by Ken White
For the past 13 years my wife and I, along with our six children, have served as missionaries and church planters in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Since July we have been back in the United States, in Bakersfield, CA, and are trying to begin a Free Grace church, or rather a multiplying, Free Grace church-planting movement, by starting Bible studies in our home.
I have held a Free Grace view of the gospel for many years, but that hasn’t always been the case. When I was in high school, our youth pastor got me well-grounded in a Lordship Salvation view of the gospel and of saving faith. At that point it never made me doubt my own salvation, but it did make me doubt the salvation of many around me who didn’t seem to have much of a commitment to following Jesus.
With my Lordship Salvation perspective, I set off to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where I intended to train to be a missionary. Some of my professors there espoused Lordship Salvation and some did not. Of the professors who did not promote Lordship Salvation, one in particular helped change my life by assigning the book, Balancing the Christian Life by Charles Ryrie. There was one chapter in this book about whether Jesus must be Lord of one’s life in order to be one’s Savior and it really rocked my thinking and helped me realize that maybe I was wrong in my views. Through that book and subsequent study of the Bible, I was convinced that salvation was truly a free gift, received simply by faith in Christ. I was also convinced that faith is simply believing, without the complexities added by my Lordship Salvation background.
After one year at Moody, I moved to California where I married my wife. We ended up staying in California for another year before going into missionary training with the organization with which we were to work. During the time of our training, another major milestone in my theological journey came about when I discovered that there were Biblically sound ways to interpret Scripture that were neither Calvinist nor Arminian. Because of this discovery and subsequent work in translating the Scripture, I remain a committed “non-Calvinist” to this day.
The final two issues (at least to this point) which have really defined my perspective on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) have been the discussions about the content of saving faith and about repentance. As far as the content of saving faith, through the years and throughout my ministry in PNG, I always communicated to people the idea that “if you believe that Jesus died for your sins on the cross and rose again, you will be saved.” Over time, though, I began to have doubts about saying it that way. For one thing, I always realized that I didn’t really mean exactly that. I knew that a person could believe that Jesus paid for all his sins on the cross and rose again, and yet think he had to do good works in order to get to heaven which meant there was a missing element in the way I was presenting things. The other thing that bothered me about the way I expressed the message of life was that it didn’t seem to be well-supported scripturally. In my view, faith in what Jesus did on the cross was the core element in saving faith, and yet I knew that the many references to believing in Jesus in the book of John, events that occurred before His death, couldn’t mean that. Also, in the couple of recorded evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts, the element of believing “that Jesus died for your sins” seemed to be missing. So I wondered why God hadn’t made things more clear.
Then on my last home assignment, or furlough, from the mission field I attended a conference put on by the Grace Evangelical Society and heard Zane Hodges speak. In the question and answer time which followed his session, he expressed the idea that the content of saving faith has not changed between the time when Jesus offered living water to the Samaritan woman at the well and now. He expressed the idea that a person receives eternal life when he believes in Jesus for it. Zane’s view made sense to me as I reflected on the Biblical data. It wasn’t until later, though, that I realized there was a lot of controversy about this understanding.
Because of the turbulence surrounding the view that saving faith could be as simple as believing in Jesus for eternal life, I spent a long time wrestling with the issue, studying it out, and reading everything I could find by those opposed to the view. I realized that if I became firmly settled on a promise-only view of the gospel, I might not be able to continue to work with the organization with which I was working. The end result of all that wrestling, praying, and studying was that I became firmly convinced that Jesus offers eternal life to all who believe in Him for it. In order to get to that point, I had to question many of the underlying positions. For example: Was the Gospel of John the sole book in the NT written with the purpose of evangelism? Is the Gospel of John adequate for evangelism? Does the word gospel refer to a certain set of propositions which must be believed about Jesus to be born again, or to a broader good news? If there are certain minimums a person must believe to be saved, where are they listed?
Finally, I rethought my position on repentance. I had long believed that repent meant “change your mind,” that it was a requirement for eternal life, and that the context determined what a person must change his mind about. A careful study of every occurrence of the words repent and repentance led me to the view, also espoused by Zane Hodges, that repentance refers to a decision to turn from sin, but that it is a separate issue from the reception of eternal life. Repentance turns aside God’s temporal punishment and should prepare an unsaved person to believe in Jesus, but it is not the same as faith, nor is it a prerequisite to faith.
Because of these changes in my views, I had to leave the mission organization I was with, and that is why my family and I have returned to the U.S. It has been hard to leave the life and the ministry we have known, but I cannot be sorry, because the things I have learned have made the Bible make so much more sense to me. And I believe they will make it easier for me to share the truth with others also.