Helping a family member see the error in Free Grace theology.

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Paul1976

Puritan Board Freshman
I’d like to ask help convincing my mother of the dangers of the Free Grace doctrine she’s become rather excited about over the past decade.
For those not familiar, the Free Grace movement seems to have organized as a result of Macarthurs’ “The Gospel According to Jesus,” which attacked the “easy believism” that had been becoming more prevelant within Evangelicalism during the 20th century. My impression is that there was little organization behind this theology previously; individual pastors lacking a deep understanding of theology began preaching it, and found it filled pews better than counting costs and taking up crosses. Now, there seems to be a small but noisy organization pushing it. The basic theology is as follows:

1) We are justified freely by grace through faith, not based on works. This sounds reasonable until you look deeper to see that faith isn’t much more than intellectual acceptance.

2) Since justification doesn’t require works, things like repentance, acceptance of Christ as Lord, love for God, obedience, sanctification, and perseverance are all optional.

3) In evangelism, Christians should not emphasize any of the optional items in #2 as they might cause unbelievers to count the costs of belief rather than simply believe.

4) More mature believers should spend the majority of their time trying to understand what is really being said by the many verses in the NT seem to require the items listed in #2 of all Christians. This often requires very deep study and convoluted reasoning as the plain meaning can be quite tricky to avoid.

I’m pretty clear (I think) on the basic theological problems with this. I found an excellent refutation of this theology on monergism.com. If this theology is new to anyone and they would like a good biblical understanding of its deficiencies, I would strongly encourage reading this:

Response to the "Free Grace" Movement by Phillip L Simpson

My question concerns my mother who has become very energetic in her support of this. I’m primarily concerned because she leads a large women’s bible study (50+ attendees) AND is in charge of producing outlines/questions for many similar studies across the US. I would be in the wrong if I did not make every effort to correct her given the large influence she has and number of people who are likely hearing this dangerously unscriptural teaching. She seems to have learned this from a friend and lay teacher who studied under Earl Radmacher (a ringleader of the Free Grace movement). She frequently goes to either with questions.

I know that’s a lot of background for a question. What I’d appreciate help with is how best to help her realize how wrong this teaching is. It’s tricky because any question I ask related to this will send her right back to her friend or Dr. Radmacher. If I ask her to read anything substantive, she declines as she’s too busy writing lectures/studies. She’s also becoming increasingly suspicious of bible translations as they were obviously influenced by nasty Calvinists. She’s also concerned about me listening to sermons by 5-point Calvinists like John Piper and I doubt she will carefully weight what I say if I try to argue this with her. (*yes, I know Piper isn’t unanimously adored on this board, but I don’t care. I’ve learned and grown a great deal through him. And yes, I also know he’s a 7-point Calvinist; but please don’t tell my mom!) I’m reasonably convinced there is a strong emotional side to this as well. A close relative committed suicide after years of exhibiting manic depression and drug use. After this suicide, she spend a great deal of time investigating whether this relative would have been saved. I strongly suspect her passion for this teaching may subconsciously relate to a desire to believe that person was saved.

So, I feel that I need to be very careful in how I approach her. Has anyone had any experience with this before? My instinct is that I need to gently and carefully ask questions that will help her recognize the problems with this theology herself. Any thoughts?

And yes, I do believe prayer needs to be a big part of this. While prayer should be foundational to all we do, I don’t believe it should generally be all we do.

Thanks in advance for your help. Grace and peace,


Paul
 

Rayn

Puritan Board Freshman
I've grown up in the Bible belt. I basically held to this theology and thought any concept of "losing your salvation" or "perseverance" was necessarily related to works oriented salvation. I reacted the opposite direction for a long time while listening to preachers such as John Macarthur and John Piper, though probably not necessarily because of their preaching, but due to a wrong application of their preaching. Now I lean toward the continental reformed perspective on works and assurance (justification and sanctification are inseperable gifts, works are an immediate and inevitable result of repentance, but assurance is part of the essence of saving faith and is grounded in Christ's work outside of us, yet assurance can be strengthened as we see works).

My grandfather holds to "free-grace" theology and I have discussed it with him for years. For a long time our conversations got very heated. No matter how hard I tried to remain calm I would lose my cool. I think this was partly due to the fact that I had an unbalanced view myself and would just try to clobber him with the imperatives of Scripture (1 Cor. 6:9). However, I now think that the basic problem with "free grace theology" is that it really isn't free. Don't try to divorce this from the issue of Calvinism -- even if you think it will put your mother off. There may be exceptions, but every "free-gracer" I've talked to isn't even Arminian, but semi-pelagian. As a result, you can be "saved" (they mean justified) on the basis of your decision, and since it's up to you, you can decide not to accept the gift of sanctification. In a Calvinistic scheme, we are effectually called by God while we are dead in sins, declared righteous on the basis of Christ's work, and inwardly renewed -- all on the basis of God's initiative. Moreover, the "free-grace" theology of rewards is all based on what you decide to do. There is a quote I'll try to get sometime when I have access to it from Calvin in which he states that even rewards in the next life are a gift from God, seeing as he is the author of our works and nevertheless He graciously bestows rewards on us anyways! So which system is actually free? Arminians, and certainly semi-pelagians, subject every work of God in the soul of an individual entirely to the human will. "You do this, then God will do that," is the very essence of it. The Gospel gets reduced to conversion and often times conversion is basically a work.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but I recommend giving her a strong dose of the gospel, with an occasional reference to total depravity if necessary, but let the last word be the Gospel. Is she a baptized and active member in a church professing faith in the Gospel? Tell her she is sanctified!

"To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints [from same word family as sanctified] together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you beause of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and knowledge -- even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you -- so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." 1 Cor. 1:2-9

Sorry I can't give any specific advice on how to deal with the loss of your relative. Experience does affect our theology, and perhaps your speculation is correct, but perhaps the seeds of this theology were already there. My grandfather, whom I mentioned, has not budged an inch on his theology, and I think it may perhaps be due to the fact that he was out of church for about 13 years, and besides his Christian life didn't start off exactly stellar. This is why I think the balm of the gospel is what may be most needed. Ironically, it is the Gospel alone which is able to produce a right view of the law -- it is the gospel which saves us from antinomianism. Praise God that through the eyes of a redeemed sinner, we can see the law as first of all that perfection which the perfect servant of the Covenant rendered unto God in our place, and on that basis how much more do we want to be conformed to that same image! Lord, blot out all my iniquities, and create in me a clean heart.
 

rbcbob

Puritan Board Graduate
The error which your mother has embraced is known historically as Sandemanianism (after Robert Sandeman 1718-1771).

You may find a brief treatment of this error by Lloyd-Jones in his book THE PURITANS pp. 170-190.

There is a much more thorough treatment in the Complete Works of Andrew Fuller Vol. 2 pp. 561-646

A brief summary may be read here:
"Andrew Fuller and the Sandemanians" by Michael Haykin
 

Paul1976

Puritan Board Freshman
Rayn and Bob,

Thank you both for your helpful replies.

Rayn, I appreciate the obvious time and thought you put into your response. Our experiences sound very similar. I grew up in a family and church generally good doctrinally, but without much training in real doctrinal understanding. I thought I was a moderate Calvinist, but was in fact quite Arminian with a side of eternal security. My mother is still there although she has been moving in the Free Grace direction. Interestingly, it was Piper who helped both to motivate me to take my faith more seriously both intellectually and practically. I know Piper is not universally admired on this board, but he has done a great deal of good for reformed theology. I now fully and enthusiastically agree with all the theology you described.

Your descriptions of Free Grace with respect to and Arminianism/SemiPelagianism are dead on. In fact, I’ve wrestled for years, and very seriously for the past 6 months, with whether Calvinism or Arminianism makes more sense in light of scripture. Researching Free Grace teaching has done a great deal to move me to Calvinism. I could recognize quickly how much problems Free Grace theology runs into with respect to the scriptures. But, I could see logic behind their errors. Only when faith is no longer our work but Gods, and the rest that is required for salvation becomes additional gifts, do the arguments of Free Grace disintegrate. I couldn’t counter their arguments nearly as well thinking like an Arminian. I came to see the necessity of Calvinism sooner thanks to their bad doctrine.

To answer your questions, she is a baptized and very serious Christian. This theology is not an attempt to excuse anything, as far as I’m aware. It’s just the way she views the scriptures. She doesn’t deny that Christians should obey Christ as Lord, undergo sanctification, persevere, exc., only that these are optional and not required of saving faith.

Bob - I was not familiar with the relationship between the modern Free Grace movement and it’s earlier incarnation with the Sandemanians. I’d actually looked for previous incarnations unsuccessfully (bad doctrine is seldom entirely new – just repackaged). The website you suggested was helpful, and I ordered the book you suggested. Thanks.

Grace and Peace,
 
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