One way we can consider a doctrine is by comparing it with other doctrines that answer similar questions. In the above picture, I have drawn a pendulum with five views of salvation. In the middle is a view, which in the 80s-90s, was called, “Free Grace.” This is the view that I adhere to and it teaches that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone. The further the pendulum swings to the left, the more the doctrines teach that faith is insufficient, that is, the more works are required on our part. The further the pendulum swings to the right, the more the doctrines teach that faith is unnecessary, that is, the more we are saved apart from faith in Christ.
Now, just because Free Grace is in the middle of the spectrum, this does not mean that Free Grace is true. Truth is not the average of error! It also does not matter if Roman Catholics or Universalists outnumber the adherents of Free Grace. Truth does not need a consensus. I hear people trying to justify their views by drawing pendulums and that’s not what I’m doing here. This is just a quick overview of some alternatives to Free Grace to help folks know the difference.
The Center: Faith Alone in Christ Alone
The Bible teaches that we are saved simply through faith alone in Christ alone. Practically every Protestant will use the phrase, “Faith alone in Christ alone,” but while we are using the same words, we are speaking different languages. When a Free Gracer says, “alone,” he means… well, “alone.” And when he says, “faith,” he means… well, “faith.” And when he says, “Christ” he means, “Christ.” Get where I’m going with this?
Free Grace teaches that our entire hope for salvation is in Christ’s gift. We can do nothing to earn the gift or lose the gift nor do we need any kind of work to prove that we have the gift. We believe that this gift from God is the only way to be saved and that it only goes to those who believe in Christ as the only One who gives this gift apart from any other gods or assistance from men’s works.
Proof texts from the Bible abound, but some of my favorites include John 3:16; 5:24; 10:28-29; Acts 16:31; Rom 4:1-5; Eph 1:13; 2:8-9; Titus 3:5.
The Left: Faith Alone is Insufficient
Lordship Salvation is a view that uses some of the same language as Free Grace, but alters the meaning of some key words. So, a Lordship Salvationist could make a statement that is correct if taken plainly, such as:
Because Christians are justified by faith alone, their standing before God is not in any way related to personal merit. Good works and practical holiness do not provide the grounds for acceptance with God.1
But, then Lordship Salvation redefines the word, “faith,” to distinguish a particular “genuine faith,” such that:
Those with genuine faith follow Christ […] love their brothers […] obey God’s commandments […] do the will of God […] abide in God’s Word […] keep God’s Word […] do good works […] and continue in the faith […]2
Notice that the word, “faith,” has been redefined to include a list of works. Since “faith” means “faith plus works,” the reality is that the Lordship Salvation creed, “Faith alone,” actually means “Faith plus works alone.”
The Far Left: Works are Meritorious
Roman Catholicism takes Lordship Salvation to a more natural conclusion. The Council of Trent made a decree, which uses the sort of wording one would expect from Lordship Salvation:
For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body.3
While both reject an actual “faith alone” message, Roman Catholicism differs from Lordship Salvation by coming to the logical conclusion that “faith alone” is a false message. One Roman Catholic responds to the Lordship Salvation view:
The Protestant may argue that a person has been saved via his faith yet will then act-out this justification by performing good works. That is not entirely false. However, the fact remains that Scripture states plainly that good works are indeed related to salvation; the Catholic teaching bears this out while sola fide denies it.4
There is plenty to say in response to the left side of the pendulum, but for now we are only doing a survey of alternatives to the Free Grace view.
The Right: Faith in Christ is Not Necessary
Moving now to the right of the center of the pendulum, we arrive to a popular alternative to Free Grace, which could be called “Christian Pluralism.” Since Christian Pluralism is a close alternative to Free Grace, it should come as no surprise that it has some things in common with Lordship Salvation, since both are next to Free Grace on the spectrum. While Lordship Salvation rejects the message of “faith in Christ,” Christian Pluralism rejects the message of “faith in Christ.”
Essentially, Christian Pluralism teaches that Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses… we’re all essentially teaching the same thing and we’re all one Body of Christ. Different Pluralists draw the line differently, such that some will not include Catholics while others might even include Mormons, but in the end, whatever they think the saving message is, it does not require someone to trust Christ alone for eternal life.
I have met many people who fall under the Christian Pluralism umbrella. Sometimes they are baby Christians who haven’t thought through the doctrinal issues. Others have been burnt by Free Grace and have developed reactive theology.
Now, am I saying that Catholics, Adventists, Church of Christ folks, etc., can’t be saved? Of course not. Even an atheist, Muslim, or Scientologist can be saved… by believing in Christ. But in the moment in which someone believes in Christ, he is rejecting the doctrines of Catholicism, Adventism, Islam, Scientology, and every other false gospel or religion, which teach that we must believe in our 0wn to works to save us to some extent.
Far Right: Faith is Not Necessary
Further to the right of Christian Pluralism is Christian Universalism. Pluralism picks and chooses who is saved, but Universalism says that all are saved. There are many forms of Pluralism, but Christian Universalism would say that Jesus saves everyone.
Some of the more liberal forms of Christian Universalism would include the view that Muslims go to Muslim heaven while Christians go to Christian heaven. More conservative forms would hold to a purgatorial hell where all of the non-Christians go to learn about Christ, believe in Him, and be sprung into heaven. Others might argue that since Jesus took away the sin of the world, everyone in the world will go to heaven. Christian Universalism is generally easy to dismantle with Scriptures, but suffice it today to say that it is distinct from Free Grace in that it rejects the necessity of faith in Christ today and distinct from Christian Pluralism because it includes even those whom the Pluralist excludes.
So, the further left we go on the pendulum, the more we diminish the doctrine of faith alone and the further right we go on the pendulum, the more we diminish the doctrine of Christ alone (though, we could also say that both directions diminish both doctrines).
There are other viewpoints that combine the errors of both sides of the pendulum. These would be the views that many different types of Christians or religious people are saved, but only if they are good. So, a Lordship Salvation/Christian Pluralism combination might say that all good Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists are saved, but all bad Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists are not. Or perhaps that all good Muslims and Jews are saved, but all bad Muslims and Jews are condemned, as well as all atheists and Hindus.
Both the left and the right sides of the pendulum are inconsistent with Scriptures, so a combination of the errors will only bring about more error.
So, that’s my Pendulum of Grace. No theological pendulum is perfect and I’m not trying to defend or answer any doctrines today. Just a little chart to help us understand the differences a little better.