Free grace is a Christian soteriological view teaching that anyone can receive eternal life the moment they believe that Jesus is the Christ, the One who guarantees eternal salvation to the believer. Good works are not the condition to merit, maintain, or to prove eternal life, but are part of discipleship and the basis for receiving eternal rewards. This view distinguishes between salvation and discipleship,i.e., the call to believe in Christ as Savior and to receive the gift of eternal life and the call to follow Christ and become obedient disciples.
Free Grace theology had ignited at least four major disputes: the "Free Spirit controversy" (13th century), the "Majoristic controversy" (16th century), the "Antinomian Controversy" (17th century), the "Lordship controversy" (20th century), the Crossless Gospel Controversy" (21st century) and the "Pluralism Controversy" (21st century).
The earliest proponents of justification by faith without works were identified by Augustine of Hippo in his work Enchiridion in 422 AD. According to Augustine, these persons were in good standing with the church but they practiced baptism immediately if someone believed in Christ, without first entering prolonged education in the Christian faith and morals as a catechumen. God's future judgment consisted only of payment (reward) or punishment (temporary) for how those Christians lived their lives before God. Appealing to 1 Cor. 3.11-14, they taught heaven or hell was not in question because faith alone guaranteed eternity with God. Augustine attempted a refutation of this grace theology after his theological pivot (ench.18.67-69; f. et op.1-2). These Christians also understood inheriting the kingdom as different from entering the kingdom, as Augustine's reply evidences. They did not view repentance and giving of alms (works) as required for justification or as inevitable proof of it, since justification was by faith alone.
Reformation advocates of the Free Grace position include Johannes Agricola, Nicolaus von Amsdorf, and Andreas Osiander. Martin Luther's fellow professor, Nicolaus von Amsdorf (ca.1530), went to the extreme by claiming that good works were even hurtful to the Christian life since they could foster a doctrine of justification by works and not by faith alone.John Cotton trained at Cambridge before fleeing to America (1633) during the persecution of Puritans. He was the most educated and articulate minister in New England according to his opponents, teaching that God's grace was free without preparation by the sinner.Henry Vane and William Dell shared these views which led to the Antinomian Controversy. A parishioner of John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, was expelled from Massachusetts after a trial in which she claimed to be hearing directly from God. See also Robert Sandeman, and Jesse Mercer.
Free grace theology reemerged under this name in the late 20th century as a critical response to a perceived legalist abuse of the New Testament by Lordship salvation, Catholicism, and Arminianism. Its more modern prominent proponents, academicians, and theologians include:
Many modern proponents of Free Grace theology studied and taught at the Dallas Theological Seminary, including Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Zane C. Hodges, and Dave Anderson, though the seminary itself does not hold to Free Grace. A number of Free Grace churches are pastored by graduates of DTS. A number of opponents of Free Grace also graduated from DTS including Darrel Bock and Daniel Wallace.
Founded in 1986 by Bob Wilkin, Grace Evangelical Society promotes a variant of Free Grace Theology, primarily through publishing, podcasts, and conferences. Zane C. Hodges was a core theologian of this group until his death in 2008. GES advocates Free Grace, but also asserts that assurance of salvation is intrinsic to believing in Jesus because eternal life is the present possession of whoever believes ("Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life," John 6:47 NKJV). GES holds that eternal life and eternal security are synonymous because eternal life is eternal. Zane Hodges argued that you have not evangelized correctly if you leave out Jesus' promise of eternal salvation. The sole condition of eternal salvation is believing in Jesus' promise of eternal life which implies eternal security. </ref>
Dave Anderson, former student and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, established Grace School of Theology (originally Houston Theological Seminary) in 2001. Grace School of Theology "is committed to Christian scholarly endeavor in the free grace tradition." The school's vision is "To develop spiritual leaders in every nation who can teach others about the love of Christ, a love that cannot be earned and cannot be lost." The school is accredited by TRACS, ATS, and the ECFA with fourteen teaching sites in the United States and internationally. Eight of the thirty-six faculty members trained at Dallas Theological Seminary. Grace School of Theology promotes the Free Grace position through its classes and also through Grace Theology Press, which has published many resources related to Free Grace theology.
The Free Grace Alliance formed in November 2004 with an emphasis on international missions. Although the new organization was officially formed for a "different reason," the FGA split from GES in 2005 when the FGA held that an understanding and belief in Jesus Christ's death on the cross and resurrection is necessary for eternal salvation, whereas GES held that belief in Jesus Christ's guaranty of eternal life is necessary and essential for eternal life./ref>
Core beliefs common to Free Grace theology historically include:
|Faith alone||God declares a person righteous by faith in Christ (imputed righteousness) regardless of works accompanying faith either before or after. John 3:14-17 compares believing in Jesus to the Israelites looking upon the bronze serpent in the wilderness for healing from deadly venom (Numbers 21).|
|Free choice||Justifying faith is not an irresistible gift of God but a human response to God's love. Humanity retains a free will capable of both belief or unbelief when God lovingly woos and invites. Sanctifying faith also involves choice. People choose whether or not to obey, and the resulting consequences (sanctification and reward, defilement and punishment) are due to their choices. The principle that "we reap what we sow" applies to all humanity, because all humans have a God-given gift of making choices.|
|Relationship differs from intimacy||A permanent relationship with God as Father and the believer as a child begins by faith alone. When someone believes, there is a "new birth" and this spiritual birth cannot be undone. However, the familial relationship does not guarantee fellowship; intimacy with God requires obedience.|
|Justification differs from sanctification||Justification before God is a free unconditional gift by faith alone but sanctification requires obedience to God. Sanctification of all Christians is not guaranteed. Only final glorification of all Christians to a sinless state is guaranteed (Romans 8:30; Philippians 2:12).|
|Eternal security||Once a person has believed in Jesus Christ as God and Savior that person spends eternity with God regardless of subsequent behavior. God's eternal acceptance is unconditionally given. Belonging to God's family is a permanent and irrevocable gift (Romans 11:29).|
|Assurance of salvation||Confidence of spending eternity with God is possible for every Christian since God justifies through faith alone and provides eternal security.|
|Rewards and discipline||All Christians will undergo judgment by Christ based upon their works and degree of conformity to Christ's character (or lack thereof). This is called the judgment seat or Bema Seat of Christ, where Christians are rewarded based on obedience to God through faith. This judgment does not concern heaven or hell but rewards (payment for service) or temporary punishment. God's familial acceptance of his children is unconditionally given. However, God's payments of eternal honor, riches, and positions of authority are only given for children who obediently served God. Good parents discipline their children and will not approve behavior that is detrimental. Neither will God approve sinful behavior that leads to destructive consequences (Hebrews 12:5-11).|
Free Grace theology is distinguished by its soteriology or doctrine of salvation. Its advocates believe that God justifies the sinner on the sole condition of faith in Christ, not righteous living. Free Grace theologians disagree on their definition of faith. Some hold that belief is propositional, involving the understanding and assent, and that saving faith is distinguished by what is believed (i.e., Jesus' promise of eternal salvation), not in how it is believed. However, other Free Grace theologians hold to a definition of faith as understanding, assent, and will, including emotional and moral components. For them, saving faith not only depends on what is believed (i.e., being convinced that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God who died and rose again), but also in how you believe it. However, Free Grace writers generally agree that good works do not play a role in meriting, maintaining, or proving eternal life. In other words, Jesus graciously provides eternal salvation as a free gift to those who believe in Him.
Although in popular speech "salvation" is commonly used to refer to justification, Free Grace advocates point out that believers can experience "salvation" in a number of ways, from a number of things either physically or spiritually. As used in the Bible, "salvation" means "deliverance" and is not a technical term meaning "go to heaven." This can be demonstrated by Acts 27:34 where the Greek word soteria (typically translated as "salvation") is translated "health" or "strength" because food will assist their deliverance from physical death. Spiritually, salvation can refer to deliverance from the eternal penalty of sin (justification), the current power of sin over the Christian (sanctification), the removal of any possibility to sin (glorification), and being restored to stewardship over the world as God intended for humankind at creation (restoration to rule).
One of the unique aspects of free grace theology is its position on assurance. All free grace advocates agree that assurance of spending eternity with God is based on the promise of scripture through faith alone in Jesus Christ, and not one's works or subsequent progression in sanctification. This view strongly distinguishes the gift of eternal life (accompanying justification by faith) from discipleship (obedience). Free Grace teaches that a person does not need to promise disciplined behavior or good works in exchange for God's eternal salvation; thus, one cannot lose his or her salvation through sinning and potential failure, and that assurance is based on the Bible, not introspection into one's works. God declares persons righteous through Christ's perfection. Whatever little progress humans make towards perfection is infinitesimal compared to Christ's perfection. Thus, comparing one's progress towards perfection with another person's progress is viewed as unwise (2 Cor 10:12). Assurance is based on Christ's perfection given freely to believers (imputed righteousness) and not based on progressive steps of holiness. Dallas Theological Seminary sums up the general consensus of free grace theology in Article XI of its doctrinal statement, in reference to assurance:
A view proposed by Zane C. Hodges and accepted by the Grace Evangelical Society is that assurance is of the essence of saving faith: "A careful consideration of the offer of salvation as Jesus Himself presented it, will show that assurance is inherent in that offer." This view holds that faith is, by definition, a conviction that what Jesus promises is true. If a person has never been sure that he had eternal life which could never be lost (i.e., sure that he was once-for-all justified, sure that he is going to heaven no matter what), then it is posited that he has not yet believed in Christ in the Biblical sense (cf. John 11:25-26 and Jesus' question, "Do you believe this?").
Harry A. Ironside ("Except Ye Repent", American Tract Society, 1937) and Lewis Sperry Chafer (Systematic Theology, completed 1947), among others, returned to consider the fundamental meaning of the Greek word metanoia (repentance), which simply means "to change one's mind." In biblical passages concerning eternal salvation, the object of repentance was often seen simply as Jesus Christ, making repentance equivalent to faith in Christ. Passages identifying a more specific object of repentance were understood to focus on man's need to change his mind from a system of self-justification by works to trusting in Christ alone for salvation, or a change in mind from polytheism to a belief in Jesus Christ as the true living God. Further exposition came from various free grace authors,.
Zane C. Hodges and Robert Wilkin hold that repentance is defined as turning from one's sins, but repentance is not a requirement for eternal life, only faith in Christ. Robert N. Wilkin undertook a detailed examination in his doctoral dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary (1985), which he simplified for a more popular audience in the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society from Autumn 1988 to Autumn 1990. Hodges takes the position in Absolutely Free! (and in more detail in Harmony With God) that the process of repentance may be a preparatory step in coming to salvation, and should be evident in the life of a believer, but a lost man can be born again apart from repentance by any definition. Hodges also says that he no longer holds to the change of mind view of repentance. In Harmony with God, Hodges says that there is only one answer to the question "What must I do to be saved?" "Repentance is not part of that answer. It never has been and never will be."
Among Free Grace adherents there is general agreement about the nature of saving faith but not its content. The majority of Free Grace theologians hold that belief in Jesus Christ for eternal life must include belief in certain aspects of his person and work, such as one or more of the following: his deity, humanity, substitutionary death for sin and bodily resurrection. The doctrinal statement of Grace School of Theology (cited above) supports this view.
The Free Grace Alliance states in its affirmations that the finished work of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection is essential to believe for eternal life: "Faith is a personal response, apart from our works, whereby we are persuaded that the finished work of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, has delivered us from condemnation and guaranteed our eternal life."
The view of Zane Hodges and the Grace Evangelical Society considers it to be theological legalism to require for eternal life belief in Christ's deity, death for sin, and bodily resurrection since this would exceed the requirement of the minimal saving message to simply "believe in Jesus for everlasting life." This view seeks support mainly from passages in the Gospel of John that speak of Jesus guaranteeing everlasting life to all who believe in him for it (3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 11:25-27). According to this view, the Gospel of John is considered to be the only evangelistic book of the Bible written to bring people to belief in Jesus Christ for eternal life (20:30-31). Proponents of this view hold that an understanding and belief in eternal security is required because what is being promised is "eternal life".
Free Grace contrasts with the teachings of Reformed Theology, which are often characterized by the acrostic "TULIP".
|Total depravity: Humans are not capable of having faith in God because they are totally depraved (total inability).||God gave men the ability to choose, and they are capable of choosing to believe God and believe in Christ (without a divine infusion of faith).|
|Unconditional election: Men are not capable of coming to faith on their own (God must infuse faith). God simply chooses to bring some to Himself independently of a choice on the part of the elected person.||God desires that all persons should come to faith in Him, and election is according to God's foreknowledge of faith (1 Pet 1:1-2).|
|Limited atonement: Since God only elects some and not others, Christ's death on the cross only applies to the elect. Jesus therefore did not die for the entire world.||Jesus died for everyone, but is only effective for those who believe in Christ.|
|Irresistible grace: Man is totally depraved, God must impose His grace upon the elect in such a way that they are compelled to believe.||God's grace can be and is resisted by humans, but is also embraced by humans without divine coercion.|
|Perseverance of the saints: The only way to know if you have received irresistible grace resulting in saving faith is to see whether you continuously grow in obedience and good works. Obedience and good works are inevitable. Since they view faith as God's gift then faith must be perfect and ultimately produce perfect people.||The Christian is eternally secure through God's grace whether or not he/she dies in "state of grace" by persevering in good works. Perseverance in faith is the believer's choice and the means by which believers can achieve maximum joy and fulfillment, both in this life as well as in eternity.|
The fundamental disagreement between Free Grace and Reformed theology is over humanity's ability to choose the good and believe God. Adherents to free grace point to verses such as Acts 17:27 that indicate non-believers can "grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us." Further, Free Grace advocates point out that the Bible is full of admonitions for human readers to make good choices. As an example, they point to Galatians 5:13 "For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." "Liberty" or freedom means the ability to make choices for yourself. This verse admonishes believers to make good choices, and acknowledges they can make a choice to follow the Spirit or the flesh. The balance of the passage speaks of the consequences of giving priority to the flesh (human lusts) or the Holy Spirit. Adherents to Free Grace theology maintain that all believers have the power to overcome sin through the indwelling Holy Spirit, but have a choice whether to use that power. The "TULIP" doctrines were brought into Christianity by Augustine of Hippo starting in 412 CE during his conflict with the Pelagians. Free Grace theologians argue that Augustine erred in departing from his prior traditional Christian doctrines to form Augustinian Calvinism, and this in turn influenced Calvin. Free Grace theology opposes each of these doctrines as countering the teachings of the Bible as well as the teachings of early church fathers prior to Augustine.
Throughout history, free grace theology is associated with at least three disputes: the "Majoristic controversy" (16th century), the "Antinomian Controversy" (17th century), and the "Lordship salvation" controversy (20th century).
Lordship Salvation and the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition are opposing views, as held by John MacArthur, Darrel Bock, and Daniel Wallace. The Reformed tradition holds that people cannot generate saving faith because they are by nature fallen and opposed to God. They believe that God's grace enables a sinner to overcome his fallen will and gives him saving faith in Jesus. A heavy emphasis is placed on proving the validity of one's faith by outward and inward moral conduct. Noted Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem wrote a book for the specific purpose of refuting Free Grace theology and defending the core tenets of Reformed theology. Shortly after its release, Grudem's book was countered in A Defense of Free Grace Theology edited by Fred Chay, his former colleague at Phoenix Seminary. The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism also refutes the Lordship/Calvinist view by pointing out the ancient Manichaean, Neoplatonic, and Stoic errors in Augustinian-Calvinism.