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 is received 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.
Free Grace Theology
Around the beginning of the 20th century a heresy developed out of evangelicalism, which has come to be known by the label ‘Free Grace Theology’. It is actually quite unfortunate that this label is used for something heretical, since God’s free gift of grace to sinners is at the heart of the true Christian faith. Nevertheless, ‘Free Grace Theology’ and ‘Free Grace’ are labels that are commonly used, both by adherents of this movement and by their opponents. So I will follow suit in this article.
Those in the Free Grace 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 Him 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 isn’t necessary for salvation. According to them, 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 be 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.
New Testament teaching
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that it is full of passages which contradict Free Grace teaching. Over and over again the New Testament makes it clear that people whose lives are characterised by unrepentant sinning are unsaved and on track for judgment in hell.
Here are some key texts:
In this passage Jesus teaches about what will happen on the Day of Judgment. In verses 31-36 He begins:
‘31 When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.
34 Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited Me in. 36 I was naked, and you clothed Me. I was sick, and you visited Me. I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
37 Then the upright will answer Him . . .’
In verses 37-40 Jesus then goes on to say that when people did the good deeds mentioned in verses 35-36 to other people, they were really doing these deeds to Jesus Himself.
After that, in verses 41-43 He continues:
‘41 Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry, but you gave Me nothing to eat. I was thirsty, but you gave Me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger, but you did not invite Me in. I was naked, but you did not clothe Me. I was sick and in prison, but you did not visit Me.”’
Then in verses 44-45 Jesus says that when people failed to do the good deeds mentioned in verses 42-43 to other people, they failed to do them to Jesus Himself.
Finally, in v. 46 He says:
‘These will go away into eternal punishment, but the upright into eternal life.’
This passage refers to two groups of people.
The people in the first group, symbolised by sheep, are distinguished by the good deeds they have done (vv. 35-36). They will inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v. 34) and will go away into eternal life (v. 46).
The second group of people, symbolised by goats, have failed to do the good things that the sheep have done (vv. 42-43). They will depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (v. 41) and will go away into eternal punishment (v. 46).
Some Free Grace teachers claim that the sheep in this passage symbolise those who will receive certain rewards in heaven that others who reach heaven will not receive. They say that everyone who has made a choice to accept Jesus as Saviour will reach heaven, regardless of whether they repent of their sins. And they say that those symbolised by the sheep in this passage, i.e., those who have repented of their sins, will also gain special rewards in heaven.
This interpretation is completely implausible.
To begin with, there is no doubt that the group of people (symbolised by sheep) who do good deeds (vv. 35-36) and inherit the kingdom (v. 34) is the same as the group of people who go away into eternal life (v. 46). Nothing in the passage remotely suggests that the group in view in v. 46 is any different from the group in view in verses 34-36. We can note especially that in v. 46 it is the ‘upright’ who will go away into eternal life, just as in v. 37 it is the ‘upright’ who inherit the kingdom and do good deeds.
Similarly, there is no doubt that the group of people (symbolised by goats) who fail to do good deeds (vv. 42-43) and are sent into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels (v. 41) is the same as the group of people who go away into eternal punishment (v. 46).
Going away into eternal life obviously refers to experiencing eternal salvation. Jesus is saying that those who do the good deeds listed will experience eternal salvation, not rewards distinct from eternal salvation.
Likewise, going away into eternal punishment and being sent into the eternal fire is about being sent to hell. It is not about missing out on rewards.
This passage is totally clear, then, that people whose lives are not characterised by acts of loving helpfulness are on the road to hell, not 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 arriving in 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 are on the road to hell, but those who hate their lives are on the road to heaven.
Importantly, hating one’s life cannot possibly just mean believing in Jesus. The words must imply the hardship that is involved in following Him with its denying oneself, resisting temptation, etc.
This text therefore plainly implies that people who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on track for hell.
In this verse, after Peter has finished telling the
church how some
Gentiles became Christians, those listening respond by saying: Jerusalem
‘Well then, God has given also to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
The life in view in this passage is doubtless the life of those who receive salvation. No other type of life is at all plausible.
Free Grace teachers sometimes argue that the repentance referred to here is simply repenting of failing to have faith in Christ. This interpretation should be firmly rejected, however. Throughout the New Testament, ‘repentance’, when unqualified, is always a general concept signifying turning away from all known sins. Only if the context makes it clear, should this term be understood to be referring to specific sins, and there is no indication of this in the context of Acts 11.
This verse should certainly be interpreted to mean, then, that for someone to be saved, they need to repent of their sins. And although this verse is referring to what happens at the time people become Christians, it implies too that the lives of those who continue as genuine Christians will be characterised by acts of obedience to God.
Here Paul warns the Roman Christians:
‘12 So then, brothers, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will certainly die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.’
The word ‘flesh’ is often used in Paul’s letters to refer to the sinful principle within human beings, and it certainly has that sense in this passage. The word ‘body’ is also used in v. 13 as a virtual equivalent of ‘flesh’ in that sense. These verses are therefore clear that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives ‘will certainly die’ and will not ‘live’.
‘You will certainly die’ is clearly not a reference to the dying that ends our life on this earth. Nor is ‘you will live’ a reference to avoiding the dying that ends our life on this earth. Paul is encouraging his readers to take steps that ensure they do live and don’t die. But obviously all humans die in the sense of having their lives on this earth cease. So Paul must have some other kind of death and life in mind.
What he must be referring to is the spiritual dying that will involve being sent to hell and the spiritual living that will involve blessedness in eternal salvation. No other interpretation is at all plausible.
This passage is unambiguous, therefore, that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on the road to hell, not heaven.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
In this passage Paul warns the Christians in
‘9 Or do you not know that those who are immoral will not inherit the
? Do not be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who sleep with men, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor those who are verbally abusive, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdomof God .’ kingdomof God
’ in these verses is
the eternal kingdom in which all who are eternally redeemed will live. It is not plausible to understand this
kingdom in any other way. kingdom of God
These verses tell us plainly, then, that people who unrepentantly practise sin are not on the road to heaven.
Here Paul tells the churches in
‘7 Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. For whatever a person sows, this he will also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.’
As in the passage from Romans that we looked at above, ‘flesh’ here is the sinful principle within human beings. Sowing to the flesh means acting so as to freely allow sin in one’s life.
Paul says that those who sow to the flesh reap corruption. Since ‘corruption’ is contrasted with ‘eternal life’, it must be the corruption experienced by those who go to hell.
This passage is therefore another which teaches clearly that people who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on track for hell.
In this verse the author commands his readers:
‘Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness without which no one will see the Lord.’
In this verse the Greek word hagiasmos, translated ‘holiness’, doubtless includes the idea of moral purity. If this were not the case, it would make no sense that the readers are told to pursue holiness. It is worth noting too that in its nine other New Testament occurrences, this word always includes a connotation of moral purity.
Without moral purity, therefore, no one will see the Lord.
Seeing the Lord here certainly refers to entering into final salvation. No other meaning is at all plausible.
Once more, then, Scripture tells us that those who live unrepentantly sinful lives are on the road to hell.
This is a passage which is crystal clear that people who believe that Jesus is Saviour but whose lives are not characterised by good deeds are not on track for heaven.
In v. 14 James asks a rhetorical question:
‘What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no deeds? Can that faith save him?’
James is certainly implying that faith without deeds will not save him.
Similarly, in v. 17 he says bluntly:
‘So too, faith by itself, if it has no deeds, is dead.’
Then in v. 19 he states:
‘You believe that God is one. Very impressive! Even the demons believe that – and shudder!’
James implies that the correct beliefs of demons will not enable them to avoid God’s final punishment. And he clearly implies too that humans who likewise have the right religious beliefs but whose lives exhibit a lack of good deeds should be shuddering for the same reason.
In v. 20 James asks another rhetorical question:
‘Do you want evidence, you foolish person, that faith without deeds is useless?’
And then in v. 26 he finishes the section by saying:
‘For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is also dead.’
This verse is completely clear that faith unaccompanied by good deeds is a kind of dead, fake faith that doesn’t save.
1 John is a part of Scripture that is especially strong in its teaching that those who unrepentantly practise sin are on the road to hell.
In 1 John 3:8 we are told:
‘The person who practises sin is of the devil.’
This verse is completely clear that unrepentant people are not saved. It is unthinkable that anyone who is described as ‘of the devil’ could be a saved Christian.
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.’
This passage tells us plainly that anyone who hates and does not love remains in death and has no eternal life.
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 states:
‘. . . no one who has been born of God sins . . .’
In saying that no one born of God sins, and that those born of God cannot sin, 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 don’t sin at all. Nevertheless, these verses 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.
In this verse John writes:
‘But for the cowardly and unbelieving and detestable and murderers and the sexually immoral and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.’
This verse tells us very clearly that people whose lives are characterised by the sins referred to are on track for hell.
There are many other biblical passages that could be added to the list I have given. But the ones I have referred to are enough to make it certain that people who live unrepentantly sinful lives and are in this state at death or when Jesus returns will end up in hell.
Passages that might seem to support Free Grace Theology
When we are examining what the Bible has to say about any topic, we do often find a few passages which at first sight seem to contradict what the majority of passages are teaching. And this is true in the issue of salvation and repentance too. There are a few texts which might at first glance seem to say that faith without repentance will save people.
(1) There are many more biblical passages which at first sight seem to say that faith without repentance will not save than seem to say the opposite.
(2) Many of the passages in this majority group could not possibly be interpreted in any other way.
(3) Those few passages which might seem to suggest salvation without repentance can all be explained in another way.
The biblical revelation as a whole should leave us in no doubt that when someone has saving faith in Christ, that faith will always be accompanied by good deeds and habitual repenting of sins. Faith without good deeds is a fake, dead kind of faith that doesn’t save.
Good deeds and growth, but not perfection
One concern I have in writing this article is that I might lead some genuine Christians to doubt their salvation, and I want to try to guard against this.
I have been saying that the lives of those who are saved will be characterised by good deeds, and that they will be in the habit of repenting of their sins. I don’t mean by this, however, that Christians can expect to be anything like perfect in this life.
We should note carefully what James tells us in James 3:2:
‘. . . we all stumble in many ways’.
When James talks about stumbling here, he is referring to committing unpremeditated sins of short duration. James is clear that Christian experience, sadly, will involve such sins. And the rest of the New Testament fits with this.
Nevertheless, first, every true Christian will be growing in moral purity, even if this often seems to happen at a disappointingly slow rate. And second, every true Christian will be habitually repenting of known sins, probably many times a day. There is a world of difference between, on the one hand, sinning but battling against this, and, on the other hand, sinning without any attempt to repent.
I am not trying to worry Christians who are struggling and battling against sins in their lives. I do want to worry – in fact, I want to terrify if possible – those who think that just because they have made some sort of decision to accept Jesus as Saviour, they will therefore end up in heaven regardless of how they act. Nothing could be further from the truth.