A Critique of the Crossless Gospel. By Daniel J. Lash Rome City, IN: Weston Street Bible Church, 2011), 44 pp, free.
In his booklet, A Critique of the Crossless Gospel, Daniel Lash addresses what he considers to be some important errors involving GES and the writings of Bob Wilkin in particular. While I found myself agreeing that Lash had identified some serious errors, I could not fathom why anyone familiar with either GES or Wilkin could mistake them for proponents of those same errors. Indeed, readers will quickly discover that Lash doesn’t substantially quote Hodges, Wilkin, or any GES-related materials in order to establish his case against them. The only writing Lash refers to is two fragmentary references from Wilkin’s tract Saving Faith in Focus, which Lash inexplicably calls a “book” (p. 3). Lash writes as if we should take him at his word that his representations are accurate. With several thousand pages of GES material to choose from, surely Lash could have found ample evidence to establish his case. But he did not.
There are four errors that particularly concern Lash, none of which are representative of GES or Wilkin’s thought, and all of which are demonstrably false.
First, Lash is concerned that the “crossless gospel” takes an improper object of saving faith. As he claims, the “major problem with the gospel according to GES” is that “in its final analysis, it is faith in faith.” That is to say, for Wilkin, the object of saving faith is not Christ or His promise of eternal life, but “faith in an act of saving faith” (p. 4). Hence, says Lash, assurance becomes a matter of focusing on the quality of one’s own faith, rather than on what Christ did:
Assurance under such a gospel presentation would have to be derived from an assurance that one had genuinely believed. Therefore the focus of one’s faith, of necessity, becomes the act of faith.
This is wrong, Lash continues, because Biblical assurance
is not derived from focusing on something that we have performed; but rather, from focusing upon something Christ has accomplished in our behalf to God the Father’s satisfaction (p. 13).
Lash sorely misrepresents the GES view, which has made crystal clear that the object of saving faith is Christ’s promise of everlasting life.
Of course, part of believing the promise is understanding that God accepts our faith as instrumentally efficacious, apart from works. But recognizing the instrumentality of faith is different from taking it as the object of our belief. As Wilkin has written, there is only one condition for receiving eternal life, and it is not faith in faith: “The only condition of eternal life is faith in Christ” (Confident in Christ, 5). If anything, Wilkin and Hodges have been careful to emphasize faith’s simplicity (Hodges, Absolutely Free, Chap. 2) and its lack of a volitional element (Wilkin, Ten Most Misunderstood Words, p. 20), utterly rejecting the idea that there are degrees or qualities within one’s faith. “You can’t choose to believe. When the evidence that something is true persuades people, they believe it. When the evidence is insufficient, people don’t believe it” (Ten Most Misunderstood Words, p. 20). You either believe something is true, or you do not. The “quality” of one’s faith is not an issue.
Second, Lash also claims that GES teaches people to put their faith in the wrong object, specifically teaching that we should put our faith in Christ as guarantor of eternal life, rather than in Christ as our suffering substitute. As he writes, according to GES, “faith is not in Christ, the suffering substitute; but rather in Christ, the guarantor of eternal life” (p. 5). This is wrong, Lash explains, because the precise opposite is true, the proper object of saving faith is “in Jesus, God’s all sufficient substitutionary sacrifice for my sins” (p. 6).
First of all, this complaint contradicts Lash’s earlier claim that GES wrongly teaches people to put their faith in faith. Which is it, do they teach faith in faith, or faith in Christ as guarantor of eternal life? But putting this contradiction aside, Lash does raise an important question, namely: is there a difference between believing in Jesus as a sacrifice, and believing in Jesus as the guarantor of eternal life, such that we must believe one or the other?
I would suggest that while there is a distinction, these options are not mutually exclusive. Both descriptions of Christ are true. Both are good and salutary to believe. And more importantly, both beliefs may lead to saving faith in Christ. Nowhere do Hodges or Wilkin say that an either/or choice should be made here. So, for instance, it is entirely possible to believe that Jesus is our substitute, and be saved. The important point is whether belief in Jesus’ substitutionary death conveys that salvation is by faith apart from works, and can never be lost thereafter. So long as it does, then belief in Christ’s substitutionary death can be intrinsically (rather than simply instrumentally) salvific.
Lash makes the mistake of assuming that GES only accepts one formula for explaining the gospel. Although some presentations of the gospel are clearer than others, GES maintains there are many different ways of conveying the same salvific message. As Wilkin has written:
A person can be born again without ever hearing the words everlasting life, once saved, always saved, or eternal security. However, a person must believe that concept in order to believe in Jesus for that life which He promises. A person might believe that by faith in Jesus he is saved once and forever. He might believe he is justified and can never be unjustified. A guaranteed everlasting home with God in heaven for the one who simply believes in Jesus would be another way of believing the same concept (Ten Most Misunderstood Words, pp. 25-26, italics original.).
Thus, contra Lash, GES and Wilkin accept that it is possible to believe in Christ as our suffering substitute and be saved, so long as that belief includes the idea that what Christ gives us by faith is eternal. A person must not only understand that Jesus made some kind of promise to that effect, but they must also believe the promise itself.
However, Lash correctly implies that it is GES’s position that merely believing in the fact of Jesus’ substitution is not sufficient to be saved. But that is a position I would expect Lash to agree with. After all, many Christians believe that Jesus came to die a substitutionary death. But they think He died a substitutionary death in order to make it possible for us to earn our salvation by works. Surely, Lash would deny those people have saving faith in Christ, despite their substitutionary beliefs. The key is getting the promise of salvation right. Why? Because no matter how many facts about Jesus’ life and mission one may believe, none are salvific in themselves. One must believe Jesus’ promise in order to be saved.
Having said that, there are many different legitimate ways of presenting Jesus’ gospel promise, and many different reasons for believing that His promise is true. GES is open to them all, and does not posit a false distinction between believing in Jesus’ substitutionary death over and against His guarantee of everlasting life.
Third, Lash is critical of a minimalist presentation of the gospel and implies that GES literally does not tell people about the person and work of Christ:
Of course, those who attempt evangelism without mentioning the accomplishments of Christ on the cross never communicate the illuminating power of the gospel. So, their converts have done nothing more than exercise faith in their own faith. Serious seekers who fall for this counterfeit conversion experience will usually spend a life of despair and doubt, never gaining the assurance of salvation (p. 12).
The problem with such a gospel presentation is that there is not in that formula an objective factual basis for faith. There has not been presented in the formula information which communicates what really merits a person’s eternal standing with God, that being the merits of Christ crucified (p. 13).
This accusation ignores the fact that nearly everything published by GES carefully exposits the life of Christ: Who He is, what He did for mankind on the cross, as well as all of the other cardinal doctrines of the faith. Even in his (in)famous articles on “How to Lead People to Christ” (credited with originating the “crossless gospel” controversy, see JOTGES, Autumn 2000 and reprinted in Spring 2009), Zane Hodges emphatically urged the importance of preaching the cross of Christ: “In the light of what we have just said, should we preach the cross of Christ? The answer to that is emphatically yes.” As Hodges went on to explain:
Why should men trust Christ for eternal life? The gospel gives us the wonderful answer. They should do so because Jesus has bought their salvation at the cost of His own precious blood. And God has placed His seal on the work of the cross by raising Jesus from the dead (p. 112-13).
Lash’s criticism at this point is entirely without merit.
Fourth, Lash is concerned that the “crossless gospel” has a too narrow view of eternal life. “Crossless Gospel Advocates have a Narrow Definition of Eternal Life” one subtitle reads.
To understand another error of the crossless gospel advocates, one must understand the concept of Jesus’ granting of eternal life. This is important to see if we are to properly understand what part the Lord Jesus plays in the sinner’s passing from death unto life (p. 31).
What the crossless gospel advocates fail to understand, Lash claims, is that it is “first and foremost, the capacity for communion with the Father.”
As usual, Lash does not provide a shred of proof to back up his accusation. One wonders if he is familiar with Hodges’ book Harmony With God: A Fresh Look at Repentance, or his commentary on The Epistles of John, both of which clearly teach the very position that Lash claims GES does not hold.
In conclusion, I should mention that, despite these criticisms, Lash has a number of positive things to say about GES, calling it a “very helpful organization,” led by “much-needed pioneers of free grace theology” who “positively impacted” many for the gospel, including the author himself. “I whole-heartedly agree with the vast majority of what Dr. Bob Wilkin says concerning the dynamics of the New Birth” (p. 3).
This is heartening to know. But it is disheartening to think a former supporter could so seriously misunderstand and misrepresent GES. I hope this review will convince readers that there is no relationship between what Lash calls the crossless gospel and GES. I’m afraid I cannot recommend this booklet, except, perhaps, for those interested in the “crossless gospel” controversy.
Director of Publications
Grace Evangelical Society