4 Hyper-Grace Myths: God Loves Everybody, Backslidden Christians, Sinners Saved by Grace, and it’s wrong to Fear God
As some know, I am dating a fellow Southern Baptist named Susan. We did not meet in the same church, so we are presently going to both by alternating back and forth. This post is sparked by the fact that I have been able to offend parishioners in both churches via Sunday school discussions. I did this at Susan’s church first while we were discussing “backslidden” Christians during Sunday school. I suggested to the class that it is wrong to give “backslidden” Christians assurance of their supposed salvation while in a state of perpetual rebellion; it was not well received.
Then in Sunday school last week while we were at my church I repeated my offensive behavior by suggesting that God does not Love everybody following a comment by someone in the class to the contrary. And while I am at it, I would like to throw in two more Christian clichés that I have suffered by throughout my Christian life: we are “sinners” saved by grace, and as Christians, we shouldn’t have any fear of God.
But before I begin, why does it matter? My answer to this question is my belief that how we think about these issues has a profound effect on evangelism and discipleship.
First, does God love everybody? Do we really want to tell unbelievers that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their life? I understand the angle: “if you would just give your life to the Lord, you would find true happiness!” “Don’t you understand? God loves you!” (assuming that knowledge will motivate people to be saved).
And what about John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” If you think about it, this verse probably means that God’s love could potentially love everyone without distinction, but is conditional upon their belief in His Son. The second part of the verse seems to add that condition. Why do I say that? Because of what Psalms 11:5 says: “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” In regard to the righteous and unrighteous, Romans 9:13 says: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”
Even those who want to believe that God loves everyone must concede that God does not love unbelievers the same way that He loves us as believers. Matthew 7:23 records the words Christ will say to some: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Of course, this doesn’t mean that Christ never knew who they were, but rather refers to intimacy (Genesis 4:1, Gen. 19:5, 8). Christ never knew them or loved them intimately. So, to simply tell unbelievers that God loves them is to allow them to assume God loves them in the same way he loves believers which at the very least is false. Furthermore, it is a half-truth because it is also true that God hates them as well, so to only mention the love part is only half of the truth. It should go without saying that it is very important for unbelievers to have a truthful and accurate picture of their standing before God while being evangelized.
Secondly, should we say anything to professing Christians to give them assurance of salvation when they are living a disobedient lifestyle? Should we just label them “backslidden” and patiently wait for God to deal with them when he pleases, if at all? Should our reasoning sound like the following?: “Well, at least they are saved. It will all be good in the end. Besides, we shouldn’t judge.” But isn’t giving them assurance of their standing with God making a judgment as well? So, do we want our judgments to be truthful, or merely positive? Actually, I wouldn’t make any judgment; I would follow Scripture which would certainly forbid giving comfort, or encouragement to people living in a lifestyle of disobedience to God.
The Scriptures are clear; a disobedient lifestyle is indicative of unbelievers regardless of their claims otherwise: “Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous” (1John 3:7). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1John 3:10). The first chapter of 2Peter also makes it clear that we make our calling and election “sure” by “adding” spiritual virtues to our life. Therefore, disobedient persons who have assurance of salvation are a biblical anomaly. Do I believe that many well meaning Christians are unwittingly making some unbelievers as comfortable as possible until they one day wake-up forever separated from God? I say with great concern, yes.
Thirdly, are we “sinners saved by grace”? No, we are not. We are born again (John 3:7), new creatures (2Corintians 5:17), who sin at times (1John 1:8). There is a significant difference. “Sinners” are those who have a life characterized by sin; that’s not us. The English dictionary defines “sinner” via the synonym “evildoer.” We are not evildoers, that’s a biblical description of the unregenerate. Clichés such as this are not healthy nomenclatures among Christians and send the wrong message. Any phrase that downplays the vast difference in spiritual abilities between the saints and unbelievers tends to neutralize Christians. This vast difference between the two is a major theme in the book of Ephesians. If the distinction is blurred, Christians will behave accordingly. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Lastly, is it wrong for Christians to fear God? Francis Chan, in his book, “Crazy Love” describes his own fear of God as a time in his life when he was spiritually immature. Now that he is supposedly mature, he describes his present fear of God as “reverent intimacy.” Likewise, throughout out my own Christian life I have been continually taught that “fear” means “reverence.” This eliminates a very important sanctification element in the lives of believers: a healthy fear of God.
Throughout the New Testament, Christ and the Holy Spirit use fear of God as a positive motivator for proper behavior and spiritual growth. In fact, Christ commands Christians to fear God in Matthew 10:28; “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” It is also interesting to note that no fear of God is usually associated with unbelievers: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1). Furthermore, Philippians 2:12 should make it clear what kind of fear is being talked about: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling….” The word “trembling” should adequately qualify the word “fear” in this passage of Scripture. Here again, we have an imperative to fear God.
In the Apostolic Age, Christians might have been getting overly caught-up in “saved by grace alone.” Whatever the reason was exactly, God sent the church a wake-up call via Ananias and Sephira (Acts 5:1-11). The results are then stated in verses 11, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events,” and 13, “No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.” And also 14, “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” [obviously, those who really meant business]. In addition to this point, Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Throughout proverbs and Psalms, fear of God is associated with wisdom that unbelievers do not have. Throughout the New Testament, fear of God is used as a motivator to do what’s right: “and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (1 Thess. 4:6); “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9); “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 11:29).
Therefore, does Francis Chan and many others like him do the church harm by teaching that Christians shouldn’t fear God? Yes they do, obviously. To the contrary, they should have the heart of the Psalmist: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD” (34:11).
In a time such as ours when an overemphasis on the gospel among the already redeemed replaces discipleship, Christians are living on a steady diet of sound bites that taste good. I hope this post provokes many to rather “…. demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2Corintians 10:6).