Michael L. Brown is the Charismatic and Arminian version of John MacArthur (the two have actually clashed on the issue of sign gifts). Brown is known as a conservative Christian voice in print and on the radio, and a defender of things like the Biblical sexual ethics. There is much to commend him on a range of issues. There is also room for criticism.
In a recent book, Hyper-Grace, Brown takes on the movement of the same name.
There are many similarities between Free Grace and hyper-grace. Both emphasize faith apart from works, eternal security, and assurance of salvation based on what God has promised, not on what we do.
There are also many differences. The hyper-grace movement denies doctrines like God’s temporal wrath, temporal discipline, and the necessity of fellowship forgiveness. For example, according to hyper-grace teachers, 1 John 1:9 is for unbelievers, not believers, who are totally forgiven already.
I’m not concerned with what Brown says about the hyper-grace movement. Rather, I’m concerned about an appendix to his book, where Brown criticized the doctrine of eternal security (“Once Saved, Always Saved?”). It is not a very long chapter, and he does not go into any detail about it, but Brown asks a very simple question that deserves an answer:
God’s promises are to believers—to those who want to follow the Lord and whose lives belong to Him—not to rebels who have chosen sin and rejected His Lordship. Put another way, there is not a single promise anywhere in the Bible that God will bless us with eternal life if we ultimately reject Him and choose rebellion, and we give people false assurance when we make that claim.
Find me one verse anywhere in the Bible—just one—that gives assurance of eternal life and blessing to an unrepentant rebel who is living in willful, persistent sin, denying the Lord in an ongoing, hardened way, and I will invite you to join me on national radio or TV and tell the whole world that I was wrong. Just one verse! (Hyper-Grace, p. 250, emphasis original).
I think this is a fairly simple question to answer. The Christian who sins can still have assurance of salvation so long as he understands that his eternal salvation depends on a moment of faith, not a lifetime of obedience. Assurance is based on what Jesus promises the believer, not on what the believer promises to do for Jesus.
Brown does not believe eternal salvation is a present possession you get at the moment of faith. He evidently thinks God takes a “wait-and-see” approach before regenerating someone. I say that for two reasons.
First, Brown apparently thinks eternal salvation depends upon a mixture of faith plus good works. “To repeat: the promise of eternal life is only to Jesus’ sheep, those who know His voice and follow Him” (Hyper-Grace, p. 251, emphasis added). What does it mean to “follow” Jesus other than to do good works? Hence, if receiving eternal life depends on doing a lifetime of good works, you evidently don’t get it in a moment of faith. God waits over the course of your life to see if you behave in the right way. Only after you pass that test, do you receive eternal life permanently.
Second, Brown evidently thinks it is possible to believe in Jesus for eternal life, and yet not be born again. It all depends on your behavior: “If you walked away from the Lord, either you were never saved or you have forfeited your salvation” (Hyper-Grace, p. 251). So, if you believe in Jesus for eternal life, do you have it as a present possession? No. Because if you later walk away from the Lord, that means you were never saved to begin with. But how could a believer be “never saved”? Apprently, because you are not born again at the moment of faith. It takes time.
Have you ever heard someone say, “60% of the time, it works every time” (see here)? Does that sound like a sure thing to you?
Then consider what Brown says concerning the believer’s security: “Although we are secure in Jesus, if we ultimately reject Him, we lose our secure standing” (p. 249).
In other words, believers are not secure at all. You could lose your salvation at any moment. All it takes is for you to stop believing or to sin in a big way.
That’s anything but comforting.
Imagine reading a warranty that said, “Guaranteed not to fail…unless it does.” That would be pretty worthless, wouldn’t it? The same applies to Brown’s teaching about security. “Hey, 60% of the time your salvation is secure all the time.”
The Free Grace Answer
So what is the Free Grace answer to Brown’s question? Where does the Bible give assurance to a believer who subsequently lives in sin?
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
According to Jesus, if you believe, then what do you have as a present possession? Eternal life. No wait-and-see. It happens in a moment. The fact that you might fall into rebellion twenty years from now, does not change the fact that you received eternal life the moment you first believed. You can be sure of that.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
Brown says that believers can come under judgment and actually experience eternal death instead of eternal life. But what does Jesus say here? The moment you believe, what will you never come under? Judgment. In other words, the Christian in rebellion can still be sure he will never come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.
Apparently, Brown does not believe that God justifies ungodly people. But what did Paul say?
“But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5).
In other words, the ungodly believer can be sure that he is justified on the basis of his act of faith, not on his lifetime of works.
And what about the believer who then totally wastes his life? Does he prove he was never saved? Does he lose his salvation? Paul says no:
“If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).
Again, the Christian in rebellion can be sure that ever if all their works are burned up, they will still be saved.
So to answer Brown’s question, the sinner can have assurance of salvation because if he understands the promise of eternal life, he knows his eternal salvation is an already-accomplished fact. There’s no wait-and-see. It’s one and done. Your eternal fate is decided in a single act of faith. (There are at least forty things that happen to you at the moment of faith, see here.)
To be sure, there are terrible consequences for when a believer rebels against God (divine discipline, the experience of temporal wrath, loss of fellowship, loss of rewards, even a premature death!), but those negative consequences do not include being un-born-again, un-regenerate, or having eternal life taken away. There is no verse in Scripture that teaches any of those possibilities.
The Hyper-Grace movement understands the free gift of eternal life and the basis of assurance, but not the warning passages of Scripture.
Arminians like Michael Brown do not understand the free gift of eternal life, the basis of assurance, or the warning passages of Scripture.
The great strength of the Free Grace movement is that we have a clear understanding of all three.