The Grace Awakening. By Charles R. Swindoll. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990. 311 pp. Cloth, $15.99.
One of the primary frustrations of the Free Grace Movement has been the popularization of Lordship Salvation over the past decade. Though many high-profile evangelical leaders have voiced their personal concerns privately, none has been willing to risk alienating his audience by standing up for the pure Gospel of Grace. Until now.
Charles Swindoll has stepped forward in his newest book, The Grace Awakening, with a bold presentation of the uncomplicated and uncompromised grace of God and a call to the glorious freedom this grace offers to every believer. This is not the usual plea for dialogue and understanding which fails to confront the real issues. At the outset Swindoll refuses to treat grace as simply another “theological football kicked from one end of the field to the other” (p. 4). This is a hard-hitting expose of the “grace killers” among us and a compelling argument to break away from their legalistic chains. “Enough of this,” he cries. “It’s time for grace to be awakened and released, not denied … to be enjoyed and freely given, not debated” (p. 4).
The following is an overview of Swindol’s presentation of the grace which awakens freedom in Christ.
Chapters 1–4 rightly concentrate on the primary problem-a heretical “gospel,” which is not really good news. Weaving support from Romans 4, 5, and 6 into his definition of the Gospel, Swindoll concludes that God gives the free gift of salvation to all who believe in His Son (p. 26). Discerning readers will be delighted by his simple and straightforward definitions and clarifications: Grace is“absolutely and totally free … grace comes to us free and clear, no strings attached. We should not even try to repay it; to do so is insulting [to God]” (p. 9). Justification is “the sovereign act of God whereby He declares righteous the believing sinner-while he is still in a sinning state” (p. 24). And repentance is “a change of mind toward Christ” (p. 42). Swindoll clearly distinguishes justification (“… [having] simply taken the gift of eternal life”) from sanctification (“… the process of growth toward maturity,” p. 42). And he states the doctrine of eternal security in unqualified terms: “When we do the things we should not, He may administer discipline, sometimes quite severely, but He never turns His back … He doesn’t send His child to hell! Neither do we fall from grace and get slammed behind the bars of the Law. He deals with His own in grace … beautiful, charming, unmerited favor. It is really amazing!” (p. 12).
What sets Swindol’s discussion of the Gospel apart from the others is his courageous honesty to his critics and unequivocal application to his readers. He faces the inevitable objection, “Isn’t grace risky?”, with clarity. He not only admits that grace is sometimes abused but presents “the fact that some take it to an unwise extreme” as “proof that a minister is indeed preaching the true grace of God” (p. 39). Caring more for his readers than for his reputation in a market dominated by those who attack the Free Grace Gospel, he erases all doubt concerning the free gift of eternal life. “You will be granted entrance [to heaven] because you accepted the free gift of eternal life-nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. There is one and only one password for entering heaven: Grace” (p. 33). All this is written from the perspective of a battle-worn veteran who leaves himself personally vulnerable for the sake of his cause. He accurately calculates that his defense of the free gift of salvation will bring “grace abusers as well as grace killers out from under the rocks!” But, he explains, “that is a chance I’m willing to take by holding back nothing in order that the full message of grace be set forth” (p. 41).
Chapter 5, “Squaring Off Against Legalism,” is a call to arms. The freedom resulting from this Gospel of Grace so precisely defined in chapters 1–4 will be attacked, he warns. Swindol, in one of the most accurate and forthright syntheses of Galatians in print, reminds us that “liberty is always worth fighting for” (p. 75). Appalled by the Christian community’s passivity in the face of legalism (pp. 76–77) and quoting Gal 5:1 as his battle cry, he contrasts liberty to legalism (pp. 78–84) and exposes the three tools of legalism: heresy, harassment, and hypocrisy (pp. 85–96). When Swindoll challenges us to defend our freedom he pulls no punches. “Please allow me to be absolutely straight with you: Stop tolerating the heretical gospel of works! It is legalism. Wake up to the fact that it will put you into a bondage syndrome that won’t end. The true gospel of grace, however, will set you free. Free forever” (p. 87). “Killers cannot be mildly or kindly tolerated. You can no more allow legalism to continue than you could permit a rattlesnake to slip into your house and hide. Before long somebody is going to get hurt” (p. 98). Some will object to the strong words of this chapter, but those who have fought for grace will recognize the realistic passion of a man familiar with the tactics of the grace-attackers.
Having defined grace in chapters 1–4 and defended grace in chapter 5, Swindoll dedicates the rest of his book to describing how this grace should work into a Christian’s life. Though the readers of this journal are primarily concerned with the purity and propagation of the Gospel of Grace they would do well to read on. Indeed, to those already convinced that salvation is by grace through faith plus nothing, chapters 6–14 present a most important challenge: If you believe in grace, then live it!
Focusing on Romans 6, Swindoll urges Christians to allow the doctrine of grace to permeate their lives. “What I’m urging,” he writes, “is not just taking grace into our vocabulary, but cultivating it in each other … encouraging a mental framework of grace in one another. My plea is for the body of Christ to have a grace state of mind” (p. 142). He views this “grace state of mind” as the key to a healthy spiritual life. A thorough application of grace is a must, he believes, if believers are to conquer the power of sin (chapter 6), courageously guide others to freedom (chapter 7), confidently allow others to “be whomever and whatever God is leading them to be” (p. 152, chapter 8), and consistently press on in spite of disagreement (chapter 9). The potential of grace-living is followed immediately with some key indicators of progress, both personally (chapter 10) and in ministry (chapter 11). So, in chapters 6–11, the believer in grace not only sees what is possible when grace is applied, but also sees blind spots of personal legalism exposed.
In three of the most convicting chapters a grace-oriented believer will ever read, Swindoll closes with an invitation to examine the relationship between our commitment to grace and three critical areas of life: marriage, giving, and personal commitment. A full appreciation of grace, he argues in chapters 12–14, is the essential ingredient leading to loving marriages, generous giving, and grateful humility.
In a volume so courageously and so carefully written, there is little to criticize. Informed readers may well find Swindol’s few comments by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (former pastor of Westminster Chapel, London) in support of his argument unfortunate at best (p. 39). It is strange that Dr. Swindoll would seek validation from a theologian who adamantly disagreed with his definition of repentance (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1959], 2:248) and Swindol’s definite distinction between justification and sanctification (see Romans: The New Man [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974], p. 190).
Though this reviewer appreciated the simple style of the volume, those looking for detailed or analytical exegetical support for conclusions will have to adjust to Swindol’s more synthetic approach. This work, perhaps the best from Swindol’s very talented pen, makes it a must for every Christian library. Vivid stories from history, contemporary news, and the author’s personal experiences illustrate vital theological issues so plainly that the reader will thirst for the liberating power of grace. Swindoll has masterfully presented the truth of the Gospel without identifying with either “camp” of the current Lordship versus Free Grace conflict. Though Lordship advocates will reject his words and Free Grace champions will rejoice, neither will find the usual array of antagonists. Since Swindoll supports his argument from a different and diverse body of writers and thinkers, the endnotes (pp. 305–311) become an invaluable resource to reach those who feel the Free Grace Movement is comprised only of a narrow group of theologians. This positive presentation of grace, refusing to attack or defend personalities, is refreshing.
The purpose of this volume, to infect believers with the liberating grace of God, makes it one of the most effective weapons available to combat the bondage of legalism that the Grace Evangelical Society was founded to arrest. In the short time since its publishing, this reviewer has witnessed the phenomenal potential of this book: A local pastor has gained the courage to stand for grace by preaching an extended series on this book. A parachurch leader has given copies to his board, telling these influential people, “This is the most freeing, exciting book I have ever read. It brought me back to the simple yet majestic basics of my faith.” And the leader of a worldwide missions organization has ordered thousands of copies for his partners on the field.
Dr. Swindoll has drawn his line in the theological sand. He stands for radical, NT grace, and has joined the fight for the liberty that this grace brings. Those who remain on the fence in this fight for freedom should consider his challenge: “If fighting for liberty sounds too aggressive to you, perhaps too selfish, then think of it as fighting so others can be set free-so others can be awakened to the joys and privileges of personal freedom. Those who do so on real battlefields are called patriots or heroes. With all my heart, I believe those who square off against legalism should be considered the same” (p. 99).
We agree. And one of the first heroes we would name? Thank you, Chuck Swindoll .
GES Board Member
Pastor, North Umpqua Bible Fellowship