I wrote the below dialogue in 1997. I was a Reformed Christian then and struggling with what the true gospel was. Was it a hard gospel that demanded our all if we want to receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice? Or was it a gospel of free grace that merely required our faith in Christ and His finished work?
I was initially influenced by Walter Chantry’s Today’s Gospel – Authentic or Synthetic, which called for repentance and forsaking of sins as a condition for salvation. These three quotes below were taken from an earlier article of mine on New Creation Church and represent this hard gospel that is very common in evangelicalism today:
Without obedience, you shall not see life! Unless you bow to Christ’s sceptre, you will not receive the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice. (Walter Chantry, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic?)
In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness in one sense will cost everything. (JI Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God)
Salvation is for those who are willing to forsake everything. (John MacArthur Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus)
Such beliefs attracted me because God had recently changed my life and I wondered why there were so many “nominal” Christians in church. The conclusion I came to through reading from Christians such as the above was that the gospel being presented was a false gospel. “Cheap grace” was being presented. It was a gospel that didn’t demand our all. And that’s why there were so many people in the church who claimed to be Christians but did not show much or any fruit. The truth, I believed then, was that these people were probably not Christians in the first place because they were not presented with the true gospel message which called people to forsake sins and give all their lives for Christ in exchange for forgiveness of sins.
However, I changed my mind after encountering a grace-centered gospel through the people from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE) (then called CURE), White Horse Inn (WHI) and Modern Reformation (MR) magazine – basically from Michael Horton and gang. It was during this period, when I read a lot and had lengthy theological email discussions with many Christians throughout the world about issues relating to grace, the gospel, the Lordship Salvation controversy, etc., that I came to my stance about the gospel of Jesus Christ – years before I heard about New Creation Church. It was probably around 1997, the same year Pastor Prince embraced the grace message.
It started when I realized how the Reformed and Lutheran Christians from ACE, WHI and MR were presenting the gospel so differently from other Reformed and Puritan Christians I read. I emailed some of Michael Horton’s colleagues. We exchanged pretty lengthy emails (I still have many of them today). They helped me tremendously in coming to my conviction about the gospel and the below dialogue was a summary of my thoughts which I asked one of them to comment on. I don’t have the email of his response, but the person was basically in agreement to what is written below (although, I have made minor changes to the original dialogue).
My point in recounting the above is twofold. Firstly, for those who think New Creation’s gospel of grace (as, for example, presented below) is some false gospel that is “cheap grace”, try reading writings (or listening to podcasts) from ACE, WHI and MR. Read Michael Horton’s books and articles. I came to embrace a free gospel of grace as presented below from these people and their writings/podcasts, not from Joseph Prince. Secondly, for Reformed Christians who think that Reformed theology and tradition are ONE regarding the gospel and what people need to do to be saved, think again. Paul Washer, a modern-day hero among many young Reformed Christians and one who preaches a really hard gospel, would respond to the Jailer’s question in Acts 16:30, “What must I do to be saved?” very differently from Michael Horton – and I would say from Paul and Silas too (Acts 16:31). Not just Paul Washer, but many Puritans too, and those influenced by some Puritan writings, would also answer the Jailer’s question quite differently from Horton and gang. Whoever is right on the gospel (or should I say whoever is right on what the proper and saving response to the gospel is) is an important question worthy of many blog posts. Suffice to say here that there is a division among Reformed Christians about this important question.
Anyway, enough of appetizer and on to the main course…
Peter : John, I don’t think I can ever make it.
John : What do you mean?
Peter : I don’t think I can ever become a Christian.
John : Why not ? It’s simple. All you have to do is realize you’re a sinner and accept what Jesus did on the cross for yourself. Trusting and calling upon His name will save you Peter. God promises that.
Peter : But I went to an evangelistic meeting the other day.
John : What did they tell you?
Peter : They said that unless one turns from his sin, one can’t come to Christ. They said that Christ is Lord and not only Savior and because of that we must respond to Christ in both his offices. We must trust him to save you and forsake sins. He said Christ can’t be divided. We can’t be saved by Christ unless we forsake sins. He says there are too many people who claim to be Christians nowadays, yet don’t show any fruits of being a Christian.
John : Well Peter, If turning from sins is the condition to be saved, I can’t make it myself.
Peter : But you’re so good. You pray, you read the bible and you evangelize. I can’t be like you. You’re one who turns from sins and believes in Christ. I can’t do that.
John : Peter, I don’t turn from sins because that will save me. I do so because I’ve already been saved. What saves me is Christ. I believe His work for me, that He died for me on that cross 2000 years ago. Peter, turning from sins does not save you. It’s a true result of trusting in Christ, but it’s not some condition for salvation. We’re justified and saved by faith alone. I’m not saved by forsaking my sins or making Jesus Lord.
Peter : This is quite a different message from what the evangelist said, John. Are you sure you’re right? In all the messages I’ve heard, I keep on hearing that Jesus is Lord and one must submit to Him by turning from sins or else one can’t be saved. You’re telling me a different story. You’re saying that Jesus Christ will save me here and now. You’re saying I don’t have to start forsaking sins but can be saved this moment.
John : That’s true Peter. It’s not our forsaking of sins that makes us more acceptable in Christ’s sight. It doesn’t prepare us to be accepted in Christ. Yes Peter, I’m telling you that you can be saved right now. Call upon the name of the Lord. Trust in Him this second and the Bible promises that you’ll be saved.
Peter : That’s really a blessing to hear. I thought I had to go through the loopholes of forsaking sins and submitting to Christ’s Lordship before I can be saved. You mean I don’t have to forsake sins and trust in Christ to be saved? All I have to do is trust in Christ?
John : Yes Peter, your salvation and assurance isn’t grounded in what you do, but grounded in what Christ did. Peter, do you remember what I told you last week? I was grieved and sad I became angry at my teacher last week. Remember that?
Peter : Yes, why?
John : Well, Peter, you may think I’m some saint and some holy guy, and that I never sin. But did I not sin then by being angry and swearing?
Peter : Yes, I guess you did.
John : Peter, if the evangelist says that one has to forsake sins and trust in Christ to be saved, do you think I was saved then when I sinned? I failed to forsake sins right?
Peter : Yes, but it was only a small sin!
John : There are no small sins. A sin is a sin!
Peter : Oh well, but I’m sure God will forgive you.
John : You’re absolutely right. But forgive me – why? Because I had been good previously in forsaking sins and surrendering to Christ’s Lordship. And this was only a small blunder for me. Is that the reason why He’ll forgive me?
Peter : No, because you’ve accepted His forgiveness.
John : But i thought you believed the evangelist who said that no one can come to Christ unless he forsake sins?
Peter : Well…errr. I see what you mean.
John : I hope you do. You’re saved not by what you do, but what Christ did.
Peter : Ya, I guess you’re right. But I’ve heard some who say that you must at least be “willing to forsake sins” or willing to obey Christ to be saved.
John : Well, this is also wrong. Let me tell you why. If I were to have that kind of theology (that one must believe in Christ, and in addition to that, be willing to forsake sins, to be saved) then let’s see how that applies to your life.
Peter : OK, how?
John : OK, I’m going to ask you now. Do you want to be saved?
Peter : Yes I do.
John : What do you have to do? Well, because I’m going to present that kind of theology as mentioned above, I’ll tell you that to be saved you have to be willing to forsake sins and to trust in Christ. Will you do that Peter? Are you willing right now to forsake sins and trust in Christ? You don’t have to forsake sins, just be willing only to forsake sins. And also trust in Christ.
Peter : Ok, I’ll accept that. I am willing to forsake sins and trust in Christ.
John : Then I’ll tell you that you’re saved.
Peter : Oh, is that all?
John : Well, you may think so now. You may feel assured now, but later on say that you meet a previous enemy of yours who used to beat you up and who raped your girlfriend. You confront him and try your best to love him. After all, you know that it’s not right to sin. But somehow, you got so overwhelmed by your emotions that you hit him hard. But it came so quickly. Immediately you run away. You’re sorry for your actions. But soon, you remember where you trust is in when you were told you were saved. Isn’t it a two-fold trust – 1) you trust in Christ 2) you have this willingness to forsake sins. Horrors, you think to yourself, ” Yes, I do trust in Christ to forgive me, and i was willing initially to forsake sins and not beat up that guy but instead love him. But all of a sudden, it just came all of a sudden. This shows that i was never really willing in the first place to forsake sins was I?” And Peter, if this happens, you’ll start to question your salvation, because your trust isn’t in Jesus Christ alone but in Jesus plus your willingness to forsake sins.
Peter : I see what you mean. It’s Jesus alone isn’t it? Oh dear, it’s Jesus alone that saves. How foolish I was to think that forsaking sins or being willing to forsake sins could save me. How foolish I was.
John : Peter, it’s OK. Man is inclined to think that works can help him. But it’s Jesus alone. Respond to Christ in faith alone and you’ll be saved. You’ll be saved where you are. You can be saved right now and here. This second, Peter, you can be saved. No need for preparation, just this second.
Peter : One last question. Does that mean that I can live a life of sinfulness after i trust in Christ and still be saved?
John : This is a wonderful question Peter. You know, this question is anticipated by Paul in Romans 6:1. This has always been the opposition against the free grace and gospel of Christ. Peter, one more reason why you can trust my gospel presentation and not that evangelist who called you to turn from sins (or at least be willing to do so) in order to be saved. It’s because my gospel presentation is exactly like the Bible’s. If Paul told his audience that they had to forsake sins in order to be saved or be willing to forsake sins, would Paul have faced such a question in Romans 6:1? You see, if we try to say that somehow the forsaking of sins is some condition for being saved, who in the world would ask whether they could continue in sin? After all, if forsaking sin is already a condition to become a Christian, nobody would ask if they could continue to sin as a Christian! Listen to what Martyn Lloyd-Jones, known as The Last of the Preachers, wrote:
It is true that where sin abounded grace has much more abounded; well then, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound yet further?” The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel than this, that some people might misunderstand it and mis-interpret it that it really amounts to this: that because you are saved by grace alone, it does not really matter at all WHAT you do, you can go on sinning all you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching of the gospel does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel. Let me show you what I mean. If a man preaches justification by works, no one would ever raise the question. If he says, “If you want to go to heaven, you must stop committing sins, live a life filled with good works, and keep this up regularly and constantly until the end, then you will be a Christian and go to heaven when you die.” Obviously, no one will accuse a man who preached like this of saying, “Let us continue in sin that grace may abound.” But every preacher who preached the gospel has been accused of this! They have all been accused of “antinomianism.” I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you really are preaching the salvation that is proclaimed in the New Testament to the ungodly, the sinner, to those who are dead in trespasses and sins, to those who are the enemies of God. There is a kind of dangerous element about the true presentation of the doctrine of salvation.
John : I can tell you this. A person who trusts in Christ will still sin. No doubt about that. But a person who trusts in Christ will gradually start to love God more and more. And gradually, he’ll start to sin less and less. Whom God justifies, He also starts the process of sanctifying. The change may be big, the change may hardly be seen at all and recognized by humans, but there will be a change inside. But we have to be clear that this change in us for the better doesn’t save. It’s Christ that saves.
Peter : But I keep on hearing preachers preaching about , “By their fruits you shall know them”. I’m totally frightened when I hear this kind of preaching, John. It causes me to look into myself to see if I have enough fruits in me. If I don’t, I may not be saved. I heard from a famous preacher that “A Christian is one that loves the Lord with their whole heart, mind and soul”.
John : I believe that’s the problem we have today. In a way, there’s been too much focus inward. We are to look to Christ and outside ourselves to be saved. It’s Christ’s work, not our work. It’s Christ’s life, not our life. We’re not saved by our fruits. Fruits are legitimate results of faith, but to be sure, one needs to carefully speak about this issue. Definitely there will be fruits, but sometimes it may be such that others may not see the fruits. Let’s not be fruit hunters. And as for that last quote, I understand what he means. But one should be careful how he expresses things. Peter, do you think I love the Lord with my whole heart, mind and soul?
Peter : Well, you’re one of the most loving Christians I have ever met. I’m sure you do.
John : Peter, do I have to remind you again of what I did last week when I got angry and swore?
Peter : Well, you’re right. You’ve sinned. But you still do love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, I believe.
John : Well, when I sinned, I failed to love the Lord with my heart, mind and soul. Let’s not make sin such a small matter. Whether I sin big or small, whether I sin less often than others or whatever, I’ve still sinned and it proves I failed to love the Lord always with my heart, mind and soul. Thus you can see that a Christian is one that still sins. He doesn’t love the Lord with his heart, mind and soul. He still sins. A Christian will gradually love the Lord more and more than a non Christian, to be sure. But we still sin and still fail the Lord.
Peter : So we go back again to Christ and the cross for assurance and our salvation don’t we?
John : Yes we do. I hope you’ve seen the danger of looking inwards or looking to one’s works.
Peter : What about those who claim to be Christian, claim to have said the Sinner’s Prayer, claim to have walked down the aisle, but yet still live the same life!
John : This is something that I’m concerned too. Firstly, let’s remember again that true Christians will show forth fruit, but let’s not be fruit hunters. Are we going to say that if so and so doesn’t come to Church once a week, or if so and so doesn’t read the bible everyday or pray 10 hours a week, etc., that it means the person isn’t a Christian?
Peter : No, I don’t think that would be good. After all, our trust is in Christ right, not our works.
John : Exactly.
Peter : So does that mean that all who claim who are Christians, we’ll have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are saved?
John : There is a tension here Peter. I can’t give you any answers. I’m having trouble with this myself. Firstly, let’s recap that Christ is to be received by faith for one to be saved and that one’s assurance is to be in Christ alone, not our works or fruits. Why? Because it’s really hard to look inside and say, “AH HA! I have enough fruits and thus I’m saved” or “You don’t have enough fruits and thus you’re not saved”. Who knows when enough is enough? Thus, let us look to Christ. Yet, on the other hand, we need to realize that the grace of God transforms people. A person who truly trusts in Christ will be transformed. These two are hard to reconcile. If I were to face someone whom I feel isn’t saved, and I were to tell the person, “Pal, you’re not saved. Christ says that if you trust in Him, there will be fruits in your life. Where are those fruits?”, the person to whom I said that to may think that works saves him. He’ll start changing his life. Then he’ll wonder whether that is enough. He’ll wonder if he’s done enough forsaking of sins, surrendering, etc., to be saved. He’ll have a works-orientated mindset. Thus, there is a danger here. We need to be extremely cautious in the way we handle people who seem not to produce fruits. Right now, I’ll say that I offer no strict guidelines. I’m struggling on a method to approach them. What many have said and preached (about self examination) is confusing and will confuse those who hear it. We don’t want to scare people into questioning their salvation because of a lack of works. That would make them think that they have to work to get saved. It’s tricky. But I think the best way to approach such a person is to give them the benefit of the doubt for we cannot judge the heart of another.
Peter : I see, I understand you now. I understand why there needs to be caution in handling these situations.
John : Well, I hope you’ve come to understand more about the gospel.
Peter : I have really learnt a lot. Thanks for your time. You know what, I trust in Christ. I believe He died for me. And I understand that it’s not my forsaking of sins or turning from sins, surrender or obedience that saves me. Thanks so much for explaining this to me John. And I’m going to live a life that will please God. I desire to do that and forsake my sins not because that will save me. Oh, I am ALREADY SAVED! Hallelujah! My focus, my hope, my assurance is on Christ and it’s on the cross. It’s on what Christ did, not what I did or can do. And I will fail in my Christian life, but that doesn’t mean I have to start questioning my salvation. For I am saved by Christ’s death on the cross and nothing else! Hallelujah! This is so liberating!
John : You’ve understood what Christianity is about Peter. It’s not what you can or will do, but what Christ did. To be justified, one needs to accept Christ’s righteousness for oneself. Sanctification is a process of living the Christian life in gratitude to what Christ has already done when He justified you. Your sanctification and growth in holiness will always be imperfect so don’t look to yourself for proof you’re saved, look to Christ’s death for you. I’m glad that you’ve come to realize all this and that you’ve come to trust in Christ and Christ alone totally for your salvation.
I love that quotation of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It comforts me that I am on the right track with my preaching.
One distinction that I think is worth making is that the Bible teaches that we are “saved by grace through faith in Christ alone”, but evangelicals today seem to think that we are saved by *believing in the doctrine* of being “saved by grace through faith in Christ alone”. Instead of *preaching Christ* in such a way that people are moved to put faith in Him, we instead *teach the doctrine* that putting faith in Christ leads to salvation.
To further generalize my point above: there are certain “mechanics” at work in the whole range of God’s salvific work on our behalf. But it is not necessarily an understanding of those mechanics or an intellectual acceptance of their truth value that makes them work.
I’m no preacher, and I’m a poor evangelist, but it seems to me that, especially in an evangelistic context, I wouldn’t so much want to teach people about the role or “mechanics” of how repentance OR faith “work” in our salvation. Rather, I would want to proclaim a law that *moves* them to repent, and I would want to proclaim a Christ that *moves* them to faith. I would note, for example, that Romans was written to Christians! From what I can tell, when Paul was speaking to unbelievers, he didn’t go out of his way to *get them to understand* that salvation is “by faith apart from works of the law.” Rather, since the *preacher himself understands* that salvation is by faith, he therefore preaches a *Christ* which people put their faith in. It seems that only later, as people who were now believers were gathered into churches, the mechanics of salvation would be explained to them such that they could look back and say, “Oh, that’s what happened to me.”
But nowadays, rather than preaching a *Christ* for people to put their faith *in*, we instead teach *about the concept* that putting faith in Christ is how we receive God’s gift of righteousness.
In other words, the doctrine of justification itself does not state that a person needs to understand the doctrine of justification in order to be justified!
These are thoughts I’ve had in my mind for a while and aren’t fully developed. Maybe in some ways my comments are off base or off balance. But I do think there at least are some distinction here worth thinking about.
Hey Zach, yes, I totally agree with you. We’re to preach Christ, not even “justification by grace alone through faith alone”. I think we ought to preach Christ and His work such that the response to the gospel (which is the message of Christ and His work, not some doctrine about what one needs to do to get saved) is believing in Him and His work.
I wrote the above just to clarify some thoughts that I believe and others may be thinking also. That helps some – unbelievers who have been told that they “can’t get saved unless they are willing to forsake sin, etc.” and also believers who are wondering what their foundation is upon – the gospel alone, or the gospel plus something else (my forsaking of sin, etc.)
When I share with an unbeliever, there isn’t a need to get into all this mechanics normally! The focus should be on Christ and His work!
Michael Horton and Paul Washer have been two of the most influential people in my own theological/spiritual development/journey. Would you elaborate on in what way you think they would respond to the jailer’s question “very differently”?
I am interested to hear your thoughts, because I am not convinced that they would answer the jailer all that differently, or even if they did, that they would necessarily have a quarrel with the way the other responded. Having listened to many of Washer’s audio sermons, I’m quite confident that he is pastoral enough not to interact on an “algorithmic level”. That is, he is not a machine in which, if a person says X he will respond Y. What I’m getting at here is that if someone casually strolled up to him after one of his sermons, and without a care in the world said, “Hey, preacher-man, ole buddy, so tell me, what must I do to be saved (chuckle chuckle)?”, I think Paul Washer’s response would be very different from what it would be if someone came to him, trembling in fear, threw themselves at his feet, and cried out, “Oh what must I do to be saved?!?”
Horton I mostly know through books and magazine articles, and only the occasional radio broadcast. But I would expect that he too would respond to the above two scenarios differently.
Indeed, I’m looking back at the exact wording of your post and I think there is an important distinction here. You said that Washer and Horton would respond very differently to the “Jailer’s question”. Hmm, but would they respond very differently to the *jailer* (as a person)? Perhaps if you handed them the mere question typed out on an index card, they would respond to the *question* very differently. Perhaps that is because of the different emphases in the type of ministry they are typically involved with on a day to day basis. But if you gave them an actual *person* asking the question, someone whom they could dialogue with and find out “where the person is at”, I’m not sure that they would respond to the *person* (such as the Jailer) very differently.
I can’t say I’ve listened to a lot of Washer, but I am extremely uncomfortable with the stuff I’ve heard (including his famous Youth message that so many are raving about) where he seems to want to make people question their salvation and examine themselves. In fact, some of the stuff he says sounds like he believes in “preparationism”. I’ve read tons of Horton’s stuff and I’d be extremely surprised if Horton would agree with Washer. In fact, I’d be extremely surprised if Horton would agree with John MacArthur on this issue – see the very old book he edited on Lordship Salvation. MacArthur and Washer seem to be very close in being very pro-Lordship Salvation. Horton and WHI wouldn’t be completely contrary, but definitely would not agree with the pro-Lordship side on many areas.
Horton agrees with a lot of things that MacArthur and Washer believe in and in a sense they are in the same team on most stuff. That’s why I think people don’t realize that they would probably disagree with this issue – unless they study this issue carefully. I’m sure Horton isn’t going to be too confrontational on this issue too because there is so much agreement on other things.
This of course isn’t a very good answer to you – I don’t have time to write too much. If you’re in Singapore, we have to meet up and catch up and we can discuss about this if you’re keen!
Let me just testify that during this wonderful conversation years ago, my life has been transformed thanks to the author SHF (john).
The above was based on a conversation between me ( Peter) and him.
Praise be to the Lord Jesus, Hallelujah!