This is a longer post than normal. It comes from my passion for the gospel of grace. I wish to write more, but I’ll restrain myself. I hope this clarifies where I stand…
When one of my best friends received Jesus, he signaled that moment by jumping in the air and turn 360 degrees before landing. We were running, around a Chicago park, in chill, damp weather, at night. He had resisted, debated, denied, and argued against the gospel for months. But finally the time came when his heart was opened, and softened toward Christ. And he believed on Jesus as his only hope, and by believing, he received Jesus and all that he brings (John 1:12). He didn’t pray a prayer. He jumped and spun around. Physically. Spiritually too. He came down a new man with a new life. This goes to show you that it’s not a formula, and we do not teach it as such–everybody is different in their response of faith.
But the message stays the same.
The Gospel (literally “good message”) is the “power of God” (Rom 1:16). I’d like to describe this powerful message–but it would take a whole book to do it justice. Especially since I would have to defend, and expand, and explain every point (see the level of discussion on the blog “WWLD”).
Someday, I’ll write that book. But not today. This is a blog, so I’ll put forth my views in an abbreviated form. Pardon the economy of language and the unadorned writing style, okay? I want to get as much said in as little space as possible.
While the word gospel has many meanings in different contexts in the Bible, throughout this posting, I am using it in its most limited sense–the one Paul used in 1 Cor. 15:1. The Gospel is a subset of biblical truth. We do not expect a person to believe the WHOLE BIBLE in order to be saved. Nobody would ever make it if that were the case.
It is specifically the truths that a person must hear, understand, believe, and respond to in order to be saved (Rom 10:13-17). The gospel is the irreducible minimum of biblical truths necessary for salvation.
By salvation, I mean the whole package of benefits that comprise the new life and new status of a person who is embraced by Christ. You are: regenerated by the power of God (John 3), mystically and vitally placed into union with Christ (John 15), adopted in the family of God (Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5), transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son (Col 1:13), making us citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20; 2 Tim 4:18). There’s more, but that will get you going.
If salvation is an exquisite mansion, then the gospel is its threshold. It is that line you step across to enter the mansion. The purpose of crossing a threshold is to get into the mansion and to enjoy it. You do not spend your whole life at the threshold. You move in and occupy the entire mansion.
At the risk of pushing my illustration too far…
The threshold/gospel illustrates JUSTIFICATION.
Life in the mansion illustrates SANCTIFICATION.
The two are different, but organically united. To step through one is to automatically enter the other. You cannot enter sanctification without passing through the doorway of justification. You cannot pass thru justification without entering the realm of sanctification. They are united, but they are different, and the differences are CRUCIAL.
JUSTIFICATION is the instantaneous imputation of divine righteousness to the account of the person who exercises faith… it is not an impartation or infusion of righteousness, it is a forensic imputation. This is based on linguistic studies of the word for impute/reckon, etc. This differs from a Catholic or orthodox position which prefers to say that righteousness is imparted or infused, not imputed.
“And therefore “it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” Romans 4:22-25, NKJV.
The main point of the Reformation was that justification is by faith, not works. We believe in justification by faith. It is justification that is the moment of salvation for an individual.
SANCTIFICATION is the progressive work of God in conforming us to the life and character of Christ. While the word carries other meanings, this is the central one. It is subsequent to and consequent upon justification. You can’t have Sanctification without justification. Sanctification is righteousness infused or imparted: this is where Catholic/orthodox theology differs. They locate the infusion of righteousness in the justification experience, not sanctification experience.
Another term for Sanctification is the Christian Life. Or the post-salvation Christian life. It refers to a supernatural lifestyle of experiencing the life of Christ flowing through you… and…
Sanctification is IMPOSSIBLE for an unregenerate person (1 Cor 2:14). Not hard: IMPOSSIBLE. You must FIRST be born again before you can be SECOND, sanctified. This is why we grace-oriented teachers get upset when we hear the demands of the Christian life being placed upon unsaved/unregenerate people. Telling lost people to change their lives is telling them to do the impossible–it is giving them a hopeless message, a demanding, crushing message, not a good one. It is not the gospel. It is law/legalism. It erects a standard that cannot be achieved.
Now, as to the content of the gospel…
Its centerpiece is Christ Crucified. I have biblical warrant for saying this:
- “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2, NKJV.
- “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness,” 1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV.
The LIFE of Christ qualified his death to carry the freight it did. This is why WWJD is not the gospel. “Doing what Jesus did” is not only impossible for the unregenerate, it also bypasses the central element in the gospel: the death of Christ. When you tell a drug addicted, guilt-ridden, bankrupt, moral basket case to “follow Jesus” what does that sound like to him? It sounds like climbing an icy mountain without equipment with his hands tied behind his back and a 500 lb backpack slung over his shoulders.
You have to first remove the backpack and untie his hands.
Only the message of the Cross does that. Not the life, but the death of Christ, is salvific. This is why the Pauline definition of the gospel emphasizes Christ crucified. By this standard, which I believe is biblical, You are not preaching the gospel if you are not talking about the death of Christ and what it accomplished for us.
No surer test can be applied to a presentation of the gospel than this: What does it make of “Christ and him crucified”? Is he part of it, or is he all of it? Is he a planet orbiting a different core idea? Or is he the sun, the center of a celestial system, around which all else orbits?
When a seeker/groper for Jesus (Ac 17:27) is told to shed her bad habits, or to pack on some good habits, I believe that Christ has been displaced from his rightful center. He and his saving death must remain central. When a seeker/groper is told to give something to Jesus, isn’t that not only missing the point, but reversing it? Hasn’t Christ given his sacrificial life for us so that he can then give his resurrected life too us? Just who’s doing the giving here? And who’s doing the receiving?
Paul begins his delineation of the gospel by saying, “Christ died for our sins…” The grammatical structure here is all-important. (huper + the genitive of hamartia). Linguistic research explains that under this construction the word FOR really means AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR… This is the message we preach. Christ died a substitutionary death for our sins.
I believe in explaining this little tidbit to a Jesus-groper to the best of my ability. The sacrificial, substitutionary death of Christ on my behalf. Explain it. Teach it. Center on it. Focus on it.
Because it is the power of God. It excludes human power. It breaks down self-righteousness. It humbles a sinner. It uplifts and exalts Jesus Christ. It creates a righteous despair that leads to faith/repentance toward Christ.
To any Bible teacher, pastor, or minister–to anyone who speaks for Christ–who might be reading, test your message this way: on balance, do you speak more of what Christ has done for us, or of what we must do for Christ? In my humble opinion, the latter constitutes legalism.
The gospel centers on Jesus and his sacrificial death. But it doesn’t stop there. It moves on. Paul centers on Christ crucified, and moves on to Christ resurrected, ascended and alive.
Because when you step across the threshold, you step into a new life. So that the old you no longer exists: it’s no longer YOU PLUS ZERO. It is now and forevermore YOU PLUS CHRIST in a mystical and vital union. More on that in a moment.
Let me discuss HOW to step across the threshold. The most common biblical requirement is one word: FAITH. What is it?
I’ll stick with the reformation motto: FIDES EST FIDUCIA. Pardon my Latin. “Faith is trust.” This assertion was hotly debated. The Catholic church held that faith referred to the body of teaching of the Catholic Church. So that a person was justified by assenting to the body of teaching of the Catholic church. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Turretini, and others rightly maintained that a person was justified by trusting in Christ alone because FAITH MEANS TRUST. The Catholic church fired back in the Council of Trent saying, “Whoever says faith means trust, let him be damned.” (Sixth Session Canon).
In the Old Testament, the word for faith (a derivative of the word Amen) refers to accepting something as true. However, when that word is collocated (coupled with) the preposition IN (in Hebrew it’s one letter: b… make a buh sound)…. when you couple “believe plus in” you create the strongest Hebrew expression of TRUST IN or CONFIDENCE.
This is what we have in “And he [Abram] believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” Genesis 15:6, NKJV. Abraham trusted God’s promise, and took him at his word, and was thereby justified…. fifteen years before he offered Isaac on the altar. Fifteen years before the crowning good work of his sanctification he experienced justification. (I know, James calls the latter “justification” in Jas 2:21, but don’t forget that his terminology is Hebraic–he is conceptually in the realm of sanctification… and his argument that faith without works is dead is all about getting his Jewish friends to put the “buh” back into their faith–to move from mental assent to volitional recumbency.)
Martin Luther writes: “Then what? Is the Law useless for righteousness? Yes, certainly. But does faith alone, without works, justify? Yes, certainly. Otherwise you must repudiate Moses, who declares that Abraham is righteous prior to the Law and prior to the works of the Law, not because he sacrificed his son, who had not yet been born, and not because he did this or that work, but because he believed God who gave him a promise. In this passage no mention is made of any preparation for grace, of any faith formed by works, or of any preceding disposition. This, however, is mentioned: that at that time Abraham was in the midst of sins, doubts, and fears, and was exceedingly troubled in spirit. How, then, did he obtain righteousness? In this way: God speaks and Abraham believes what God is saying. [Luther’s Works 3:20-21]
The only explicitly evangelistic book in the Bible, the gospel of John, emphasizes faith in Jesus as the way through the doorway into salvation.
The gospel message centers on Christ Crucified. It demands a response: faith. That faith is faith IN Christ Crucified as one’s only hope for everything: forgiveness, adoption, everlasting life, heaven, a new life here and now, the whole package. Through faith.
“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–” Romans 3:25, NIV.
Can we ever go wrong by directing people to Christ’s perfect sacrifice, and urging them to put their faith in him and his death? I don’t think so.
The problem comes when we try to add to what Christ has finished. This is legalism. This is why the Jesus nailed the Pharisees. You can’t add.
That’s why Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe ON the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your house” (Acts 16:31).
Faith is trust, and trust is non-meritorious. In other words, it is not a good work. It is not a price. It is not costly. The only cost that we pay is the cost of admitting our lostness, swallowing our pride, and acknowledging our need for a Savior. Faith is not a cost:
John Calvin wrote, “For, as regards justification, faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ what we lack.” [Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vols. 20–21, III. xiii. 5.]
We get accused of “cheap grace.” But we are struck by the high price Jesus paid. For him it wasn’t cheap. And that’s why, for us, it is free. To add any costliness to the gospel is to say that somehow Christ’s sacrifice was deficient; it did not pay the price in full–and he didn’t mean it when he cried out “It is FINISHED!”
Some will ask, What about “counting the cost” and “taking up the cross”? We say, those things apply to post-gospel discipleship and sanctification, not justification.
Some will persist, Shouldn’t you be up front with those things? We say, “The natural man cannot receive the things of the spirit of God…” Meaning, we do not ignore the costs… we do not fail to point out sin as sin… but we do not demand or expect a spiritual dead person to even begin to see how she can overcome her sins and pay a price and count a cost without the indwelling Christ and the Holy Spirit. First things first, please. It is the power of God, not the cost paid by us, that saves. Faith is non-meritorious. The merit is in Christ, not in the one who believes or in the act of believing. The gift is FREE, FREE, FREE, FREE. Or to use the latinized term: GRATUITOUS.
- “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” Romans 3:24, NKJV.
- “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” 1 Corinthians 2:12, NKJV.
- “And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts.” Revelation 21:6, NKJV.
- “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” Romans 8:32, NKJV.
We encourage people to transfer their faith FROM their religiosity, their religion, their good works, their-self effort, TO CHRIST ALONE. Quit trusting all that other stuff, and start trusting Jesus. That faith can be expressed in numerous ways. Prayer, saying yes, smiling, or even jumping up and spinning around. For some it comes quickly, like flicking on a light switch. For others it comes gradually, like the dawn. However it comes, the light is shining, and the faith is real.
Where does obedience come in?
I believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Again, linguistic research demonstrates that the term Lord is applied to Christ as an indication, primarily, of his DEITY. To say that Christ is Lord is to say that he is God. It is the New Testament equivalent of Yahweh, LORD, in the Old Testament. You cannot deny the deity of Christ and be saved (You can be ignorant, perhaps, and be saved, but you can’t deny it).
Christ is both Savior and Lord. You cannot split his person or his offices. No reputable teacher I have ever heard or read says that. That argument against the free grace position is a straw man argument. He is both Savior and Lord in his offices. But each office calls for a different response.
The proper response to his office as Savior is to believe and receive and to trust.
The proper response to his office as Lord is to respect, and honor, and obey.
But you can’t do the second without the first. You can’t obey Jesus without the supernatural power of God. You receive him as Savior first, and having done that, you immediately obtain the supernatural power of God so that you can now spend the rest of your life INCREASINGLY RESPONDING TO HIM AS LORD.
There’s an old saying: If he isn’t Lord of all, then he isn’t Lord at all. I ask you, maxgrace.com reader, is he Lord of all? Really? Is there not one corner of your your life that resists his Lordship? I argue that, IN PRACTICAL TERMS, Jesus can be Lord of one part of your life, but not of another. And SANCTIFICATION is the process of expanding his terrain within you. He is Lord even when he isn’t Lord of all. If he isn’t Lord of all, then you’re real, and normal, and living in Romans 7. And hopefully moving on to Romans 8.
We will be asked, What if you don’t move on? We answer, either you weren’t saved in the first place, or you were saved and have “forgotten that you have been purged from your old sins” (2 Pe 1:9). Both are possible… and in the latter case, you will experience the disciplene of the Lord (Heb 12:1-4).
The death of Christ subtracts our sins. The resurrection-life of Christ adds his power and holiness through his new indwelling.
A justified person becomes immediately the habitation of God. Christ suddenly lives within. And through his power, and his spirit, you increasingly obey Jesus, follow Jesus, commit to Jesus, submit to Jesus, respond to the Lordship of Jesus… you do all those things that the Lordship people try to overload onto the FRONT END of the gospel. I oppose this overload. I am for all these things, but only in their proper place. I oppose an ethical front-end load onto the gospel.
We do not tell people to get their lives straight and then recieve Jesus. We tell them “Just as I am without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bid’st me come to thee… O Lamb of God, I come.”
All these other things are the FRUIT. Salvation is the ROOT. To preach works/obedience as the requirement of salvation is to preach LAW, not GRACE.
Just as I am. Sins and all. Failures. Obstinacies. Bad habits. Reservations. Doubts. I bring my whole moral package to Jesus. And he saves. He justifies.
Then, he sanctifies.
He is Savior and Lord. You get him as both. He now indwells you, and lives through you. And 24/7 for the rest of his life, he will assert his Lordship FROM WITHIN. I’m an “exchanged life” guy. ““I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20, NKJV.
That assertion of Lordship is a constant inward pressure to follow Jesus, learn of him, and obey him. You can’t escape it. This is why Christians who routinely disobey Jesus go crazy: they are fighting Christ within. They are fighting an inward nature. They are fighting their true selves, and they crack up.
If two people habitually do the same sin, and one of them is doing fine, and the other is a basket case, I’m more inclined to believe that the basket-case is the Christian.
Many free-grace advocates are dispensational. I am not. I believe that grace was equally taught in both testaments. I’m more in tune with Kaiser’s “epangelical” theology, which is for another post.
But let me say this about the LAW. The Christian is not under the Law but that does NOT mean that we have dispensed with the Law. The Law is a law of love. It is the guiding force in the life of Christ, who perfectly fulfilled the law. He lived a “Ten Commandments” kind of life–when you think of it, the life we all really want.
When Christ came to live within me, he brought that Ten Commandments heart with him. The law is now FULFILLED IN US (Rom 8:4)… so that we can increasingly “love the law” like David (Ps 119:97), and find it to be a law of liberty and royalty, like James (Jas 1:25; 2:8), and a law of love, like Paul (Rom 13:10). It is the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). It is a lamp to our feet. The law now longer functions for us as a set of obligations to be enforced from without, but rather as a set of opportunities to be expressed from within via the indwelling life and power of Christ.
This expression of Christ and the law of God occurs increasingly as we walk by faith (Gal 2:20). Faith is everything. Faith is the victory.
The charge of being antinomian, cannot therefore apply. The law has its proper role.
I want to say one more thing (I’ve been writing since 4 this morning and now it’s 6:30). I am genuinely wounded and grieved when I read all over the internet how one side calls the other side heretics and so on. Christ is preached, and we should rejoice in that. There are serious disagreements between the Lordship and Savior-only people.
But there are serious successes for the kingdom of God registered from both sides. I wish my Lordship friends would be clearer on the gospel, and quit muddying the waters of grace. They wish I would be less antinomian, and quit permitting sin. So be it. I see fruit in my ministry, and you see fruit in yours… God gives the increase, to him alone goes the glory.
Disagree and debate with all your passion. But don’t be a jerk about it. Let love cover a multitude of sins.
I reserve the right to abbreviate long comments…