Introduction to the Series
Over the last year or so a growing number of books and articles has appeared targeting the Free Grace movement for critique and rebuttal. These publications mention the Grace Evangelical Society and its literature. This is a positive development. GES definitely wishes to have its views seriously discussed in the marketplace of ideas.
It might be possible to describe these writings as presenting what is known as “Lordship Salvation.” But this designation, though widely used, does not indicate the true historical antecedents of the movement in its present form. The term could be used with equal ease to describe many who are Arminian in theology. Yet the major “Lordship” writers of today are not Arminian, however much they tend toward conclusions similar to those of Arminians (e.g., on assurance). Instead, these writers describe themselves as Calvinists. But John Calvin himself, were he alive today, would probably disown them because they more closely resemble the scholastic theology that resisted the Reformation than Calvin’s own theology.1
In deference, therefore, to the many Calvinists who hold a biblical theology of grace (e.g., R. T. Kendall, M. Charles Bell, Charles C. Ryrie), we refuse to describe the writers we are talking about as Calvinists. Instead, it would be better to identify them with the theology that became predominant in Puritan thought and which was, in significant respects, a rejection of certain basic concepts of Reformation theology. Hence my series title is “The New (i.e., contemporary) Puritanism.”
In this series we will consider some of the more significant recent literature produced from this particular theological perspective. In the process we will seek to determine how fairly, and how effectively, these writers have confronted the Free Grace movement.
In a recent issue of the Westminster Theological Journal (54 :1 -24), D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL, has written an article entitled, “Reflections on Christian Assurance.” Carson is a well-known scholar and a prolific writer. Since his presentation is reasonably well-balanced, it seems logical to begin this series with him.
I. Pejorative Language in Carson
Although a scholarly “distancing” generally prevails in Carson’s article, there are a few places where emotive and pejorative language break through. I will mention three such places.
A. Virulent Emphasis
In one place (p. 3) Carson speaks of the Reformation’s “virulent emphasis on sola fide.” The term “virulent” is anything but a compliment, since it can suggest such ideas as “extremely poisonous,” “pathogenic,” “hateful,” “obnoxious,” or “harsh” (The American Heritage Dictionary). According to Carson this “virulent emphasis on sola fide led Luther to see assurance as an element of saving faith”! Moreover, he admits, “The same connection can be found in Calvin” (p. 3).
It turns out, then, that “virulence” is in the eye of the beholder—in this case, Carson. He goes on to point out that, “By contrast, the English Puritans…placed more of an emphasis on the role of a transformed life in lending assurance to the Christian mind and conscience” (p. 4). Precisely! And this is the fundamental issue in the debate today. Do we follow the Puritans in making a transformed life the lynch-pin of the doctrine of assurance, or do we concur with the great Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon) that assurance is “of the essence of” (an indispensable part of) saving faith? For Carson, the latter view is the product of a “virulent emphasis” on sola fide!
Let it be frankly admitted that the Free Grace movement today shares the reformers’ emphasis and conviction at this point. Carson’s use of the word “virulent” in connection with this issue suggests an underlying displeasure with, and rejection of, the Reformers’ doctrine of assurance. This is precisely the contemporary mentality of the New Puritanism.2
B. Wretched “Easy Believism”
Not surprisingly, Carson also writes about “the wretched ‘easy believism’ of many in the Western world who, having professed faith, feel no pull toward holiness and no shame when they take the elements” (p. 5). Of course, along with phrases like “cheap grace” and “mental assent,” “easy believism” is one of the jargon terms of the New Puritanism. Hardly ever are these expressions clearly defined and they become little more than religious “cuss words” to hurl at one’s opponents and thus they serve as a substitute for calm and reasoned debate. As the quoted words of Carson show, “easy believism” (whatever it is) is so obviously bad that it can be described as “wretched” without further ado.
But does the rest of Carson’s quote actually define this term? No, not at all. Carson speaks of people who have “professed faith” but are without a holy conscience. Are such persons saved? Not for Carson. But also not necessarily for anyone whom I know of in the Free Grace movement, either! As I have made clear in print, I emphatically do not believe that all professions of faith are real. I know of no Free Grace writer who would disagree with me about that.
Why is this? First, to profess faith is not the same as believing, since the profession may be a lie. After all, Paul speaks of “false brethren” down in Jerusalem who apparently only pretended to be Christians (Gal 2:4). But secondly, the content or object of a man’s faith may be false. If the true biblical Gospel is not what is believed, then of course the professed believer has believed something that will not save him. Regrettably, many people believe a “gospel” that is unbiblical. If that is all they have ever believed about the way of salvation, believing it will not save them. We are saved by believing truth, not error. That is to say, only the true Gospel saves.
But the statement Carson makes about professed believers is equally fraught with difficulties. Such persons, says Carson, “feel no pull toward holiness and no shame when they take the elements.” Pardon me, but I thought only God could know if a person feels “no pull toward holiness” or “no shame when taking the elements”! Does Carson really mean that they seem to have no such ‘pull’ and that they seem to have no ‘shame’? But that’s different. It is often true that men hide their innermost feelings and may only appear to lack these things. Is Carson talking about cases where, as far as we can tell, these things are absent? If not, does Carson know for a fact that such cases as he describes actually exist?
The imprecision here is almost hopeless. The reader cannot tell exactly what the writer means. Does the writer himself know? If so, he’ll have to tell us.
Meanwhile, the phrase “easy believism” (whatever it is!) consists of little more than imprecise code words for who knows what?
C. Happy to Speak of…
According to Carson, “Zane Hodges is happy [!] to speak of Christians ceasing to name the name of Christ and denying the faith completely…” (p. 28). This comment by Carson is close to being an unethical canard. How could I be “happy” to speak of such things?
Carson might claim that he only meant to say that these matters did not move me to change my theology. But Carson is too sophisticated a writer not to know better than that. The choice of the word happy will suggest to some that I maintain a kind of moral indifference to these things. But no one who has ever read any book of mine carefully, can fairly draw such a conclusion. I do believe that the Bible teaches that such awful sins can be committed by a Christian. But with biblical writers like Paul (2 Tim 2:16-21) and the author of Hebrews (chaps 6 and 10), I am grieved that this is so. I am not happy about it!
Since the writers from the New Puritan school of thought stress the importance of holiness, perhaps they could set us all an example of chaste language which is fair rather than demeaning, relevant rather than ad hominem.
II. Concessions by Carson
One positive feature of Carson’s article was his apparent willingness to concede some points that heretofore had been in debate. Of course, it is possible that, from Carson’s viewpoint, none of the matters I list represent concessions by him. But at least, in the items cited, he appears to go against some of the widely-held positions of others in his school of thought.
A. The Debate over Kendall’s Work
In his impressive historical study entitled Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: University Press, 1979), R. T. Kendall has argued that, starting with Beza in Geneva and Perkins in England, post-Calvin Calvinism departed from Calvin’s own doctrine of faith and assurance. The result was the denial of a fundamental feature of Calvin’s doctrine of saving faith: namely, a denial that assurance was of the essence of saving faith.
Carson does not side with those who categorically reject Kendall’s position. Indeed, in a carefully nuanced paragraph on this debate (p. 5), Carson begins by saying:
Certainly both sides of this essentially historical debate have full arsenals by which to take on the others’ positions.
But he goes on to add that “both sides recognize that the debate is not merely a historical one… but a doctrinal one with substantial theological and pastoral implications” (p. 5). Although this sounds like a very modest concession, it is considerably more than that in reality. Considering that many in the New Puritan camp have firmly rejected Kendall’s conclusions, Carson’s unwillingness to come down clearly on that side of the issue speaks volumes.3
Kendall’s thesis about the lack of assurance in Puritanism is relevant at another place in the article (pp. 20-21). There Carson has a lengthy quotation from I. Howard Marshall which ends with the words:
Whoever said, “The Calvinist knows that he cannot fall from salvation but does not know whether he has got it,” had it summed up nicely…The non-Calvinist knows that he has salvation—because he trusts in the promises of God—but is aware that, left to himself, he could lose it. So he holds to Christ. It seems to me the practical effect is the same.
Carson’s concession here is grudging: “At a merely mechanistic level, I think this analysis is largely correct” (italics added). Why “mechanistic”? Surely Marshall’s analysis is right on target. Carson’s discussion (following the quoted statement on p. 21), is simply an effort to salvage some superiority for the Puritan view over the Arminian one. But doubt, discouragement, and despair are the frequent fruits of a lack of assurance in both of these branches of professing Christendom.
B. The Problem of I John 3:9
While not citing this verse explicitly, Carson nevertheless has it in mind when (p. 12) he discusses the Apostle John’s “insistence that believers do sin” in relation to the fact that, “At the same time, he repeatedly insists that sinning is not done amongst Christians.” This observation refers especially to the well-known tension between 1 John 1:8 and verses like 3:9 and 5:18.
What is Carson’s view of the solution? It is actually a variation of the old “ideal” view. This view antedates the more widely known “tense-solution” that appeals to the use of the present tense in the (alleged) sense of “does not keep on sinning.” Instead of the tense view, Carson writes:
Various explanations have been advanced, but the most obvious is still the best: although both our experience and our location between the “already” and the “not yet” teach us that we do and will sin, yet every single instance of sin is shocking, inexcusable, forbidden, appalling, out of line with what we are as Christians (p.12, italics added).
Thus does Carson silently reject the “tense solution” which has been by far the most popular one among those holding to the New Puritanism. The present author challenged this view as far back as 1981 and again in the new edition of The Gospel Under Siege (1992). I have called this widely-held view an idea whose time has come and gone!4 It has been abandoned by the most recent major commentators on 1 John: Marshall, Brown, and Smalley.5
I am not so sanguine as to believe that we will never hear the tense view again from the other side, but with Carson quietly turning his back on it I am tempted to declare victory here for the Free Grace position. After all, we can live with the “ideal” view as easily as Carson does!
Maybe more so.
C. The Greek Verb Pisteuw and Its Constructions
In two footnotes at the bottom of p. 17, Carson explodes the reliance some New Puritan writers have placed on the different constructions used with the Greek verb for believe (i.e., pisteuw used with eis plus an accusative and pisteuw used with the simple dative). Correctly Carson writes: “In reality, the small variation in form is typical of the Fourth Evangelist, who is well-known for his slight variations without clear-cut semantic distinction.”
So much for another illicit argument that has sometimes been deployed against the Free Grace movement. Sophisticated linguists are not impressed by argumentation from grammatical over-refinements. The current discussion of soteriology will be greatly enhanced if we dispense with such over-refinements altogether.
III. “In-House” Interpretations by Carson
While the “concessions” mentioned above are to be valued, Carson nevertheless exhibits many “in-house” interpretations. By “in-house” I mean that they are quite common in the New Puritanism and are sometimes put forward as if they were self-evident. Space does not permit us to do more than mention a couple of these. In any case most of them are dealt with in my books, especially, The Gospel Under Siege (2nd ed., 1992).
A. Second Peter 1:10 and Assurance
Carson apparently takes this verse as most others in his school do (namely, as a call to perform good works so as to have reason to be sure of one’s election), but his reference to this text is too brief to bear discussion here (p. 2). Of course, Calvin did not take 2 Pet 1:10 in this way,6 nor is there any real reason to regard the text as relevant to one’s own inward assurance. Peter no doubt has demonstration to men, not to oneself, in view. In this sense, before the world, we verify our call and election by our lifestyle.
B. First Corinthians 3:1-4 and the Carnal Christian
As expected, Carson does not much like the distinction between “spiritual” and “carnal” Christians, though Paul plainly makes some kind of distinction in these verses, as Carson recognizes. What Carson appears to object to is “an absolute, qualitative distinction” between these categories (p. 9). But who in the Free Grace movement carries the distinction that far?
Since Paul compares carnality with babyhood (3:1), might we not ask whether to make a distinction between “babies” and “mature” people would also be making an “absolute, qualitative distinction” in the natural realm? If not (or even if so!), can we not also distinguish spiritual infants from the spiritually mature?
But Carson seems also to be worried about the term carnal being applied to “someone who made a profession of faith, followed the way of Christ for a few months, and then lived in a manner indistinguishable from that of any pagan for the next fifteen years, despite conscientious pastoral interest” (p. 9). Yet here again we encounter the same confusion we met in Carson’s treatment of “easy believism.” Since Carson does not tell us what exactly the so-called profession of faith rested on, we have no way of knowing whether such a case is one over which we might disagree.
And why fifteen years? Would the case have the same meaning for Carson if the time covered were only ten years? Five years? Two? One? New Puritanism shows an understandable reluctance to address particulars of this sort, since addressing them will show how arbitrary examples like Carson’s are. Almost always the so-called examples are painted in such lurid and extreme colors that one never hears of the shades of gray that pastors on the field actually encounter.
And once more we meet the “fudge factor” of appearance versus reality. The case Carson hypothesizes is of a professed believer living “in a manner indistinguishable from any pagan.” Indistinguishable to whom? To God? Or to the New Puritans? Those are not the same thing!
Here it is easy to detect the “eagerness” with which New Puritan theology is ready to pronounce on cases of profession which are not followed by the fruits thought appropriate by New Puritanism. The proponents of this theology are anxious to rule on cases that they consider obvious, even though God may well know facts about real-life cases which can never be known by finite man and which would significantly alter man’s assessment if they could be known.
Carson’s comments on false professions are all to be regarded as constructing arbitrary straw men which serve only to avoid the tougher questions at issue.
Finally, in his treatment of carnality, Carson errs in what apparently is supposed to be the Free Grace position (p. 10). He states:
It [1 Corinthians 3] does not encourage us to think that it is possible to accept Jesus as Savior, and thus be promoted from the “natural ” to the “carnal ” level, in transit, as it were, to the “spiritual” stage, at which point one has accepted Jesus as Lord.
Carson offers us no documentation for such a view. I for one do not know where he can find any. This looks to me like a mere caricature which has been created in Carson’s thinking by a flawed idea of what his opponents teach.
Carnality, in my view, is spiritual babyhood (1 Cor 3:1). It has nothing to do with the acceptance of Jesus as Lord any more than a child’s infancy has anything to do with his “acceptance” of the authority of his father. The carnal Christian may well recognize (as the Corinthians obviously did) the lordship of Christ. They were simply too immature to behave in a spiritual way and the Apostle Paul is asking them to face the true character of their conduct.
In the quoted statement, I see no resemblance between Carson’s statements and the Free Grace position. Without the proper documentation, Carson’s comments look like another straw man.
IV. Carson and GES
Carson is well aware of the existence of the Grace Evangelical Society and introduces us to his readers under a heading referring to “a small but vociferous segment of evangelicalism“ (p. 5, italics original). I suppose a warm welcome to the evangelical scene was more than we could have expected from this writer. Why we are regarded as any more “vociferous” than the New Puritans themselves (if indeed we are so regarded) is a point that escapes me. No doubt the liberal media and elite regard politically active conservatives as “vociferous” too. But such pejorative terms are not likely to silence either them or us.
Carson incorrectly lumps all GES adherents together when he describes “our” view on repentance (p. 6). He writes:
In the view of Hodges and his colleagues, trusting Jesus as Savior is all that is required for salvation. “Repentance,” in their view, must be understood in a narrowly etymological sense: it is a mental “change of mind” that accepts Jesus as Savior, but entails no necessary sorrow over sin or turning away from it.
Actually this is not my view at all, though it is the view of many of my fellow GES colleagues. My own view is carefully explained in my book, Absolutely Free!, in the longest chapter (chap 12, pp. 143-63), entitled “Repentance.”7 Carson has not done his homework here.
Interestingly, Carson later claims that “it would take too much space…to demonstrate the methodological flaws inherent in Hodges’ treatment of repentance” (p. 12). Perhaps so. But in any case he should first read those views with enough care to get them right!
In discussing the Parable of the Soils (Mark 4:1-20), Carson (evidently) adopts the standard view within the New Puritanism that the first three soils represent the non-elect (see pp. 18-19). But he goes on to say that “several popular interpreters with the Grace Evangelical Society find this so uncomfortable that they reinterpret the parable” (p. 19). I suppose we are uncomfortable with the New Puritan approach to this parable, but only because it does not appear to square with the text.
In fact, Carson’s treatment of the parable is so imprecise in its terminology that others from his camp may be uncomfortable, too, when they read it. He notes, for example, that in the parable “two of the three fruitless soils sprout life” (p. 19). A few lines further down he states (of the seed on rocky ground) that “this spiritual life proves transitory.”
What can this possibly mean? Does “spiritual life” here equal eternal life? If so, how can it prove transitory unless, after all, the Arminians are right! (A conclusion we do not really entertain!) But if it is not eternal life, what is it? Is there another kind of spiritual life? Carson does not tell us.
But our understanding is further darkened when Carson goes on to write (further down on p. 19) that to hold the GES view of the parable would mean “introducing a category for spiritual life that is nevertheless fruitless” and that to do so “is simply alien to the concerns of the chapter, and contrary to one of the driving motifs of all three Synoptic Gospels.”
But if we introduce a category of life that is fruitless (actually we do not), has not Carson himself introduced a category of spiritual life that is transitory and not eternal? Is this not a case of the pot calling the kettle black?
Actually, in the parable, the sprouts and the stunted grain of the middle two soils ought not to be called “spiritual life” at all. Instead, they are the manifestations of spiritual life. But the life is inherent in the seed which symbolizes the Word of God (Mark 4:14; see 1 Pet 1:22-25). As long as the seed remains in the soil (in the last three soils it does remain) life is there. Only its manifestations are lost in the rocky soil.
This is a perfectly straightforward view of the parable which should make no one uncomfortable unless (as is true in Carson’s case) it contradicts his theology!
I am happy that Carson has discovered GES. Perhaps the next time he writes about us he could aim for a higher level of scholarly precision.
V. Carson and “Compatibilism”
In an extended section (pp. 21-26), Carson has appealed to what he calls “compatibilism.” Compatibilism, he claims, deals with the vexed question of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (p. 22).8 “Modern compatibilists,” he claims, “…do not try to show how the two propositions hold together” (pp. 23-24), and “compatibilism touches many subjects: election, the problem of suffering, the nature of prayer, and much else. What is not often recognized is that it bears directly on the nature of Christian assurance” (p. 25).
There follows a crucial statement by Carson (pp. 25-26):
For, on the one hand, we are dealing with a plethora of texts that promise God’s sovereign commitment to preserve His own elect; on the other, believers are enjoined to persevere in faithfulness to the new covenant and the Lord of the covenant, to the calling by which they were called. This is nothing other than God’s sovereignty and human responsibility dressed up in another form.
So we will, I think, always have some mystery.
The fallacy of this approach, however, is that it is dictated by Carson’s own view of faith and assurance as being somehow related to perseverance in holiness. Since Carson shows no serious inclination to re-examine this premise of his own theology, he is left with the very tensions he claims must be handled by compatibilism. But even after these tensions are waved aside by Carson, what is left is not assurance at all.
What is left, in fact, is the idï¿½e fixe of the New Puritanism: namely, that the passages which command “faithfulness to the new covenant and to the Lord of the covenant” must be tied in with soteriological concerns. As long as this flawed premise is held to, adherents of Puritan thought can still not have genuine assurance.
If “assurance” were indeed a mystery, then it would be a deeply disquieting mystery to those who need assurance the most. Does Dr. Carson know beyond question that he himself is regenerate? If so, let him tell us how he knows.
The compatibilist cannot have a mystery and a confident answer too!
There is certainly much more that can be said about the specific matters which appear in Carson’s article, but space does not permit this. To respond to everything in Carson’s discussion would almost require that our book, The Gospel Under Siege (2nd ed.) be reprinted here. The reader who wishes more discussion of the specific passages brought forward by Carson will find most of them addressed in that book or in Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordshzp Salvation.9
Let us here simply examine one of Carson’s final, concluding observations. On the final page of his article he writes:
I have not argued that perseverance is the basis for assurance; rather, I have argued that failure to persevere undermines assurance. The basis of assurance is Christ and His work and its entailments (italics his).
This comes close to double-speak. Of course, New Puritan thought makes Christ and His work the basis of assurance even as they make it the basis of salvation. The trouble is that in New Puritanism one cannot find real assurance in Christ and His work (as Calvin so clearly taught that we could!), for any such supposed assurance is invalidated by the possibility that one may fail to persevere.
Thus the “failure to persevere” does more than to “undermine assurance” after the failure appears. It also undermines it up front as well, so that someone who believes in Puritan theology cannot be truly sure of salvation even at the supposed moment of conversion. And, indeed, he can never be sure before death, because only death forecloses the possibility of his “falling away.”
I want to remind Carson that for Calvin such a person was not saved at all. In treating 2 Cor 13:5 (a favorite New Puritan text) Calvin writes:
Second, this passage serves to prove the assurance of faith [italics added], a doctrine which the sophists of the Sorbonne have so corrupted for us that it is now almost uprooted from the minds of men. They hold that it is rash temerity to be persuaded that we are members of Christ and have Him dwelling in us, and they bid us rest content with a moral conjecture, which is a mere opinion, so that our consciences remain perpetually undecided and perplexed. But what does Paul say here? He declares that those who doubt their possession of Christ are reprobates [italics added]. Let us therefore understand that the only true faith is that which allows us to rest in God’s grace, not with a dubious opinion but with firm and steadfast assurance [italics added]. See Comm. 2 Corinthians 13:5.
Even if we demur, as I do, from Calvin’s precise exposition of this Pauline text, Calvin’s firm insistence that assurance is of the essence of true saving faith is quite plain here. He makes the same point in many other places as well.
The Grace Evangelical Society agrees with Calvin’s conviction that saving faith, whenever it is exercised, carries with it a firm assurance. Apparently the New Puritans agree with “the sophists of the Sorbonne”!
1For just one of the points on which this seems true, see Paul Holloway, “A Return to Rome: Lordship Salvation’s Doctrine of Faith,”Journal ofthe Grace Evangelical Sodety 4 (Autumn 1991): 13-21.
2This mentality is by no means a new one. It is reflected clearly in the 19th century by Presbyterian theologian Robert L. Dabney. Dabney frankly states that Calvin and Luther were in error when they made assurance to be of the essence of saving faith. His immediate target was the Plymouth Brethren, who concurred with this view of the Reformers. See the two treatises, “Theology of the Plymouth Brethren,” in Discussions by Robert L. Dabney, vol. 1: Theological and Evangelical, ed. C. R. Vaughn (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1890), 169-213 and 214-28.
3Kendall’s thesis was defended against his critics by M. Charles Bell in his doctoral dissertation done for the University of Aberdeen (1982) and published as, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 13-18. Also helpful in this whole discussion is A.N.S. Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance,” Vox Evangelica 11(1979): 32-54.
4The Gospel Under Siege, 2nd ed. (Dallas: Redenciï¿½n Viva, 1992), 63-67.
5I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, New International Greek New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978);Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982); Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984).
6Calvin, Comm. 1 Peter 1:10. M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology, writes: “Even with regard to 2 Peter 1:10 (which was used by later Calvinists to justify the use of the practical syllogism [= testing one’s faith by one’s works]), Calvin refuses to refer this to man’s conscience as a means of discerning the certainty of our salvation” (p. 29).
7Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas: Redenciï¿½n Viva, 1989).
8The famous (alleged) tension between the doctrines of divine sovereignty and human responsibility has been called by others an irresolvable paradox, or an antinomy. “Compatibilism” is Carson’s term for this, by which he means that these doctrines “are mutually compatible” even though they cannot be totally harmonized. See his discussion on p. 22.
9Ed. note: Both of Hodges’s books mentioned above may be obtained by writing or calling Redenciï¿½n Viva, P.O. Box 141167, Dallas, TX 75214; phone: (214)821-5357.