“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” (Philippians 2:12).
A growing number of evangelical Christians seem to be suffering from a chronic theological malady that some have described as ‘easy believism’, the view that all that is needed for someone to be a Christian is to put one’s faith in Jesus Christ as one’s Saviour.
Whether it is instantiated by an intellectual assent to the four spiritual laws or by repeating the sinners’ prayer, this ‘act of faith’ is enough for salvation.
Many Christian writers, however, have been justifiably critical of this theology of salvation. They see in ‘easy believism’ a dangerously truncated and watered down account of what it means to be a Christian.
Easy believism emphasises justification, but not sanctification. It places special accent on accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour, but not on submitting to him as Lord. It mistakenly separates salvation from discipleship, and suggests that it is possible for a person to be a Christian without also being a disciple of Christ.
Ironically, evangelical Christianity is especially susceptible to this erroneous view of salvation and the Christian life because of its roots in Reformation theology.
In the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide), and categorically rejected the theology of works righteousness of the Roman Catholic Church of their day.
However, such emphases can be very easily misunderstood and misapplied, especially when they are undergirded by the doctrine of predestination that asserts that God has from all eternity irrevocably decreed salvation for a portion of humanity.
The easy believism found in modern evangelicalism, especially in its fundamentalist and dispensationalist expressions, may be said to be the result of a serious misconstrual and thus misapplication of the teaching of the Reformers.
The twentieth century Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, coined the term ‘cheap grace’ in an attempt to address a similar problem in the churches in his native Germany.
‘Cheap grace’, writes Bonhoeffer in his celebrated book, The Cost of Discipleship ‘is the grace that we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’.
Bonhoeffer argues emphatically that the concept of cheap grace has no basis whatsoever in Scripture. As ‘grace that we bestow on ourselves’, cheap grace is an insidious distortion of God’s Word.
Two hundred years before Bonhoeffer wrote these words, John Wesley saw the same problem among the satiated members of the Church of England of his day, who considered their salvation secure because of the fact that they were baptised as infants and were respected members of their local parishes.
Suffering from the same spiritual disease, they sought to justify their passivity and complacency towards the demands of the Gospel by an erroneous theology of grace, salvation and the Christian life.
‘We must beware of that mock humility’, Wesley warns perceptively and forcefully in response, ‘which teacheth us to say, in excuse for our wilful disobedience, “Oh, I can do nothing”, and stops there’.
In his famous sermon entitled, ‘On Working Out Our Salvation’ (1785), Wesley addressed this issue head-on. He argues that the sanctifying grace of God that is at work in the believer not only enables him to obey God’s Word, but also obliges him to do so.
Thus Wesley famously writes: ‘God worketh in you; therefore you can work – otherwise it would be impossible.’ Then he adds: ‘God worketh in you; therefore you must work; you must be “workers together with him”’.
One of the most moving hymns composed in the early years of the 18th century is surely Isaac Watts’ ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’. An entire article can be written on the ‘thick theology’ of this beautiful hymn.
The hymn ends with these remarkable words: ‘Love so amazing, so divine, / Demands my soul, my life, my all’. God’s love and grace are indeed always unconditional and free. But they are never cheap! They demand our all!
Easy believism and cheap grace introduce dangerous perversions to our understanding of salvation and the Christian life. They are corruptions of the Gospel and harmful to the Church.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (July 2014).