Monday, April 23, 2012

What Gospel is That?

This article is the second I've written today. It was written quickly so the grammar is probably very poor in places.

Today I noticed an article authored by Ken Neff and originally published by the Grace Evangelical Society(GES) in 2009 duplicated and republished by another organization.  The article is entitled "What Is the Free-Grace Gospel?"*UPDATE* link fixed as of 8 Aug 2012 (capitalized as authored).  This article is from the March-April 2009 edition of the GES publication "Grace in Focus."  There are a number of things of interest in the article, not the least of which is the description of the early controversy over the new GES doctrine which they call "The Free-Grace Gospel" but which is more commonly called "The Crossless Gospel" or "Promise Only Gospel." I didn't become aware of this controversy myself until 2007. Here is what Neff says about the early days of this doctrine:
There has been debate raging in the Free Grace (FG) community for several years. And it concerns something surprising: the gospel. In 1999 Zane Hodges gave a two-part message at the GES National Conference entitled, “How to Lead a Person to Christ.” Those messages were published in the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (JOTGES) in Autumn 2000 and Spring 2001. 
Hodges indicated that the saving message is found in the Fourth Gospel, John (cf. John 20:30-31), with John 3:16 and 6:47 stating that all who merely believe in Jesus have eternal life. According to Hodges, Christ and His promise of eternal life is the only necessary content required to believe at conversion. 
I am not aware of anyone ever previously having preached or believed such a doctrine as presented by Zane Hodges at the GES National Conference in 1999.  One may find Hodges' teaching given at that conference here: How to Lead People to Christ Part 1. I am not alone in being unable to find any reference to any such view in the history of the Church. Dr. Fred Lybrand, while he was still President of The Free Grace Alliance(FGA), authored a letter about the controversy:  Fred Lybrand's Open Letter "Re: The GES Gospel (AKA The Crossless or Promise Only Gospel)" This letter was also authored in 2009, April 14th to be exact. 

In the letter to Dr. Fred Chay, the then incoming and current FGA President,  Lybrand says:

My suspicion is that many folks involved with the Grace Evangelical Society are simply unaware (as was I) that profound doctrinal shifts in the organization have occurred since 1999, culminating in sweeping doctrinal changes in their Statement (August 2005) and the recent attacks (the Hydra-headed article and the review of JB Hixson’s book) against those who disagree with the GES reformulation of The Gospel of Grace.

And having discussed these sweeping changes, and the reformulation of the Gospel of Grace Lybrand says:

To my knowledge, no one has ever held this view in the history of Christianity.

The new doctrine which Hodges presented at the 1999 GES National Conference has been dismantled and discredited in several venues. Lybrand's letter, linked above, is probably the most graceful and generous refutation to be found. Even still the GES still presents the doctrine as true, and GES followers seemingly still present it as true. The article "What Is the Free-Grace Gospel" is an apologetic for the idea that one can believe the Gospel of the Christ declared by Paul in 1Cor 15:1-11 and yet not be saved.  Does this article actually establish such a fact though? Could such an assertion be true, even if perhaps the article does not establish it? Let's find out!

After a brief overview of Hodges' doctrine, Neff states:

However, not all within FG circles found these arguments convincing. Some in the FGA disagree with Hodges’ claim that the saving message has not changed since John’s Gospel. They point to progressive revelation and say that since Calvary and the empty tomb, Jesus’ substitutionary death and bodily resurrection must be included in the gospel message and must be believed for anyone to receive eternal life. 
This is what Neff intended to argue against in 2009 while he was writing. His first shot is a description of how Hodges answered. That requiring belief in the crosswork of Christ is a "legalist gospel" and that the real issue is how much evidence, if any, a person needs to believe concerning Christ and His works in order to be born again. Then Neff states his position, using some of his and some of Hodges' words.
Arguing from 1 Cor 15:1–8, some have supported a progressive concept of the good news. In his recent Hydra article (Grace in Focus, Sept-Oct 2008), Hodges counters that that particular text indicates eight items are associated with the good news. He writes:  
Beyond question, all of these truths are of infinite importance. But Jesus never conditioned eternal life on believing any of them…In fact one could believe all eight of the truths listed above and not yet be born again. Believing all these truths is not the same as believing in Jesus for eternal life [emphasis his].  

One could easily get distracted from Neff's main point and bring up passages like John 8 where the Lord, speaking of His death and resurrection, and His deity says that unless you believe that He is Who He says He is you will die in your sins. Or John 6 where we read that unless you eat of His flesh, and drink of His Blood you have no life in you, but that if you do that you will have Eternal Life. Or that one must see their sins judged in Him as He is lifted up on the cross like the serpent in the wilderness. John 3. One could look at the passage that the GES, and Neff, hang their doctrinal hat on. John 20:30-31 and see that "these things" have been written that the reader would believe Christ is the Christ, the Son of God, and having believed this ABOUT Him the reader would have Eternal Life. Not "believing in Jesus for eternal life." So, obviously one could refute Hodges' doctrine all over again, but one could do so and yet still miss the point of Neff's article which I believe we will discover is a bold attack on the Gospel of the Christ.

Neff has in fact ever so subtlety developed a straw-man argument. When Paul describes someone having saving faith he goes back to Abram who "was assured" by God's word (about the Messiah) and this was accounted as righteousness. Rom 4:1-8 ; Gen 15:6 Paul doesn't talk about "believing the facts" but being assured by the message. Of course there is a huge difference. What one might discover, is that when Paul discusses how one is justified before God, there is nothing in his argument about "believing in Jesus for eternal life." Instead Paul focuses on the guilty man being accounted as righteous in spite of his terrible sin. Neff cleverly avoids the real issue, and the real solution and instead develops a Straw-Man he thinks he can easily knock down.

Neff then attempts to establish areas of agreement between his fictionalized group of detractors, and the GES. He states:

Both sides say that it is necessary to believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved. 
Yet both sides do not agree on this. His own position is that one does not "believe IN JESUS CHRIST" but that:

Hodges and GES says that anyone who simply believes in Jesus for eternal life has it, regardless of whether he understands and believes how it is that Jesus is able to fulfill this promise. 

They say one must "believe in Jesus for eternal life" or in other areas "Believe Jesus for Eternal Life." Nothing about Him being Lord (Deity), or Christ. Both of which are required by their favorite proof-texts. Jn 20:30-31, and Acts 16:31

One side, even with its fictional doctrine created by Neff, believes that one must believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and because of that belief God will give the person Eternal Life, and the other side says that one believes "Jesus for eternal life". Not believing in the person, but believing in the perceived promise of eternal life for anyone who believes Him for it. Neff's assertions aside, there is no actual area of agreement here.

With respect to disagreement Neff says the following:

Some in the FGA say that one must not only believe in Jesus for eternal life, but he must also believe in the deity of Christ, in His death on the cross (understood specifically in terms of substitutionary atonement), and in His bodily resurrection on the third day. Absent these beliefs, a person who believes in Jesus and Him alone for eternal life is on his way to hell according to some in FG circles. 

Personally I would not say that one must believe (in) Jesus for eternal life, and also believe the Gospel. I would say that when one Believes the Gospel they are given Eternal Life. 1Cor 15:1-2 ; Acts 18:8 ; Gal 3:2 ; Eph 1:13-14 ; Rom 1:16 ; Acts 16:29-34 ; Jn 20:30-31... and so on.

Here is what the FGA has to say in their membership covenant.
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.

Having misrepresented belief in Christ as portrayed by Paul in the Corinthians having received the Gospel, and misrepresenting the FGA's position, Neff then goes on to make some "observations" about his fabricated detractors' doctrine. He says:

It Seems Arbitrary to Say That Some, But Not All, of the Good News Must Be Believed. 

As a result, the necessity of picking and choosing the four or five or six items from some ten or more as absolute essential requirements for salvation causes one to pose and ponder—“Which ones?” 


Schliesmann’s essential elements of the Gospel are his required checklist and conditions for initial salvation. For him, nothing less can be the gospel. 


Tom Stegall proposes a different set of essentials, in his case, five: 


J. B. Hixson also has five essentials, but not the same five. Jonathan Perreault has six essentials. 

and finally

It seems that there is as yet no consensus as to what the essentials are or even how many there are. 

All of this appears to be stated in an attempt to discredit the view that one must believe the Gospel of the Christ in order to be saved by showing that several (albeit high profile) persons disagree one which "facts" are essential to be believed. This of course is bait for distraction again. I will but nibble at the hook a bit anyway.

Paul declares the Gospel which he preached to the Corinthians, that they received and were saved by, which all the Apostles preached and the Corinthians believed. 1Cor 15:1-2 ; Acts 18:8 ; 1Cor 15:11 These passages, and the others I've cited above state that believing the Gospel of the Christ results in Eternal Life. It does not matter what disagreements other men have. Let's continue with Neff's argument however.

We come to something on which I find that I largely agree with Neff on. He makes the following "observation":

Evidence That Can Lead to Saving Faith Is Not the Object of Saving Faith. The “content-of-faith” terminology is, in fact, a misnomer. Faith is only a persuasion. Faith is merely a realization of the truthfulness of a proposition that is proven by evidence. Evidence, therefore, is the basis of faith. 
In the case of saving faith, it is more than mere "persuasion" of something being true but actual "assurance" as a result of something being true. Gen 15:6 ; Rom 4:16-22 Some years ago I wrote a series of posts called "Identity" which were focused on God's emphasis on His Identity throughout the Scriptures. One of the many, many, problems with the GES doctrine is that they don't identify who this "Jesus" is that one is supposedly to "believe for eternal life."

John 20:30-31 says that if one believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God they will have Eternal Life. Rom 1:1-4 Paul talks about his call to preach the Gospel which identifies Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

Notice, that just like John 19 & 20 are completely focused on Christ's death, burial and resurrection, and these things are written so that one will believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so is Paul's Gospel focused on identifying this same Jesus. It is Christ's having been raised from the dead that identifies Him as the Son of God.

Likewise His crosswork having been accomplished "in accordance with the Scriptures" reveals He is the Christ.

Yet still we have not gotten to the thrust of Neff's argument. All of this so far has been nothing but distraction. He then briefly returns to his argument:

The “legalistic-gospel” proponents argue the evidence that must be believed concerns Jesus, His works, and His promise of eternal life—though they have at least four different lists; while “crossless-gospel” proponents argue it doesn’t really matter what evidence convinces a person, but that anyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life. 

John in his evangelistic letter, which is often called "God's Gospel Tract" and otherwise known (somewhat incorrectly) as "The Gospel of John" states the following in John 20:30-31
30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
This is immediately after two chapters dealing with the death burial and resurrection of Christ. There are "many other signs" but these signs are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing (that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God) you may have life in His name.

John chose which facts to present. His goal was not to convince you that Jesus guarantees Eternal Life for any who "believe Him for it." John's goal was to present particular evidence that would demonstrate that He is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you would have Eternal Life.

Under the title of "Is The Gospel of John Really Outdated?" Neff takes another shot at a Straw-Man argument, and knocks the Straw-Man down by stating:

However, when penning his Gospel many years after Christ’s death and resurrection, John doesn’t place an asterisk anywhere to indicate that the saving message had actually changed since Christ’s time on earth. 

Who is saying that the message changed? John clearly demonstrates the same Gospel that Paul declared. In fact Paul tells us that John preached the very same Gospel. 1Cor 15:11

After all of this, I need to be reminded of what Neff is arguing against. So let's quote him from the beginning again.
Beyond question, all of these truths (the eight truths the GES recognizes in 1Cor 15:1-8) are of infinite importance. But Jesus never conditioned eternal life on believing any of them…In fact one could believe all eight of the truths listed above and not yet be born again. Believing all these truths is not the same as believing in Jesus for eternal life [emphasis his].  
On the final page of his article, under the title "From One Man's Perspective" Neff finally gives his actual argument. I have quoted a great deal from this article, but I have also left much of it out. I've done my level best to maintain Neff's context. However, since this passage is his actual argument I wish to quote it here in full.

I grew up the Mormon Church and before I was born again I believed in Jesus. In fact, I believed in His deity, His virgin birth, His miracles as proof of his deity, His sinless life, His death on the cross for my sins, His burial, His bodily resurrection on the third day, His ascension to heaven, His preparation of a place for His own, and His birth in Bethlehem.  
But as Hodges indicated, “one could believe all…of the truths listed above and not yet be born again.” I am proof of that fact.  
However, due to the ministry of a good friend and Campus Crusade in my life, I began to reevaluate the faith-works teaching of the Mormon Church. I remember, like it was yesterday, driving my Rambler back to the University on a Sunday evening. Suddenly I realized what my friend had said was true. Jesus alone, without my help, provides eternal life on the basis of faith alone. That evening, I believed in Jesus. I had previously believed many true things about Jesus, but only then did I believe in Jesus, and in Him alone, for eternal life.  
Requiring more than what is required is a type a legalism. I believe that is the heart of Hodges’ appeal. The issue is not a check-off list, but a Person. It’s captured in the saying, “You can know all about Him, but not know Him.” Reformed Theology misuses this saying. However, it communicates the reality of the current debate between the “legalistic-gospel” camp and the “crossless-gospel” camp. At least, that is how I see it. 

Do you notice the subtle usage of his Straw-Man argument, previously developed at the beginning, here?

He says that he believed many of the "facts" Paul includes as part of his Gospel, and some other facts. He states emphatically "But as Hodges indicated, "one could believe all... of the truths listed above and not yet be born again." I am proof of that fact." His straw-man is fully revealed however when he states "Suddenly I realized what my friend had said was true. Jesus alone, without my help, provides eternal life on the basis of faith alone." He doesn't stop to acknowledge the Straw-Man however, and I'm convinced there will be some GES followers who have read all this way and may as yet not seen what it is. He seals his argument with "Requiring more than what is required is a type a legalism. I believe that is the heart of Hodges’ appeal. The issue is not a check-off list, but a Person. It’s captured in the saying, “You can know all about Him, but not know Him.” " In his mind he has defeated the detractors he has invented.

However, no one is saying that if one believes the facts of the Gospel that they will be saved. One must receive the Gospel as Abram received the promise from God. You are assured in Him. Gen 15:6 ; Rom 4:1-22

Neff says that he was not saved while he was a Mormon. Yet he claims to have believed in Jesus. Does not Jesus Himself say "MOST ASSUREDLY he who believes in Me has Eternal Life"? John 6:47 So what is the problem? I'll tell you there were two problems. First he was believing in the wrong Jesus. The Jesus the Mormons have fashioned for themselves. Second, he was not assured because of those "facts" that he claimed to believe. He thought he still had to work. He hadn't had "faith in Jesus alone" so he had not "received" the Gospel. 1Cor 15:1 He believed in faith (in a fake Jesus) plus works. Of course he was not saved. He had not believed the Gospel, even though he claims to have believed several of the facts (not all, he missed the "in accordance with the Scriptures" part for example) that are part of the Gospel.

Because he had a faith (in a made up Jesus) + works religion he thinks this disproves the doctrine that one must believe the Gospel of the Christ as declared by Paul. He makes his argument by subtly changing the doctrine he is arguing against into a false doctrine which he thinks he can knock down without anyone noticing the difference.

Sorry Neff, I noticed. Even if other people haven't, I have. I also know that no matter how many have missed it, I am far from alone in this observation. This article was unconvincing in 2009, when last I read it, and it remains so even to this day. It should have faded into history, yet I hope that by giving this attack on the Gospel exposure it will somehow help others also to see what was really going on with it.

There is a reason why no one ever before the GES in 1999 ever held to this view, and why since 2009 it has all but disappeared from discussion. I suggest that it is unwise to promote this view given that it has been refuted in every way imaginable.

I don't know what this so-called "Free-Grace Gospel" is, I have believed and do preach the Gospel of the Christ. Such is the only Gospel I will preach. I have neither authority, nor freedom to preach any other.


Kevl said...

With regard to the discussion about which facts are essential to be believed, I would hold to the view that Paul Declares the complete Gospel in 1Cor 15:1-11. He opens it and closes, and seals it with the statement that all the Apostles preached that same message, and all the Believers believed it.

What about the claim that this message to complicated to be believed and/or understood? I declare shenanigans! God the Holy Spirit convicts & convinces the world of Sin, Righteousness and Judgment. Jn 16:5-11 and it is the preacher's job to preach the word of Christ, and faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ! Rom 10.

I can read the Word of Christ, or the preached testimony of Christ, the Gospel of the Christ (as Paul calls it in various places) by reading it directly from the Scriptures.

Faith comes by hearing the Word. Not by an argument.

I very much appreciate what Glenn said about the preacher's responsibility in his recent blog post found here:

The proponents of the GES gospel at this point will raise the charge of “theological legalism.” Am I claiming that the unbeliever has to assent to a large number of propositions before he can be saved? No, I am not claiming that. I am not placing such a burden on the hearer of the Gospel but on the presenter of the Gospel. The believer who presents the Gospel to the unsaved is under the obligation of presenting a Gospel message that cuts through the unbeliever’s presuppositions and makes “the person and work of Jesus Christ” crystal clear. To do anything less would be “theological malfeasance.”


Glenn said...

Hi Kev,

That is a very interesting article! There are two things that came to mind when I was reading it that I would like to share with you. First, the pastor I grew up with always emphasized that salvation always came through "faith in Christ as then revealed." It looks to me like the GES has completely rejected this concept. I think they have become so concerned with fighting Lordship Salvation that they have lost sight of the goal.

Second, what Neff said about his beliefs as a Mormon caught my interest so I went to an apologetics site and did some checking (please see: Mormonism and the atonement of Jesus). Mormon beliefs are at odds with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that Christ died for our sins. Neff conveniently left that part out.


Kevl said...

There are of course truths to what the GES is saying. Faith is being persuaded, and thus assured, not understanding several facts. While they understand the faith vs obedience part, they ignore the fact that the Gospel is the message God has chosen to reveal Christ through.

It is the only message that properly identifies Christ, and gives us assurance of His satisfaction of the need we have as revealed by the Spirit.

No other message satisfies. The wrong Jesus, the wrong motive, the wrong problem solved, not exclusively Him, not exclusively His work.... only the Gospel identifies the one Christ and the one solution resulting in the one faith that saves.