If there is one thing that especially marks out evangelicalism, it is surely the belief that Christians don’t earn their right to be saved from hell. Instead we evangelicals believe that salvation is an undeserved gift from God that we accept by faith in Christ.
The Reformers in the 16th century strongly opposed the Roman Catholic view that Christians partly earn their salvation. And ever since, evangelicals have stressed that Christians are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds.
Good deeds will always accompany saving faith
Evangelicals, however, are crystal clear too that if someone has saving faith, that faith will always be expressed by doing good deeds. It is the faith that saves, but where there is genuine faith, good deeds will always, so to speak, tag along.
This means that when someone first receives salvation by faith, they will always repent of their sins. And as they continue through life in a state of salvation by faith, their life will be characterised by performing good deeds.
That is not to say that any Christian is able to live even close to a morally perfect life. But it does mean that if someone who claims to be a Christian is not even trying to live in a way that pleases God, that person does not have saving faith. Instead, their faith is a kind of fake, dead faith that doesn’t save.
James refers to this dead sort of faith several times in chapter 2 of his letter. He says:
‘So too, faith by itself, if it has no deeds, is dead.’ (James 2:17)
‘You believe that God is one. Very impressive! Even the demons believe that – and shudder!’ (James 2:19)
‘Do you want evidence, you foolish person, that faith without deeds is useless?’ (James 2:20)
‘For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is also dead.’ (James 2:26)
According to James, then, saving faith will always be accompanied by good deeds. And a multitude of other biblical passages say the same. This is what the Bible teaches, and it is what evangelicals believe.
Free Grace Theology
Around the beginning of the 20th century a heresy developed out of evangelicalism, which has come to be known as ‘Free Grace Theology’. Adherents of this movement rightly agree that people are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds. But they claim that as long as someone makes a decision to accept Christ as their personal Saviour, they will be saved regardless of whether they repent of their sins and make Jesus Lord of their life.
It is true that those in this movement don’t say that morality is unimportant. They say that people should make Jesus Lord of their lives. But they claim that this is not necessary for salvation. All that is necessary is to believe that Jesus is the Saviour and choose to accept Him as such.
Those who take this view are making a terrible mistake. They have failed to recognise that if someone never repents of their sins, it is always a sign that their faith is a kind of fake faith that doesn’t save.
If the 16th century Reformers were around today, there is no doubt that they would all be completely horrified by Free Grace Theology. Their writings make this abundantly clear. And evangelicals today should be equally horrified.
We need to very clear too that Free Grace Theology stands not just outside evangelicalism, but outside anything that could be called orthodox, i.e., non-heretical, Christianity. The idea that people can be saved without turning away from their sins is heresy, pure and simple.
The Free Grace argument that uses John’s Gospel
One of the arguments that is commonly used by those in the Free Grace movement concerns John’s Gospel. The argument goes in this way:
John’s Gospel teaches repeatedly about the need to believe in Jesus for salvation. However, it never uses words meaning ‘repent’ or ‘repentance’. This omission can hardly be accidental. Therefore we can infer that according to this Gospel, turning away from sin is not necessary for someone to receive salvation.
It is true that John’s Gospel never uses words meaning ‘repent’ or ‘repentance’. Nevertheless, this argument is naively simplistic and fundamentally flawed, as I will show in what follows.
The word – concept fallacy
To begin with, those who argue in this way have fallen into what we could call ‘the word – concept fallacy’. The error here is to think that if a certain word which is commonly used to refer to a concept is not present, then that concept itself cannot be present.
However, this is a big mistake. For example, suppose I come into a house and say to someone there, ‘I’ve been outside for one minute and I’m soaked! If you go out, make sure you take an umbrella.’
Here I have not been explicit that it is raining, since I have not used the words ‘rain’ or ‘raining’. But I have clearly implied that it is raining nevertheless.
Similarly, there are times when a biblical author clearly implies a concept without using a word or phrase that refers to it explicitly.
For example, it is interesting to note that John’s Gospel itself never uses the Greek word pistis, the standard New Testament noun meaning ‘faith’. Nor does it use any other Greek noun with this sense.
If you look up pistis in a Greek concordance of the NT, you will find that this word is used over 240 times in the NT as a whole but never in John’s Gospel. And if you look up ‘faith’ in an English concordance, you will find hundreds of NT entries but none in John’s Gospel. Instead, when John wants to express the concept of having faith, he always makes use of the verb pisteuo, which can be translated into English as ‘believe’. The concept of having faith is very much present in John’s Gospel, even though the word ‘faith’ is never used.
As another example, take the Greek word charis, which is the standard NT word for ‘grace’. It is interesting that in the Gospels we never find Jesus using this word with the meaning ‘grace’. Nor do we find Him using any other Greek word with this meaning.
If you look up ‘grace’ in an English concordance of the NT, you will not find Jesus using this term. But that, of course, in no way means that Jesus’ message was not a message of grace. Rather, in the Gospels the grace in Jesus’ message is strongly implied rather than made explicit.
The first grave error, then, of those who say that John’s Gospel doesn’t teach the necessity of repentance, is that they have been caught out by the word – concept fallacy. Just because words meaning ‘repent’ and ‘repentance’ are not found in this Gospel in no way has to mean that these concepts are not present.
Taking 1 John into account
Free Grace teachers who use the argument based on John’s Gospel have also failed to take the letter of 1 John into account.
No one disputes that the theology and thought-world of John’s Gospel and 1 John are very similar. Yet, crucially, 1 John is a part of Scripture that is especially strong in its teaching that those who unrepentantly practise sin will not finally be saved.
1 John 3:8 states:
‘The person who practises sin is of the devil.’
1 John 3:14-15 says:
‘14 Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer. And you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.’
In 1 John 3:9 we are even told:
‘No one who has been born of God practises sin, . . . and he cannot sin . . .’
And 1 John
‘No one who has been born of God sins . . .’
In saying that those born of God cannot sin, and that no one born of God sins, 3:9 and are surely using hyperbole, i.e., deliberately exaggerated language. In light of the rest of Scripture, we cannot say that born-again Christians are actually unable to sin or that they do not sin. Nevertheless, these verses, along with others in 1 John, teach us plainly that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are not God’s children. And only God’s children will avoid hell in the end.
1 John, then, teaches strongly that only those who repent of their sins will be saved. So, given the close theological similarities between 1 John and the Gospel of John, it would be astonishing if this Gospel taught that people could be saved without repenting of their sins.
Passages in John’s Gospel itself
Most importantly, we find that on a number of occasions John’s Gospel itself strongly implies that those who come in faith to Jesus for salvation will only be saved if they repent of their sins.
We should carefully note the following texts:
In this passage Jesus says:
‘19 This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who performs bad deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that his deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the person who practises the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds might be shown as having been done in God.’
The first point to note here is that in v. 20 the Greek word phaula, which I have translated as ‘bad deeds’, is a plural. The reference therefore cannot be to the single bad deed of failing to believe in Jesus. If that had been intended, a singular word would have been needed. Rather, phaula refers generally to the bad deeds that a person performs.
So Jesus is teaching that everyone who performs bad deeds in general hates the light and does not come to the light. But if someone hates the light and does not come to the light, it is surely not possible that such a person could have saving faith. How could they have faith in Jesus, when they refuse to come to the light? Therefore, according to this passage, everyone who performs bad deeds in general does not receive salvation.
It is true that this passage, in line with much else in John’s Gospel and 1 John, uses a simplifying dualism when it contrasts those who perform bad deeds with those who practise the truth. It would be a serious misinterpretation to understand Jesus to be saying that those who practise the truth live perfect lives and do not perform any bad deeds.
Nevertheless, it is not possible to reconcile this passage with the idea that those who don’t repent of their sins can receive salvation. Jesus clearly implies that those who unrepentantly perform bad deeds hate the light and do not come to the light in saving faith.
In these verses Jesus states:
‘28 . . . an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice 29 and will come out, those who did good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed bad deeds to a resurrection of judgment.’
Again, the first point to make here is that in v. 29 the Greek words agatha and phaula, which I have translated as ‘good deeds’ and ‘bad deeds’ respectively, are both plurals. So it is not possible to understand the doing good to be simply about having faith in Jesus and the doing bad to be simply about failing to have faith in Him. If that meaning had been intended, singular words would have been used. Therefore agatha must refer generally to the good deeds people do. And phaula must refer generally to the bad deeds they do.
Jesus is therefore saying that those who do good deeds generally will experience a ‘resurrection of life’. And He is saying that those who do bad deeds generally will experience a ‘resurrection of judgment’.
Importantly, ‘resurrection of life’ can only be referring to the eternal life that those who reach heaven will experience. Similarly, ‘resurrection of judgment’ can only be referring to the punishment that those who end up in hell will experience.
This passage therefore describes people who get to heaven as those who have done good deeds. And it describes people who arrive in hell as those who have done bad deeds.
The passage, then, clearly teaches that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on track for hell. And this must mean that anyone who has not repented of their sins does not have saving faith.
In this verse Jesus says to His Jewish audience:
‘If God were your Father, you would love Me.’
The first point to note here is that to be saved, people surely need to have God as their Father. There is no warrant at all for thinking that there are two kinds of Christian, one of which involves having God as Father, and one of which doesn’t.
Second, although Jesus is speaking only to Jews in this verse, He implies that if anyone is to have God as their Father, that person will love Jesus.
Third, loving Jesus surely involves more than just believing in Him. This is confirmed by what Jesus tells us in John 14:15:
‘If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.’
According to John’s Gospel, then, those who love Jesus also obey Him.
So the argument here can be summed up in this way:
Every Christian, i.e., every person on track for heaven, has God as their Father. Everyone who has God as their Father loves Jesus. And everyone who loves Jesus keeps His commandments. John
8:42 teaches, then, that
those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on the road to hell.
In this passage Jesus states:
‘27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. And no one will snatch them out of My hand.’
First, we must note that the text is explicit that Jesus’ sheep represent those to whom He gives eternal life. These people are on the road to heaven.
Second, to suppose that there is another group of Christians on the road to heaven who believe in Jesus without becoming His sheep is completely implausible. Nothing in John’s Gospel leads us to believe in the existence of such a group.
Third, Jesus’ sheep are said to follow Him. This must mean following Jesus in obedience.
This passage strongly implies, then, that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are not on track for heaven.
Here Jesus says:
‘Anyone who loves his life loses it, but anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’
In this verse, keeping one’s life for eternal life must involve either reaching heaven or being on track for heaven. Therefore, since losing one’s life is set in contrast to this, those who lose their lives in this text must be those who arrive in hell or are on track for hell.
Jesus is teaching, then, that those who love their lives will end up in hell, but those who hate their lives will end up in heaven.
Importantly, hating one’s life cannot possibly just mean believing in Jesus. The words must imply the hardship that is involved in Christian discipleship with its renouncing oneself, resisting temptation, etc.
This text is therefore another which plainly implies that only those who repent of their sins receive salvation.
The above five passages show clearly that John’s Gospel teaches that those who do not repent of their sins will not be saved from hell. There are other passages which also point in the same direction. But I have listed the ones where this is taught most obviously.
The idea that people can have saving faith in Jesus without repenting of their sins therefore sharply contradicts John’s Gospel.
It is true that this Gospel stresses the theme of repentance less than other parts of the NT do. But we often find that portions of Scripture emphasise some things while teaching more lightly on other things. The various books of the Bible are in no way uniform, although they complement each other beautifully. John’s relative lack of stress on repentance is made up for in other books. And, in any case, as we have seen, there are several passages in John where it is made clear that those who are saved will always turn away from their sins.
Motivation for Free Grace teaching
I think one reason why some of the Free Grace teachers say that people can be saved without repenting of their sins is because they can’t understand how two biblical truths fit together. The Bible teaches that people are saved by faith and not by doing good deeds. And it also teaches that those who are saved repent of their sins and do good deeds. Some Free Grace teachers apparently find these truths contradictory, so they deny the latter.
What they do is similar to what others have done when they have been unable to understand how two biblical truths fit together. For example, the Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God and fully human, yet one person. However, throughout the last 2000 years, many, not understanding how this can be so, have denied either His deity or humanity. They have exalted their own ability to understand above biblical revelation.
If the Bible teaches two themes, however, we should always accept both of them. And we should do so regardless of whether we can figure out how they fit together.
A warning to Free Grace teachers
Let me finish with a warning to teachers of the Free Grace movement. In Luke 17:1-2, the Lord Jesus warns:
‘1 . . . It is inevitable that causes of stumbling will come, but woe to the one through whom they come. 2 It would be better for that person if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.’
I would suggest that the Free Grace teachers are doing something very similar to what Jesus condemns in this passage. They are telling people who don’t know much about the Christian faith that they will arrive in heaven as long as they make a decision to accept Jesus as their Saviour, regardless of whether they turn away from their sins.
This is false teaching that has always been condemned by the church down through the centuries. Anyone who does not repent of their sins does not have saving faith, as the NT makes abundantly clear in a multitude of places. James 2:19, which I quoted above, even implies that faith divorced from good deeds will benefit a person no more than it will benefit demons on the Day of Judgment. Those who teach the terrible doctrine of Free Grace Theology are therefore helping to send people down the road to hell.
These teachers urgently need to repent of what they are doing. If they don’t, I expect that many of them will pay the ultimate price when they meet almighty God on that Day.