I was explaining Free Grace theology to a Calvinist when, to my surprise, he claimed that I really believed in salvation by works! That’s not something I’ve ever been accused of before, so I was curious why he thought that. During our conversation, it became clear to me that he was making three big assumptions that are worth investigating. They are:
- First, grace means that God determines everything.
- Second, work is anything that includes a free-will response.
- Third, faith becomes a meritorious work if free will is involved.
To put it very simply, in his mind, if you reject divine determinism, you by default teach salvation by works. But are those safe assumptions? Are they Biblical?
First, is there any Biblical reason to define grace as divine determinism? The short answer is no. As Bob Wilkin showed in chap. 8 of The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible, grace [Gk. charis] has a range of meanings in the NT. We tend to want it to always refer to unmerited favor, but it can mean thanks, gift, benefit, pleasure, liberality, etc. The basic meaning of grace is favor, and sometimes God’s favor is merited, and sometimes it isn’t. Here’s the point—divine determinism is not in that range of meanings. That is not what grace means. Assuming it does is theological baggage that is meant to defend divine determinism. Why not stick to how the Bible uses the term? So much for the first assumption.
Second, does the Bible define work as anything that includes the free will? Again, no. BDAG defines work [Gk. ergon] as a deed, action, or task, such as “deeds that the law commands you to do” (BDAG, 391). Moreover, the doing of the deed contrasts with merely hearing (Jas 1:22). And Paul everywhere contrasts works with faith (e.g., Gal 2:16). That is what a Biblical work is. Although I cannot prove a negative, there is no evidence that I found to say that when free will is involved, something that would not be a work suddenly turns into one. That, too, is just theological baggage designed to defend determinism.
Third, does faith become meritorious if free will is involved? Is that a safe assumption, or just more baggage? So far as I know, the Bible never makes that claim. Biblically speaking, faith and works are contrasted, and faith is considered non-meritorious. Paul taught that if salvation was by works, it would be a wage (e.g., it would be meritorious), which is why salvation is by faith (implying it is non-meritorious): “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5). When you work, you get what you’ve earned; when you believe, you get what you haven’t earned. Likewise, in Eph 2:8-9, Paul compared salvation being by faith apart from works to receiving a gift (e.g., non-meritorious): “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Salvation by faith is non-meritorious. Period. So far as I am aware, there is no passage in Scripture that says if the response of faith is free, then it becomes meritorious.
In sum, I didn’t accept that man’s assumptions. In fact, I don’t think he realized he had them, or that they were driving his (Calvinistic) theology. But before you’re tempted to think badly of him, the truth is, we all have theological baggage that we need to be rid of. And that means taking our beliefs to the Word of God and doing simple things like looking up a word in a dictionary or searching to see how it is used in Scripture. The worst assumption is that you don’t have any.