The Object of Our Faith

By Roger Fankhauser, DMin
I just recently read from a non-free-grace person that the Free Grace position only requires someone to believe in certain propositions about Jesus to receive eternal life. The writer is almost – but not quite – right. However, “not quite right” changes the argument from a valid criticism to a straw man argument. If the writer were correct, then the object of our faith would be limited to statements about Jesus or historical events about Jesus.
The object of our faith is Jesus. Jesus said it (“whosoever believes in me”, John 3:16); Paul said it (“that we might be justified by faith in Christ”, Gal. 2:16).
Almost all evangelicals say this. (I would say “all”, but as soon as I do, someone would point out an exception!) Free-Grace evangelicals; Reformed evangelicals consistently define the object of saving faith as Jesus. We might disagree about what one must know about this Jesus or about the impact that faith in Jesus “must” have on life, but, at the core, the object of our faith is Jesus.
So where does believing the veracity of certain propositions come in? Those propositions tell us about Jesus. They define who He is and what He has done. They point us to the person who is unknowable apart from “propositional truth”. I live two thousand years and half-a-world away from the historical Jesus. I cannot know with certainty who He is and what He has done apart from propositional truth. So it is true that I must believe certain proposition about Jesus, but ultimately justification comes by faith in the person of the one of whom the propositional truths speak.
Part of the FGA covenant says this:
·         The sole means of receiving the free gift of eternal life is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose substitutionary death on the cross fully satisfied the requirement for our justification.
·         Faith is a personal response, apart from our works, whereby we are persuaded that the finished work of Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, has delivered us from condemnation and guaranteed our eternal life.
We receive eternal life by faith IN the Lord Jesus Christ. The rest of the statements are propositional truths about Jesus.
Don’t confuse the object of our faith – Jesus – with the truths about Jesus – propositional truth. Keep it clear in our teaching, preaching, and writing. It’s faith alone IN Christ alone!

P.S. – I did not, and will not, identify the non-Free Grace person. I will say that he is a well known theologian and he wrote the words in February of this year! Identifying him would distract from my main point.

Book Review - Justification: Five Views

Justification is a central topic to Free Grace theology, and as such when a book is written in scholarly circles to discuss justification it is worth considering!  

Beilby, James K., and Eddy, Paul Rhodes, eds., Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2011. 308 pp. $15.38.


Multi-view books rise and fall on the quality of their representatives, and Justification: Five Views stands with an impressive list of contributors. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, both professors at Bethel University, have edited several books for the IVP Spectrum series of multiview books and are therefore quite well qualified to edit this volume as well. The flow of the book shows their prowess. This is the fourth multiview book that they have co-edited for IVP, and their experience shows through in the book’s layout from Reformed to Catholic.


In addition to this, the book brings together an impressive list of contributors to their viewpoints, drawing some of the best and brightest in modern Christian scholarship to weigh into the issue. Michael Horton and James Bird are both prominent evangelical scholars and capable Reformed thinkers. James D.G. Dunn hardly needs an introduction, being world-renowned in Pauline studies. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen brings a unique perspective as a Finnish Lutheran and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Gerald O’Collins and Oliver Rafferty well represent the Catholic understanding of Justification from their accomplished perspective.


Multiview books generally follow a straightforward outline, and this one is no exception. The basic content of the book is a discussion of the Christian doctrine of justification from five distinct points of view. Contributors each write approximately 25 pages explaining their particular view of justification followed by the other contributors responding to the strengths and weaknesses of the view just explained. This format allows for a dialogical feel to the book, with each author being able to interact with the other views and sharpen their own distinctions from the others by means of rebuttal.


Every contribution to this work adds significantly. This begins in the opening chapters penned by Beilby and Eddy, who discuss the historical development of and the current state of the debate on justification before turning the discussion over to the experts in their respective views. I found the opening chapters to be particularly helpful, and the historical development in particular gives readers a sense of the discussion in its appropriate context. Within the current state of the debate, the editors go to lengths to point out how the New Perspective on Paul has impacted the discussion. (57-67) Then, they set out the current “flash points” in the debate, including the significant issue of the necessity of works for justification before God. (68-73)


From there, each contribution works along a spectrum from Reformed (and therefore evangelical) to Catholic. Michael Horton espouses a traditional Reformed view focusing on imputation of alien righteousness by faith, while Michael Bird straddles the fence between that and the New Perspective view by focusing on the historia salutis (131-132) and the impact of Gentile-Jewish reapproachment upon a fundamentally Reformed understanding of justification. James D.G. Dunn represents the New Perspective view, that while individual salvation is in view in the NT, “justification” in Paul is more about the “boundary markers” that Israel had which are no longer appropriate in light of Christ’s sacrifice. (191) From there, Kärkkäinen espouses a unique view that combines Lutheranism with the Eastern Orthodox view of theosis, stressing participation in God’s essence. (223-228) Finally, O’Collins and Rafferty finish with the Roman Catholic view of justification as imparted righteousness and ethical conduct. Their contribution is split between an historical view from Augustine to Trent (269-281) and a personal narrative from O’Collins concerning his own journey of thought in his life as a Catholic scholar. (281-290)


This treatment on the important doctrine of justification certainly has its share of strengths. Particularly in the issue that sparked the Protestant Reformation, doctrinal dispute can often lead to recrimination and name-calling. There is none of that in this work; instead, the irenic tone is evident throughout each contribution. Even when responding to a diametrically opposed view, the contributors go out of their way to be gracious and encouraging to one another. For instance, O’Collins begins his response to Horton’s Reformed perspective with praise for the entire enterprise. (127) Horton thoughtfully returns the thanks in his response to the Roman Catholic position. (291) These merely serve as examples of the general tone of the book, and Beilby and Eddy deserve commendation for ensuring that the debate does not devolve into a fight.


Secondly, the introductory chapters are especially helpful. Beilby and Eddy set the debate within the historical framework from the New Testament through the history of the church, right up to the modern ecumenical movement. (13-52) The framework of the discussion on justification must be its development within the context of theological discussion in the church, and this chapter does an exceedingly good job of fulfilling that need. Once that is accomplished, they set the parameters and important concerns to the issue in its current context, staging the debate to come. They sum up the current status well: “…the doctrine of justification is a contested one at virtually every turn. At stake for many is the defining conviction of the Protestant Reformation. At stake for all concerned is a proper understanding of Scripture and, particularly, the thought of Paul.” (82)


The irenic nature and well-framed debate lead to a third strength of this book: ecumenical dialog. While the differences can be stark, engaging Scripture with professing Christians in significant issues shows that dialog can be irenic as well as significant. While the chasm at the end of the day between Evangelical and Catholic theology is still pronounced, seeing the spectrum represented in the viewpoints serves to show that the issue is not black-and-white. The flow of the book from Reformed through NPP and Lutheran to Catholic along a discernible spectrum showcases that spectrum well.


Unfortunately, this book has several shortcomings that tend to overshadow its strengths. While it is tempting to seek to defend a view and critique the others within a review, in a multiview book this is not appropriate. Instead, the various views should be well-expressed and understandable to the target audience regardless of which one the reader adopts at the conclusion.


Certainly, this book does not present a Free Grace understanding of justification in that all five views argue in one way or another that works are necessary for final justification at the end of the day.  Thus, if a reader is looking to be encouraged in Free Grace theology this book is not helpful. If instead a reader wanted to know what many scholars are saying, as well as the critique of other writers of each view, then it could have some merit from the perspective of ideas.


Ideas aside, there are several structural and approach-related shortcomings.


First, the book has significant repetition of content. Within the chapter on the current state of the debate on justification, Beilby and Eddy spend ten pages (57-67) explaining the New Perspective and contemporary responses to it; this would seem to be the purview of Dunn as his contribution to the work rather than the editors. In a similar manner, Horton spends six pages (93-98) within his section critiquing the New Perspective rather than focusing on a thorough explanation of the Reformed understanding of justification. In another place, Rafferty spends over half of the Roman Catholic perspective reiterating the historical evolution of justification dialog already put forth by the editors. (264-281; cf. 13-52) These repetitions are unhelpful in a book that is already short and takes valuable space away from the contributors.


Next, the very purpose of the book asks the contributors to “address a wide range of important biblical and theological issues as they present their views.” (9) Attempting to accomplish that goal within only 25 or so pages of presentation is a quixotic project to say the least. Adding to this range, the fact that there are historical issues as well as biblical and theological ones that bear on the debate only exacerbates the problem. Attempting to publish a book that is concise while asking for this amount of detail is too much, and as such the book sides with brevity at the expense of detail.


This fact leads to the third shortcoming in the book, namely explanation of terms and ideas. The contributors speed along in their presentations without defining terms, apparently assuming that their readers know their definitions. This is especially concerning given that the book is keyed to discuss a term and therefore its definition, namely justification! Nowhere is this more apparent than in the deification view, where Bird rightly notes in his response that Kärkkäinen never defines what he means by theosis or deification. (250) A reader who is well-read in Eastern Orthodox theology will know theosis well, but the average American reader will not and is therefore left wondering. Likewise, there is a better simple summary of the New Perspective’s view in the introductory chapter (57) than there is in Dunn’s presentation.


The challenge with this approach is one of audience. If the book’s intended audience is those who are well-versed in the positions and terminology of various camps on the issue, then the brevity of the treatments causes the book to be unhelpful. For those with significant exposure to the issue there will be little to learn in such brief introductions. On the other hand, for those who are unfamiliar or only just introduced to some of the positions, the lack of guidance on terms and ideas can make the entire presentation inaccessible and make the responses unhelpful.


Unfortunately, the shortcomings of this book make it one that I cannot readily recommend. It is certainly not targeted at laypersons, as it naturally assumes that its readers are interested in a technical discussion and have at least some skills with the biblical languages. Many pastors will not have the background in the issues presented to get much out of this book without significant reading beforehand to know terms and positions, particularly of the deification view but also of the New Perspective. Seminarians will likely not find enough here to add to the discussion. Therefore, while the book holds great promise in concept I cannot give it a wholehearted or even a qualified recommendation.

Rob Bell and the Deadly Trend in the Free Grace Movement

Br Dr. Fred Lybrand

Let's have a discussion.

So, Rob Bell writes a book called "Love Wins" and it is basically all about heaven and hell with a final conclusion that Love wins out; God's love will ultimately persuade everyone to embrace Him and His heaven.  It sounds like universalism, but Bell and others are also denying it.  You can call it what you want, but if everyone gets in, then salvation is clearly 'universal' (hence the name).

Of course this is unabashedly anti-scriptural (nice interview here: ), but what is behind his conclusion?  Cynically we could speak in terms of fame and fortune as motivating Bell to depart from the historic / biblical Christian faith.  I, however, think there is a far more simple way to think about it theologically.  Bell has just imposed a hierarchy on the attributes of God.  The net result is that Bell has taken grace (he says love, but a loving God must be gracious) to the extreme.

Face it---if God is gracious wouldn't He save everyone (that's the idea)?  If you are gracious to save one, you are even more gracious to save two.  If you are loving enough to save one, you are even more loving to save two. The more the merrier...why not just save all?  Rob Bell is simply running one piece of the puzzle to the extreme.  This is the kind of logic behind Paul's accusers in Romans 3:8, that grace was un-boundried.

In Back to Faith ( I have an appendix dealing with Antinominism.  Basically, I point out that the real antinomians are the universalists.  Rob Bell is the end result that Lordshippers and Legalists think our theology leads a person to conclude.

Though I have fought against the legitimacy of that accusation, I'm starting to waver a little.  It may be that some of us are flirting with the same deadly trend we see in Rob Bell.  I believe some of us are starting to create a hierarchy within the attributes of God to our own demise.  If this is new to you, then indulge the thought for a moment.  God has a nature (complex of attributes) which includes such things as love, holiness, justice, mercy, omnipotence, etc.  These attributes essentially describe God and the way in which He functions as best we can discern from the revelation through His Word.  When we understand God's attributes as perfectly balanced within His person we are fine, but if we begin to elevate one attribute above another, we reshape the very nature of God.  Consider how different each of these 'gods' would be:

1.  A god who is more justice than mercy
2.  A god who is more love than justice
3.  A god who is more forgiveness than truth

Each one would be different from the other.  The other attributes aren't excluded, but they are subservient.  In a similar way, if we make any person of the Trinity 'more' and another member 'less'---then the doctrine of the Trinity collapses.

So, what of us in the Free Grace Movement?  What is our danger?

Simply put, many of us have been overly concerned about Reformed Theology, especially as it shows up in the various renditions of DORT.  The theory is that if you buy one part of the '5 Points' you must buy them all.  Of course, it is the Calvinists who try to insist upon this...and some of us just follow along.  Mostly it is a definitional problem and an allegiance to a theology over Scripture.  Personally, I am clearly a 'moderate Calvinist' (labels being what they are), but I am also Free Grace to the core.

Here's the deadly trend--- we have folks in our Shire who are saying that the Doctrine of Election cannot be true because "What love is that?  How could a loving God who can elect whomever He wishes elect some to hell?  What love is this?"  I believe that there are many assumptions in this argument that don't match the record or Calvinism; however, the BIG ISSUE is that the love of God is being elevated above His sovereignty (at least).  Indeed, I have friends who try to argue that sovereignty isn't much of an issue because it isn't mentioned the Bible (counter arguments: see the word *Trinity*).  Of course, even the definition of love is warped a bit in the argument as well (a different post should address this).

In any case dear friends, please consider that what is happening is an elevation of one attribute above the others in the very nature of God.  God's nature is complete and balanced unto itself.  This is why the Cross makes such sense given the character of God.  Justice and love are perfectly balanced in the death of Christ for us.

Rob Bell has elevated one attribute above the rest, and so he is off to sup with universalism.

However, are we much different?  Are we elevating one attribute of God above the others?  It doesn't take much math to see how this trend leads us astray.  Are our accusers on to something?  Are we forcing categories on God to make our own theology work?  I find comfort in mystery, not knowing how it all works.  I find fear in tampering with the Word of God.

God help us.

Grace and peace,

Dr. Fred R. Lybrand

P.S.  Please tell me what you think...let's have a discussion.