accepted by the religious masses as the very truth of God. Antinomianism is the doctrine of grace carried by uncorrected logic to the point of absurdity. It takes the teaching of justification by faith and twists it into deformity’ (Paths to Power).
At the outset it must be stated that integral to the Greek word charis, which has been translated as ‘grace,’ is the concept of something that is freely given. That is the point Paul makes in Romans 3:22-24, ‘There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.’ However one’s theology becomes skewed when salvation by grace through faith is wholly divorced from conduct. And that is the problem with some of current definitions of grace.
Let’s explore some of them. Note that there is an overlap in the misunderstanding of the following meanings of grace.
1. Cheap grace
The phrase ‘cheap grace’ was first used by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939 in his book, The Cost of Discipleship. By ‘cheap grace’ he meant an understanding of grace that had been so diluted that it had little in common with the ‘costly grace’ that is central to the New Testament. To Bonhoeffer the teaching of ‘cheap grace’ does not lead to a realignment of values or a fundamental transformation in a person’s life.
Bonhoeffer contrasts ‘cheap grace’ with ‘costly grace’ as follows:
a) Cheap grace
‘Cheap grace’ means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices… Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?
‘Cheap grace’ is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. ‘Cheap grace’ is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’ (page 36).
b) Costly grace
‘Costly grace’ is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
‘Costly grace’ is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is ‘costly’ because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.’
The gift of God’s grace that is offered in his call to salvation is inseparable from His call to discipleship. And herein lies an apparent contradiction – that while that grace is ‘free.’ when we respond to it, it will cost us everything we have!
Similarly John MacArthur has commented, ‘Faith is not an experiment, but a lifelong commitment. It means taking up the cross daily, giving all for Christ each day with no reservations, no uncertainty, no hesitation. It means nothing is knowingly held back, nothing purposely shielded from his lordship, nothing stubbornly kept from his control’ (The Gospel, page 202).
God’s gift of grace in his call to salvation is inseparable from his gift of grace in his call to discipleship! The message of cheap grace hides the true challenge and potential cost of becoming a Christian.
‘Free’ grace is the gift of God. ‘Cheap’ grace is deceit of Satan!
2. Free Grace
The term ‘Free grace’ (which is actually a tautology) is not new but the ideas that the Free Grace movement popularised from the 1980s were in response to the teaching of ‘Lordship Salvation’ which is a theological position that argues that receiving Christ as Saviour involves a turning in the heart from sin and a submissive commitment to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. Advocates of ‘Lordship salvation’ maintain that putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ results in forgiveness of sin and inevitably involves acknowledging Jesus as Lord. By grace we are saved through faith – grace is God’s undeserved embrace of us and faith is our response to his loving initiative. That response to Jesus as our Saviour unavoidably includes our accepting his sovereignty. John MacArthur summarises this teaching as follows: ‘The gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority’ (The Gospel According to Jesus).
Contesting this the teaching of ‘Free Grace Theology’ that maintains that when a person takes the first step of responding to the invitation to believe in Jesus Christ through faith, that alone is all that is necessary to receive eternal life and become a child of God. Then, as a second step, if that person later responds to the call to follow Jesus, he then becomes a disciple and acknowledges Jesus as Lord.
For those who hold the ‘Free Grace’ theological position the issue is uncomplicated – a person is saved simply by believing in Christ! A ‘proof text’ to argue this could be Paul’s advice to the jailer at Philippi, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). Or Jesus’ statement, ‘I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life’ (John 6:47). Thus for the advocates of the theology of ‘Free Grace’ nothing could be simpler to understand – if you believe, you are saved!
Despite the apparent uncomplicated appeal of this position its argument is simplistic and it does violence to the overall teaching of the New Testament concerning the gospel. For example, it omits –
(i) The need for repentance for sin
(ii) The need to confess our sins
(iii) The need of accountability for our actions.
Consequently one can understand how ‘Free Grace’ preachers can ‘preach the gospel’ and avoid any reference to repentance or submission to Jesus by using unchallenging (and unbiblical) terms such as ‘Accept Jesus into your heart’ and ‘Give your heart to Jesus.’
Such terminology most inaccurately reflects the challenge to respond to the good news of salvation as defined by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. For example, a major emphasis in Jesus’ teaching about the gospel concerned the relationship between forgiveness of sin and repentance. From the beginning of his ministry he proclaimed, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15). And at the end of his ministry he told his disciples, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:46-47). Peter preached, ‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out’ (Acts 3:19).
‘Free Grace’ theologians reject the argument that God’s saving grace received by faith in Christ not only brings the sinner into a relationship with Jesus as Saviour but also with Jesus as Lord, and that, because of that Lordship, there is an expectation of righteous living. They argue that, by associating faith-based salvation with submission to the Lordship of Christ, the gospel is misrepresented as a ‘works-based gospel’ and such a theological position was flatly opposed by Paul, among others.
However it has been argued by theologians for centuries that the biblical testimony maintains that, while good works have no place in the redemptive act, they nevertheless are of significance in the life of believers as they testify to their restored relationship with God and a commitment to honour him in their lives. Paul has written, ‘The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age’ (Titus 2:11-12).
In the early 16th century the reformer Martin Luther commented often on the great Reformation principles of ‘Grace alone’ and ‘Faith alone.’ In his Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians he wrote, ‘He (Paul) declares on the one hand, “In Christ Jesus circumcision availeth nothing,” ie works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, “If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing,” is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith”’ (Chapter 5 verse 6).
In the same vein John Calvin wrote, ‘It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light’ (Antidote to the Council of Trent on Justification 1547).
It may also be asserted that while ‘Free Grace’ advocates would vehemently reject any association with antinomianism, nevertheless the essence of that heresy latently lies within it and a Free Grace theology makes it significantly easier to take the step into antinomianism.
Another questionable emphasis on grace has been described as ‘Hyper-Grace.’ (This has much in common with the teaching of the Word of Faith movement). ‘Hyper-Grace’ teaching contains many of the characteristics of ‘Cheap grace’ and ‘Free grace’ emphases mentioned above, but it also has its own slant on the subject. One must also say that not all hyper-faith preachers agree on all things. However there are similarities that bind them together in the hyper-grace movement.
‘Hyper’ is a Greek word that means ‘going beyond’ ‘superior’, ‘more than.’ ‘Hyper-grace’ goes beyond the biblical meaning of grace! When any biblical doctrine is over-emphasised, it leads to imbalance, error and even heresy. In fact most heretical groups (such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses) do actually preach many biblical themes, but that does not mean that they can be doctrinally trusted. Likewise, regardless of how sincere a person may be and regardless of how fervently they believe something to be true, their sincerity and fervency do not make an untruth true!
It is important, therefore, that we are not misled by religious groups and popular preachers or tele-evangelists who use biblical words and teach doctrines that sound familiar or that tickle the imagination. Jesus said, ‘For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect’ (Matthew 24:24 RSV). Sadly it has been shown to be so possible for Christians to be led astray by false leaders.
Some may question if it is fair to place the hyper-faith movement in the category of heresy. I would say that if it is not, it is skating perilously close and is a dangerous misrepresentation of biblical doctrine.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that we are indeed saved by grace and not by our works (Ephesians 2:8–9). And God’s grace, so generously given to us, is abundant, amazing, priceless, undeserved and sufficient. On that we agree. And so, on the plus side of the ‘Hyper-Grace’ movement leger one must acknowledge that those who embrace this position maintain that God loves us unconditionally and that the message of God’s grace challenges the teaching of works-based salvation.
However on the other side there are a number of very questionable beliefs that are promoted.
Hyper-grace preachers …
- Preach ‘grace’ – but only their own mistaken understanding of it!
- Misrepresent the doctrine of God’s unconditional love in a way that diminishes personal responsibility.
- Impose a limitation to it while appearing to magnify its greatness. That is to say that they confine the meaning of grace to a very limited definition.
- Ignore (or are unaware of) the etymology of the Greek word charis (grace) which includes an aspect of reciprocity. In my book Grace Revisited I wrote, ‘As reciprocity was, to the ancient Greek mind, indispensable to an understanding of charis, and as it was so deeply embedded in both religious and social intercourse, it would have been inconceivable for that dynamic to have been wholly disregarded by the writers of the New Testament. Religious practice, social convention and common courtesy all embraced reciprocity as an unarguable facet of charis’ (page 37). Charis is not merely passively received – it calls forth an active response!
- Diminish the heinous nature of sin and its consequences by maintaining that Christians never need to confess their sins as the have already been forgiven. This argument wholly misrepresents what Jesus did on the cross and further totally disregards the many New Testament passages that encourage Christians to confess their sins and be forgiven. God’s grace is given to us, not to set us free from the need to acknowledging and confess our sin, but to enable us to remember that there is forgiveness for us when we confess and seek God’s forgiveness. While we by grace are saved from the penalty of sin, we are, while living in this world not isolated from its presence nor are we immune from its power. We can, therefore, praise God for his grace that draws us back into relationship when we confess our sins.
- Do not affirm the relevance of the Old Testament to Christians. Some further claim that even the words that Jesus spoke before His resurrection (which belonged to the era of the Old Covenant) are not relevant to those who have been saved by grace.
- Teach that as grace and good works are polar opposites and that there is no need to lay this burden on Christians. Why then did the apostle John write, ‘We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him’ (1 John 2:3-5). The Hyper-Grace reactive position on ‘works’ mitigates against biblical teaching on personal accountability.
Respected contemporary theologians wholly reject the core teaching of the Hyper-Faith movement
Theologian Dr James Packer in his book Fundamentalism and the Word of God unambiguously wrote, ‘Christianity is a religion of divine grace – one, that is, which declares that it is God’s sovereign prerogative to give, and that man’s part is only to receive … Nor is there any need for man to contribute to the saving gifts of God; for they are perfect in themselves, and are all that man requires.’ He makes the point perfectly clearly – none of us can in any way contribute to our salvation; it is all of grace.
Then, in his endorsement of theologian Wayne Grudem’s recent book, Free Grace Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel, Packer categorically comments, ‘Credence without commitment and assurance without action are the hallmarks of the so-called Free Grace version of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is, however, unbiblical, anti-evangelical, and sub-Christian, as Grudem’s patient and well-informed analysis clearly shows.’
In his book Grudem comments, ‘The more we emphasise coming into the presence of Christ and trusting him, the more the idea of optional submission to his Lordship becomes unthinkable. When we truly realise what it is to come into the majestic presence of the risen Christ, any thought of saying, ‘Jesus, I’ll trust you as my Saviour today, and later I might decide to turn from my sin and follow you,’ is as far from our mind as the uttermost part of the sea’(pages 103–04). Grudem is not arguing that grace is not free nor that our salvation depends upon our supplementing God’s grace with our good works, but he is emphatic in stating that an authentic salvific encounter with Jesus Christ inevitably affects our ongoing relationship with him and consequently there is an evidential outworking of that in our lives.
One thing may be celebrated about God’s grace – it is extravagant, it is generously given and it is always available. Note how Paul describes it:
- ‘… the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding’ (Ephesians 1:7-8).
- ‘…the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 2:7).
- ‘… how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!’ (Romans 5:15).
- ‘… how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:17).
And in 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul records God’s promise to him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ The context of this divine promise was Paul’s struggle with what he called a ‘thorn in his flesh.’ Jesus did not promise to remove the irritant but to supply the grace that would enable Paul to cope with it. And that promise is for us also. God does not always remove the irritant, the pain, the temptation or the struggle but he promises to provide his grace in all circumstances.
God’s grace is certainly needed in reconciling us to God and it is also needed to enable us to live in a way that honours him. Therefore the effect of God’s grace in a person’s life is two-fold – deliverance and discipleship. Through God’s grace the sinner receives forgiveness of sin and acceptance as a child of God. Also, in response to that grace the believer acknowledges Christ’s sovereign authority and offers himself/herself to him in glad surrender.
An act of acceptance of God’s grace only to secure our eternal salvation but leaving us free to live our lives according to our own plans, is a best an act of self-interest and a worst an act of indifference to and disregard of the gracious purposes of Almighty God in our lives.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives (See also this month’s https://connectingwithyou.net/2017/02/15/words-of-life-7-kinsman-redeemer-goel/). Grace Revisited is available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org