A remarkable movement toward pure grace is emerging from both the Arminian (freewill) and the Calvinistic (predestination) realms of the Body of Christ. Whether your bottom line for salvation is man’s freewill or God’s sovereign choice the conclusion is the same: anything that adds to the message that Jesus Christ has done it all is being vehemently challenged. Any message that claims “Jesus+something=your salvation” is immediately suspect of being a different gospel. There is growing a collective mood of zero tolerance for law-based teaching. The radical grace teachers are attacking it head-on. They are teaching us to say no! to the mixture of law and grace. For this we wholeheartedly rejoice!
But there is one fundamental requirement if you want to teach or receive “radical grace:” By definition it can only be true, pure and radical if it’s freely offered to and effectual for all. In other words, it must be true before it is believed it in order for it to be “news” and it must not be a fear-based message in order for it to be “good“ news.
Radical grace teaching demands a universal application of the Gospel!
I will begin by highlighting the grace teacher Paul Ellis of Escape to Reality blog and author of The Gospel in Ten Words. His is the book I have enjoyed most recently and which gave me the most clarity on how this grace message is being presented in the popular sphere. Even though I disagree with his conclusion that “not all are saved” and that “universalism steals motivation” I was tremendously encouraged and strengthened by his beautiful treatise on the Father’s never-ending love and grace. It is an insightful and refreshing movement toward true grace. We would simply like to see him take it all the way. Indeed the cry for a pure unadulterated Gospel has no option but for it to be taken all the way. And here are a few reasons why…
These “radical grace” teachers lead us toward the paradigm of universal restoration in the way in which they offer us sweeping statements of grace without the necessary qualifications. The following is their conundrum: to give the qualifications would transform what they just said into the opposite of what they just said. The “grace-based” message remains a fear-based message unless it is applied to all. For example, following are a few statements that I as a Christian Universalist can take at face value. But I worry about those who must consider all the necessary qualifications (if they are honest). For if they or their loved ones do not believe just right or if they are not lucky enough to be among the “elect of God” there still exists some form of eternal destruction or torment still threatening just under the surface of these statements :
“The Gospel is the glad and merry news that God is good, he loves you, and he will happily give up everything he has so he can have you…God is not mad at you. He is not even in a bad mood…God is happy, he is for you and he wants to share his life with you forever…he would rather die than live without us…not even death can separate us from the love that is ours in Jesus Christ…grace must be free or it’s not grace.” (Ellis, pg 6)
But we know that the above statements cannot be made as long as there is a possibility for eternal damnation. There is always the fear of lack of sincerity or strength of one’s faith.
“Forgiveness is not something God does; it’s something He’s already done” (Ellis, pg 31)
But the truth is that most believe that forgiveness can be revoked if you do not believe adequately or continue to believe. (Or some propose that all are “forgiven” even while existing in an eternal hell. Not much comfort!)
“He’s reconciling everything everywhere. The scope of Christ’s finished work is both individual and cosmic: it ranges from personal pardon for sin and individual forgiveness to the final resurrection of our bodies and the restoration of the whole world. Now that’s good news–gospel–isn’t it? As the beloved Christmas hymn ‘Joy To the World’ puts it, ‘He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.'” (Tchividjian, Jesus+Nothing=Everything, pg 83)
But if you are not assured of being one of the elect (Tchividjian is a Calvinist) then none of this applies to you. And it is not really the “world” that is restored but an extremely small percentage of persons. The reality is that billions of God’s own image-bearers will be lost and “remain in a cycle of sin and punishment forever” (D.A. Carson). This is not good news unless you redefine “good” and “news.”
“God does not leave you wondering whether you are saved or not. He tells you outright that you are His and that nothing can ever separate you from the love of Christ. Not even sin because His blood is greater than your sin!” (Joseph Prince, Destined to Reign, p.95)
But when and how can you ever fully rest in this subjective statement? How can this statement be made if all are not promised to be loved and kept by God? What if you have never heard that “voice” confirming you are His? Perhaps you have instead even heard, “maybe you are not really saved“? What do we make of that?
“Because a God who is ultimately most focused on His own glory will be about the business of restoring us, who are all broken images of Him. His glory demands it.” (Matt Chandler, The Explicit Gospel, pg 32)
But this is “scandalous” for Chandler to actually mean what he says! He would have to qualify this to mean rather that God’s sovereign plan is only to restore a few of His image-bearers. The rest He has predetermined will spend eternity in endless separation from Himself falling short of His glorious intention as His image-bearers …forever. (Chandler is a 5-point Calvinist.)
The doctrine of eternal hell leads to self-salvation
At face value the above quotes are absolutely breath-taking affirmations! But teachers like Ellis, Prince, Tchividjian and Chandler believe that those who do not believe in Christ in this life will suffer eternal separation from God in hell. Whether you subscribe to eternal conscious torment or eternal destruction (annihilation) the fear factor remains: You (or if you are a Calvinist, God ) might fail to decide your life is going to be “in Christ” and assurance is immediately hi-jacked. Since I have spent a substantial amount of time in both camps I will be able to show you what both versions look like.
The Arminian view
The Arminian/free-will teachers say that YOU are the only obstacle that would ever keep you from God’s love and salvation (Ellis, pg 9). I appreciate that sentiment on some level for it is better than believing it might be God Himself not “choosing” you for salvation. But it puts assurance in the realm of unstable subjectivity: have I done enough to prove I have saving faith? What if I don’t feel like a Christian? What if I don’t act like a Christian enough? What if I don’t have a strong desire to pray–is it because I am not saved or is my lack of desire from a faulty view of the Gospel…the “mixture”? How many poor do I have to feed to know that I am a sheep? Am I a sheep or a goat…or both? What if I do more goat things than sheep things? What if I don’t get this “sheep/goat” thing ironed out before I die?
This view puts the enormous weight and responsibility of salvation upon the human frame where it was never meant to be.
The name Jesus means “God Saves”…
but free-will says “I save me…from God.”
The Calvinist view
The Calvinist teachers on the other hand believe God is ultimately responsible for salvation. This upholds His sovereignty while taking the weight off the person and making it entirely of grace including the gift of faith to believe (God sovereignly draws His elect to Himself). God is given all the glory for doing the saving. This would be great news if it applied to ALL people but it doesn’t. It only applies to a few called “the elect” or “a remnant.” This is just as subjective as the Arminian paradigm. One never quite knows if he/she is among the elect. One can feel like a Christian, do all the works to prove to themselves they really are the elect but in the end it creates the same angst and lack of assurance.
This view also puts unimaginable uncertainty upon the believer because the certainty of oneself or one’s loved ones being “elected” is never attainable.
The name Jesus means “God Saves”…
but Calvinism says “God doesn’t save most… only a few.” (…and I can only hope I am one of them.)*
“The true Gospel is rarely ever taught!” say grace teachers
A serious conundrum for the grace teachers is produced by their continual claim that the gospel is rarely being taught accurately in the Church today. Their mission is to rescue the pure grace message from its contamination by the law. I agree with their analysis but they have not faced the implications. Paul Ellis says “the true gospel is almost never preached.” The reason he wrote his book on the gospel was because “most people haven’t heard the gospel…visit any church or switch on the Christian TV and you will hear anything and everything but the undiluted gospel of the kingdom.” (pg 2,3) What does this imply?
We are told by the grace teachers that God is love and God is good and that He offers free salvation with no strings attached. But, tragically, apparently God has left this message of how we can be saved in the hands of humans who have mucked up the message so badly that it is hardly ever heard accurately in His Church! They hold firm that it is through faith in the gospel of grace that we are saved yet they claim most have never even heard it! Ellis claims that 95% of Christians are unacquainted with the Gospel of grace. NINETY-FIVE PERCENT! (pg 98) Never mind how those who are now Christians became Christians in the first place if 95% have not heard it accurately(!)
According to the grace teachers we are ultimately saved by a Gospel message that is according to them rarely preached and hardly ever understood rightly. Instead it has been a perverted message of grace+law–a polluted message which we are told if you DO believe in, will damn you forever! Somehow God has allowed His Gospel revelation that determines “eternal life or death” to become contaminated with the poison of self-effort but still puts the guilt upon the one who doesn’t get it right. Ellis says, “The Gospel is true whether you believe it or not, but it won’t do you any good unless you believe it…The sole condition for receiving God’s gift of grace is you have to want it.” But if 95% of what the world is offered is a “poisonous mixture” of law and grace then how can they want and have faith in something they have never heard of or been offered? So either God will judge the world for rejecting a “gospel” they never heard or He is having to save most folks with a half-true, different, gospel.
This is where I am grateful for a powerful bit from my Calvinist past: That it is God’s faith that saves, not ours. Let me explain.
Thankfully it is not our thoughts about God that define Him!
Were we ultimately responsible for finding the “one faith” required for our salvation we would be lost indeed! With 30,000+ denominations the “one faith” Paul talks about in Ephesians 5 seems to be a mockery. How do we walk through this confusion and what hope is there? It is no wonder the world often gives up before even trying to reconcile the Evangelical Christian composite of a God who is shattered into over 30,000 pieces!
I have discovered that “it is not our thoughts about God that define Him but rather His thoughts about us that define us” (Francois du Toit). There is one truth He has proclaimed over us and while the Calvinist and Arminian grace teachers would disagree on their thoughts about God, regarding His thoughts about us they are united: We are the objects of God’s love created in His image for His glory. His death and resurrection were for the redemption of His image in us. The glory of God truly is man fully alive!
Thankfully our “One Lord” does not come demanding faith but supplies the “one faith” which is ultimately His faith. We are told that He is “the Author and Finisher of our faith.” Praise God there really IS only one Lord over ONE faith–and it is the faith of Jesus! He wants to share with us the power of His faith and perfect confidence in His intention “to reconcile all creation to Himself” and “make all things new” restoring His image in us. (Col 1; Rev 21:5) But tragically people are thrown back upon their own faith to believe without the confidence in a God who said He already “reconciled the WORLD to Himself” (2 Cor 5).
The finished work of the cross means only one thing!
Unbeknownst to those who teach it the radical grace message is an astounding voice in support of a universal understanding of redemption. They are not yet aware of its implications but the tension their assertions create have only one solution: If we are going to proclaim the finished work of the cross we cannot back-track into any conditions or we have undermined the very message of grace we are claiming to defend. This amazing movement toward a pure Gospel of grace is one more indication that the Lord Himself is revealing from within His Church the victorious Story of God!
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and ALL are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23-24
Note: Some examples of popular Arminian grace teachers are:
Max Lucado (Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine), Brennan Manning (Ragamuffin Gospel and All Is Grace), Scot McKnight (Embracing Grace: A Gospel for All of Us), Joseph Prince (Unmerited Favor), Steve McVey (Grace Walk), Paul Ellis (The Gospel In 10 Words, The Gospel In 20 Questions), and Andrew Farley (The Naked Gospel).
Various examples of popular Calvinist grace teachers would be:
Dr. Timothy Keller (The Prodigal God), Matt Chandler (The Explicit Gospel), Jerry Bridges (The Transforming Power of the Gospel), Tullian Tchividjian (Jesus+Nothing=Everything; One Way Love), Scotty Smith (The Reign of Grace), Robert Farrar Capon (“…the Outrage of Grace”) and Steve Brown (Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel).
*A thank you to Peter Hiett for the summary of Arminianism vs Calvinism
Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries interviews Kevin Miller, producer of Documovie “Hellbound?”
A video presentation by grace teacher Steve McVey towards a more Biblical view of hell: