Recently, I was discussing with a friend about how the Free Grace movement makes a clear distinction between eternal salvation (or justification) and discipleship (or sanctification).
In this view, our eternal salvation is based only on our faith in Christ as our savior, whereas discipleship involves following Christ's example and instructions to love God, love others, and do good works.
Some Christians seem to worry that adopting the Free Grace position would mean that there is no reason for Christians to bother pursuing sanctification.
This is similar to how some Christians fear that the idea that we will be instantly and completely sanctified at death would mean Christians should not worry about doing good works or growing in Christ-like character, as I discussed in my recent post about Purgatory.
In this post I want to present a short overview of the Free Grace argument for why justification and sanctification are separate things.
I will also try to alleviate some of the fears surrounding the Free Grace perspective by suggesting several good reasons why sanctification is still important for Christians to pursue, even though sanctification is not necessary for eternal salvation.
Eternal Salvation vs. Discipleship
Charles C. Bing summarizes the differences between these in his book Simply By Grace1 in a table like this:
|Received through faith||Requires commitment and obedience|
|Does not involve our works||Involves our works|
|Instant justification||Lifelong sanctification|
|Jesus paid the price||The Christian pays the price|
|Coming to Jesus as savior||Following Jesus as Lord|
|Believe the gospel||Obey the commands|
Bing says the distinction between these categories is clearly shown in Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV.2
The call to come to Christ for salvation is in Matt 11:28 NRSV: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest".
The call to follow Christ as his disciple (and thus pursue sanctification) follows in Matt 11:29-30 NRSV: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
So eternal salvation and discipleship are separate things, even though discipleship should ideally follow after acceptance of Jesus as our savior.
I really like this distinction because without it, we will end up making good works and sanctification a requirement for eternal salvation. This would mean a person could never have full assurance that they are saved, and as a result, they would miss out on the peace and joy that should come from being assured of their eternal salvation. For no one can ever be sure if they've done enough good works or become holy enough to prove they really believe in Jesus as their savior, or to somehow merit their own salvation. I've discussed this problem more here.
So we simply can't have it both ways. Either sanctification and good works are a necessary part of salvation, or they aren't. The Free Grace movement is nearly alone among Christian denominations today for clearly saying that all that is necessary to be saved is faith in Christ.
The Difference Between Believers and Disciples
An implication of this view is that there are likely many Christians who believe in Jesus but are not (yet) disciples of Jesus.3
Alternatively, there may be some people who are disciples of Jesus - they want to follow Jesus' teachings and learn from him - but have not actually believed in Jesus as their savior, as pointed out in this article by Robert Wilkin.
And even among disciples there can be different levels of commitment:
Bing says, "What’s the Biblical definition of a disciple? The word itself comes from the verb 'to learn', and so it simply means in its simplest form 'learner', 'pupil', 'adherent to a system'. But you and I recognize that there are different degrees of commitment involved in learning something. You know that because you went through college perhaps, or some other kind of school. Some of you may have just taken a course and audited it - a minimum commitment - but you were there, you were a student, you were learning. Others of you might have gone for the whole enchilada, tried to get on the dean’s list, graduated with honors - the ultimate commitment. There are learners at different levels of commitment".4
Jesus' Parable of the Four Soils (Mark 4, Matthew 13, Luke 8) seems to illustrate these points quite well.
Free Grace interpreters point out how all of the last 3 soils represent Christians because the seed (of faith) sprouts in them.
Scripture tells us that the very first moment of faith in Christ leads to the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14). So all Christians represented by the last three soils are eternally saved; it is only the first soil where "the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved." (Luke 8:12)
But some Christians' lives are not as fruitful as others because they either fall away from faith during testing (Luke 8:13), or they get distracted with concerns relating to this life and don't mature (Luke 8:14).
Even the soil that is good yields different amounts of crop - thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold harvest (Mark 4:20; Matt. 13:23). This principle is also taught in the Parable of the Talents, where each person is given different amounts of money to invest (Matt. 25:14-15), or each person is given the same amount but invests differently and receives different returns (Luke 19:16-21).
Heavenly Rewards are One Important Motivation for Sanctification
So if we don't need sanctification to be eternally saved, then why should we pursue it? What benefit is there to being one of the Christians in Jesus' parable who produces thirty, sixty, or one-hundred percent of the harvest, versus ones who produce nothing?
I think Jesus' promises of heavenly rewards should encourage us to be as 'fruitful' as we can in this life.
1 Cor. 3:10-15 teaches that our works will be judged by Christ, not for whether we will be saved or not, but for eternal heavenly rewards. Whatever was worthy of heavenly reward will endure God's judgement and is represented as gold and jewels, but whatever we did in our lives that was unworthy or was just an utter waste of time, will be "burned up" and do not earn any heavenly rewards. See also 2 Cor. 5:9-10.
So then, once this evaluation of our works is complete, we will be left with a metaphorical pile of heavenly rewards, larger or smaller, depending on our lives. This is our "heavenly treasure" (Matt 6:19-21). Scripture hints that these rewards may be expressed as different levels of ruling privileges with Christ on the New Earth (Luke 19:16-19; Matt. 25:21-23), or maybe other rewards we can't even imagine now.
Therefore, these rewards that we store up now will last for eternity. Eternity is a very long time and will make this life infinitely short in comparison. So I'd much rather use my short life now to earn heavenly rewards that I'll enjoy forever, rather than slacking off now and missing out on something that lasts forever.
Further Motivation for Sanctification
On top of heavenly rewards, I think there are even more good reasons why Christians should pursue sanctification:
Personal Happiness: John Wesley frequently emphasized that holiness makes us happy. Why? Because sin ultimately leads to suffering and death (James 1:15). The Law is summed up as love for God and love for others as we love ourselves (Matt 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10), and so sin is the opposite of this: it is unhappy relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. The reason God forbids sin is that it is ultimately harmful and makes us miserable, even if on the surface it seems pleasurable. So, to be as happy as possible in this life, holiness is the way to go. I think we can see this demonstrated on many contemporary TV shows where things like lying, adultery, greed, backstabbing, and slandering just complicate people's lives and lead to all sorts of problems that make their lives miserable.
Because we Love God: As I wrote about in this blog post, if God is Love, then if Christians love God, then we can say we love Love. This means we should love to act in loving ways towards everyone else, just as Jesus commanded (e.g. Matt 22:37-40; John 13:34).
Gratitude: God loved us first (1 Jn. 4:19) and sent His Son to die for us while we were sinners and enemies of God (Rom 5:10), so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life (John 3:16). There is no way to compensate God for this, but we can still do all we can to serve God and follow his commands out of gratitude and love for Him.
To Avoid Displeasing God: Since God loves everyone, whenever we hurt ourselves or others, it makes God angry and sad, just like when a parent sees their child being hurt, hurting others, or hurting themselves. Yes, God still loves us, but if we love God we should want to please Him and not make Him angry or sad as much as possible.
To Avoid God's Discipline or Temporal Punishment God disciplines His persistently disobedient children (Heb. 12:5-6), and may possibly even end their physical mortal lives if their sin is serious enough (e.g. Acts 5, where Ananias and Sapphira die for their lies). You can read more about the Free Grace interpretation of "salvation" in the book of James which suggests James is actually encouraging Christians to avoid sin not to avoid hell, but in order to avoid temporal judgement or discipline by God, which may culminate in physical loss of life!
Because Jesus Came to Save Us From Sin: In Romans 6:4, Paul argues that since Christians have been baptized into Christ's death, we should live the new life that Christ intends to give us, which is to be set free from sin. Sin ends up enslaving us (Romans 6:16), and so the more we're sanctified, the less we're enslaved to sin. If we have believed in Jesus for eternal life, then since that eternal life will take place in the New Heaven and New Earth where there will be no sin at all, we might as well get used to living that way now. As we are sanctified, we are slowly becoming more like the perfectly holy people we will be in heaven.
To Fulfill the Great Commission: A Christian who acts in unloving ways does not make a good impression on non-Christians, and will not persuasively draw others into considering Christ's love for them. No one wants to hear about Jesus' love for them from a blatant jerk. But if we demonstrate God's love genuinely in our lives, we will shine like the light on the lampstand and draw others to Christ (Matthew 5:15-16).
To Care For Others: James 2:15-17 says that if our faith does not lead us to care for those who need help, then our faith is pretty much 'dead', not non-existent, but useless as far as any practical benefit it might give to others. It's useless to wish for people to be fed and clothed when we do nothing to help them. So, applying our faith and doing good deeds out of love for God and others makes a real difference to people who need help in this life.
To Improve Society: Some argue that Christians should try to change society to make it more like how God would want it to be, where there is no oppression or hatred of others. I believe that the best way to do this is by spreading the Gospel, so that more people will accept Christ, and who will then be enabled by the Holy Spirit to make a difference in the world and live righteously. Unregenerate people (those who have not been made new by having the Holy Spirit indwell their hearts as a result of accepting Jesus as their savior) have very little motivation to love others unless it benefits themselves, and so I think social activism alone won't make much of a difference. What we need to fix society is more people committed to following Christ.
Therefore, there are TONS of good reasons why Christians should care about going on from simply having faith in Christ as savior, to making a commitment to being his disciple also.
In conclusion, the Free Grace perspective that we are saved the very first moment we put our faith in Christ as our savior does not in any way undermine the emphasis we see in Scripture on becoming Jesus' disciples, by learning to avoid sin and follow Jesus' commands to love God and love each other.
There is no need to include sanctification or good works in our definition of faith (or to insist they are a necessary by-product of real faith) in order to have reasons to encourage Christians to pursue holiness and develop Christ-like character.
If you're interested in learning more about the Free Grace perspective, I'd highly recommend Charles Bing's book Simply By Grace. It's short, easy to read, and very clear. Or you can read some articles on the Grace Evangelical Society website and blog.
- 1. Charles C. Bing, Simply By Grace: An Introduction to God's Life-Changing Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2009), 121.
- 2. ibid., 120.
- 3. Some might argue the book of Acts makes no distinction between believers and disciples. But this could be because at that time just being a Christian would involve ostracism, persecution, and potentially death. So back then, all Christians were disciples, for all made potentially costly commitments to follow Christ at the same time they believed in Him for salvation. This is not the case in our society right now. Charles C. Bing, "Coming to Terms with Discipleship", Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Vol. 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1992): 35-49.
- 4. Charles C. Bing, "Why Lordship Misses the Mark for Discipleship", Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Vol 12, no. 23 (Autumn, 1999): 37-52.