Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Biblical Response To the Free Grace Movement, Part 3

This part 3 of a series. This article is copyrighted to Phillip L. Simpson.

Parts 1 and 2 are here:

Part One

Part Two

The Interpretation of John’s First Epistle

The meaning of the John's first epistle has been fairly uniformly understood throughout the centuries. However, this epistle presents a problem for the "free grace" theologian. The problem is this: John appears to be stating plainly throughout the book that there are tests which reveal whether one is a child of God or not. Some of these tests include: whether we love the brothers (2:10, 3:10, 3:14, 4:7), walk in the light (1:7), keep His commandments (2:3-4), walk in the same way in which he walked (2:6), continue on in fellowship with other believers (2:19), confess the Son (2:23), practice righteousness (2:29; 3:10), confess that Jesus has come in the flesh (4:2), listen to the apostolic teaching (4:6), receive the Spirit (4:13), confess that Jesus is the Son of God (4:15), believe that Jesus is the Christ (5:1), and overcome the world (5:4). Notice how some of these tests are doctrinal, and others are behavioral.

These terms pose two problems for "free grace" teachers. First is the problem of John’s behavioral tests to provide one with assurance of salvation. One of the "free grace" tenets is that it is always wrong to point a believer to behavioral tests to determine if they are really believers (whereas 1 John is full of such behavioral tests, as has been pointed out above). In fact, according to these teachers, one may truly believe and be a child of God, yet never pass any of these tests.

The second problem these teachers have to deal with in 1 John pertains to perseverance. 1 John often refers, not just to the behavior, but the ongoing, habitual practice of it ("practicing righteousness"--a translation based on the Greek verb tense indicating ongoing action; this concept is also presented by the term "abide"). Therefore, if someone accepts Christ, shows initial fruit, but falls away, and never shows any further interest in the things of God, never shows the fruit of the Spirit, and never desires to fellowship with God's people, he is still considered to be saved by these teachers, because of a decision made in one point in time. Therefore, the behavioral tests in 1 John pose these teachers with an interpretive dilemma.

So how do "free grace" teachers solve these problems? Essentially, they state that the purpose of 1 John is not "tests of eternal life", but "tests of fellowship with God" (or whether one is in good standing with the Father as a child, or if the relationship is out of sync due to sin). Though being in or out of fellowship with God describes a Biblical concept (such as David's obvious rift in his relationship with God after sinning with Bathsheba), the question is: is this what John really means to present in his first epistle?

"Free grace" theologians refer to 1:3 ("that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" and 1:6 ("If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth") as John's purpose statement. In other words, John explains why he wrote his epistle at the beginning of the letter.

However, John's "purpose statement" actually appears at the end of his epistle (in 5:13, stating "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life"). In fact, it is significant to note that the purpose statement is put by John at the end of his first epistle, just as he put the purpose statement of his gospel at the end of that book as well (John 20:31--"but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name"). In fact, the two purpose statements closely parallel one another, giving us further reason to believe that 1 John 5:13 is his purpose statement. Note the similarities in structure:

John 20:31

but these are written
so that you may believe
that Jesus is the Christ
the Son of God,
and that by believeing you may have life in His name.

1 John 5:13

I write these things to you who
believe in the name
of the Son of God
that you may know
that you have eternal life.

Clearly, John’s purpose for writing this epistle, then, is so that the readers may be assured of their eternal salvation, not their fellowship status with God.

Remember that the tests given by John are both behavioral and doctrinal. While "free grace" teachers insist the behavioral tests are indicators of our fellowship status with God (rather than tests of possession of eternal life), what about the doctrinal tests? Does John give these to determine our fellowship status? Is believing that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2) only a sign of a mature Christian who is in fellowship with God? Can a believer deny this truth and still be a believer--albeit "out of fellowship"? No; rather, John was refuting Gnostic heresy in 1 John; therefore, a doctrinal affirmation was critical if his readers were to know if they believed in Christ savingly or not.

Notice also that the term "born of God" is used to describe both those who pass the doctrinal test ("Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ"--1 John 5:1) as well as those who pass the behavioral test ("whoever loves"--1 John 4:7). Clearly, John is describing the same person; and since all believers must pass the doctrinal test of 5:1, he must have all believers in view in 4:7 as well. Being "born of God" is another term for being a believer.

Another problem with the "free grace" interpretation of 1 John is the absoluteness of the statements made by John. One critic of the "free grace" movement (found on the website ) has raised the following argument:

If (1 John is) about a relative experience of fellowship amongthose born of
God or between God and his children, then why does it use absolute either/or
contrasts rather than using relative terms? It’s about light versus darkness and
not about shades of gray. There are tons of examples throughout 1 John. In fact
seldom does he ever speak in relative terms. (1John 1:6,7; 2:19,23,29;
3:7-10,14,15; 4:6-8; 5:4,10,12,18).

In other words, there are varying degrees of sanctification and fellowship with God, but whether one is a Christian or not is an absolute; there are no "half-saved" people. Therefore, John’s choice of terminology seems to lend itself more to a description of how one knows whether he is saved, rather than whether he is in fellowship with God.

Another key to understanding John’s epistle is to define these contrasting terms he uses. John lays out many contrasting terms in his epistle; he compares a negative state with a positive one. Listed below are some of these contrasting terms. Everyone agrees that the first column is good, and the second one bad. The question is this: to whom do the terms in the second column apply? Do they describe Christians out of fellowship with God, or do they describe non-Christians?

Positive Terms:

Walk in the light (1:7)
We know that we have come to know Him (2:3)
We are in Him (2:5)
Abides in the light (2:10)
has been born of Him (2:29)
born of God (3:9)
God's seed abides in him (3:9)
the children of God (3:10)
have passed out of death into life (3:14)
of the truth (3:19)
from God...knows God (4:6)
born of God and knows God (4:7)
abides in God, and God abides in Him (4:16)
born of God (5:1, 4, 18)
from God (5:19)
in Him who is true (5:20)

Negative Terms

walk in darkness (1:6)
a liar, and the truth is not in him (2:4)
in darkness (2:9, 11)
walks in the darkness (2:11)
the love of the Father is not in him (2:15)
of the devil (3:8)
children of the devil; not of God (3:10)
abides in death (3:14)
Murderer; (does not have) eternal life abiding in him (3:15)
Not from God (4:6)
does not know God (4:8)

It should seem obvious that such terms as "the truth is not in him", being "in darkness", "of the devil", "children of the devil", "not of God", not having "eternal life abiding in him", "not from God", and "does not know God" all refer to the state of unbelievers. Think how confusing it would have been for John’s original readers--would they automatically have known John is referring to carnal, non-inheriting believers when he used such terms? Further, consider and compare how John used some of these same terms in his gospel to refer to unbelievers:

The Gospel of John

You do not have the love of God in you (5:42)
You are of your father the devil (8:44)
You know neither me nor my Father (8:19)

I John
the love of the Father is not in him (2:15)
of the devil (3:8)
does not know God, (4:8)
does not know God (4:8)

A problem passage for "free grace" scholars is 1 John 3:14 ("We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers."). It is a basic hermeneutical principle that, when defining New Testament terms, one may see how an author uses the same term in his other writings to gain the clearest definition. This passage shows just how far "free grace" teachers are willing to look past such rules to preserve their position. This phrase, "have passed out of death into life", may be compared with John 5:24, where it refers to passing out of spiritual death into eternal life: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life." In the Greek, the passages compare this way (notice the similarities between the boldened portions):

John 5:24

αμην αμην λεγω υμιν οτι ο τον λογον μου ακουων και πιστευων τω πεμψαντι με εχει ζωην αιωνιον και ει? κρισιν ουκ ερχεται αλλα μεταβεβηκεν εκ του θανατου ει? την ζωην

1 John 3:14

ημει? οιδαμεν οτι μεταβεβηκαμεν εκ του θανατου ει? την ζωην οτι αγαπωμεν του? αδελφου? ο μη αγαπων τον αδελφον μενει εν τω θανατω

So how can "free grace" teachers get around the clear meaning of this passage (namely, that there are behavioral tests which can confirm our status as saved individuals)? By stating that the context determines the meaning. The context, of course, for the "free grace" teacher, is fellowship with God, not assurance of salvation. So, though we have a clearly understandable phrase such as "passing from death to life" , and though the same phrase is used by the same author elsewhere to clearly refer to the salvation experience, yet we are told "it can’t mean that" because of the context (the context being supplied by the "free grace" teachers!). Bob Wilken, in an article for the "Grace in Focus" newsletter ( makes that very argument. To resolve the dilemma as to what this passage actually teaches, he has to radically rephrase it as follows: "We know that we have moved in our experience from the realm of death to the realm of life". But John does not speak of moving in our experience from the realm of death to the realm of life, but of actually passing from death to life!

In summary, John’s first epistle is best interpreted by holding to the historic understanding of it: It is a book largely given to help the readers gain assurance of their salvation. This is why John states he wrote the book, and it is the way the book plainly reads.

The Carnal Christian

Some say there are two categories of Christians, carnal and spiritual (see 1Corinthians 3:1-4); however, it was not Paul’s intention to categorize believers this way; he was merely saying to the Corinthians that, when they were behaving enviously and divisively, they were behaving in a carnal manner (i.e., like "mere men"). Besides, the ones he accused of behaving carnally did evidence some spiritual fruit--they were meeting regularly (1 Corinthians 11 and 14), and were using their spiritual gifts (though there were abuses of this present). They were not those who made a decision for Christ, and then never continued on with Christ or in fellowship with His people:

1 Cor 1:4-7--"I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, 5that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, 6even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, 7so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ"

1 Cor 3:1-4--"And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not carnal?(Notice the absence of a third category for Christians who walk according to the flesh {"carnal Christians"}in Romans 8:4-9; only "those who live according to the flesh" and "those who live according to the Spirit"--and therefore belong to Him, v. 9).

Romans 8:4-9--in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Perseverance of the Saints

All believers will continue in the faith. This does not mean they will not sin, or even end their lives in sin (see Acts 5). It does mean they will not utterly reject the faith. It does mean that God preserves the work He began in them. If they do not continue in the faith, it is evidence that they were never Christians to begin with (1 John 2:19; Col 1:21-23). It is God’s Power which keeps a man in faith, and it is His ability that keeps us from falling (1 Peter 1:5; Jude 24).

Jeremiah 32:40--‘And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me."
Matthew 10:22--"And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved."
1 Corinthians 1:7-8--so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:1,2--"Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain."
Philippians 1:6--"being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ"
Colossians 1:21-23--"And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled 22 in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel"
Hebrews 3:6--"but Christ as a Son over His own house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm to the end."Hebrews 3:14--"For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end."
Hebrews 10:36-39--For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise:"For yet a little while,And He who is coming will come and will not tarry.Now the just shall live by faith;But if anyone draws back,My soul has no pleasure in him."But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.
1 Peter 1:3-5--"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time."
1 John 2:19--"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us."
2 John 9--Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.Jude 24--"Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy"
In part four, we will pick up with Assurance.
To be honest, I haven't read comments this week, as I've been inordinately busy, and this is copyrighted material, so you need to address your comments to Phillip L. Simpson.
Phil Simpson is a lay teacher, and is currently attending Grace Fellowship Church near Huntington, WV.
Your comments about this article are appreciated. Please address correspondence to:
He is also aware I am posting this material here, though I don't know if he's coming by to observe. If you have left him a comment to which you would like him to reply, please feel free to email him, as he invites his readers to do that.


  1. So helpful and I am telling
    others where to find TRUTH
    that will solve so many of
    their spiritual problems.


  2. I finally got around to reading this. AWESOME. I hadn't thought of a lot of this before.

  3. I'm surprised Jonathan is impressed with this.

    I listed some of Mr. Simpson's inaccuracies on my blog and also reviewed it there.

    HK Flynn