By Spencer D Gear
Can a person believe in Jesus once, then forget God, and be OK to enter God’s kingdom?
There’s a theology making it around the Internet and theological circles that is called Free Grace. This theology promotes the view that a person only needs to believe once and doesn’t have to continue to believe to receive salvation.
We see it in statements like these:
A. Free Grace theology
S Michael Houdmann explains:
Free Grace Theology is essentially a view of soteriology grown from more traditional Baptist roots. It was systematized by theologians such as Dr.’s Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges in the 1980s, mainly as a response to its antithesis, Lordship Theology or Lordship Salvation, which has its roots in Reformed theology. Today, Free Grace is still going strong, supported by such Christian voices as Tony Evans, Erwin Lutzer, Bruce Wilkinson, Dallas Theological Seminary, and the Grace Evangelical Society.
The basic teaching of Free Grace Theology is that responding to the “call to believe” in Jesus Christ through faith alone is all that is necessary to receive eternal life. This basic, simple belief brings assurance of “entering” the kingdom of God. Then, if a person further responds to the “call to follow” Jesus, he becomes a disciple and undergoes sanctification. The follower of Christ has the opportunity to “inherit” the kingdom of God, which includes receiving particular rewards based on works accomplished for God on earth.
Free Grace theologians point to a number of passages to validate their distinction between having saving faith and following Christ, mainly from the Gospel of John and the Pauline Epistles. For instance, Jesus’ explanation to the woman at the well of how to receive salvation—that she simply ask Him for it (John 4:10)—is compared to Jesus’ words to the disciples a few minutes later—that they must “do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34).
Other verses in John’s Gospel mention the act of belief as the sole requirement for salvation, including John 3:16 and John 5:24. And John 6:47 says, “The one who believes has eternal life.” The fact that works lead to rewards in heaven may be seen in passages such as Matthew 5:1–15; 1 Corinthians 3:11–15; and Hebrews 10:32–36, particularly verse 36, which reads, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”
Many Reformed theologians are appalled by the assertions of Free Grace theologians, accusing them of “easy believism” or even antinomianism. Antinomianism is the heretical belief that a Christian is under no law whatsoever, whether biblical or moral, and thus may do whatever he pleases. The fact of the matter is that Free Grace Theology can make it easier to arrive at antinomianism. However, Free Grace teaching is not antinomian per se. Free Grace theologians consider their position more biblical than Lordship Salvation, which they consider to be a works-based theology. According to Free Grace theologians, Lordship Salvation holds that saving faith includes inherently the “act” of accomplishing radical internal change leading to good works.
This leads to the Free Grace emphasis on assurance of salvation, again based on the basic promises in John’s Gospel, that belief is all that is necessary for salvation. To the Free Grace theologian, this is a simple, cut-and-dried issue—if you believe, you are saved. For the Lordship Salvation camp, assurance of salvation comes through the observation of change in the professing believer, i.e., that he is accomplishing good works. Each camp views the other as possibly leading to heresy.
Although Free Grace Theology and Lordship Salvation are terms that have developed only recently, they represent concerns that have been around since the beginning of the church. At the end of the day, there is no question about the basic salvation of those who hold either view—which is ironic, since their disagreement is about salvation! Both views are within the limits of orthodoxy. Still, this does not mean it’s an insignificant discussion. One’s beliefs in this matter can change his view of himself, God, and salvation a great deal (Houdmann 2013).
I met a fellow advocating this Free Grace view on a Christian Forum on the Internet. He wrote:
No, pisteuo [I believe] doesn’t encompass the idea of obedience. It has to to with believing, trusting. If you want to go the route of “committing”, fine. But it doens’t (sic) mean to commit your life to Christ, as LS [Lordship Salvation] teaches. It means to commit your soul to Christ for salvation, which is just another way to say “believe/trust” in Him.
In effect, we are trusting our souls to Him to save us.
Any reference to obedience follows salvation is commanded of all of God’s children. But one must become a child of God FIRST before any commands to obey are in play.
There is no works, deeds, etc that any unbeliever can do to be saved. Only by faith is one saved. Following that, one must obey to be blessed and rewarded.
Middletown Bible Church, Middletown CT, has provided a summary of the views of free grace theology in the article, ‘The Teachings of Zane Hodges, Joseph Dillow, Robert Wilkin (The Grace Evangelical Society) and the extreme teachings of J. D. Faust’. This teaching includes these views:
Zane Hodges (Courtesy Grace Evangelical Society)
- What is the relationship between saving faith and good works? Hodges insists that good works are not the necessary outcome of saving faith.
- Can a true believer totally abandon Christ and the faith even to the point where he no longer believes in Christ and denies the facts of the gospel? Hodges insists that this is possible and even cites an example of this which will be discussed later in this paper.
- Can a person who habitually lives in sin [even as a homosexual or as an adulterer or as a drunkard or as a murderer] claim full assurance of salvation? Hodges insists that this is possible because, according to his view, assurance of salvation is based upon the promises of God and has nothing to do with how a person lives. Hodges seems to teach that it is wrong to ever call into question the salvation of any person who professes faith in Christ, no matter how wickedly he may live. He may live like a child of the devil, but as long as he claims to be a child of God, we should believe him.
- If a person truly has eternal life, will this life be evidenced in any way? Hodges insists that it is possible that there will be no evidence at all. In other words, a person can KNOW he is saved but he need not SHOW that he is saved. Hodges teaches that the grace of God is able to save a person but it may or may not transform a person.
- Will all believers inherit the kingdom of God or only some? Hodges insists that all believers will enter the kingdom but the wicked believers (those believers who are drunkards, homosexuals, thieves, fornicators, covetous, etc.) will not inherit the kingdom.
- What did James mean when he said, “Faith without works is dead”? Hodges insists that James was teaching that a saved person can have a dead faith and have a life devoid of good works.
- What did John mean in his first epistle when he said, “We know that we have passed from death unto life because…” “By this we do know that we know Him…” etc.? Hodges insists that such verses are not to be taken as “tests of life” but should be understood as “tests of fellowship.” See also Dillow, p. 407. Both men teach that a true believer can habitually hate the brethren, disobey Christ’s commands, practice unrighteousness and continue in sin.
B. Believe in Jesus: That’s all you need to get there!
If we use John 3:16 as an example. It uses the present tense participle of pisteuw BUT it is followed by the Greek preposition, eis (into). According to Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon pisteuw means
‘believe (in), trust of relig. belief in a special sense, as faith in the Divinity that lays special emphasis on trust in his power and his nearness to help, in addition to being convinced that he exists and that his revelations or disclosures are true. In our lit. God and Christ are objects of this faith’ (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:666-667, emphasis in original).
So trust in Christ is the meaning of pisteuw, but the present tense is critical for understanding because the meaning of the Greek present tense in verbals is continuing action of belief/trust. It is not a once-off (which would have been aorist tense) belief/trust, but it is continuing belief. That’s why I find that perseverance of the saints is a more accurate description of this teaching than OSAS.
How would he respond to this kind of information?
Except what Jesus and Paul said, using the aorist tense for “believe”.
Luke 8:12 “lest you believe and be saved”
Acts 16:31 “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”.
C. Present and perfect do the aorist gymnastics
hoi pros kairon pisteuousin (Lk 8:13)
pepisteukws (Acts 16:34)
My reply was:
Luke 8:12 is hina me pistuesantes swthwsin (that they may not believe [and] be saved] You are correct that Pisteusantes is an aorist tense. It is also a passive, subjunctive participle. Aorist refers to punctiliar action, and this refers to the initial act of faith.
But we must go on to the next verse, Luke 8:13, which uses hoi pros kairon pisteuousin [who for a time continue to believe] – pisteuousin is present tense, middle voice, indicative mood, i.e. continue to believe for themselves.
So the interpretation of Luke 8:12 cannot be made in isolation from the very next verse, Lk 8:13. Yes, there is an initial act of believing in 8:12, but they continue to believe (8:13) for a short time and then fall away.
Therefore, I cannot accept Luke 8:12 as an example of no need to continue to believe.
Acts 16:31 states, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’. It is true that ‘believe’ is pisteuson, a 2nd person singular, aorist, active imperative. It refers to the point action of something that happened.
But Acts 16:31 cannot be separated from Acts 16:34, ‘he had believed in God’. Here believed is pepisteukws (from pisteuw-). It is a perfect tense, active, participle. What’s the meaning of the perfect tense in Greek? ‘The perfect represents a present state resulting from a past action‘ (Wenham 1965:139, emphasis in original). So the application of Acts 16:34 to Acts 16:31 is that the believing in the past (16:31) continues the believing in the present (16:34).
Therefore, I do not see that Luke 8:12 and Acts 16:31 reach the exegesis that you are pressing because of the context that refutes such an aorist idea. For a person to be saved, he/she must have an initial act to believe, but he/she must continue to believe/trust in Christ (present or perfect tenses). The results from a past action are continuing in the present. That’s what these two verses teach in context.
- The aorist tense indicates the beginning of the believing action (Lk 8:12), but in Lk 8:13, the present tense of ‘believe’ indicates the need to continue believing.
- The aorist tense indicates the beginning of the command to believe (Acts 16:31), but Acts 16:34 has the perfect tense of ‘believe’ to demonstrate the need for continuing results.
D. Free grace opponents: Lordship salvation
Those who oppose the Free Grace view promote Lordship salvation. Phillip Simpson defines this view, which he supports:
Lordship salvation proponents teach that, when one receives Christ, he receives Him as both Savior and Lord. “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13). In other words, implicit in the salvation process is an understanding, however rudimentary, that Christ is Lord and has the right to call the shots (Simpson 2006).
The author who drew the line in the sand was John MacArthur Jr, in challenging the free grace doctrine, with his 1988 book, The gospel according to Jesus (it is now in its revised edn 2008). The publisher’s description of the latest edition is:
The first edition of The Gospel According to Jesus won wide acclaim in confronting the ‘easy-believism’ that has characterized some aspects of evangelical Christianity. Over the past 50 years, a handful of books have become true classics, revered world-wide for their crystal-clear presentation of the Gospel and lauded for their contribution to the Christian faith. These extraordinary books are read, re-read, and discussed in churches, Bible study groups, and homes everywhere. John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus is one of those books. In The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur tackles the idea of ‘easy believism,’ challenging Christians to re-evaluate their commitment to Christ by examining their fruits. MacArthur asks, ‘What does it really mean to be saved?’ He urges readers to understand that their conversion was more than a mere point in time, that, by definition, it includes a lifetime of obediently walking with Jesus as Lord. This 20th anniversary edition of MacArthur’s provocative, Scripture-based book contains one new chapter and is further revised to provide Christians in the 21st century a fresh perspective on the intrinsic relationship between faith and works, clearly revealing Why Jesus is both Savior and Lord to all who believe (Zondervan.com 2009).
What are the consequences of ‘easy believism’ or free grace theology?
- A person can believe very little about Jesus, ask Him into his/her life and he/she has entrance into the kingdom of God.
- Then a person can go ahead and do whatever he/she wants and still be saved. That’s why the title of the thread on Christian Forums has particular application: ‘Free Grace Theology – The theology that allows devil worshippers into heaven’.
- It means that many who made a ‘decision’ for Jesus as a child, teens or later and then turned away from Jesus, now gives them entrance into the kingdom of God. It’s a travesty of the true Gospel. See my summary, ‘The content of the Gospel … and some discipleship’. I can think of two people right now who made ‘decisions’ to follow Christ in their teens and are no longer serving God. Yet, under free grace theology, they are OK to enter God’s kingdom.
- What does this do to the Gospel presentation when people make an easy decision for Jesus, it has no roots of continuing faith, and they depart from the faith?
There can be no initial salvation and then eternal bliss. There must be continuing salvation with present results for God to grant entry into the eternal kingdom of God. That’s what the Greek tenses teach.
The true believers are those who continue to believe in Jesus right up to their dying day. Perseverance of the saints is the biblical doctrine rather than the ‘once saved always saved’ potential façade.
In Aussie land, we say that you need to be fair dinkum for Jesus forever. I’m a dinkum Aussie Christian. No other kinds will enter God’s kingdom through Christ’s shed blood.
Fair dinkum = the truth
Koala (courtesy www.imagesaustralia.com)
Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House).
Houdmann, S M 2013, What is free grace? What is Free Grace Theology? (online). GotQuestions?org. Available at: http://www.gotquestions.org/free-grace.html (Accessed 21 December 2013).
MacArthur Jr., J 2008. The gospel according to Jesus: What is authentic faith? (rev edn). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
Simpson, P L 2006. A Biblical Response to the Teachings of Zane Hodges, Joseph Dillow, and the Grace Evangelical Society (Called the “Free Grace” Movement) [online]. Available at: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/freegrace.html (Accessed 21 December 2013).
Wenham, J W 1965. The elements of New Testament Greek. London / New York: Cambridge University Press.
 FreeGrace2#32, 21 December 2013, Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology, ‘Free Grace Theology – The theology that allows devil worshippers into heaven’ (online). Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7793916-4/ (Accessed 21 December 2013).
 This is ‘a translation and adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörtbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur’ (4th rev & augmented edn 1952) (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:iii).
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 November 2015.