I have mentioned before that our 2006 annual conference ended up being controversial.
There were two messages on assurance of everlasting life that were met with a divided response. I thought those messages would be well received but about half of the people agreed, while the other half thought that the messages by Zane Hodges and Bob Bryant were off base. The result was that a large number of people who had been regulars at our annual conference, including five or more who had been regular speakers at our annual conference, have never come back. That was their last conference.
What was the big controversy?
At the time I thought there was only one issue. Namely, people disagreed over the claim that a person is not born again until he believes that simply by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he has everlasting life that cannot be lost (or the equivalent). Theologians call that view assurance is of the essence of saving faith.
Passages that demonstrate that assurance is of the essence of saving faith include John 3:14-18; 5:24; 6:35-47; 11:25-27. A person must believe that what he receives when he believes in Jesus is eternal or irrevocable—whether you call that justification, salvation, regeneration, heaven when you die, or a relationship with God. Once you are saved, you are always saved. In the Lord’s words, the one who believes in Him will never perish, will never hunger, will never thirst, will never die spiritually, will never come into judgment concerning his eternal destiny, but instead has everlasting life and has passed from death into life. That’s what Jesus promised. That’s what we are called to believe.
You can put the issue in a different way: If a person believes that he is saved for now, but not forever, he is not believing Jesus’ promise of everlasting life.
Sometime after, one of the regular conference speakers who disagreed, presented a refutation of the messages given by Hodges and Bryant. We will call him Mike.
Mike pointed out that we have no evidence that anyone between AD 100 and AD 1500 believed in irrevocable salvation. Thus, he reasoned, if every generation has at least a remnant of believers, and there is no record of anyone believing in eternal salvation, then believing in the promise of irrevocable life must not be required to be saved.
You may notice that that argument is a logical one, not a Biblical one.
However, his argument is based on a faulty premise. The fact that we have no writings of anyone who believed in the security of the believer during those fifteen centuries does not mean that no one preached it or believed it. Writings from that period are scarce. And the Eastern and Western churches would have destroyed any writings they considered heretical. It is no surprise, then, that we have no surviving works on eternal security.
So what do we do with the lack of historical evidence? I would argue exactly the opposite:
Major Premise: There are born-again people in every generation.
Minor Premise: To be born again one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for irrevocable salvation.
Conclusion: There have been people in every generation who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ for irrevocable salvation.
Interestingly, during the Question-and-Answer time, Mike indicated that he was born again five years before he believed in eternal security. We had a conversation later that year and I asked Mike how he knew he was born again five years before he believed in eternal security. What gave him assurance of his salvation before he believed the truth of the promise of life?
Mike’s answer surprised me. He said that his life changed dramatically and that the changes proved to him he was born again. First, he immediately stopped cussing, without effort, even though his language had been salty for years. Second, he gained a tremendous love for the Bible that he has never lost.
I thought that Mike was describing the work of God in his life before he was born again. Evidently Mike believes that if your life changes, that proves you were regenerated. Assurance is based on behavior changes.
I did not realize the importance of what Mike was saying at the time. I thought he was simply offering proof that assurance is not of the essence of saving faith. However, I now realize that there were really two issues here. The second issue is the role of works in assurance.
Recently I heard a message by a man who was also a regular speaker at our annual conference but who, like Mike, quit coming after 2006. We will call him Bill. In the message Bill said two things that surprised me.
First, in discussing his own testimony, he said that he went forward once at an evangelistic meeting and even prayed the prayer they asked him to pray, but he was not saved at the time. How did he know that? “Nothing happened in my life at the time,” he said. I thought it was odd that he mentioned anything about the lack of life change. Why mention that? The issue in assurance is faith in Christ, not life change, right?
Then, a few minutes later, Bill shared a story about famous evangelist D. L. Moody. After one of his crusades, a critic of Moody confronted him in the street. He pointed to a drunk man staggering up toward them. “There is one of your converts, Moody.” To that Moody replied, “Yes. He must be one of my converts, because he sure is not one of God’s converts.” (See a slightly different version of the illustration here.) Because the drunk was behaving badly, that must mean he was not a real convert. That illustration seemed to suggest that assurance is found in our works.
I spoke with Shawn about what I had heard Bill say. I said, “Bill surely did not mean to say that assurance is found in our works. But that is what his illustration and his testimony implied, right?”
Then Shawn mentioned that he had a long back and forth email dialogue with a man aligned with Bill and Mike. Shawn explained that this man (call him Harry) specifically said that initial assurance is found in our works, and then later we learn to find assurance by faith in the promise of life. Shawn printed out the long discussion for me.
“I know for 100% sure that I was saved having incomplete, undeveloped theology—and thought there might be the possibility of throwing away that gift of eternal life. I was wrong about that, but I was saved. Christ radically change my life, my heart, my mind—saved my life (I was an alcoholic)—saved my marriage—saved my wife…I know what happened to me.”
After several pages of back and forth, Shawn asked him, “So, I’m wondering if you’ll say you knew you were saved based on something that you experienced?” And Harry responded:
“Initially, my life drastically changed—the Lord took away the alcohol, changed my heart and mind radically, gave me a love for Himself, the Lord and His Word, and for my wife. I went from drinking 3-4 hours every night to reading the Bible that much every night…[Later] my assurance moved to ‘this is what I believe, and the Bible says this is what is necessary to be saved’—so faith became the ultimate source of assurance, rather than works. But I think that is different for different people.”
I realize now that Harry represents the thinking of many who identify as Free Grace proponents. Like him, Mike obviously based his assurance of his salvation for five years on his life change. In fact, many decades later, that is still how he knows that was when he was born again. And Bill seems to hold the same view, too.
The realization that the Free Grace movement is divided on those two issues is an important insight.
Here’s part of the problem: Those who say that their initial assurance was based on their life change then interpret the Bible in light of their experience.
In other words, they reason that if they were saved when they thought they could lose their salvation, then anyone can be saved without believing in the irrevocability of salvation.
But that kind of reasoning is backwards. We should not interpret the Bible in light of our experience, but our experience in light of the Bible.
This is a crucial issue. Why? It effects how we share our faith and how we find assurance of everlasting life.
Some who call themselves Free Grace do not believe that assurance is found solely in the promise of life, and they do not believe that assurance is of the essence of saving faith.
This is a major difference in the way various Free Grace people view assurance. Does it start by life change and then later we learn that assurance is primarily by faith in the promise of irrevocable salvation? Or is assurance solely by faith in the irrevocable promise of life from start to finish?