Salvation by Grace: Person or Proposition?

For something over a year now, I have been saying that I needed to update my response to the Free Grace Food Fight.  But what with one thing and another, the controversy hasn’t been hitting my immediate fields of ministry in a way that called for a written response, nor has anyone bothered to attack me lately in a way that I felt compelled a response.  Other matters were more pressing, so here we are, a year later, and I still haven’t written anything.

Which is not to say that the time has been wasted.  In the interim, the controversy has been the subject of numerous private conversations, and in the lull in public activity, God provided me with time for some much-needed reflection and growth.

I still have some things to say publicly, but I’m much better equipped to say them than I would have been a year ago.  Those things, alas, will not all get said in this post.  But I’m going to make a start.

Let’s start with this:  Salvation is not by any form of works, including theological study, correctness, or acumen.

We are saved by a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.  God requires of us that we believe in that person, as we see in John 9 when Jesus talks with the man born blind:

Jesus heard that they had expelled him, and meeting him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?”

He answered, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in Him?”

“You both have seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” Jesus said.

“Lord, I believe!” he said, and worshiped Him.

I used to say that “believe in” always boils down to some sort of proposition about the person, a position I adopted from Gordon Clark. While Clark went to some lengths to demonstrate this idea, and clearly held it strongly, it always got him into trouble.  Having argued that saving faith is faith in a saving proposition, obviously he needed to identify that proposition, and he couldn’t.  In a chapter toward the end of Faith and Saving Faith, Clark admits — with, it seems, some embarrassment — that there appear to be multiple saving propositions in Scripture.

Some Free Grace folks have correctly observed that John’s Gospel is addressed to unbelievers — and that it is the only such book in the New Testament.  This narrows the search a little bit.  Although we would not be surprised to find the saving proposition in, say, Romans (a book addressed to believers), we really want to see how the saving proposition is put to an unbeliever, and in John, God presents Jesus to an unbelieving readership.  It’s an ideal place to look for a saving proposition.

Only problem is, it seems to vary there, too.  Jesus tells the woman at the well that He is the Christ (but doesn’t mention “Son of God”); He tells the man born blind that He is the Son of God (but doesn’t mention “Christ”).  He often mentions eternal life — but not always.  Taking away sins is mentioned sometimes — but not always.  There’s a raft of “believe in Me” or “believe in Him” statements — woefully unclear!  Clark would be no happier with the multiplicity of answers that arise from John than he was with the multiplicity of answers arising from Scripture as a whole.

I have come to believe that the entire proposition-hunting endeavor is fundamentally wrongheaded.  When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” he missed the whole point.  Truth is not a ‘what,’ it’s a ‘who’: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  And likewise for eternal life: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  To have eternal life is to have Jesus; to know the truth is to know Jesus, not simply a proposition.  The matter is irreducibly personal.

Don’t get me wrong.  Propositions are necessary in order to tell the story and introduce the person to Jesus.  But they’re tools to an end, not the thing itself.  The message is Jesus, the Living Word of God, and He can be introduced by a story, by propositions, but not reduced to a proposition.

Salvation is not a substance, a thing you can put in your pocket.  Salvation is living relationship with the Person Jesus Christ. Faith in the real Jesus, however defective in some of its propositional details, is saving faith. (We can see this with the disciples, who believed in Jesus, but doubted His death, and then His resurrection.)

On the other hand, faith in the correctness of one’s propositions, however accurate they might be, is a threadbare attempt to earn God’s favor through theological acumen, an attempt God will honor as much as He honors other salvation-by-works schemes: “Depart from Me, ye that practice lawlessness; I never knew you.”

We are meant to look through the propositions as through a window, and see the Person standing behind them. When we just look at the propositions — whichever propositions — we’re getting caught up in staring at the window glass itself, preoccupied with every bump and bubble and speck of dust.

To the extent that the big food fight is about which part of the window glass to stare at, there’s not much to pick from on any side.  And to the extent that anyone’s conduct shows hatred for his brothers and his neighbors — certainly not true of everyone, but there’s a lot of it going around — he is plainly not walking with Jesus, so why should anyone listen when he talks about Him?

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21 Responses to Salvation by Grace: Person or Proposition?

  1. Jim says:

    Thought provoking post, as I stand back at a distance now from the “food fight” and almost laugh at the simplicity of it; if it weren’t so sad that there has even been a “food fight” to begin with.

    I would be interested in your other thoughts on this when you get them out and on paper.

    Your friend,

    Jim

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Thanks for your kind words. I’ve been saying for years that this whole thing would be really funny if it were happening to the Buddhists. Among the followers of Christ, and the particular proponents of grace, it’s just sad.
    Hoping to have more out shortly. Hope this finds you well.
    His forever,
    Tim

  3. Sanc says:

    Hi Tim, this post was like gold, to me. I’m struggling to recall if you and I have ever discussed this before? But it’s amazing to see someone who prioritizes significance on this issue, like I have been trying to attempt (surely ‘attempt’ is as far as I can come) to say. It strikes me as being ground-breaking.

    -Michele

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,
    Thank you for your kind words. I don’t know that we ever had talked about this.

    I don’t know how many will find these points groundbreaking, but I certainly did. They open up whole new vistas.

    The really funny bit is that Cornelius Van Til said years ago that the big theological issue of the twentieth century is not modernism vs. fundamentalism, or any of the commonly-hyped divisions, but personalism vs. impersonalism. It would seem to be a substantial issue for the twenty-first century as well, at least in our corner of the world.

    His,
    Tim

  5. Drew says:

    I think I agree with everything, except the idea at the end that the search for correct propositions is legalism. Correct propositions are how we know that we have found the right Christ, as opposed to some gnostic or legalistic myth. I can’t imagine someone being rejected for putting too much faith in accurate doctrines.

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    Drew,
    I think we may actually agree, and I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. I can’t imagine anyone being rejected for putting too much faith in accurate doctrines, either, and I’m not saying that the search for correct propositions is legalism in itself.

    The point I was trying to get across is this: Let’s say that Person A and Person B hold — on paper — the same set of propositions. But Person A is looking to Jesus through them, and Person B is admiring how wonderfully smart he is for having identified the right propositions, and how pleased God must be with him for it. In his heart, B has turned the search for the right propositions into a works-righteousness scheme, in much the same way that the Pharisee in Luke 18 turns an exercise of gratitude into a brag about his own righteousness. Mark it down, when this has happened, B is going to start savaging his brothers for not dotting every i and crossing every t exactly the way he does.

    The search for correct propositions isn’t legalism in itself. It’s what someone does with it that makes it legalism. When Jesus criticized the Pharisees in Mt. 23:23, He contrasts the correctness of their tithing habits with their corruption in more important things — but He doesn’t say “forget the tithe and just learn to be merciful,” he says “These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone.” Perhaps it would have been clearer if I had followed His template:

    Woe to you, ___(your name here if the shoe fits)___, hypocrites! For you spend hours developing the finest propositional details of the content of faith, but you neglect the weightier matter of the gospel: the Person Himself who is salvation. The first you ought to have done, without leaving the second undone.

    Or again: You search the Scriptures for a saving proposition, for you think in it you have life, but the proposition is that which speaks of Jesus.

    Is that clearer?

    His forever,
    Tim

  7. Drew says:

    It’s relatively clear. I too have wondered if this Solo Christo idea should negate some of the neurotic tendencies I’ve seen in certain Free Gracers (e.g., the GES). Free Grace would seem like a really easy, merciful soteriology at first, but paradoxically, a lot of Free Gracers tend to give the biggest estimates of all about the number of people within Christendom who are going to hell.

    For example, I’m pretty sure the Grace Evangelical Society doesn’t hold much hope for Arminians, Lordship Salvationists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or most Calvinists. After condemning all these groups to hell, about the only people getting into heaven should be a subset of Southern and Independent Baptists, along with some moderate Calvinists and non-denominational types. Of course, all this widespread condemnation ignores the fact that Luther himself was basically an Arminian, believing that a complete loss of faith would negate salvation.

    I believe I understand the two main reasons for this Free Grace tendency toward anathemas. First, the Free Gracers feel like they need *someone* to apply the scary-sounding verses against (e.g., Matthew 7, even though that passage could easily be applied against Jews, gnostics, and Muslims). The second is their premillennial doctrine. Almost all Free Gracers tend to be premillennial dispensationalists. And since a big chunk of the world *seems* to be Christianized, dispensationalists need to find some way to square this fact with their pessimistic eschatology.

    I personally lean toward post- or amillennialism so I tend to be a more carefree than the GES. Although I appreciate their ministry, I’m mostly in agreement with you about this general obsession with perfection.

    I originally found your blog by searching for “postmillennial ‘Free Grace’,” although I’m not sure what eschatology you actually subsribe to. But I wish you would do a post in the future describing your beliefs about the salvation of various subsets of Christians, perhaps including certain historical figures like Martin Luther.

    I personally don’t have a whole lot of hope for the Catholics, but maybe even I am being too harsh.

  8. Tim Nichols says:

    Drew,
    Being pretty closely allied with GES, I can speak to our view of the population of hell. You have to keep in mind that these people also believe in eternal security; as a result, anyone who has ever believed the true gospel message will be in heaven. So it’s pretty common for a free grace person to believe that the groups you mention are getting the gospel wrong, and still believe that most of the people in the group will nonetheless wind up in heaven.
    I do believe the reassertion of personalism within FG theology will make a substantial difference when it comes to cutting down some of the foolishness. And since that’s the direction I’m headed, there’s no way you’re going to see that post speculating on the salvation of different groups. To give you an example of why not, consider the case of a Roman Catholic. If he has believed in Jesus for his salvation, then he’s saved, because God says so. If he has believed in his works, the prayers of the saints, and — oh yeah — Jesus’ work as well, then he’s not yet understood the gospel. But I’ve had a priest tell me that salvation is all of God, and man can contribute absolutely nothing at all. Five minutes later, he’s talking about partaking of God’s saving grace in the Mass. All I can say there is, I’m glad I don’t have to figure out whether he really believes in Jesus or not — it’s God’s job, and He’s welcome to it. So I don’t find it profitable to say things like “I think the Methodists are all right, but the Freewill Baptists are all going to hell.” Like I would know.

    Regarding my eschatology, if you cruise around the site a bit you’ll find that I’m a highly optimistic premillennialist; I’ve been using the term “dominion premillennialist” for lack of a better one. I take the dominion mandate and the Great Commission seriously, and so I get along very well with postmillennialists on questions of what we should be up to right now. I don’t get on nearly so well with pessimistic types — and here I include both amillennialists and the “just hangin’ on til the Rapture” variety of premillennialist. For more on this, see my posts in late March and April of this year (culminating in this one) and this post from last year.

    His,
    Tim

  9. Jim Reitman says:

    As you know, Tim, I couldn’t agree with you more on your basic “proposition” 🙂 in this thread.

    In fact, I’ve taken the liberty of plagiarizing the notion at the end of my reply to another recent thread, Faith Lacking Understanding.

    I share Drew’s concern about hope for Arminians, Lordship Salvationists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or most Calvinists in the eyes of a substantial proportion of FGers, when it is virtually impossible to reduce one’s current “confession” to an initial “act” of trust in a Person, when doctrine has little or no relevance. Regarding your comments on Roman Catholics, I too am glad I don’t have to figure out whether he really believes in Jesus or not, but I do think that some of our differences about the conditions and nature of salvation get “lost in translation” because of confusing traditional use of terms.

    Case in point, a few months ago I was discussing rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ with a “theology wonk” friend of mine who was trained at Yale and Toronto and has recently converted to Roman Catholicism. When I discussed the “burning up” of rewards, as in 1 Cor 3:15 and Heb 12, he immediately quipped, “Well, that’s just purgatory.” Honestly, I think he was perfectly happy just to see me even acknowledge the fact that there were some contingent aspects to “salvation” as it is presented in the NT.

    We in FG have so far to go…

  10. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Plagiarize away — it’s not like it’s original with me. I too have been accused — usually by FG or similarly conservative Protestant folk — of believing in purgatory. In my case there is a little more justice to the charge, because I don’t think Gehenna is a handy metaphor.

    I agree that the “lost in translation” problem is very real. The church has been afflicted with the problem from her earliest days; a large part of the Christological controversies hinged on differences of nuance between Greek and Latin terms, and the Eastern and Western usages of same. I find it necessary to do a lot of fast reading in a tradition in order to acquire an intuitive sense of what they mean by what they say. Even then, there can be plenty of problems. On the good side, those of us seeking greater unity in the Body of Christ won’t run out of things to do for quite a while.

  11. Sanc says:

    Hi Tim,

    You said, “The really funny bit is that Cornelius Van Til said years ago that the big theological issue of the twentieth century is not modernism vs. fundamentalism, or any of the commonly-hyped divisions, but personalism vs. impersonalism. It would seem to be a substantial issue for the twenty-first century as well, at least in our corner of the world.”

    I’m so joyful you have this concept of it. I’m fine learning I’m off because I’m interested in good answers. I think, in these years, a lot of people have become confused and hurt because it’s been difficult to grapple with why some of us are so different in how we interact.

    I had to explore to find out what you meant by “im-/personalism.” The only knowledge I have that would be along these lines, I would guess, is “incarnation” (-ism?). The first I heard of this was from Catholics, but I’ve noticed a lot of evangelicals, especially conservative baptists (those further away from the independents or bible baptists), also talk about affecting the lost by “incarnating” our Savior. I don’t have a good definition for “incarnation-ism” but I would say it is the belief that people come to believe in Jesus Christ through meeting Him, in us – and that requires a relationship and service and getting our hands messy with one another in the shortcomings of this life.

    I wonder though if a separationist would/could believe in this? They seem to hold their doctrinal purity above all other truths, even this one. How do you see it?

    I’ve noticed something, now. I observed, as you may have as well, two separationists who decided that they do believe in something along the lines of “personalism,” and when they left their “impersonalism” and tried to re-prioritize their Christianity to be “personalists” instead they became exhausted, quickly.

    I think it takes a lot of energy to be a personalist…. Forgive me for jumping ahead if I haven’t caught your meaning, which is quite probable. 🙂

    Michele

  12. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,
    It seems to me like you’ve caught the application end of what I’m talking about, but not the theory, yet.
    The theory is that ultimate reality is not impersonal (matter/energy, Forms, etc.) but the Triune God of the Scriptures Himself. Pilate’s question (“What is the truth?”) missed the point because truth is a who, not a what. Likewise, eternal life is a who: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
    Many Christians don’t live this way. They live according to a system of rules and treat God like a vending machine in the sky — you put in your quarter and you get your blessings. We catch onto this when someone says something like “I’ve given all this money to ministry, so why isn’t God making me rich?” But when the expected blessings are spiritual rather than material, it’s easier to miss that we still have the same basic God-as-vending-machine attitude.
    But no. God is personal; it’s a matter of relating to a person, not working a system. Like any personal relationship, there are protocols. But there’s a difference between a relationship with protocols and a system.

    This understanding issues in what is often called incarnational living, which, as you noted, takes a lot of energy. It’s the sort of thing one can’t do without serious help, both divine and — usually, in God’s providence — communal.

  13. Jim Reitman says:

    Concur completely, Michele and Tim

    If I might add another contemporary example of evangelical distress over a “personal” approach to God, I would cite the very controversy generated by The Shack. I just read Glen Kreider’s extremely negative review of the book in Bib Sac, and it speaks to me very loudly of the persona/propositional dichotomy. If you read the review with a mind to “defending doctrine,” then Kreider’s review (and many others’, BTW) seems to make eminent sense. However, if one of the main (yet hardly explicit) points of the book (and I am virtually certain this is the case) is to “correct” an excessively impersonal propositionalism, then van Til’s prediction is vindicated (at the very least).

    Against the backdrop of this subtly different theological approach of The Shack is the “business end” of the novel: One thing I’ve noted about contemporary evangelicals—if I’ve noted anything—is that propositionalism does nothing to help people deal with the recurring disillusionment in life that humans are heir to. But one God who exists in three separate Persons, all of whom are intently interested in redeeming humanity in their ontological unity yet functional distinctivenes…..ahhhhh…..now that’s not only reassuring and life-giving it’s also eminently inviting of humanity to participate in God’s redemptive activity.

    That’s the picture I see Jesus painting in the Gospels as “Firstborn” and as “Author and Perfecter”.

  14. Sanc says:

    Hi again Tim,

    Actually Jim was there at the GES conference when before I knew of anyone who (I figured was as dumb as me) believed something a little different, I asked this question of Rene Lopez: Why is faith in Jesus not enough to be saved? My life verse is the header on my blog; He chose the weak things of the world, and I always figure that after a good dose of thought and care, if I don’t come to agree on something there must be a good reason why. God is very good to lead me in many ways on solid ground. Your latest posts are truly a contribution to what I consider His joy in my ongoing growth in the scriptures.

    It wasn’t until after I’d hung myself out there with Rene that Jim briefly replied to me that there was a way to think about the gospel without the doctrine of assurance being built into it. I mean, it was brief enough that I just got the gist and maybe I’m not quoting his words correctly now. That was the first acknowledgement I’d received from someone educated.

    I’ve thought that I’d love to write an apologetic or two on it but it’s been a lower priority for me. I did write a post titled, “The Very Works,” which was on how one can “believe/receive” the whole content of “the Christ” through believing in the works that Jesus did, alone. But instead of writing about what I believe I’m kind of more interested in encouraging a testimony of Christ in the community.

    I read Drew’s first comment, above. May I lean on your grace and patience and ask if I can explore this for a sec? Legalism is when Christian truths are used as a tool to exclude believers and unrighteously so, such as telling the saved that they must not have truly been saved (or in other situations, sanctified) unless they do more or believe more to the point of burdening them beyond what God would give. Taking a stance against legalism however, does not make truth relative or unimportant; there is only one truth and it can and should be preached. Some of God’s truth we can know propositionally and very easily; other truths we write doctrines for and still others we probably cannot comprehend and shouldn’t try very hard to know: “Trust in the LORD and lean not on your own understanding; in all ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” (Prov. 3:5-6)

    So having a “narrative” gospel (I think this is your terminology, Tim?) while being somewhat malleable, it is not amorphous. This is why I asked you back at my blog if there was a doctrine for this. Even if it’s loose there has to be one. And to me I would go back and start with John 3:16 and examine it to see if it does mean exactly what it does without the inserted context from other passages, that to believe is to believe in eternal security or other specific scriptures explaining who Jesus is. If John 3:16 means that anyone who believes in Jesus is saved, then we have doctrine, even doctrine of a propositional kind.

    ??

    Anyway, I have had an occasional discussion over GES teaching on the gospel since last year and I’ve come up with the same things you’ve said, which is that truth is a Person, and also John 5:39. Antonio recommends me to be about learning and since I hang out with people who are a lot smarter than me (Antonio is very well educated), desire compels me to do as he suggested or else die of an inferiority complex.

    😀 Michele

    Thanks for letting me talk through it a bit….

  15. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    I agree; the sola-proposition school of thought is soul-destroying; I can tick off example after example. The folks who come wired for intellect far more than emotion think themselves to be of great faith, when what they are devoid of human feeling, and everyone else knows they can’t really live like that, and feels quite guilty for giving up. When the real crisis hits, people find themselves fleeing to a tradition that offers something more, not because they want to leave, and not because it’s “cool” (those guys are another problem), but as a matter of spiritual survival, because the only other option is to flee to Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris.

    And the Southern Presbyterians are still wondering why all their kids are becoming charismatic, or Eastern Orthodox….

    The criticisms of various contemporary reactions to the sola-proposition dryness — the emergent church, The Shack, praise & worship music etc. — are often even more revealing than the reactions themselves. The critiques of The Shack have tended to have a certain chosen-frozen quality about them. For precisely that reason, I found Wilson’s review quite helpful in getting a different angle on the thing.

  16. David Wyatt says:

    Bro. Tim,

    I found your blog through Michele & her blog. I certainly appreciate what you are saying here! Lately I have been almost obsessing on this “cosf” debate until I have just about lost all the joy of my salvation. I do not blame anyone but myself mainly. I am thankful that my Savior never leaves nor forsakes me & I can just leave the debate for awhile & rest in Him! Your insightful & accurate words in this post have helped me do just that, so for that I say thank you & God Bless! I hope to interact more soon.

  17. Jim Reitman says:

    Michele,

    I’ll let Tim answer for himself, but here’s my take on your comments about assurance and the gospel: I’m not sure I remember exactly what I said at GES, but assurance is just a logical counterpart of trust in Jesus to deliver on his promise of eternal life. Believing or not believing in a “doctrine” of assurance or eternal security is separate from assurance itself, which is a non-propositional (it may be conscious or only subconscious) “awareness,” IMO, and people can be easily confused when they try to recall in a propositional way what “happened” to them when they trusted Christ for their eternal destiny. I would distinguish this “awareness” from what some GES folks would equate to “certainty,” because biblical assurance comes from trusting a person not believing a proposition to be “certain.” AdR, for example, radically disagrees with me on this, but see below. I do not equate “doubt” that a proposition may be fulfilled with “unbelief”; lots of things can cause cognitive doubt, yet we can still trust Jesus alone for eternal life without wavering in that trust, because no other source of “life” is trustworthy.

    May I suggest that you read Tim’s talking paper on assurance and eternal security that he submitted to the panel at FGA? You can find the link by clicking on the “Gospel Discussion” button at the top of the home page. That may help you to nuance your comment and questions about assurance and the gospel in your last post.

  18. Tim Nichols says:

    David,
    Happy to be of assistance. Hope you enjoy your time apart from the fray, resting in the Lord.

    His,
    Tim

  19. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,
    I’m pretty much in agreement with what Jim said in response to your comment here. I would balk a little at the term ‘non-propositional,’ but I think we agree on what he’s driving at. It’s possible to express those things in propositional form: “I am persuaded that Jesus will fulfill His promise” would be one such expression. But the actual trust, the visceral reliance on the Lord is not a proposition, it’s something else. The proposition is a description, not the thing itself, which is what he’s getting at, I think.)
    Along those lines, formulating a doctrine is certainly possible. The narratival gospel message is certainly not amorphous — it really happened in a certain way, at a certain time, in a certain place, and so on — and not in other ways, times, or places. And most of all, through a certain Person, and not anyone else. There is a definite rigor imposed by the real, historical events. Those events in turn can be described in abstract ways like “by grace you are saved through faith.” What I’m resisting is the sense that once we’ve “extracted” an abstract doctrine from the story, the story itself is dispensible and the abstract doctrine is the “bare minimum.”

    Does this help some?

  20. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Tim,

    Great post!

    Your thesis on the Gospel being a person vs. a proposition is one that I have forwarded with many FG’rs in the past (in fact Jim and Michele should remember that); yet to no avail.

    T. F. Torrance is someone who you might benefit from in working out the “theo-logic” of this thesis (see His “Christian Doctrine of God” and “Incarnation”).

  21. Gary says:

    Tim:

    Sorry to be adding to this discussion a bit late. Good to read where you have come to in all this. I too came to pretty much the same view, I think.

    To simplify, in essence for me it all boiled down to who Jesus is. Thus the propositions necessary to introduce Him as you state. And within these manifold propositions, it intrigued me how little people know about things such as the meanings and detail of His titles, such as The Christ, The Son of God, and the one He used so frequently, The Son of Man.

    And then, once we come to the understanding and belief of just who He is through such introductory propositions, we can on certain terms have access to His manifesting of Himself more and more to us per His discourse in the upper room. And, if I may, these certain terms take us back to one of the main things the introductory propositions about Him should have informed us of.

    As I have come to see things, it is in a way always propositional and then more propositional but all the propositions are to make our relationship with Him much, much more personal.

    I’ll await your next more comprehensive writing on the issue.

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