Free Grace Theology

Over the history of the Church, many believers have championed a radical understanding of the depths of God’s grace. Effectively beginning with Ray Stanford and Zane Hodges (although the roots run back to Lewis Sperry Chafer and further), the Free Grace movement has attempted to do the same in recent times.

The best of the Free Grace tradition has a well-deserved seat at the table. Its maverick exegesis, firm grasp of God’s grace in the new birth, and compelling understanding of personal eschatology have much to offer a serious follower of Jesus. Beyond those three areas, there are two others that also deserve attention: a theology of assurance which is a bit of a mixed bag, and a nascent but rapidly developing theology of community, which is an absolute glory. On this page, I am seeking to provide a few starting points for someone outside the Free Grace movement to benefit from the best of our tradition. At the end, I’ll also offer some suggestions for development in Free Grace theology for those inclined to carry the torch further.

Maverick Exegesis (and an Antidote to Soteriological Excesses)

Clear-eyed exegesis is always worth engaging for its own sake, but those who are looking for an exegetically based antidote to the pastoral faults and excesses of Arminianism or late-Puritan Calvinism will find a lot of help in the Free Grace tradition. Several leading Free Grace thinkers are often willing to depart from theologically-driven consensus, asking further questions of the text, and looking carefully for answers. Even if you don’t agree with their answers, you will find their questions helpful.
Zane Hodges and John Niemela are both worth paying careful attention to in this regard. Hodges tended to stick to devotional-level commentary in his published work, but in personal conversation I found him to have defense in depth for anything he said. Of course he’s no longer around to talk to, but when I disagree with him, I take that as a cue to dig deeper. I don’t always come around to his way of thinking, but I am rarely disappointed by an inquiry into why he might have taken a particular position.

A good starting point for Zane’s work is Six Secrets of the Christian Life.

To me, there’s no question that John Niemela is the premier exegete of the FG movement. John has provided useful work on a number of difficult passages. He’s the kind of man who will do a word study on a conjunction that occurs 700+ times, just to establish if there’s a pattern to when it’s used in a particular way. (Yes, he really did that; I was there. The results of that study are in his work on Revelation 3:10.) As a trainer of exegetes, he is simply without peer. (And yeah, I’m biased. But he is, in fact, that good.)
Unfortunately, John’s work can be a little hard to find, but you can find a good bit of it on the Message of Life publications page, the CTS Journal back issues page, and the JOTGES page.

My own Dead Man’s Faith challenges the consensus on some aspects of Ephesians 2. Traditional Calvinist interpretations don’t fare so well when you read the passage carefully in context, and Arminian “prevenient grace” readings fare little better. The problem turns out to be the assumptions that Calvinist and Arminian readings both make. (In other words, I’m not finding a mediating position between those two poles; I’m disagreeing with them where they agree with each other.)

Bob Wilkin has a worthwhile book titled Is Calvinism Biblical?  Zane Hodges’ The Gospel Under Siege addresses the excesses in both camps, offering a valuable corrective toward a biblical doctrine of assurance.

I don’t know if Jeremy Myers would still consider himself a Free Grace exegete. (He got exiled from the fold a while back, but then, so did I. I hardly consider that a disqualification.) My experience of his work is decidedly mixed — far too clickbait-y for me, at times — but nonetheless, I regularly find him asking good questions of a text and refusing to accept pat, theologically driven answers. He has forced me to change my views at least once that I can think of, and I continue to profit from his work.

Understanding of God’s Grace

Contrary to the popular belief that God is waiting for you to do good things before He receives you into His family, Free Grace has championed the grace of God. He receives you simply because you ask. Anyone who wants to be part of the family, will be.
Grace Awakening by Charles Swindoll and Absolutely Free by Zane Hodges are good starting points. Hodges focuses principally on the new birth; Swindoll goes deeper into what a grace-based life looks like.
Free Grace Soteriology by Dave Anderson and James S. Reitman is a heavier read, if you want to dive into the deep end.

Personal Eschatology

One popular Free Grace speaker used to enjoy scandalizing audiences by starting his sermons with, “I don’t want to go to heaven!” He would proceed to elaborate on the New Earth as our ultimate destiny, with all the attendant glories. If you want to know why heaven won’t be boring, this is good stuff to look into.
Secrets of the Vine by Bruce Wilkinson is a good starting point.
Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings by Joseph C. Dillow will take you as far into the study of personal eschatology as you would ever wish to go. And then some. It’s massive, but well worth your effort.

The classic Free Grace teaching on personal eschatology really sits up and sings when you marry it to an understanding of the present and future Kingdom of God (which they mostly don’t). It’s an area I’d like to write more about in the future, and there will be links here when I get to it.

A Mixed Blessing: The Free Grace Doctrine of Assurance

The original Free Grace theology of assurance grounds the Christian life in the absolute certainty that you are God’s child, period. You do nothing to earn or certify your status; once you believe in Jesus, your status is never again in doubt. You have eternal life right now, and you always will (that’s why it’s called eternal life!)

Free Grace teaches that the new birth is granted to all who believe, and that it is absolutely irrevocable, period. It thereby unmasks the ugly agreement between Arminianism and late-Puritan Calvinism regarding difficult pastoral situations where a believer has fallen into serious sin. While these views posture themselves as opposites because they disagree about whether post-new-birth good works certify (Calvinism) or maintain (Arminianism) the believer’s salvation, they agree in theory that a person lacking such works is not saved.

Practically speaking, the pastoral result is ugly: say we’re talking about a Christian with a serious porn problem. In the Arminian interpretation, he’s losing his salvation by succumbing to his addiction. In the late-Puritan Calvinist interpretation, he’s demonstrating that he was never really saved to start with. In practice, that means his battle with porn becomes a battle for assurance: when he’s doing ok, he feels like he’s going to heaven, and when he’s sinning, he’s afraid he’s going to hell. It’s a theological distinction without a pastoral difference.

In other words, with either of these approaches, at the moment when a believer most needs to be assured of God’s love and provision, at the very moment when assurance that he is righteous in Christ most matters–at that moment, these folks pry off the poor fellow’s breastplate of righteousness and stab him through the heart with accusations that he is not Christ’s, that no son of God could behave in such a way, and so on. This is theology that does the devil’s work for him, and to hell with that! (Luther and Calvin themselves were not like that, by the way, and I’ve little quarrel with their modern descendants who actually follow their example. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.)

Free Grace, in contrast, assures the believer that he is a part of the family, and encourages him to live by grace on that basis. We believe, in other words, that God is a good Father, and that in His Kingdom, we are motivated by love and grace.

Despite this admirably strong view of assurance—with which I absolutely agree—some in the Free Grace movement, including some key leaders, have in recent years taken to questioning the salvation of the vast majority of the Church, on the grounds that because many in the Church never had our understanding of assurance, they never really understood the gospel, and so cannot have actually been saved. This bowing down to the golden calf of doctrinal purity carries the movement’s worship of that particular idol to a new low, and threatens the very reason the movement came into existence to start with, which is why I place assurance in the “mixed blessing” category at present.

A Noteworthy Development: Theology of Community

Any relatively objective observer of the Free Grace movement would be surprised to see me including the Free Grace theology of community as a noteworthy emphasis. The response would be “What theology of community?”—and it would be largely justified. It’s not a subject much discussed, and the habit of doctrinal litmus-testing down to hair-splitting levels of precision has modeled what is effectively an anti-community praxis.
However, in an extraordinarily productive corner of the movement, James Reitman is leading a small group of mavericks who have been living (and then theologizing about) functioning community. What’s developing there is worth watching. (Full disclosure: I’m somewhat involved with these folks. But I’m not biased because I’m involved; I got involved because it’s awesome, and I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines.)

One of the central points to emerge so far…but I’m going to quote Jim here: “I would say that deeper understanding of the finer nuances of grace is directly dependent on obedience to the plain commands of reciprocal love, and that failure to obey directly contradicts and impedes the larger commission of organic witness that is ‘funded’ by that very love.”

If this interests you, start by reading the discussion group’s Mission Statement, and if it resonates, ask to join.

A Prescription for Free Grace Theology

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.

Who Am I?

I can easily imagine someone—especially an aggrieved Free Gracer—wanting to know: who is this Tim Nichols, to be giving guided tours of the Free Grace movement for outsiders and making prescriptions for its future?

You can catch up on my CV and such on the About page if you care about that sort of thing. As to my Free Grace credentials…I was born into a Free Grace family, raised in the Free Grace tradition, attended a Free Grace Bible college, sought out a Free Grace seminary, was mentored by Free Grace teachers, interned at one Free Grace church, was ordained by another Free Grace church, and began my pastoral ministry among the Free Grace churches, while also teaching at a Free Grace seminary, executing a much-needed curriculum revision for their theology program. Spoke at a number of regional and some national Free Grace gigs, as well as the National Teaching Pastors’ Conference for several years running; taught at another Free Grace seminary a bit later. So all that to say: of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the Law a Pharisee, and so forth. When I talk about the strengths and weaknesses of Free Grace, feel free to disagree with me, but understand that I helped make the sausage. I’m not guessing or slinging casual generalities here; I’m speaking from decades of experience.

The controversies that rocked the Free Grace world around 2008-2011 changed my perspective on what it meant to be part of the Free Grace movement. As I looked for biblical tools for addressing doctrinal conflict, I found Acts 15 and other biblical guidance, and put it into practice in how I conducted myself and led my church. I also found that our leadership was using the doctrinal disagreements to settle scores that had a lot more to do with personality conflicts and old grievances never forgiven. It was a sad state of affairs.

At the same time, I moved to my current city, and found myself part of a group of pastors who embodied the truth that unity is something Jesus purchased at the cross and the Spirit gives us, not something we manufacture. Seeing those truths in action for the first time was instructive. I joined in, and I’ve never looked back.

Eventually, my attempts to change the divisive and censorious tone of the national conversation got me booted out of GES. My rough-and-tumble style of discourse had something to do with exactly when and how it went down, but the disagreements were substantive. If I had it to do over again, I’d certainly be more humble about it, and hopefully more skilled, but I’m pretty sure I’d knock all the same heads again, mostly for the same reasons. It stung at the time, but the fights I picked needed picking, and I’ve no regrets.

These days…well. I’m not quite the same guy that GES booted, and I’m sure they’re not quite the same guys that once gave me the boot. We all grow, praise God. If you want to know what GES is up to of late, go check ’em out. (And you can find another similar group of folks at the FGA.) Me, I’m happy to lend a hand to Free Grace theology where I can, but I’m called toward anthropology and ecclesiology. My more recent work doesn’t much coincide with the typical topics of interest in Free Grace circles. But it you know what you’re looking at, you’ll see Free Grace themes woven into my work, especially where soteriology, assurance, and personal eschatology are concerned.

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