Forsaking all known sin for eternal life? A Discussion on Degrees

We started a new semester at the school I teach at as an adjunct (the newly renamed Arizona Christian University).  I am teaching Acts-Revelation and have a new batch of bright-eyed students, ready to delve into their New Testament and explore it.  In that class I have a student who came to the class staunchly Reformed and perhaps turned off by the free grace position. (I invited her to follow this blog, too!) We discussed on Facebook some of her concerns with the free grace position on eternal life; some of the concern was more perception than reality, more a caricature of what we believe than an interaction with what we really stand for. (it’s almost like we were talking politics or something!)  She was gracious in our discussion and we will have a fun semester of learning together, I am sure.

Funny enough, after having this discussion with her I saw a blog entry from Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen.  Michael was Dan Wallace’s intern at Dallas Theological Seminary and is Reformed in his understanding generally.  So go read his post, and then after the jump there are several outstanding questions from his writing that we need to address.

Does one have to forsake all known sin before they are saved?

Let’s say from the outset that phrases like “cheap grace” are not helpful to the discussion.  Unless he wants to label the first position “no grace” or “works salvation,” then he ought to be more charitable with his designation of the third position.  He also claims a title for his position (“free grace”) that has already been claimed by others who are not 100% in agreement with his understanding. (for the record, that would be us!)  That is perhaps a tad disingenuous, but we can certainly forgive him for that.

That said, I think that we ought to be able to dialog with Michael and those who follow and respect him quite a bit on this one.  Why? I am glad you asked!

  1. He distinctly distances himself from the Lordship Salvation position, and gives good exegetical and theological reasons for doing so. We can stand with him and appreciate his thoughtful interaction with 1 Peter 3:15.  We can agree with it wholeheartedly in fact.  (remember the ancient proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”)
  2. We can thank Michael for being willing to stand apart from his mentor Dr. Wallace and other esteemed professors at DTS and elsewhere when he finds biblical reasons for doing so.  Now certainly Michael respects those mentors, professors, and friends highly and would not break fellowship or dialog with them, and we wouldn’t expect that.  But being willing to publicly disagree and say why he disagrees is laudable.
  3. His pointing out of Peter’s prolonged sin in Acts 10 is helpful.  God doesn’t work out the sin in people’s lives all at once, and we do not hear from Peter any indication that he struggled with this sin.  It seems that he simply carried it with him for 10 years!  Only then did God use Cornelius to work it out of him.  That is helpful in a pastoral sense.
  4. He doesn’t stay in an “ivory tower” theology.  His concern for accurate exegesis and good theology doesn’t stop at interpretation but moves on to application.  He realizes that from a practical perspective no one can honestly say that they have forsaken all known sin.  In fact, the most mature realize that they stubbornly cling to sin and need repentance (and may not be experiencing it), whereas the immature many times think that they are holy when they are not.

For these reasons I think that we should applaud this post from Michael and thank him for his contribution to the discussion.  We should not begin our interaction with Michael by pointing out our differences, but by reinforcing our areas of agreement and realizing that we all serve Jesus Christ together. (this is known as the Socratic Method)  We have much that we see quite the same.  We all are in process theologically and in discipleship, and therefore can all be proven wrong.  Only then can we bring up areas of questions or of nuance to the discussion.

After reading Michael’s post, There are two points in particular that I think need some discussion and clarification between him and those of us who have already staked out the camp known widely as “free grace.”  First is his statement regarding what “free grace” says about repentance:

“Repentance is the changing of one’s mind about who Christ is and their attitude toward sin (i.e. that I am a sinner and sin is bad). This change of the mind will necessary bring forth the fruit of a change [sic] life, but one cannot determine what aspects must change or when the Holy Spirit will bring certain changes about.” (emphasis original)

The second is the corollary statement in his section marked “cheap grace” concerning repentance:

Repentance is the changing of one’s mind about who Christ is. This change may or may not bring change in the life of the believer. (emphasis original)

These sentences are the only differences between those two sections in his post; the other sentences are identical in the “free grace” and “cheap grace” descriptions.  There are certainly differences between the two ideas, but can we begin a dialog about exactly how large the difference is?  While FGA would not disagree with the latter statement, we would reword it to better represent what it is that we truly believe.  “This change does not automatically or uniformly bring about external, verifiable change in the life of the believer.”  What we might nuance is to ask whether change needs to be external and verifiable by a third party to be viable.  We might ask if change that is internal, if sorrow for sin and a desire for holiness don’t break through ingrained patterns if that is legitimate.  Certainly it took Peter 10 years to even begin to be confronted with the sin of racism, though of course Peter was saved during that time when he was in unrepentant sin.  So the internal realities are what matter more than the external manifestations.

Personally I can be okay with a definition of repentance that is about “attitude toward sin” as long as it is nuanced to acknowledge that this attitude does not automatically or uniformly produce externally verifiable change, which may take decades to see.  As I am not the judge, that does not offend me.  When he says “one cannot determine what aspects must change” I am not far from him because I realize that he allows that a believer in Christ can struggle with and even engage in serious personal sin (such as Peter’s bigotry) without that being a sign of reprobation.

In fact, I personally would welcome Michael into the FGA and would love to hear him discuss his views.  He is a thoughtful theologian and a gracious Christ-follower, and I need more of those in my life!

What about you?  How do you read his statement?  What areas of agreement would you build upon, and what areas of discussion and clarification would you focus on?