The free-grace movement doesn’t want to admit that overcoming sin isn’t simply about “thinking more deeply about justification.” Indicatives always inevitably lead to imperatives.
You see, neo-antinomian’s just can’t seem to speak of dealing with sin without eventually saying “read more, pray more, obey more” (ironically, their most despised way of thinking about sanctification). If you or I teach the commands of Scripture they cry “legalism,” “you’re atoning for yourself,” or “It’s only about what Christ has done for us!” But when they talk of dealing with some sin, they also exhort others to “Study,” “Don’t love the world,” or “focus on the beauty of Christ,” etc. Why are the calls to obedience by others considered legalism or moralism, while their exhortations to obedience are not? Because the free-grace movement is convinced that when they exhort others to obey it’s through love as the driving principle rather than obligation. They exhort others in the “want to” of obedience rather than the “have to.” How do they identify the difference? It’s all in the semantics. If exhortations are free of terms that obligate the will the call to obey is legitimate. Words like “submission,” “duty,” and strong warnings of consequences for disobedience reflect Law-keeping. Thus, calling others to obedience is merely “inviting them” to thoughts of grace and a gratitude that promises to subdue sin wholly apart from active submission of the will. Here’s how it works: I can strongly admonish someone to obey so long as my terminology encourages motives of affection, relational delight, and grateful love. As soon as we load admonitions with talk of sin’s consequences, God’s displeasure, Christ’s mastery and our slavery, or the sovereign authority of divine imperatives, obedience is viewed as oppression and drudgery.
And this kind of thinking is not altogether surprising. There has been so much muddled teaching over the past few years on progressive sanctification. Scores of people today have decided that an emphasis on holy living and obedience are what ultimately led to their failure and weakness in the first place. Perhaps they grew up chaffing at authority and rules. Or maybe they simply nurtured a growing contempt for Scripture’s high standards because they loved the world’s passing pleasures. Whatever the circumstances, they now place the blame for years of guilt and weakness on the oppression of rules—moral obligation itself. They hold God’s Law responsible for their heart’s tendency to rail against it.
Paul was crystal clear on that issue, exonerating the holiness of the Law while indicting the “principle of sin within” himself as the cause of his failures (Romans 7:7-13). I’m always nervous when someone’s grace-talk is laced with animosity toward God’s holy law. Paul’s theological understanding of grace was unmatched, yet he always vindicated the Law. He boldly taught it and frequently warned against its violation. Yet for countless people caught up in the free-grace movement, they only warm up to the commands of the Bible if they are redefined as “delightful invitations,” ever-couched as the “fruit of grace-contemplation,” and never followed by threats of chastening for disobedience. They fear an emphasis on duty and obedience, convinced it will lead others away from the joy of knowing that Jesus “paid it all,” and will plunge them back into a ‘false guilt’ caused by striving and failing.
Yet, free-gracer’s don’t seem to realize the serious danger of mistaking real guilt for false guilt. What if their past guilt wasn’t caused by a false threat of judgment at all, but a result of the “heavy hand of the Lord” upon their conscience? Ignoring the warnings of the conscience is condemned in Scripture. Granted, true believers need not fear judgment or doubt the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work. Yet we are commanded to maintain a blameless conscience in our walk of faith. A Christian who is heavy-laden with the guilt of failing to obey the word of God should respond immediately to those pangs of conscience by running to Christ in repentance and faith. Tragically, the notion of ‘false guilt’ spawned by the pop-psychology movement of the 70’s has resurfaced in the free-grace movement. People are wrongly being taught that their pangs of guilt are likely if not always the result of a false sense of obligation to obey God. They’re being taught that having been justified in Christ they should ignore patterns of failing to live up to the commands of Christ. Any sense of obligation, they claim, is a betrayal of grace—a slide into self-atoning legalism. Dangerously, some are shouting down their consciences, nurturing contempt for God’s Law, separating from healthy ministries, and flirting with worldly lifestyle choices.
But how should we counsel and encourage believers who fear judgment or doubt the sufficiency of the cross? It depends on what’s causing these burdens. There are several different causes behind this kind of soul-trouble:
(1) In some cases, true Christians may fear God’s judgment because they’ve not been clearly taught the freedom of being justified in Christ. These can be liberated as they study and believe what Scripture teaches about the doctrine of salvation. I’ve often thought that the free-grace movement probably swells with many genuinely confused and untaught Christians who’ve begun to discover sola gratia for the first time. Their newfound fervor over grace has become untempered and simply needs its theological pendulum to swing back into balance.
(2) Others fear God’s judgment because, although they know the doctrine of justification by faith, they struggle to believe it moment-by-moment. What these dear saints need is to walk by faith and not by sight. They need less leaning on their own understanding and more acknowledging God’s truth in spite of their own sense of things. They must exercise their faith muscle by entrusting themselves to the clarity and authority of God’s word rather than craving an earthly, tangible guarantee.
(3) There are other believers who, though they don’t doubt their justification, are downcast, guilty and fearful because of continual patterns of sin and weakness. The objective assurance that comes from power over sin has eluded them, so they tend to become fearful, doubtful, and spiritually exhausted. These weary saints need to plead with God for a repentant heart, and they must consider the chastening of conscience and consequences of sin a gift from the Lord to keep them from further disobedience.
(4) And still there are others who ignore pangs of guilt, speak often of being “free in Christ,” and yet use their liberty as a covering for sin. These should be duly warned of the seeds of apostasy, called to genuine repentance, and exhorted to obey the word of God.
The Free-Grace movement simply assumes that doubting, depressed and repeatedly failing believers are all universally in category (1) above. It is assumed that most if not all exhausted Christians are suffering from an overactive conscience that hasn’t understood grace. While this may be the case for some, merely contemplating sola gratia and waiting for emotional waves of gratitude will be no long term help for those in the other categories.