Those whose every answer to worldliness is “preach the gospel again” or “think more about your justification,” are preaching “one size fits all” answers to complex spiritual problems. People are diverse. Different people at different times need encouragement or rebuke, reassurance or warning. Any attempts to eclipse the fullness of the biblical revelation must be resisted if we are to grow believers into the fullness of Christian maturity. Only through exposure to the whole counsel of God will grace boys become grace men.
Two years ago I wrote a Messenger article entitled “The Grace Boys.” It immediately was posted at a popular blog site. The reaction, inside and outside of the church, was swift. Strong appreciation arrived by e-mail from leading ministers within the PCA. Others were not so pleased. The theme was simple. Too many ministries were preaching a truncated gospel: justification without sanctification, faith without works, privilege without duty, grace without law, holiness without effort. The Christian life was being reduced to a formula while the multiple motivations for obedience and service to which Jesus and the apostles appeal were being ignored; not just ignored, but denigrated.
Two years later several reflections are worth noting.
First, it is always fascinating to observe that those who accuse us of not loving enough do so in the most unloving of ways. Similarly, those who say we need more grace so often do so gracelessly. The irony is, of course, rich. Some communications lectured me about how they believed in eternal security and nothing I said was going to rob them of their assurance––as though I hadn’t preached, written whole books and multiple pamphlets on the subject over a 25-year period: like The Case for Traditional Protestantism (on faith, grace, and Christ alone), When Grace Comes Home (with chapters on assurance, law, and sanctification), When Grace Transforms (on how and into what the gospel changes us), When Grace Comes Alive (on our dependence upon prayer, that is, on God), the Five Points of Calvinism (with the vital “P” for Perseverance and eternal security), and since then Galatians: A Mentor Expository Commentary, etc. Can anyone say, “The benefit of the doubt”? These were head-scratchers. Presumptuous head-scratchers.
Some used the occasion to offer ad hominem (ad ecclasticum?) criticism of our church. IPC is all law and no love, they alleged. My bottom line is this: Independent Presbyterian Church is essentially a good church, filled with wonderful, caring people (none better, as I see it), blessed with outstanding lay-leadership (as on your session and diaconate and among our women and youth), and led by faithful ministers. We have many weaknesses. There are a number of things that we should do better. Yet fundamentally IPC is a solid church for which its members, and even other believers who are not members, should be grateful. One might have hoped for more charitable, more gracious judgments by those who purport to be champions of grace.
Second, I spent the next six months of newsletters laying out the biblical balance of law and gospel, devoting issues to assurance and all the pertinent issues. Since then I have written a related series of six months on “Christian Identity” (now a pamphlet, “The Identity of the Christian,” and available online). The result? Ne’er a comment from the critics. Not one. I might have expected the odd, “Thank you for clarifying your views.” Or, “Now I see what you’re saying.” Nope. No interaction. Nothing. Given that some heavy-duty pejoratives were hurled in my direction, like “not enough grace” and “legalist” and “doesn’t believe in assurance,” this was disappointing. I suppose the excuse was that I had hurled my own weighty pejoratives in their direction, including the diminutive “Grace Boys” label. The difference is, I never named names. Mine was a, “if the shoe fits wear it” approach, where if a person were not guilty of the errors I identified, he need not take it personally. Apparently, given the squeals, I hit the target. I wrote, admittedly, with irony. Given apostolic precedent, irony, even sarcasm, is perfectly legitimate when issuing a wake-up call (e.g., 1 Cor 4:8; 2 Cor 11:4, etc.). I meant no harm to the innocent. I am alarmed by the prophets of hyper-grace. I continue to urge them to factor into their formulations of grace the whole biblical revelation.
Shortly after “Grace Boys” went viral, I learned of an organized movement to combat the hyper-grace distortions and the ethical laxity that inevitably accompanies them. Among the leaders and participants were Rick Phillips of Second Greenville, Ligon Duncan of First Jackson, Carl Robbins of Woodruff Road, Randy Pope of Perimeter, Harry Reeder of Briarwood, Liam Gallagher of Tenth, Philadelphia, Mike Ross of Christ Covenant, Charlotte, and Jim Barnes of Christ Covenant in Knoxville. Among other concerned parties are fathers of the denomination: Charles Dunahoo, who for 34 years was the Coordinator of Christian Education & Publication; Joey Pipa, President of Greenville Presbyterian Seminary; and former moderators of the General Assembly, James Baird and Frank Barker. I could name many more. We’ve struggled to determine what to call ourselves and others. Some didn’t like conceding the word “grace,” as in “grace boys,” “hyper-grace,” and “contemporary grace movement.” This is still unresolved.
Who are we? “The True Grace Boys?” “The Holiness Movement?” Heaven forbid, history has had enough of those. “The Sanctification Movement?” Doesn’t have much of a ring to it. The problem is just like hyper-Calvinism isn’t Calvinism, hyper-grace of the sort ascribed by Galatians 5:13ff and Jude 4, isn’t grace at all. It is license, a distortion of the gospel about which the Apostle Paul regularly exclaims, “May it never be!” (Rom 3:8,31; 6:1,2,15).
The one sentence that seemed to spark the most adverse reactions was this: “Threatening believers with exclusion from heaven is a powerful incentive to obedience, is it not?” which I claimed after citing 1 Peter 1:17, Hebrews 10:31, Galatians 5:19-24, and 1 Corinthians 5:9-10. At the time I asked those who objected to my wording if I added the word “professing” to the word “believers,” would it make any difference? They all said yes. So I changed the permanent internet post to “professing believers,” as I also did in the “Grace Debates” pamphlet.
I would add this, though. Jesus and the apostles never use the word “professing” when issuing the above warnings in order to qualify and limit their application. Theologically we are right to do so, because of biblical doctrine of eternal security (see Jn 10:27-30; Rom 8:28-39). However, we note that Jesus and the apostles, as shepherds of their flocks, never provide that qualification. One need look no further than the “Parable of the Sower” (Mk 4:1-20). Jesus and the apostles address the whole visible church and let the Holy Spirit do the encouraging and discouraging. I’m not sure that the biblical writers would avoid the censure of the hyper-grace movement for their alleged pastoral oversight.
Another allegation was that in subsequent articles I misused the warnings of Hebrews 6, that those who have “fallen away” may never be “renewed to repentance” (Heb 6:6). This was thought to be illegitimate scare tactics since the writer goes on to say, “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you . . .” (Heb 6:9). My question is, if he is “convinced of better things,” then why the warning? Thank you for proving my point. It seems to me that this passage establishes beyond debate the value of warnings and their effectiveness in preventing apostasy. His target is those tempted to “fall away,” but he addresses the whole church. He’s convinced of “better things” and yet still he warns in the strongest terms.
Two-year’s perspective strengthens my sense that “The Grace Boys” needed to be written. We have serious, serious problems with moral complacency in our ecclesiastical circles. We also have problems with divisive persons who would accuse preachers and churches of not preaching the gospel when they hear apostolic warnings preached in the same manner as the apostle delivered them, or when they hear moral exhortations, or even when they hear close applications. Those whose every answer to worldliness is “preach the gospel again” or “think more about your justification,” are preaching “one size fits all” answers to complex spiritual problems. People are diverse. Different people at different times need encouragement or rebuke, reassurance or warning. Any attempts to eclipse the fullness of the biblical revelation must be resisted if we are to grow believers into the fullness of Christian maturity. Only through exposure to the whole counsel of God will grace boys become grace men.
TE Terry Johnson, a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga.