It is a generally held Christian position that one cannot earn salvation. It is also generally held that salvation and eternal life are gifts from God (Romans 6:23), made possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (John 3:16).
However, Christians do differ on exactly how the details work out. Here, we will focus on one position, that of Free Grace theology.
What Does Free Grace Theology Teach?
Free Grace, as a view of soteriology, was systematized in the 1980s by theologians such as Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges, though the ideas are much older. Today, it is favored by proponents such as Tony Evans, Erwin Lutzer, Bruce Wilkinson, and the Grace Evangelical Society.
Bob Wilken, Executive Director of the Grace Evangelical Society, summarizes Free Grace theology this way:
Free Grace theology is the view that 1) everlasting life is a free gift (which the Lord Jesus fully paid for by His death on the cross for our sins) which is received by faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works of any kind; 2) that assurance of one’s eternal destiny is based solely on believing Jesus’ promise to the believer and not at all on our works or on our feelings; and 3) that all people, believers and unbelievers, are accountable for their works, receive recompense for what they do in this life, and will be judged at the end of the age (in two separate judgments) to determine degrees of reward (believers) or degrees of torment (unbelievers) in the life to come, but not to determine their eternal destinies.
In a nutshell, Free Grace theology teaches that salvation comes from belief alone. Thus, one may be saved regardless of works. Free Grace draws from passages such as John 3:16, John 5:24, and John 6:47.
What Are Some Problems with Free Grace?
Though there is of course a range of opinion even within theological circles, there are some issues that have been pointed out about the tenets of Free Grace.
Wayne Grudem (bestselling author of Systematic Theology) penned the book “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel in reaction to Free Grace teachings. In this work, Grudem outlines some concerns that are shared among many Reformed theologians. It is notable that Grudem does not, like some, go so far as to call Free Grace antinomianism, but instead treats it as a disagreement within the bounds of orthodox Christianity.
Grudem’s five points, which reflect many Reformed views, are roughly the following:
1. The assertion of salvation in Free Grace by “faith alone” neglects to take into account the greater Reformation teaching that might be summarized as “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone” (Grudem 23). In other words, faith is accompanied by things like change and works.
2. The emphasis simply on belief neglects the importance of repentance.
3. The focus on belief alone may give a false assurance of salvation if, according to Free Grace, repentance, works, and continuing belief aren’t necessary for salvation and thus a lack thereof can’t be an indicator of a faith that is dead.
4. The focus on intellectual assent underemphasizes the importance of trusting in Christ as Lord.
5. This point is broader, but Grudem largely explores biblical interpretation and argues that Free Grace interpretations tend to be more unlikely than their alternatives.
Overall, some find that Free Grace theology poses problems because it focuses too much on intellectual belief and not enough on repentance and changed lives.
What Are Some Other Teachings of Free Grace?
Free Grace theology’s greatest attribute is its emphasis on the role of saving faith, not based on anything we do, echoing Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9.
Free Grace also helps us understand the salvation of people such as the thief on the cross who asked Jesus to remember him (Luke 23:39-43). The thief died without a chance to live out a life of faith, yet Jesus assured him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Proponents of Free Grace might respond to Grudem’s first point above by stating that faith does tend to be followed by works, but it is not judged as true based on those works.
To the second, third, and fourth, one might respond with Wilken of Grace Evangelical Society’s words in this article, “Turning from sins, commitment, obedience, and perseverance are not faith and thus aren’t conditions of eternal life. Those are all types of works. Works have their proper place in the Christian life, but only after you have believed in Jesus.”
Partially because of this, Free Grace proponents emphasize the complete assurance a believer may have in their salvation. If they have believed, that is enough. They need not worry whether works, feelings, or lifestyles bear enough witness to their changed lives.
What View Is Correct?
Much of the debate here centers around the question of faith that necessitates works. Both sides agree that faith in Christ leads to works. Both also agree that we are saved by the grace of God, not by works.
However, one side emphasizes the need for those works to be apparent to show that the faith exists, while another treats it more as an afterthought. One emphasizes a need for repentance, while the other emphasizes intellectual assent.
The purpose here is not to support one view over another. There will always be multiple views on some topics simply due to the fact that God is complex and operates at a higher level than we do (Isaiah 55:8-9), and thus, we are not always capable of fully comprehending Him or His ways.
No matter how it works out exactly, we do know that our salvation comes through Christ alone, “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.