Update to this post, 04/07/2013
I notice I continue to get a lot of traffic on this post. I am not sure who exactly is coming to read this but I want to qualify some things for you, my revered and esteemed visitor. As a common courtesy I want to let you know that if you are looking for criticism of the “hyper-grace” or “free grace” movement as taught by people like Tullian Tchividjian, Steve Brown, Paul Zahl, etc., you won’t find that here. I am in pretty much 100% solid theological agreement with the folks at the Free Grace Alliance, liberatenet.org, and Mockingbird. Please go check out their sites. This is a personal testimony to my experience that even in churches that subscribed to the Zane Hodges line of theology, whose thinking was promising but with which I do not agree, I encountered many legalistic tendencies where the idea of sanctification was functionally stripped of the application of a present tense grace. This represents no criticism whatsoever of the “free grace movement” at large. I love this “moevment”, which is actually just a return to simple protestant reformation theology.
I am stepping out here, because I realize I am no one and I am putting myself in the position of moderating an ancient debate between two large schools of thought powered by eminent well-trained scholars and theologians. I don’t even have close to enough time or academic huevos to do any of this justice. However, I am just crazy enough and perhaps ignorant enough to step out onto the waves away from the boat and try. I hope this comes through with the irenic tone that I intend. Looking back over it I’m sure that I will soon be embarrassed, but this wound up being quite a bit more of an emotional issue than I thought.
I started off in the faith in churches led by Dallas Theological Seminary grads who tended to put an extremely sharp division between justification and sanctification. By this they meant, your sins in the past are forgiven, and at the ultimate seat of judgement you will be accepted, but as for now, you must strive to be sanctified. The word ‘sanctification’ was thrown around quite a bit, along with the word ‘dispensationalism’. It was telling that these teachers were cessationist; some said that just that tongues and healing had ceased, but some said that all the gifts had ceased. There was no longer any teaching gift, only a natural bent for teaching that any non-believer might share. The Christian life had been stripped of all manifestation of the supernatural. Sanctification in this environment was a demand that we were to fulfill in our own flesh, and the doctrine of justification as separate from sanctification seemed to be no more than a clever ploy to be technically biblically correct while having the door open to press people into a graceless Christian experience in the here and now. I admit, I finally had enough, and launched out into the larger scary world of weird charismatic churches because I hated this dryness and death. Mind you, I have grown just as skeptical about charismatic manifestations as the next man, but I still believe that true manifestations happen, and have happened to me. This is not the salient point, however.
There tended to be just as harsh a stand against a person’s struggles and failures in these DTS Bible Churches as if they had been full-blown Lordship salvation zealots. The doctrine seemed hopeful, but the experience was dry and harsh and graceless. In other words, for them, grace was all doctrine; it was more about having correct doctrine than living in the light of God’s favor, in experiential grace. Being a new creature in Christ was more a point of doctrine that you better not get wrong than a present living reality. Please don’t draw from this that I think correct doctrine is unimportant, I do think it is very important.
The grace of God, the tremendous love and mercy and kindness which God extends to sinners, is meant to really touch us, to change us, to energize us. There is a real supernatural change, a new man is born. Justification is more than a bullet point of doctrine which we need to check a person by to make sure they are a legit Christian. It is the door to becoming a new creature, an event which is experiential and very present. This is something which is extremely evident in Paul’s writings, such as this:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” Romans 6:1-7, NASB.
This is grace applied to the present tense. It affects us in a real way. It produces fruit. The fruit is not obligatory, otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Grace enables fruit, it incentivizes it, it empowers it, it opens the door to the possibility of genuine heartfelt virtue. As I’ve written elsewhere, it heals the rift in us from the fall between the aesthetic good and the moral good; it addresses our internal desire for the forbidden. It is not something we at first understand – as Paul says, ‘do you not know?’ This death to sin, this new man that arises, is true of us by grace even though we do not know what happened to us or how to operate under it. This is not a message meant only for scribes and scholars, it is a message for weeping prostitutes who wipe their savior’s feet with their hair, having wet them with their repentant and beautiful tears. Weeping prostitutes generally are not up on the finer technical points about justification and sanctification. They know they are sinners, forgiven and beloved.
I left the DTS Bible Church movement for these reasons years ago. I have come around through people like Henri Nouwen and Brennan Manning to a powerful belief in the love that God has for us. I’m sure I could find dozens of papers outlining how such men are deviants and heretics. The whole debate wearies me. Seriously, it absolutely wearies me. Not only is it preaching to the choir, it is preaching to a choir which seems to be in the middle of a petty war. I see people who dispassionately argue about these issues as if grace and justification and righteous works and everlasting hell are bullet points of doctrine in technical papers. Well, they are not. On reflection I realize that I hate reading these papers, wading through them, enduring the lifelessness of some of them. I see how the separation of repentance and sanctification out to a place of pure fleshly human responsibility leads to the flavor of churches I left years back.
So, I see that the Lordship Salvation calvinist guys believe in forgiveness for the past. I see that free grace advocates believe in forgiveness for the past and at the future judgement. I think that what needs advocacy is forgiveness and grace and mercy, power to change and help, for the past, the future, AND THE PRESENT. There is THEREFORE NOW no condemnation (Rom 8)! God manifests His grace in us now, His power is present to effect identity level change in us NOW. We have new life, supernatural virtue, NOW. If you think about it, NOW is the only time that matters, because when our ultimate judgement comes, it will be happening in the present. Our past conversion was once the present. Now is actually the only time we have. If we do not live under the truth of grace as it applies to our present experience, then when will it kick in? In some ways this idea of grace before and later, and non-supernatural sanctification and repentance now, is just as graceless experientially as any Lordship salvation. I don’t think Zane Hodges meant it that way, but that is how it plays out. I think he meant a great kindness when he separated saving faith out from experiential moral repentance. It is certainly interesting doctrine in theory, but in practice it ends up being dry and mean and loveless, because I’ve been in those churches.
I believe in the supernatural. I believe in grace NOW. I believe it is strongly Biblical. I believe that when I sin, God still loves me. I believe that as I enter into a deeper and better relationship with Him, as I worship Him in a more direct way, as He leads me (and I actually believe in the real possibility of that), my desire comes into line with my new self, and I live in a more holy way. I don’t want to sin any more, but obviously if that were completely true then I really wouldn’t sin any more, would I? I believe it is God’s kindness to me that my taste for sin is fading, that sin tastes bitter and the word of God tastes like sweet mother’s milk. The key is the knowledge that at any given time, I am beloved, I am His pearl. In this debate about free grace and Lordship salvation, the exchange is all about what exactly constitutes justification in a technical sense. I think that doctrine is important, but correct doctrine does not encompass the full truth (John 5:39,40). Truth involves mind and emotion, theory and experience, words and reality.
This is why I think it is so important to believe that I am loved by Christ. When I apprehend His love for me, love springs in me from His love for me and not from my obligation to love Him. I see this as the groundswell of grace. I view this, and I have to honestly say that I experience this, as the transformative point. If I live under the rubric that I am His beloved pearl, I experience an outward love, a desire to bless others. I have received a great compassion, I can’t help but have a powerful desire to pass it along. I have left the universe of judgement, not just for the future, but in the present tense. If I repent, it is because I have been empowered by His love for me. If I start living a ‘sanctified’ life, it is because the Holy Spirit is real, and has empowered me to do so. In the end, I believe like a free grace person, and live like a Lordship person hopes I would live. I’m not saying this as some kind of postmodern emergent church deconstructionist nonsense babble; I’m saying I think both positions have real flaws. So, what difference would a resolution to this debate make? We are quibbling over a theoretical person coming to faith with no fruits or evidence, perhaps on their deathbed. Do these people who have true faith and absolutely no works or fruits really exist? I’ve been around a long time, and even with serious meth addicts and serious sexual addicts in recovery groups and such, they may struggle, they may fail in a spectacular way, but they come back with remorse, and have real fruits. Grace works with sinners, and I thank God for it! We are trying to divine from some pretty confusing passages how this works exactly. We’re probably all wrong and He loves us despite this, in the past, the present, and the future.
Grace means He loves us. Grace means He transforms us. Grace is real and substantive. Grace forgives completely, and grace forgives experientially on a moment by moment basis. Grace allows failure, serious failure, and still seeks to bless. I hope that somehow this helps the whole debate, I know that some of it comes across harshly. I have some experience, some burn scars from the past, around this issue, and I think it probably shows. You can never go wrong with grace.