by Nate Purtzer*
I recently had a healthy discussion about the gospel with a pastor who respectfully disagreed with several Free Grace beliefs. Near the beginning of the conversation, he asked: “Do you seriously think that one can believe in Jesus Christ for eternal life and not have any change in his life?” The question revealed his perception of Free Grace theology in relation to good works after justification. He believed that the primary thrust of the Grace position was to deny that good works inevitably result in the life of the believer.
This is a common misunderstanding. Therefore, it is important to reiterate what Free Grace proponents believe about good works and their relation to assurance and perseverance.
The Reality of Good Works
Magnificent changes occur when an individual believes in Jesus Christ for eternal life. The very life of God is imparted to the believer, and the Spirit of God indwells him. The believer is part of a new creation and now relates to God as a child under his Father’s discipline. It is reasonable to expect that these new realities will positively impact the life of a believer in many ways. In other words, we can expect positive lifestyle changes in a believer (cf. the Parable of the Four Soils in Luke 8:4-15 where three soils all evidence growth, because they all spring up). This perspective is not novel in Free Grace writings.1 Zane Hodges, for example, writes:
Of course, there is every reason to believe that there will be good works in the life of each believer in Christ. The idea that one may believe in Him and live for years totally unaffected by the amazing miracle of regeneration, or by the instruction and/or discipline of God his heavenly Father, is a fantastic notion—even bizarre. We reject it categorically.2
Bob Wilkin agrees:
Reformed theologians suggest that good works are the inevitable result of the new birth. All believers will produce good works, they say. Some people from the Lordship Salvation position seem to think that we in the Free Grace camp deny such teaching. While GES has no specific statement directly on this point, most members of GES would not have a problem with the above statement—at least in terms of what it actually says.3
The existence of good works in the life of a believer is a legitimate biblical teaching. This notion is neither incompatible with nor an affront to the good news that whoever has faith alone in Christ alone has everlasting life. Thus, asserting that good works typically are found in the life of every believer is not contrary to the gospel. The actual controversy swirls around certain abuses and misstatements of this biblical idea.
Mistakenly Basing Assurance on Good Works
The first issue is whether good works are a component of one’s assurance of salvation. Although many believe they are, such a view engenders various concerns.4 For instance, inherent to works-based assurance is the teaching that an individual cannot be assured of salvation at the moment of faith. This understanding, however, conflicts with the nature of faith as set forth in many gospel promises. Consider the following interchange between Jesus and Martha before the resurrection of Lazarus:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:23-27).
The words Do you believe this? indicate that Jesus is seeking affirmation of the entire statement, which Martha promptly provides. She is persuaded, or convinced, that Jesus is the Christ who freely gives her eternal life.5 Since she believes that, it follows that Martha is also convinced, or assured, that she indeed possesses that life. Otherwise, the absurdity would result that she believes what she does not believe. To state it another way, one cannot believe in Jesus as his Savior from eternal damnation without at the same moment being assured that Jesus has actually saved him. That is what is meant by assurance is of the essence of saving faith. As noted, however, assurance at the moment of faith is not possible under works-based assurance systems thereby highlighting the discord with that perspective and Jesus’ promise.
Even if one does not subscribe to the idea that assurance is of the essence of saving faith, works-based assurance raises other concerns. For example, this understanding contrasts with many passages of Scripture, such as 1 John 5:9-13, that teach assurance is both possible and is simply based on believing in Jesus, not works (see also John 1:12-13; 3:16; 4:13-14; 5:24; 6:35, 47; 11:25-27; 20:31; 1 John 5:9-13).6
Zane Hodges agrees that basing assurance on good works is a significant error. He writes,
We said earlier that we believe that all born-again Christians will do good works. We believe it, however, because it appears to be the only rational inference from the scriptural data. But, let it also be said clearly, it is an inference. No text of Scripture (certainly not Jas 2:14-26!) declares that all believers will perform good works, much less that they cannot be sure of heaven unless they do. No text says that!7
Later, he firmly remarks, “No. Good works can never be a fundamental ground of assurance.”8
Requiring Perseverance for “Final Salvation”
Another frequent teaching is that an individual who does not continue in good works until death (or one who persists in a life of sin) will not see heaven’s door. Some believe the offender loses his salvation, while others believe he was never saved in the first place. That difference, however, is immaterial as the same individual arrives at the same place (hell) for the same reason (lack of perseverance). Perseverance in good works has thereby become an additional condition for gaining entrance into heaven.
Here, the Free Grace concern is transparent because such teaching does not harmonize with justification by faith alone, apart from works. Paul writes, “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” (Eph 2:8-9).
The pastor and I never finished our conversation. However, if I were to respond to his question today, I would first say, “There is every reason to believe good works will exist in the life of a believer.” Then, I would proceed to warn him of the danger of conditioning assurance upon our flawed works.
Finally, I would tell him that perseverance is neither guaranteed, nor is it a condition of eternal life. All who simply believe in Jesus Christ have eternal life. This is true regardless of how evident good works are in one’s life and regardless of whether he is persevering in the faith or persisting as a backslider. The gospel is good news because once we believe, we are secure forever in Christ.
4 This is not a comprehensive defense that good works should not be a basis of assurance. It merely serves to highlight the importance of the issue. The Grace Evangelical Society newsletter and journal has many insightful articles designed for the defense of the teaching.