Absolutely Free—or Not?
By Curt Nelson
I couldn’t believe it—I was sitting in my very first class at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary and the professor was teaching some strange doctrine I had never heard before. He was telling us that the only condition for salvation is belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I knew immediately what I had to do. I went straight to our church library and checked out a copy of The Gospel According to Jesus. I had to prove Professor Radmacher wrong.
But it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. In fact, the more I studied this "Free Grace" idea, the more convinced of it I became. Before I knew it, I was a bona-fide Free Gracer. I found myself reading everything Zane Hodges had ever written. I bought the complete collection of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society. I began seeing the distinction between justification and sanctification, and (gasp!) I started teaching Free Grace at my church.
Until I took this last step, I was just a nice associate pastor at a nice community church in a nice suburb of Portland, Oregon. But when I started teaching Free Grace I became a false teacher in the eyes of some at my church. Soon, people were pulling me aside to discuss this "error" in my doctrine. Others called the senior pastor to see if he knew what I was teaching. And before long, people were quoting James 2:19 to me three or four times a day!
Church members would ask me, "You can’t possibly think that people are saved just by believing, can you?" And I would be ready with an answer: "Yes, I do! What did Jesus say in John 6:47? He said, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life’!"
But this is the part that disturbed me: They would say, "Yes, Jesus said that, but you can’t take just one passage or one book of the Bible by itself. You have to look at what Paul said and what James said also."
Does that disturb you, too? Do we believe that what Jesus said can’t stand alone? Does Jesus’ statement that everyone who believes has everlasting life need to be modified, updated, completed, or refined by Paul and James? If you hear this argument as much as I do, maybe the following illustration will be helpful.
Imagine you’re watching television and during one of the commercial breaks you see an ad for the new computer store I’m opening. I say, "This weekend Computer Curt’s High-Tech Emporium is opening a new franchise in your town! To make opening day special, everyone who comes into the store on Saturday will receive a 233 Mega Hertz Tritium–Plus Computer absolutely free!"
That sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it? A free computer just for coming to my store on opening day! Now suppose you come in on Saturday and ask for your free computer and I respond, "Oh, I’m sorry, you must have misunderstood me. You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you? When I said that everyone who comes into the store on Saturday would receive a free computer, that was only one requirement. The other requirements are that you need to trade in your old computer of equal or greater value, purchase a yearly membership to Computer Curt’s, and sign this contract stating that you will never purchase electronic goods at any other store."
How would you respond to me? You would probably call me a crook! At the very least, you would accuse me of false advertising. If I advertise that everyone who comes into my store on a certain day will receive a free computer, then everyone in their right mind knows that I am saying there is only one condition for receiving a free computer and that is being there on the right day!
With this in mind, what did Jesus say? "He who believes in Me has everlasting life." If other conditions such as turning from sin, a changed life, etc., are to be added later by Paul and James, then Jesus’ statement is just as much false advertising as my fictitious illustration of Computer Curt’s!
But that’s not all. You were obviously upset with me for my false advertising, but suppose you decided to take me up on my offer anyway. So you traded in your old computer, bought a membership at Computer Curt’s, and signed the agreement not to shop for electronics anywhere else. After fulfilling all these requirements, I gave you your shiny new computer. You were so proud that you went home and showed it off to your neighbor. When your neighbor asks you what he has to do to get a new computer, you tell him to go to Computer Curt’s today and he can have one.
So your neighbor takes a trip to my store. He walks in and asks for his free computer. I tell him about the other requirements and he responds in dismay, "but I don’t have an old computer to trade in, I can’t afford the membership fee, and I don’t see any reason to commit not to shop anywhere else!" What would your neighbor think of you? Wouldn’t he be pretty upset that you didn’t tell him about the other requirements? Wouldn’t he say that you lied to him? At the very least, he would accuse you of misleading him or withholding important information from him.
How is this different from the exchange between Paul and Silas and the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:30-31? When the jailer asked "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas responded: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." If there are additional requirements for salvation, then Paul and Silas were being just as misleading as our illustration where you told your neighbor that all he had to do to receive a free computer was to go to Computer Curt’s. You knew there were other conditions and you didn’t mention them. In the same exact way, the failure of Paul and Silas to mention the other conditions, if they exist, was dishonest.
So the reason Jesus, Paul, and Silas leave out all other conditions for salvation is because there are none!
Peter preached faith-alone as well. He told Cornelius, "To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:43). In fact, Peter said that this is not just his message; it’s the message of all the prophets. If there are other conditions for receiving eternal life besides just believing, then Jesus, Paul, Silas, Peter, and all the prophets are guilty of false advertising. Passages such as John 6:47, Acts 10:43 and Acts16:30-31 are false.
No Evangelical can accept that conclusion. It is obvious that no other book in the Bible can add to or modify the one simple condition for receiving eternal life that Jesus proclaims: "he who believes in Me has everlasting life."
Curt Nelson is associate pastor of Laurel Community Church and is currently studying at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. Curt, his wife Ruth, and their two daughters live in Hillsboro, OR.