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?