After his Romans 1:17 insight, Martin Luther did not doubt his salvation. He had been delivered from the crushing weight of having to earn his salvation — a thing which he knew he could never do — and he had no doubt that the God who delivered him would make good on His promises.
When he got around to filling in the theology to explain his experience, Luther couched it in terms of the Reformation doctrine of election, as did John Calvin and the other early Protestants. Now this doctrine is the occasion for a great deal of suffering today, as people torment themselves with doubts about whether they are elect.
Luther was no stranger to the question, and he has an answer for it: “Do you doubt whether you are elected to salvation? Then say your prayers, man, and you may conclude that you are.” For Luther, basking in the glow of his deliverance from bondage, it was a simple question. God doesn’t hate you; He loves you. He’s trustworthy. So stop worrying and trust Him.
Fast-forward a generation or so, though, and there’s a real mess among the Protestants. The question Luther could not take seriously, dazzled as he was with his epiphany, remained: How can I be sure I’m elect?
Answers flew thick and fast: Do you exhibit real sorrow for sin? Do you love hearing God’s Word? Do you love God and His people? and so on. And of course, if people were honest with themselves, the answers came back a bit dodgy. We aren’t as broken over our sin as we should be. We don’t always love hearing God’s Word — sometimes we want to sleep instead. We certainly don’t love God, let alone His people, as well as we ought to do. The more people looked at themselves, the more doubt abounded. Again, this was not a new problem that just appeared. John Calvin himself considered the issue, and wrote that when we look at ourselves, we doubt, but when we look at Christ, we trust Him and doubts vanish.
But Calvin’s advice fell to the wayside, and people turned from looking to Christ to examining their own hearts: their works, their affections, their sorrow over sin (or lack thereof).
Do we suppose that Free Grace is so different, so special, that this same thing cannot happen to us?
It’s already happening. No doctrinal formulation, however correct, is immune to getting Pharisee-ized by someone who doesn’t actually walk with God. Unstable people can and do twist the truth, to their own destruction. I may talk more about that in coming weeks.
But first I’d like to talk about a positive second-generation agenda.
The signal concerns of the Free Grace movement as a whole are first-generation concerns. For the person who is escaping the crushing weight of Roman legalism, or slavery to the never-ending introspection of Puritan-style Calvinism, or the soteriological roller coaster that is fear of losing one’s salvation — for that person, the hallmark books and talking points of the Free Grace tradition are a kiss on the lips.
I would take nothing from that.
However, the way it’s articulated causes a different set of problems a few years down the road, and this is the thing that it is hard for first-generation Free Grace people to see.
But then, I am not first generation. My parents were Free Grace before I was born. I am 35 years old, and have attended Free Grace churches my entire life — and a Free Grace college, and a Free Grace seminary. This is an enormous privilege, and I am incredibly grateful for it. I take the signal talking points of Free Grace as a matter of bedrock reality. But my heritage also gives me a different perspective.
My concerns are second-generation concerns. Yes, receiving eternal life is free — but then what do you do with it? Of course the moment you came to Christ was important, but the most important moment of your life? I hope not — I shudder to think that the most important moment of my spiritual life could have happened when I was four years old, and it’s all downhill from there. Sure, eternal rewards is a liberating and motivational doctrine — but given that motivation, by what ethic shall we make decisions?
The common theme here is a quest for a coherent, understandable, biblically faithful doctrine and practice of sanctification. That’s not too much to ask, and it will require breaking new ground. Best we roll up our sleeves and get crackin’.