Grace - Sovereign, Free, or Saving
There is a tremendous amount of confusion in Christianity over the most basic and elemental question - what must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, yes, but in what sense? That is a loaded question! The word "believe" means different things to the various schools of thought within Christendom. Let's take a brief look at what is being taught and compare it with the word of God.
The Catholic Church maintains that it is possible and necessary for the human will to cooperate with divine grace. For them, that means participation in the seven sacraments of their Church is necessary for salvation. Of
Council of Trent - (VII session in canon IV) "If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema (excommunicated).”
In this, the Papists make a similar mistake as the Judaizers – legalism (salvation by works). The only difference is the nature of the works, substituting Church sacraments for works of the law (Mosaic law). They compounded their error by torturing and killing those who disagreed with them in brutal inquisitions.
The Eastern Orthodox also recognize free will and they teach theosis, which roughly equates to the process of sanctification in a certain sense. They rightly see the need for a transformative process, which brings likeness to or union with God. However, while
Enter the Protestant Reformation and the “ Five Solas ”. Grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone, as defined by
First, let's look at Sovereign Grace which springs forth from the Calvinist school of thought. It's problems really go back to Augustine, who wove Manichean fatalism into his theology. Regrettably, his ideas had a great influence on Calvin and other reformers. Strict determinism became read into scripture such that God by meticulous providence predetermined EVERYTHING, including salvation, damnation, and every evil act .
In this view, God's grace is seen as irresistible, perseverance is inevitable, and
Even Calvin called his doctrine of predestination “ the horrible decree ” and acknowledged that the logical implications were grotesque. He conceded he could not explain how God could be the cause of sin, yet not be the author of sin (morally responsible). Still, he denied that it was so, due to some unfathomable “mystery”. At least he was honest in his admission of ignorance, but his appeal to mystery did nothing to dispel the dark clouds that hovered over his doctrine.
Some modern Calvinists are not so honest. They attempt to extradite themselves from the false dilemma of determinism, using subtle philosophical arguments based on 1st/2nd cause, compatibilism , and the like, but all such attempts fail. In the end, they must be inconsistent
To Arminius, God was perfectly capable of giving man free will (in the true libertarian sense) while remaining sovereign. The plan of salvation was predestined but our participation in it is by choice. So instead of being forced into heaven or hell by the arbitrary predetermined decree of God, he wills ALL men to be saved but gives them the freedom to reject his salvation. So unlike Calvinism, salvation is offered to all, grace is resistible, perseverance is not inevitable, and
To distinguish it from the other views, I call this Saving Grace since it is more in line with what the Bible teaches. Christ's parables fit this framework. Eternal life is IN CHRIST (not you except as you receive him) and like a branch attached to a vine, you will continue to have eternal life, bear fruit, and persevere as long as you remain IN HIM. Nothing and no one can snatch you away from Christ, but if you choose to separate yourself from him, you will wither and die as surely as a branch removed from the vine that nourishes it.
In both the Calvinist and Arminian view, repentance is a necessary component. The difference is, in
There is yet a third major view called Free Grace , otherwise known as cheap grace, or easy
With free grace, one receives a ticket to heaven the moment they make a profession of faith, and it can never be lost. This view holds
That is not Biblical. As James said, even the demons believe and tremble – faith without works is dead . In other words,
In the Bible, obedience is implicit in the word believe. Belief entails true commitment and relationship, a submission to the will of God, not just mental assent to a doctrine or a quick trip to the altar. He wants to save us from our sins, not in our sins.
Hebrews 5:9 He [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him
Many verses such as John 5:29, Eph 5:5-7,24, Gal 5:24 make it clear that submitting to the will of God in obedience, such that moral transformation ensues, is encompassed in the word often translated simply as belief. Disobedience is equated with unbelief , it is receiving grace in vain.
1 Corinthians 15:2 By this gospel you are
Paul then goes on to describe the Gospel and warns in verse 34 ... Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning
Did you notice something? He is not talking about
Here again, Paul says ... we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain (2 Cor. 6:1)
He goes on to speak about the need to separate oneself from sin and sinners, the very thing the Free Grace camp teaches is not required.
2 Corinthians 7:1 ... let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
To be absolutely clear, progressive sanctification is in view here, not instantaneous sinless perfection. The same Paul who advocates perfecting holiness confesses that he is not YET perfect ( Phil. 3:12 ).
Beware of thinking in absolutes and extremes. Some extremists in the"Holiness Movement" claim to have achieved sinless perfection in their personal walk. Some in the "Free Grace" camp completely deny the need for repentance at all. Although they take opposite positions, they share the same error. They both dispense with the need for an ongoing war against sin, only for different reasons.
Until we are glorified, we must continually WAR against our sinful flesh (Gal. 5:17, Romans 6:19, James 4:1, Peter 2:11) but we can have confidence that Christ will one day finish the good work he starts in us (Philippians 1:6).
The truth is that salvation is a process that must be completed before one is truly free from sin. "We have been saved from the penalty of sin (called justification); we are being saved from the power of sin (called sanctification); we shall be saved from the presence of sin (called glorification)."
To dispense with any part of this process, or to see yourself as already perfect and having already obtained the prize, is error of the most dangerous sort. One must persevere to the end and finish the race. ( Phil. 3:12, Heb. 3:14, 6:11, 1 Cor. 9:24).
So what went wrong to cause all the confusion and bad theology. Well, besides the Papal Apostasy, the Eastern schism, Augustine's Gnostic fatalism, and Darbyism, a less than nuanced understanding of the term “works” contributed greatly to the divisions.
In response to legalism, a tendency developed to view any good deed as de facto salvation by works. Faith plus nothing became the mantra. Sure legalism is wrong, whether it be the Judaizing of the Galatians or the Monkish works of Romanism, but does that mean we must throw out the baby with the bathwater? Should we refrain from doing deeds of righteousness and repentance for fear of missing salvation by faith?
This error has begun to be been addressed of late, but not without difficulty due to entrenched false doctrine in the hallowed halls of orthodoxy. Some modern scholars have rightly pointed out that final judgment is based on the works of an individual.
Biblically, a distinction is made between “ works of the law ” (Mosaic law keeping for salvation – works salvation) and “ works of faith” (the outworking of your faith leads to works of repentance and righteousness). The apostles and most notably Paul argued against the first ( Eph. 2:8) while affirming the latter ( Acts 26:20) . This has been brought forward as the “ New Perspective on Paul ”.
Final Judgment According to Works... was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led – in accordance, in other words, with works. — N. T. Wright
I can't say I agree with Wright in every area of theology, especially his eschatology, but on this
In fact, many difficulties melt away when we understand that legalism (works salvation) and performing good works because Christ is in you are two entirely different things. Other problems are quickly dispatched when we realize that Augustine's Gnostic fatalism has no place in Christian soteriology, free will does. Embracing the Five Solas was helpful in combating the errors of Romanism, but did not by itself guarantee correct doctrine - isms, schisms, and dogmas abound.
Systematic theology sometimes tends to complicate rather than clarify. However, if I had to choose a particular school of thought, the Arminian view is closest to the truth. There are internal disputes over some of the finer points, and divisions, but the broad framework is generally sound.
The Wesleyan Branch differs from Classical Arminianism not just on the nature of perfection, but on the nature of the atonement, and the finality of apostasy. How God's foreknowledge operates is another sticky wicket, giving rise to several interpretations.
Perhaps we should examine some basic concepts and keep it simple. Salvation is a process that has a temporal unfolding (occurs over time) and from first to last each step is by grace – his enabling, his gifts, his power, his calling. It is a gift but we must receive it. The free will God grants, allows us to accept, resist, or even reject salvation.
God initiates and if we choose to respond in faith, we become joined to Christ and can rightly say we have been saved, we are being saved, we will be saved IF we CONTINUE in Christ. Justification, sanctification, and glorification are all part of a dynamic process that must be completed before we can truly say we are saved (in the finalized sense). Yet by faith , we can reckon ourselves already saved.
Christ's work on the cross is finished , but his work in you is ongoing, final judgment and glorification are yet future. We can have full confidence that Christ will complete his work in us, if only we hold on to faith to the end (finish the race, stay attached to the vine, remain in Christ). Do you have faith in God's ability to change you, or just his ability to forgive you?
We are given a new nature, but that does not replace the old nature, it
... we truly believe in Christ, yet we are not then renewed, cleansed, purified altogether; but the flesh, the evil nature, still remains (though subdued) and wars against the Spirit. John Wesley Sermon 13 - On Sin in Believers (Ch.13 – 2).
That's why Paul warned “ take heed if you think you stand, lest you fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Wesley placed very heavy emphasis on holy living but even his doctrine of Entire Sanctification does not teach sinless perfection, more of a practical perfection. Most would agree that one can reach a state of maturity where the new nature dominates the old, but few agree as to what degree and in what time frame.
Theologians may argue over such questions but Biblically speaking, there is a progression and temporal unfolding. Discipline and perseverance through trials refine our faith as we move forward. Some believe signs should mark their progress – initial evidence, second blessings, third blessings, manifestations, emotions, experiences. I'm not a cessationist, but I do wish some of the nonsense would cease. Even howling like a dog passes for spirituality in some circles. What test of faith did Paul use?
When speaking on maturity Paul referred to Christ in you , the hope of glory . (Col. 1: 27-29). Again, when he told the Church in Corinth to examine themselves to see if they were in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), he said Christ is in you unless you fail the test . What test?
Well if you back up just a little
This is where the rubber meets the road. Some very strange teachings have emerged of late, but there is no need to be in doubt or confusion. The Bible is abundantly clear, anyone can know if they are born again and following the way of salvation.
It does not require a degree in systematic theology; nor does it entail instantaneous sinless perfection; neither is it evidenced by vain babbling like the Oracle of Delphi; or flopping on the floor like a fish.
Very simply, do your deeds demonstrate your faith, or do you deny Christ by your actions? Do you have the fruits of the Spirit in evidence (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness), or are you still carnal? Does the Spirit testify with your spirit that you are a child of God?
If you go to Romans 8 and read the whole chapter in context, those who have the testimony of the Spirit and cry Abba (Father) are those who put to death the deeds of the body (repent and overcome) by the power of the indwelling Spirit. That is the witness, that is the sign, that is the test, that is the evidence that Christ is in you , regenerating you, imparting new life.
Romans 8:13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but IF by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
We must leave room for perseverance to finish its work. A babe in Christ may be on the path but not living as righteously as a mature Christian. There is a growth process, his Spirit works in you, providing both grace and discipline for our many stumbles.
However, if you're not overcoming and are still dominated by your carnal nature such that habitual sin characterizes your life, it is clear evidence Christ is not in you. Don't let emotions, manifestations, or doctrinal knowledge become your yardstick. Not every spirit is of God and not every wind of doctrine is correct.
It doesn't matter if you have a Doctor of Divinity degree from the finest institution. It doesn't matter if you giggle on the floor like a school girl or babble like a Voodoo Priest. It doesn't matter if you can knock down everyone in your Church with a wave of your hand - you can still fail the test.
You will know if you are (being) saved if his Spirit is in you, transforming you, giving you victory over sin, making you an overcomer. If that isn't happening, then whatever you are believing or experiencing does not meet the test – Christ is not in you - Paul was very clear about that.
On judgment day, all of us, regardless of our theological framework, will be in need of grace. Our faith and repentance are themselves gifts of God - graces that make us candidates for more grace.
To those who profess belief but whose works are carnal, the sentence will be “ I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:23).
To those who started in faith but fell away, there is NO hope. They can't be “... brought back to repentance” (Heb. 6:6).
To those who “ ...go on sinning after coming to a knowledge of the truth no further sacrifice for sins remains, but only a fearful expectation of judgment” ( Heb. 10:27).
Cor. 5:10 For we must ALL appear before the judgment seat of Christ , so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad
All judgment has been committed to Christ and he can apply the merits of his sacrifice to whomever he pleases. The blood of atonement is an absolute necessity, our works cannot save us. Yet we speak of having been already justified, already washed in his blood, already saved at the beginning, not the end of our experience. How can this be when the judgment is still far off?
When the temporal unfolding of our salvation is properly understood, we know why it is by faith . We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly to the end the assurance we had at first (Hebrews 3:14). By faith what is future is counted as already ours , righteousness WILL be credited — for us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead (Romans 4:24).
It's the use of past, present, and future tenses to describe the process which confuses us, we are used to thinking in time linearly. We have the promise already by faith, but we must remain in faith and wait for
You can profess faith all you want, attend Church, even perform miracles in his name, but if your works are evil - Christ is not in you . His atoning sacrifice, his shed blood will avail you nothing at the judgment.
Matthew 7:22 ...and will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, we prophesied in your name, drove out demons in your name, and performed many miracles in your name, didn’t we?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘ I never knew you . Get away from me, you who practice evil!
The judgment is not simply a handing out of rewards, as some teach, your very soul is on the line. For those found in Christ , the inheritance and rewards are great indeed, but scripture is clear - sin and the suffering it causes will no longer be permitted to exist. The wages of sin are death (Rom. 6:23) and not just the end of your mortal existence here, the second death from which there is no return (Rev. 20:13-15).
God is going to make a new creation where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). You cannot enter without becoming righteous and the power to overcome has already been made available. Don't wait until it is too late, his Spirit will not always strive with man. The day is coming when Christ will say let him who is filthy be filthy still (Rev. 22:11). Paul asks a very pointed question - do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Cor. 6:9)
Matthew 16:27 ... what can a man give in exchange for his soul. For the Son of Man will come in His Father’s glory with His angels, and then He will repay each one according to what he has done .
If you say all you need do is believe , I hope you mean in the sense of obedience, trust, commitment, and relationship. I hope you show mercy so that you will receive mercy. I hope that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I hope by the Spirit's power you overcome your carnal nature and show your repentance by your deeds.
I am not advocating a vain attempt to earn salvation by works. I am beseeching those who have not already done so, to accept Christ for real - personally, intimately, permanently. If Christ is formed in you, works of righteousness will come naturally. They are a manifestation of the new nature - evidence you are truly born again, your experience is genuine, your faith is authentic.
James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds ? Can such a faith save him?
Ephesians 2:10 For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works , which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Acts 26:20 I (Paul) preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds .