Some Baptists identify as Arminian, others as Calvinist, and a few as Calminian. But there are many more Baptists who avoid each of these labels without having a name for what they believe. I would suggest that some are Free Grace without knowing it.
Free Grace is a relatively new term but the theology behind it is not. It’s neither Calvinist nor Arminian. It’s conservative and Dispensational. It has a high view of Scripture and stresses expository preaching and evangelism. There are many Baptists who are openly Free Grace, like Dr. Earl Radmacher, but there many more who are essentially Free Grace in their doctrine without calling it that, like Dr. Charles Stanley.
I like to introduce people to Free Grace theology by going through John 3:16. It’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible and most Baptists know it by heart. However, I have found that few Christians actually believe what Jesus promises there. Here is John 3:16, subdivided into five sections, each of which contains a precious truth:
For God so loved the world / that He gave His only begotten Son / that whoever believes in Him / should not perish / but have everlasting life.
Let’s go through the verse, section by section.
A Divine Motivation
First, the Lord tells us about God’s motivation: For God so loved the world. You would think that would be clear and uncontroversial. God loves all mankind without exception.
However, right off the bat we find that Calvinist Baptists reject this idea. They interpret the world (kosmos) as the world of the elect, and so take John 3:16 as teaching that God only loves the elect. But that interpretation has no basis in John’s Gospel, Epistles, or Revelation which use kosmos 106 times in 79 verses and never once means “individuals whom God has predestined to heaven.” Rather, kosmos can mean the sum total of created things (John 1:3), the world order (which is hostile to God, John 1:9, 10), or humanity in general, and that’s what it means here (cf. 3:19).
Free Grace Baptists unhesitatingly affirm that God loves all mankind. He is not always pleased with everyone or approves of how they live, but there is no doubt that God loves everyone in the world no matter who they are, what they believe, or what they’ve done.
A Divine Action
Second, the Lord tells us about God’s act of love, which motivated Him to give His only begotten Son, Jesus. What was Jesus given to do? While all Baptists know that He was given to die on the cross as an atonement for sins, they don’t all agree on who Jesus died for.
Most Calvinist Baptists deny that Jesus died for the sins of the world, reasoning that since God only loves the elect, they are the only people for whom Jesus died. This is the famous doctrine of Limited Atonement. Moderate Calvinists (3 and 4 pointers) are willing to live with the contradiction of believing that God only elected some to salvation, but sent Christ to die for all.
By contrast, Free Grace Baptists affirm that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to die for the world. Jesus’ death was meant for all humanity. The atonement is as universal as God’s love.
Third, the Lord Jesus tells us of a human condition that must be met: whoever believes in Him. All Jesus requires is belief in His promise. We are all free to come to Him in faith. You would think this emphasis on simple belief would be uncontroversial among Baptists, but you would be wrong because they disagree over the nature of faith.
Jesus says that faith alone is required for eternal salvation. There are plenty of Calvinist and Arminian Baptists who would agree, at least on the surface. They publicly teach that we are justified by faith apart from our works. However, when you ask them what faith is, they redefine it to include works. For example, you’ll often hear preachers say something like this:
You can’t be saved by doing good works. You have to believe in Jesus. Of course, if you truly believe then you’ll do good works. If you aren’t turning away from your sins and reforming your life, you don’t actually believe. We’re saved by faith alone but never by a faith that is alone.
Don’t be fooled. This is a form of salvation by works.
To see why, imagine if the Judaizers had tried that reasoning on Paul. They claimed that Christians couldn’t be saved without being circumcised (Acts 15:1). Paul accused them of compromising justification and abandoning the gospel. Do you think Paul would have been at all impressed if the Judaizers had replied:
Oh Paul, we absolutely agree that salvation is not by faith and circumcision. But that’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying that salvation is by a faith that circumcises. We are saved by faith alone, that’s true, but if you aren’t circumcising, you don’t really believe.
Paul would have rejected such sophistry and so do Free Grace Baptists. There is no difference between teaching that salvation is by faith plus works and teaching that salvation is by a faith that works. Both make works a condition of salvation and both are contrary to the freeness of the gospel promise.
The bottom line is that faith is faith and works are works. Hence, according to John 3:16, Jesus requires belief, not behavior.
But what about works? They have an important role to play in helping our neighbors and in Christian growth, maturity, and rewards in the coming Kingdom. But eternal life and eternal rewards are two separate matters. Rewards are earned (Rev 22:12), while eternal life is a gift, received by faith apart from works (Eph 2:8-9).
Fourth, the Lord presents the wonderful consequence of believing in Jesus. John 3:16 promises that believers have everlasting life. We don’t get it in the future. We don’t have to earn it or keep it. We have it. Everlasting life is a present possession. Just as the Israelites were healed the moment they saw the bronze serpent (John 3:14-15), we have eternal life the moment we believe in Jesus for it.
Calvinist and Arminian Baptists typically reject this. They don’t believe that eternal life is a present possession. Instead, they will speak about something called “final salvation.” They’ll say the salvation we have is provisional, temporary, and can be lost. Or they’ll say we can’t be sure we are truly saved until something called the “final judgment.” They fail to recognize that when someone believes in Christ for eternal life, they’re no longer subject to the Great White Throne Judgment (John 5:24). They will be rewarded for their works at the Bema (2 Cor 5:10), but they will not be gathered with the unbelieving nations to determine their eternal destiny (Rev 20:11-15).
Other Baptists would heartily agree that eternal life is a present possession. The difference is, they’re relatively unfamiliar with John’s language of eternal life. They normally think in terms of Paul’s language of justification.
Free Grace Baptists would agree that preaching forensic justification is essential wherever people think they can be saved by works. However, forensic justification is only one aspect of eternal salvation. God wants to do more than just declare us “not-guilty.” He wants to adopt us as sons and daughters (John 1:12), give us a new birth (John 3:3), make us new creations (2 Cor 5:17), and allow us to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Justification doesn’t capture that big picture and was never meant to. But John’s simple language of eternal life does. Moreover, while the mechanics of justification can be fairly complicated, the idea of eternal life is easy enough for a child to understand. Hence, Free Grace Baptists tend to prefer the Johannine language of everlasting life when doing evangelism.
Fifth and finally, in John 3:16, Jesus gives believers a wonderful guarantee. Not only are they given everlasting life as a present possession, Jesus also promises we will never perish thereafter. Notice He doesn’t say, probably won’t perish or hopefully won’t perish. Jesus guarantees our eternal security. This is the famous doctrine of “once saved always saved.”
Against this plain teaching, Arminian Baptists say that believers can perish, either by committing a major sin or by ceasing to believe. You can have salvation one day and lose it the next. But if that was true, then Jesus shouldn’t have made any promises about believers not perishing, because it’s possible they might.
Calvinist Baptists don’t quite believe Jesus’ promise of eternal security either. What they actually believe in is the perseverance of the elect, which isn’t the same thing at all. They think that everyone whom God has predestined to heaven will go there because that is what God has sovereignly chosen to do, and there’s no power on earth that can thwart His will. However, mere belief is not a sign that one is among the elect since it’s possible for a reprobate person to believe in Jesus for a while, only to stop believing later on, proving they were never elect in the first place. This creates a terrible dilemma for the Calvinist. How can he know he is one of the elect? Not through faith. The result is a lack of assurance. For example, this has proven to be a recurring problem in Calvinist John Piper’s church:
I deal with this as much as anything, probably, in the people that I’m preaching to. Fears and doubts…not about objective ‘Did He rise from the dead’—very few people are wrestling with that—but ‘Am I in? Am I saved?’ That’s very common for people to wrestle with. (See “Justification and the Diminishing Work of Christ”)
Since the Calvinist doesn’t know if he’s elect, and can’t look to his faith for evidence (since he might fall away in the future), his only recourse will be to look to his works for assurance. Following the Puritans, he will look for signs of the Spirit’s work in his life in order to ascertain if he’s elect. But this introspective search can only end in failure. For every good work he might take as evidence of his election, the Calvinist will find just as many sins that suggest he’s reprobate, leaving him with nagging doubts. At least, that was Piper’s experience: “why I sin against my wife the same at age sixtytwo that I did at age forty-two causes me sometimes to doubt my salvation” (See “Why God is Not a Megalomaniac in Demanding to be Worshipped”).
By contrast, Free Grace Baptists take John 3:16 on its face and affirm Jesus’ promise of eternal security. The moment you believe in Jesus for everlasting life you have it and are eternally secure thereafter. As Jesus says, believers shall never perish.
However, some Baptists think the promise security demands a continuous faith. Believers shall never perish, but the moment someone loses their faith, they also lose their eternal life. But that interpretation would contradict what Jesus told the woman at the well. He assured her that normal water would leave her thirsty, no matter how much she drank. But one drink from His living water (i.e., one act of faith) and she would never thirst again (have eternal security) (John 4:10-14).
Jesus made the same point to Nicodemus. The Israelites weren’t saved by continuously gazing at the bronze serpent. One look and they were healed (John 3:14-15, cf. Nu 21:9).
It is the same with faith. You don’t need to believe in Jesus again and again in order to maintain your salvation. All it takes is one drink, one look, one act of faith, and you become regenerate in that moment, and will have eternal life forever.
Knowing this is essential to Christian well-being, because Jesus’ promise of eternal security forms the basis of our assurance. God does not want us to live in doubt about our salvation. Believers can and should know they have eternal life and are eternally secure. It’s not an advanced doctrine for mature believers, but a basic part of Jesus’ offer of salvation, and so, a part of saving faith.
There is more to John 3:16 than meets the eye. Although many Baptists know it by heart, they just as often openly deny what it teaches. Either they deny that God loves all men, or that Jesus died for all, or that simple faith is all that God requires of us to be saved, or that everlasting life is a present possession, or that believers are eternally secure.
Free Grace Baptists affirm every one of those precious truths.
I began this essay by suggesting that many Baptists are Free Grace without knowing it. Maybe that describes you and your church. No doubt you have many questions and objections and particular verses that need explaining. If you would like to learn more about Free Grace theology, I would suggest visiting our website (faithalone.org) where you can find thousands of pages of Biblical resources exploring key verses and themes. There is a worldwide movement among Evangelicals seeking to restore the radical freeness of the gospel promise of everlasting life through faith in Jesus. Won’t you help us spread the message of God’s free grace in Christ?