A Prescription for Free Grace Theology

8 June 2021

Any theology can become a dead ideology instead of a living knowledge of God. For some people, Free Grace theology has become that, and you can see it in their lack of love. But the problem is not universal, and I see that as a promising sign; therein lies my basic prescription. The Free Grace movement must internalize the truth of 1 Corinthians 13: without love, it is nothing. When it begins to genuinely love God and its brothers first, with everything else a distant second priority, then we’ll see real growth.

Where love revives the movement, we’ll see a shift toward service and mission. Many Free Grace people are admirably engaged in evangelism, missions, and discipleship already. What is lacking is for the Free Grace movement as a movement to become outward-facing. As the movement is able to receive and embody life from God, it will serve the broader Church beyond its borders, and in the process, it will recover a robust practice and doctrine of Church unity.

I have written much about unity elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it all here. I will just say that we should love one another and get along together for the sake of our mutual friend Jesus. In my experience, that leads to doing as much as we can in partnership with as many of Christ’s people as we can, across all the denominational boundaries. When God’s people obey in this way, we find that all the scattered branches of the Church have something to offer us, and we to them…and we’ll get a chance to both give and receive. (And you don’t need to be in a Free Grace church to do this, either.)

I expect this proposal to be met with skepticism, if not scorn. I am sure a multitude of theologians can advance armies of reasons why it can’t work. I am willing to hear the counter-arguments, but at the end of the day, I will answer them all with a Chinese proverb: “The man who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the man doing it.” I am already living the proposal I am making here. It can be done, and productively, too: I am far more productive for the cause of Christ now than I ever was in my sectarian days.

Getting the Questions Wrong

30 March 2021

Once upon a time, many moons ago, someone asked, “What’s the bare minimum that a person would need to believe in order to be saved?”

Some of us, myself among them, were silly enough to venture an answer to that question. I have since repented.

There are two problems with this question, one exegetical and one practical. The exegetical problem is that the Scriptures never answer the question directly, which makes it very difficult to substantiate a “Thus saith the Lord” answer — which, in this case, would be the only answer worth fighting over. An answer based on theological reasoning isn’t out of the question — logical consequence is fair game in theology — but difficult, in that it’s easy enough to put forth an answer, but very hard to rule out competing answers. Thus far, nobody’s in any danger of decisively winning that argument.

But the practical problem with the question is the real clincher: why would you want to give anybody the bare minimum? Where does the Bible suggest giving no extra? No matter what you think the bare minimum is, you will find very few, if any, biblical passages that present only your bare minimum content. Meanwhile, there will be many, many passages that present additional (from your perspective, “extra”) content, and even more damaging, a number of passages that leave out something you regard as essential.

But over here in the real world, we don’t aim to convert anybody to a minimum understanding. We want them to get all of Jesus that they possibly can. We want them to know Jesus, and the more of His word we can give them, the better.

Repenting from Lordship Salvation…Halfway

28 August 2011

The first error of lordship salvation is thinking that God won’t save you (or hasn’t saved you) if you have a rotten life.  Entry into heaven goes with a good life (conditionally or inevitably), and if you examine your life and see that it’s not good, you’re not going to heaven.

The second, and more subtle, error of lordship salvation is thinking that Yahweh is the sort of god who would send you to hell if He could.

I’m finding that there are an awful lot of people who have halfway repented from lordship salvation.  They no longer believe that Yahweh requires sanctification in order to enter heaven.  However, in their heart of hearts, they still believe in a furious god who would send them to hell if he could.

So they invest themselves in the Free Grace gospel: Jesus saves us on the sole condition of faith alone, with no works before, during, or after the moment of faith required.  No front-loading the gospel; no back-loading either.  Just belief in the proper content.  God won’t weigh your works at heaven’s gate to determine your eternal destiny; He will ask a simple question about your soteriology.  Pass that theology test, just once, at any point in your life, and you’re golden.  That done, you can forever fend off the vengeful deity: you have already done all that is required of you, and he can’t send you to hell, no matter how he might want to.  This would, in fact, be good news…if Yahweh were even remotely like the god they’re describing.


Do you see that there’s a lot of self-effort going into passing the theology test?  That the good news of the freeness of God’s grace is being turned into a weapon to hold a (fictitious) angry deity at bay?

Do you see that when we do this, we don’t actually trust God at all?  That if we did, we could just trust Him to guide us into whatever content we need to know?


To the people I’ve just described, I have a message.  I didn’t think of it myself; I inherited it from someone who lived five centuries ago.  He was a Roman Catholic, confessor to a neurotic Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.  Luther was so obsessed with his sins that he would be in the confessional for six hours at a time, trying to get forgiveness for everything, lest he be damned.
Finally–so the story goes–his confessor shouted at him, God doesn’t hate you; you hate Him!  Don’t you know the Scriptures command you to hope?”


God doesn’t hate you.  And if you’re trying to hold Him at bay, be it with a stack of good deeds, a saving proposition, or with the very words of John 3:16, then the problem is that you hate Him.

But you don’t believe the very first words of the verse.  “God so loved the world…”

The solution is simple: trust Him.  He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.

Gordon Clark Refuted in Three Sentences

22 January 2011

Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth.  All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional.  But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.

River Evangediscipleship II: An Example

19 September 2010

Note: this post continues the line of thought from People of the River and River Evangediscipleship

When life is what you’re offering, there’s lots of opportunity to give.  What, specifically, do you offer to Rick, the guy you’re talking with right this minute?  Depends.  What is the opportunity before you?  Is he terrified that he will go to hell?  Offer him assurance of eternal life in Christ, and calm his fears.

But suppose Rick hasn’t said a word about heaven and hell.  He came over to talk with you about his marriage, which is  falling apart right before his eyes.  How do you offer Rick life?  Well, you’ve unfortunately had evangelism training, so you tell him that he needs Jesus, and you set out to share the gospel in the conventional way: heaven, hell, Jesus on the cross, all that.

“Look, man,” Rick says to you, “I’m already in hell.  Heaven will be when Trina and I can spend a whole day together without getting into a screaming fight.”  What do you say to a guy like this?

Isn’t it obvious?  A starving man in agony from a scorpion sting doesn’t really care, right that minute, that the starvation will kill him in a week or so.  In the abstract, food is more important — he might survive the scorpion sting, but lack of food will get him, for sure.  But so what?  If you’re responsible for helping the man, you give him the antivenin now, and then later, the food.

So you ditch your canned-spam evangelism training and just talk to Rick about his marriage.  You ask what the problems are.  He says he walks in the door after work, and five minutes later they’re screaming at each other and he can’t even remember how the fight started.  So you show him Ephesians 5.  You tell him that Jesus is his model, and he should be willing to die for his wife (by inches, if necessary) as Jesus died for us.   You tell him that this means when he goes home today, he must not counterattack, no matter what she says or does.  You warn him that the first thing she’ll do when he doesn’t counterattack is move in for the kill.  “Rick, man, I’m not gonna lie to you,” you say.  “This will probably be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.  But you’ve got to sacrifice yourself for her, and you’ve got to keep sacrificing until she realizes you’re not fighting with her anymore.”

Tell him that if he does not do this, he will kill his marriage.  On the other hand, if he can pull this off, then he will see things happen in his marriage that he’s never dreamed possible.  But there is a catch, you say.  Tell him, with a wink, that God will probably let him have enough success that he can see what a benefit it would be, if only he could really do it — but there’s only one way to really do this, and he can’t do it on his own; he won’t be able to.

“Naw, I get it now.  I see how it’s supposed to work.”  Rick is smiling for the first time in the conversation.  “I can do this.”

“Okay,” you say.  “Give it a try.  But I’m telling you, man, the day is coming where you can see where it would work if you just did it, but you just can’t bring yourself to sacrifice one more time — and you won’t do it.  When that day comes, don’t you come back and tell me this doesn’t work — I told you, right up front, that you can’t do it alone.”

Rick just grins at you.  “You just watch me.”

When you talk with him next, Rick is dejected.  “I just couldn’t do it, man.  I love Trina, but you can’t believe how she gets.  I couldn’t take it.  I had to tell her to back off, and as soon as I did, we were back into the screaming fight, just like before.”

“Hey, Rick.  Remember how I told you you couldn’t do it alone?”


“Okay, well, here’s the rest of the story.”  You tell him that there’s only one person who ever could live that kind of life — Jesus Himself.  Only Him.  “But Rick, if you let Him, He will give you the ability to do this.  In a way, it won’t be you, it’ll be Him living His life in you.  He wants to give you life — eternal life, in fact.  Rick, man, you’re dying here. If you take what Jesus offers, you don’t die while you’re still alive, and even when you die, you live forever with Him.  All the hell that you’ve been going through, Rick, and all the hell that you’ve got coming to you in the future — Jesus took it all into Himself, died for you, was buried, the whole thing, so you wouldn’t have to go through any of it. And He rose from the dead three days later to show that it’s over — He conquered it all, and He’s alive, and He offers you His life.  He’s been offering you life this whole time, and He’s still offering it now.  When you trust that offer, Rick, it’s yours, and it’s yours forever, absolutely free.  You couldn’t earn something like this, and there’s not enough money in the world to buy it, but it’s yours, just for the asking.”

“Man, I’m desperate here,” Rick says.  “I’ll do anything.  What do I gotta do?”

“Rick, man, haven’t you been listening?” you say.  “It’s a gift.  You trust Him for it, it’s yours.  That’s the beauty of it.”

His brow furrows in confusion.  “Just like that?”

“You got a better idea?”  You punch his shoulder.  “Of course, just like that.”  You pause to let that sink in.  “If it makes you feel better, you can say something to Him out loud, but you don’t have to — He sees your heart.  Does that make sense to you?”

Rick’s brows are still furrowed up.  “Yeah, I guess so…” He looks up at you.  “It’s really free?  Seriously?”

You laugh.  “Of course it is.  You think you could buy it?  What do you have that God could want?”  Your face grows serious.  “Just trust Him, Rick.  He’s got it taken care of.”

“Okay,” he says.  “Okay.”  He nods.  “I think I do want to say something.”

“Go ahead.”

“God, I, uh, I don’t know how to pray, but nothing I do is working out, and everything I touch in my life turns sour.  This thing you give, this life–I want it.  I want all of it.  Please give it to me.”


A year later, Rick is a growing young Christian.  Trina has seen changes in Rick that she never thought she’d see.  She’s not convinced Christianity is for her, but she’s certainly interested.  They still fight, and sometimes it’s still pretty bad — but it’s not as frequent as it was, and Rick is quick to forgive, and to confess when he’s been wrong.

Do you know for sure whether Rick was saved that day when he first asked God for help?  Maybe not.  Did he really understand enough about what he was asking for?  There’s no way to know for sure.  But who cares?  We’re making disciples here, and that’s what Jesus said to do.


1 October 2009

I have updated the Gospel Discussion page, for those of you who follow such things. Not much new info, if you’ve been reading here regularly, but maybe organized a bit better.

You Can’t Leave Out the Dirt

2 August 2009

In the preceding post, I concluded by claiming that an abstract proposition is not the story “boiled down to essentials” because God made the world ex nihilo, entered it Himself in a body, and will resurrect it all one day.

Why would I say that?

God made the world.  Created it all from nothing, spoke it into existence.  In that world, things happen.  God enters into the world He made and acts within it.  God put us in that world — this world — and we act within it.  This is what really happens.  The stories are accounts of what really happened.  The abstractions are short summaries or interpretations of what really happened — but it’s the happening itself that is the reality.

When we say that “by grace you are saved through faith” is the gospel, stripped down to bare essentials with all the extraneous information left out, we are saying that it’s the idea — make that Idea — that matters, and not the incarnational reality.  We are moving, in other words, from Yahweh’s world to Plato’s.

This is a problem, because Plato’s world doesn’t exist.

Yahweh made dirt.  The Word of Yahweh became flesh and dwelt among us, and got dirt under His fingernails.  In the resurrection, redeemed men will get redeemed dirt under their redeemed fingernails, and glory to God for all of it.

Abstractions, important a tool as they are, are not the thing itself.  They always leave out the dirt.

Salvation by Grace: Person or Proposition?

13 July 2009

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?

Skeletal Evangelism

5 July 2009

Having recently become acquainted with Duane Garner through his Church Music Through History series, I have been listening to some of the other things he’s done, most recently a couple of lectures from a series titled “The Christian Imagination: Creativity, Fiction & Poetry.” The following quote comes from the second lecture, starting at 41:55:

So, trying to do theology and to read the Bible, and to live without engaging the imagination — it leaves us without an image of the future, it leaves us with very little in the Bible that we can actually benefit from.  Take out the stories, take out the poetry, and what are you left with?  It’s difficult for me to relate to the sort of mindset that’s only content with the barest and weakest and most anemic expressions of faith : “If we could just boil this down to the essentials, then we’ve got it.”  Wouldn’t we much rather become a people who are enraptured with the stories and the songs that the Bible gives us, even if we don’t understand them all, even if there’s some mystery there, and then bust out with a creativity of spirit that says, “How can we celebrate this; how can we sing that; how can we recognize this; how can we mark that?”
It’s the very nature of our five senses to pull us into whatever is there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision.  This is the way God’s word pulls us in.  It draws us in with its beauty to participate in it.  And so the mature Christian imagination is concerned with story, and poetry, and creativity.  We hear the stories, we know the stories, we see their beauty, and we see our own part in the story, and the continuation of the story.  The Christian imagination understands life as meaningful history, the structure of which is revealed in Jesus.

Indeed.  And nowhere is this observation more applicable than in evangelism.

We try to make evangelism easier, less intimidating, and we generally do this by boiling it down to seven key statements, or four laws, or three points, or a saving proposition, or whatever.  We want to be able to tell people that they can be confident they’ve “given someone the gospel” when they have said X — whatever X is.

We do this to equip our fellow believers, to build them up so that they can evangelize confidently, and that’s a commendable goal.  But the way we’re going about it has a heavy cost: we lose sight of what actually happens in evangelism.

In evangelism we introduce people to Someone we love.  Relaying a couple of key facts is, at best, only a decent start.

When I try to describe my wife to someone who’s never met her, I may search my memory for that one story or factoid that perfectly captures Kimberly’s quirky sense of humor, or her wit, or her boldness.  But once I’ve relayed that one thing, I don’t sit back and think to myself, “That’s it.  That’s all anyone needs to know.”  No single fact or story could possibly capture the richness or depth of the delightful woman that I married, and when I want someone to know Kimberly, to see her as I do, the stories and facts pour forth without effort.  I’m not concerned to tell them the least they need to know; I want them to know far more than that.

How much deeper and richer is Jesus?

Jesus promises us the life we were always meant to live: harmony with God forever as His image in the creation.  He is able to make that promise because He died for our sins and rose the third day, the firstfruits of the resurrection in which we will all one day partake.  And He does all this for us while we are His enemies. You wouldn’t want to try to convey what Jesus is like without that part of the story.

But there’s so much more.  He’s the kind of guy who tells homespun fables that make us see respectable, self-satisfied leaders as disobedient children, or murderous tenants, or inhospitable soil.  Aesop’s got nothing on Him.  When they ask Him what kind of holy teacher hangs out with hookers and drunks, He asks them what kind of doctor spends all his time with sick people.  When He walks into the temple and sees a house of worship turned into a continuing criminal enterprise, He calls it like He sees it — and starts flipping over tables to clean the place out. When the wedding party runs out of wine, He supplies more than a hundred gallons of the very best.  In His presence, the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them — and God blesses those who do not shy away from all that Jesus is.

Jesus did not live a minimalist life; the Bible does not give us bare-bones accounts of it.    Why are we so desperate to know how much we can hold out on our unbelieving friends?

Competent to Counsel?

11 January 2009

Within the evangelical, Bible-believing, American church in the last four decades, an awful lot of things have happened which I fervently hope my grandchildren will have a hard time believing.  But among a truly embarrassing heap of incongruous strangenesses, there are a few that really stand out, and I’d like to talk about one of those.

Starting in the late sixties, our counselors — those specialists in explaining to us how people in disagreement can sit down and have a peaceable discussion like grown-ups — divided into two camps that were, for the most part, utterly incapable of peaceable dialogue.

Let me say that again: Our conflict resolution specialists could barely speak to one another, let alone resolve their intramural conflicts.

And these are the people who are supposed to help us get along with our in-laws.  “Tell it not in Gath…”

David Powlison unfolds half of the sad tale in Competent to Counsel? The History of a Conservative Protestant Biblical Counseling Movement.  As the title indicates, Powlison is writing a history of the biblical counseling movement, not a history of the debate between it and the evangelical psychotherapists. As far as the debate goes, this is hardly the whole story.  But thus far, it is the only serious, scholarly attempt to chronicle the biblical counseling movement — which is valuable in itself, and addresses the conflict from one side in any case.

Why does it matter?

Because if we want to avoid similar decades-long battles in other areas — like, say, over the exact content that one must believe to be saved — then it is helpful to see what our brothers have done wrong (and what they have done right) in past conflicts.

Just one example:  When Jay Adams began writing and speaking about counseling, he almost completely bypassed the evangelical psychotherapists and went straight for their constituents.  His message was “The Bible has the answers for problems in living; seek the answers there.  Don’t listen to these guys; they’re not basing their responses on the Bible, and in any case they are an illegitimate secular pastorate and their function needs to be returned to the church.”  (My paraphrase, but he was at least that blunt.)

Now, the response was predictable as sunrise: the psychotherapists fought back tooth and nail, or ignored him.

Adams had to know that was going to happen.  He seems to have made a decision that he was unlikely to win them over in any case, so he would take his argument to the broader church as fast as possible, using deliberately inflammatory rhetoric to make friends quickly where people agreed with him — at the cost of making enemies quickly among the psychotherapists.

Now, I think Adams had an important message, and the wider church needed to be brought into the discussion.  But the biblical standard for engaging fellow believers is “Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds….”  Instead, Adams chose a course of action practically guaranteed to maximize animosity and bad deeds among the evangelical psychotherapists, with predictable results that largely persist today.  While there are pockets of biblical counseling here and there, the evangelical world as a whole has weighed it and found it wanting.  The reasons for that state of affairs would fill a book, but it surely hasn’t helped that while bringing much biblical content to bear on problems in living, the movement simultaneously behaved unbiblically toward one group of fellow believers.

For those of you conversant with the present gospel spat, this ought to sound familiar.  Think we can learn anything from history?