There’s Great Confusion in Free Grace Circles Concerning the Expression the Gospel
Of all people one would imagine it impossible that Free Grace people would be confused over the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet over the past few years it has become clear that there is a rather large amount of confusion over the gospel message.
Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and all Protestants have since the apostles agreed that the gospel centers on Jesus’ death and resurrection and includes His virgin birth, His burial, His post resurrection appearances, His return, and His judgment of believers and unbelievers. While there has never been agreement in Christianity on what one must do to be born again, there has been widespread agreement on what the gospel of Jesus Christ is. Until now.
Today some in Free Grace circles are raising some questions about what the gospel is and is not. Some are suggesting that the gospel is narrower than previously thought. The gospel, it is suggested, is not all of the good news about Jesus Christ, but just some of the good news about Him. The reason for this shift appears to be because some in Free Grace circles believe that the gospel message is the precise message which one must believe to be born again.
This has lead to some rather serious charges. GES has been charged with preaching a crossless gospel, a resurrection-less gospel, and a heretical gospel. It is our hope and prayer that careful study of the Word of God, as well as what we have written, will show that the charges are false and that the cross and resurrection of Christ are indeed the two central features in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Confusion #1: The Gospel
Doesn’t Include Jesus’ Birth
If someone were simply to read the Bible, he would conclude that the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ is a central part of the gospel. For example, in Rom 1:1-4 Paul says that his gospel, “the gospel of God,” was promised in the OT “concerning [God’s] Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” The birth of Jesus is part and parcel with His resurrection in terms of the content of the gospel.
The Gospel writers tell us this as well. Matthew devotes nearly all of his first two chapters to the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Luke uses the word gospel, or good news, in reference both to the birth of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist (Luke 1:19), and of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 2:10ff.). Nearly all of his first two chapters are directly related to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That some in Free Grace circles are suggesting the virgin birth is outside of the gospel message is disturbing. The NT clearly teaches that Jesus birth is a central part of the gospel message. We must take care not to allow our traditions to blind us from the clear teaching of Scripture.
Confusion #2: The Gospel Doesn’t Include
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
I am not aware of a single Free Grace person who says that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, I include this as a point of confusion because many blogs, emails, articles, and books have been written by Free Grace people charging that other Free Grace people are proclaiming a cross-less and resurrection-less gospel.
As the founder and head of GES, let me say that I have always believed, even before I was born again, and continue to believe, that the gospel of Jesus Christ has as its central message His substitutionary death on the cross and His bodily resurrection from the dead on the third day. One who does not believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead does not believe the gospel. Since Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is the core of the gospel, to not believe in his death and resurrection is not to believe the Biblical gospel. It is impossible to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ without believing in His death and resurrection.
In popular usage, however, the word gospel is understood as what a person must believe to be born again. While there is some biblical evidence that the term gospel does include that message (cf. Gal 2:14-16), that is not the way the term is normally used in the NT. In recent years I’ve tried to use the expression the gospel to refer to the good news concerning Jesus Christ, His birth, death, burial, appearances, ascension, resurrection, and return. And I’ve tried to use the expression the saving message to refer to what one must believe to be born again.
I will discuss this point further under point 5 below.
Confusion #3: The Gospel
Doesn’t Include Jesus’ Burial
Paul made it clear in 1 Cor 15:3-4 that Jesus’ burial is a central aspect of the gospel that Paul preached. Yet there are some Free Grace people today who argue vociferously just the opposite. They say Jesus’ burial is a sort of extraneous detail that Paul threw into his discussion of the gospel.
If Paul took the time to mention Jesus’ burial when explaining the gospel, then Jesus’ burial is clearly a central part of his gospel. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the clear teaching of the text.
Confusion #4: The Gospel Doesn’t Include
Jesus’ Post-Resurrection Appearances
The same is even more clearly true with Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. In 1 Cor 15:1-11 Paul devotes part of one verse to Jesus’ death (v 3), part of one verse to His resurrection (v 4), and four full verses to His post-resurrection appearances (v 5-8). That some Free Grace people argue that the post-resurrection appearances are extraneous details Paul includes is hard to understand. Paul emphasizes the centrality of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in his gospel message. (Of course, this underscores that 1 Cor 15:1-11 is introducing Paul’s great resurrection chapter.)
If our theology is not in line with the clear meaning of Scripture, we ought to adjust our theology, rather than manipulate the Scripture to make it say what we think it ought to say. I speak from experience on this point. For example, when I wrote my doctoral dissertation on repentance and salvation, my tradition on the change of mind view of repentance blinded me to the clear meaning of a dozen or so texts. And I’ve been guilty of that same blindness on many other points as well. But the key to growing in our understanding and application of God’s Word is to be open to the fact that our tradition might have kept the truth from us.
Confusion #5: The Gospel
Is the Object of Saving Faith
Nowhere in the entire Bible are we told that the person who believes the gospel has everlasting life, is saved, is justified, will never die spiritually, or anything of the kind.1
Repeatedly the Bible says that the person who believes in Jesus has everlasting life, is saved, is justified, or will never die spiritually (John 1:12-13; 3:16-18, 36; 5:24; 6:35-40, 47; 11:25-27; Acts 16:31; Rom 4:4-5; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9).
Jesus, not the gospel about Jesus, is the precise object of saving faith. That is why I prefer to call the message one must believe to be born again the saving message and not the gospel.
Many people believe the gospel is a technical expression that refers to the content of saving faith. Free Grace people with that understanding say that if someone believes the gospel he is born again, no matter what else he might or might not believe,2 and, of course, regardless of his works. If that is correct, there would be no problem. But if that is incorrect, then it creates tremendous confusion.
Do all who believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose bodily from the dead have everlasting life? Of course not. Even if we add in belief in Jesus’ deity, virgin birth in Bethlehem, and His sinless humanity, people believing all that still are not born again if they believe in works salvation. and, of course, regardless of his works. If that is correct, there would be no problem. But if that is incorrect, then it creates tremendous confusion.
The person who is born again is the one who has come to believe that by faith in Jesus Christ he has everlasting life.
But those Free Grace people who suggest that the gospel is the object of saving faith, rather than the proof that Jesus indeed is the Guarantor of everlasting life to all who simply believe in Him, inadvertently confuse people on what they must believe to be saved.
The gospel should lead people to faith in Christ. But believing the gospel is not the same as believing in Jesus Christ. Most in Christianity believe the gospel and yet they are lost since they do not believe in Jesus for the life He promises.
If we know someone who believes the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet who also believes in works salvation, we should share the message of John 3:16 with him. As one friend likes to say when he shares John 3:16 with people, Jesus said that the one who believes in Him, not the one who behaves in Him, has everlasting life. The issue is believing in Jesus for the life He guarantees.
Beware Lest We Harm One Another
Paul warns in Galatians that we must beware of biting and devouring one another (Gal 5:15). It seems to me this is what has been happening in Free Grace circles over the past few years. If so, in light of what Paul wrote, that is not honoring to God and is not healthy for the Free Grace movement.
Let me hasten to add, however, that there are some in Free Grace circles who are convinced that I have been guilty of this very thing. Some feel that I have been attacking other believers, rather than simply discussing the Scriptures.
This whole controversy has caused me to become extremely careful about the tone of everything I write. I’ve come to believe that the tone of our discussion is probably as important as the content of our discussion. As I think back over some of the things I wrote in the past, I believe my tone was not always as gracious and measured as it could have and should have been. I’m sorry for that.
I would urge all of us in the Free Grace movement to study the Scriptures. Let’s stand on the Word of God. While that is simple, it is also profound. The late Dr. John Mitchell of Multnomah Bible College was famous for telling students, “Read your Bibles.” The Bible sheds a lot of light on what we should believe.
1 It is true that in the Book of Galatians the gospel points to the message of justification by faith alone apart from works (cf. Gal 2:14-16; note esp. in v 14 “the truth of the gospel”). And it points to the message that all believers have been crucified with Christ are that we are to live by faith in Him who loved us and gave Himself up for us (Gal 2:20). The false gospel of the Judaizers was a message that perverted the intended result of the good news message both in terms of justification and sanctification (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). However, even in Galatians we find Jesus, not the gospel, the object of justifying faith (e.g., 2:16; 3:6-14).
2 The problem with the Judaizers who were disturbing the Galatians was not that they failed to believe and teach Jesus’ substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, virgin birth, sinless life, and full deity. Surely they would not have received a hearing in the churches of Galatia if they denied or failed to teach any of those truths. The problem was that the Judaizers made circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses conditions of eternal life. By adding works salvation to Paul’s good news message, they were perverting it (Gal 1:7).