Giving Up is Hard to Do
By Phil Congdon
"Easy Believism." That is one of the more common pejorative labels given to the Grace Gospel these days. The implication is that anything that's as easy as simply believing can't be that valuable. If we don't put a high price on salvation, then people won't appreciate it enough. Rather than simply invite people to believe in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, we are instructed to "advise them to count the cost thoughtfully" (MacArthur, Faith Works, 204). Those who don't "pay the price" are summarily informed that they are not saved (Ibid., 206-208). Is the Grace Gospel too easy? Are those who believe in Jesus Christ without knowing the cost of discipleship actually bound for hell?
The Grace Gospel Is the Message Paul Preached
First, let's affirm that if the Gospel is "easy," it was easy for those on Paul's mission field, too. Paul told the Philippian jailer: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved," (Acts 16:31). To the Romans, he wrote that salvation was a "gift" (Rom 6:23) and was only available to "one who does not work, but believes" (Rom 4:4-5). In Gal 2:16 he is painstakingly clear:
…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but by faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
The Ephesians learned that being saved is a "gift of God" received "through faith" and "not of works" (Eph 2:8-9). To his friend Titus, Paul wrote that God saves "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy" (Titus 3:5). So if—and I do say if—the Gospel is easy, we are no more guilty of preaching this message than the apostle Paul was.
The Grace Gospel Is Not Easy to Believe
But is it really "easy?" Oh, the actual act of believing itself is not an burdensome or laborious task. But that's not the question. The question is this: Is believing alone in Jesus Christ alone for eternal salvation (apart from doing any good works) an easy thing for a person to do? I submit that it's not. In fact, I believe that it's one of the hardest things for a person to do.
We are creatures of our experience. From childhood, we have learned that we are compensated for our actions. Obedience to parents saves us from punishment and issues in rewards. Study in school and you get good grades; waste time and you flunk. Train and work hard, and you'll make a good living; be lazy and undependable, and you'll go broke. Most people chafe at the idea of others doing things for them; it's almost un-American! The pioneering spirit, the "can-do" mentality, have bequeathed to us a concept of self-sufficiency and independence. We receive what we deserve; we get what we've earned. In essence, we are trained to look for something we can do to get what we want. It's part of our human condition to want to take credit-even in part-for whatever we have. Even lottery winners boast of how they pick winners!
Tell a person that he can do nothing to save himself—either before, during, or after coming to Christ; tell him that God requires that he admit no work he has ever done or ever will do can in any way contribute to his eternal salvation; tell him that he must place his complete trust in the Man Christ Jesus, crucified, risen, and coming again—now that is something hard to do (John 20:29)!
How can something be so easy, yet so hard at the same time? Let's consider the illustration of my 5 year-old daughter who's just learning to swim. I take her in the water and tell her to lie on her back. I put my hands under her and hold her up, and she lies there beautifully. Slowly I start to take my hands away and she has to trust the water to hold her up. She begins to sink, so she starts grabbing for me. Until she is ready to completely trust the water to hold her up, she'll never float. Yet floating is easy; you just lie there! But it's also very hard; because you must stop trusting in what you can do, and let the water do for you what it alone can do.
So it is with the Grace Gospel. The Bible makes it clear that God's message to a world sinking in sin is not learning to swim, hanging on to someone else, or trying harder. It is giving up any effort of our own, and letting the Lord Jesus Christ do for us what He alone can do. Is it easy? Of course—but only because Jesus did the hard part for us (2 Cor 5:21). Is it hard? Of course—but only because we're conditioned to depend on ourselves.
By nature, most people like a salvation message that includes some works, sacraments, or proof of good character. It gives them a feeling of self-satisfaction. But self-satisfaction is really self-righteousness, which won't save anyone. Only possessing God's righteousness can do that. The Gospel that declares us righteous in God's eyes—whether it's easy or hard—is the one we need, and it's a message we should never be ashamed of:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "The just shall live by faith" (Rom 1:16-17).
Phil Congdon is pastor of Elgin Bible Church in Elgin, IL.