The extent of the problem is entirely missed by “grace only” preaching. Hypocrites, “false professors”, as the Puritans called them, and the self-deceived, all professing believers, all members of the visible church, have to be taken into account as the church’s preaching even as they are in the Apostles’ epistles.
“Cheap grace” is the term that Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined to describe false grace, which he perceived in the persistent promise of grace wrongly extended by the church to those who had forfeited a claim to it. Like who? Like those professing believers who by false doctrines or bad behavior could no longer make a credible claim to genuine faith.
When I first came to Reformed convictions this concept was a lifeline for me, adrift in Arminian evangelism, surrounded by countless professing Christians who’d walk the aisle, signed a card, and prayed a prayer, and now they were sure they were saved, though they lived like the devil’s own. The Reformed insistance on linking sanctification with justification answered the problem of cheap grace and “easy believism.” The justified will be sanctified. Those not being sanctified have not been justified.
It is so clear. How is it that Reformed people have gotten confused on so basic an issue? Or perhaps more accurately, why is it that in some circles there is desperate concern to correct the legalism of fundamentalism yet little concern to correct its even more pervasive anti-nomianism? For the church continually to preach grace and more grace in the face of heretical doctrines or runaway immorality among its members is to turn grace into a license for sin and proclaim a false gospel. (Gal.5:13; Jude 4; 1 Pt. 2:16)
We have discussed the tension in the New Testament between the need on the one hand to assure genuine believers of their safety in Christ and on the other hand to warn professing but counterfeit believers of their danger. The tension is complicated by the fact that it is often difficult to distinguish between true and false believers and further complicated because the latter may even think they are genuine when in fact they are self-deceived.
It may help to elaborate further on these categories of church members. What is meant to be the effect of biblical preaching upon professing believers? A proverbial answer is “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. The details might look like this:
1. Assure the faithful
2. Strengthen the weak
3. Caution the complacent
4. Warn the disobedient
5. Threaten the defiant
These five categories of professing believers (particularly our current concern, categories 3-5) are given an abundance of space in the New Testament. The Apostles, as we have seen, give them considerable attention.
Take Sarah Bloggs, Joe’s wife. Sarah was saved as a teenager. Yet she is the town’s biggest gossip. Her tongue is the world of inequity and set on fire by hell (see James 3:3 ff). She is cruel, even vicious, though also witty with her tongue. Should she be unsettled by biblical preaching? Shouldn’t it provoke some self-evaluation? Might it prove salutary for her to hear words of caution, warnings, and even threats?
The “grace only” advocates that we identified in previous months seem altogether oblivious to these common New Testament themes and their implications for preaching and pastoral ministry. Behind the apostolic preaching is the confidence that Christ not only saves, He transforms. Believers are regenerated, given a new heart and a new nature, vividly described in death/life terms in Romans 6. Moreover believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. When this double dynamic is present, gospel power is active in creating the new life of the believer: the old passes away and all things become new. (2 Cor.5:17, Rom 12:1, 2). Sanctification follows justification.
What about when the life isn’t changed, when Christ is claimed but no transformation takes place, when the old ways, habits, lusts, idols persist? The credibility of one’s profession of Christ is called into question. Hence, the urgent New Testament warnings to the complacent, the disobedient, and the hypocritical.
The extent of the problem is entirely missed by “grace only” preaching. Hypocrites, “false professors”, as the Puritans called them, and the self-deceived, all professing believers, all members of the visible church, have to be taken into account as the church’s preaching even as they are in the Apostles’ epistles. They must be accommodated in apostolic proportions, as well. The church will always be filled with tares that appear as wheat. The church will always find growing in its fields visible plants in rocky/shallow soil, which for a time appear healthy but are not rooted and wither under trials. There will always be visible plants among the thorns/weeds that likewise grow and appear normal but in the end are choked out by the world (Mt. 13:1 ff). Jesus taught these parables as a warning to us. He describes typical responses to the word of God about which we are to be aware and alarmed lest our hearts become content with incomplete and inadequate responses to the gospel.
Warnings, not just reminders of the grace, are designed to awaken the hypocrite and the self-deceived, the complacent and the disobedient, lest they continue on the path of destruction. To say that those in conditions “3” to “5” (above) only need indicatives and not imperatives (in today’s parlance), only read to hear afresh what Christ has done and are not in need of exhortations as to what they must do, is to fly in the face of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ own pastoral method.
I am ready to say that we are guilty of pastoral malpractice, no less, when we refuse to use the biblical warnings and threats to awaken them and instead leave them in their wayward path. Let me say it again, it is pastorally irresponsible and neglect of pastoral duty to fail to preach God’s gracious warnings. Faithful believers may at times find the warnings and threats of the New Testament unsettling. They may, at times, be prompted by doubts and fears to engage in self-examination, not an altogether negative result. Yet ordinarily the faithful will rejoice that the imperfectly converted are being rattled, knowing that such messages may be the means of their finding true life in Christ.
In many ways all we’re asking Presbyterian ministries to do is uphold the teaching of the Bible as our Confession of Faith and Catechisms understand it and which they have sworn to uphold. Addressing the positive utility of the law for the Christian (the “third use”), the Confession identifies both its threats and promises. The law of God is “of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions,” even “the threatenings of it show what. . . afflictions in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof.” (WCF XIX.6)
Further, “The promises of (the law of God). . . show that God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof: although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works.” (WCF XIX.6)
Do the “grace only” believe this, that God threatens believers with afflictions for their disobedience and promises blessings upon their performance of the law? Do they believe that the threats of affliction and promises of blessing that are tied to the law of God ought to be preached, and further, that these principles are not “contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it”? (WCF XIX.7)
Terry Johnson is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. This article first appeared as part of a series on the