When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Over the centuries since then, this declaration of our Savior (or the assurance of our salvation) has been swinging from one extreme to the other. In the book “Law and Grace” by Daniel Tong, he wrote, “Throughout Christian history, heresy has resulted not from someone wanting to be evil or heretical, but from someone taking a piece of truth to an extreme and not doing justice to other truths as well.” He took a broad sweep of church history and noted our tendency to take theology on a self-smug pendulum ride. We should be quite familiar with what I am going to write here.
Before the time of Jesus, the religious leaders held up the law as if their faith depended on it. They in fact went to the extreme with it. The Sabbatical Laws itself would have made religious neurotics out of its sincerest adherents. The whole of the law became the raison d'etre for their existence, faith and hope.
Then, Jesus came and exemplified grace at Calvary. He declared that he has fulfilled the law. Love completed the law. Love’s sacrifice transformed our obedience towards the law from a self-glorifying human effort to a Calvary-inspired, God-glorifying one. The former is all about us and the latter is about what God can do through us.
It bears repeating that Jesus did not come to do away with the law. He came to empower us to obey it. For lack of a better word, Jesus was “anti-extremist”. In today’s lingo, he is neither into antinomianism nor pro-legalism.
At Calvary, Jesus died to keep a mastery balance of all things, Law and Grace, and these words of Dallas Willard in his book “Renovation of The Heart” ought to resonate with thinking Christians with a heart for both Law and Grace: “The availability of the Spirit and Grace is not meant to set the Law aside, but to enable us to conform to it from an inward transformed personality. You cannot separate spirit from Law, though you must separate spirit and Law from legalism. The Law by itself kills off any hope of righteousness through human effort, but it kindles hope in God as we walk in the Law through Christ. Grace does not set Law aside. On the contrary, Law is itself a primary manifestation of Grace. It is a primary instrument of spiritual formation: Law comes with Grace into the renewed soul. There is no such thing as Grace without Law.”
From here, the disciples of Jesus experienced their first transforming works empowered by grace when Peter said, "Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." Miracles followed them not because they rested on the laurels of grace. It bloomed because the early disciples worked out their salvation through faith, grace and hope.
Their efforts were genuine because the law finally made sense to them. It no longer mocks, limits, taunts, abuses, disempowers, discourages and entraps them. On the contrary, grace had set them free to obey the law, to walk in faith in the footsteps of their Savior, to overcome as their Savior did, and to be exemplary disciples even unto death.
The revolution here is not just in the act, or an external manifestation of a soul striving to fulfill the law, but in the heart, that is, an internal transformation of a renewed heart for God. By the saving grace of their Savior, they had the laws written in their heart. This is demonstrated in how the disciples had lived a selfless life wholly dedicated to standing for and spreading the gospel. Most of them died for their faith.
Things could have developed in the right direction from hereon, but as usual, something happened along the way of grief (Via Dolorosa). It was a derailment of faith. After the innocent blood of martyrs were spilled, and after the Milan edict in AD 313 where Christianity became the choice religion of the land, the Catholic Church returned to the pre-Calvary era. Legalism reared its ugly head again.
The Church created and elevated canonical and ecclesiastical Laws to Babelian heights and Grace quite haplessly lost her voice, her power and her amazement. In the same way that many roads lead to Rome, many ways also led one to salvation. Indulgences, purgatory and the remission of sins for fighters who die in the Crusades became the many man-made ways to personal redemption. In other words, they once again put the “Law” wagon before the “Grace” horses. This legalistic obsession became a high wall for the expressed purpose of fortifying papal supremacy and infallibility to the exclusion of all sincerest partakers of the common faith.
For centuries until the Protestant Reformation in October 1517, the Law reigned supreme with Grace being pushed to the soteriological fringes. Salvation by works once again took precedence over salvation by grace through faith. It took a man named Martin Luther and his Wittenberg protest in 95 parts to break the stronghold of legalism.
Now, a little background about this monastic priest Martin Luther. Although he was a brilliant scholar, charismatic and even funny, he was also plagued by an unforgiving sense of inadequacy that bordered on pure lunacy. This is one devout priest who was possessed by visions of Jesus as a wrathful enforcer, God as an angry judge, and the Spirit as a demanding perfectionist. He was not only crippled by hallowing self-doubts, but he also suffered anxiety, torture and pain caused by behavioral extremism.
On one occasion, while in confessional, he annoyed a priest so much with his petty and insubstantial confessions that he was told to go kill his parents and then return to the confessional. By then, he would really have something of substance to repent from.
However, under the mentorship of an elderly theologian named Staupitz, Luther found deep insight into the meaning of the finished work at Calvary. He went back to study the scriptures and Romans 1:17 spoke to his spirit: “In the Gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness by faith from first to last, as it is written, “the righteous will live by faith.”” Indeed, the just shall live by faith.
That was Martin Luther's turning point and this turning point split and broke the authoritative hold of the Catholic Church and resulted in the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years War, the Peace of Westphalia, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, and many other great epochal periods of history.
A good summary here of the swing to the extremism of Law can be found in the words of Daniel Tong: “…the religious leaders of Israel were to teach the good news of and to prepare to receive the coming messiah. In this, they probably started off well, but over time settled into the upholding of an extreme expression of the Law. Jesus came, and the pendulum swung back towards Grace. Over time, the Church settled down and the Roman Catholic Church was established, whose role was “to teach the good news of and prepare the people to receive the returning messiah.” However, it too over time “settled into the upholding of an extreme expression of the Law.” The Protestant Reformation took place, “and the pendulum swung back towards Grace.””
If you fast forward to our modern times, the swing is now towards the extreme of Grace known by most believers as “hyper-grace” teachings. You can pick the simplified definition of it on the internet: “It is a new wave of teaching that emphasises the Grace of God to the exclusion of other vital teachings such as repentance and confession of sin.” I have myself written a few blog posts about it and you can search them under the name “Joseph Prince”. His name is in fact synonymous with this controversial brand of the gospel.
Now, I would like to set the record straight that I have nothing against Joseph Prince. This is not personal but doctrinal. I am merely addressing his teachings, and not the person. We in fact share many things in common. He is a father with kids just like me. We are both believers. He runs a church and I attend one. He is well known and I can’t say that I am even a fraction of his popularity. Well, the similarity thins out as I go along, but I guess you get the point. We are both blessed to be believers in our own ways and our faith has been our source of inspiration. I guess I have been a Christian for as long as he has been one (since 1985).
Yet, we are called to be discerning in what we hear over the pulpit. Even on this, we share the same sentiment. Joseph Prince once wrote in Grace Revolution at page 112 that: “…if someone comes to you and tells you that they are preaching the gospel, don’t just swallow everything, hook, line and sinker. Discern for yourself if what you are hearing about righteousness is accomplished from start to finish by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, I have examined the “hook, line and sinker” of the hyper-grace teachings in general, and among the many thoughts that don’t feel right with me, I have listed just three of them here for reflection.
1) Hyper-grace makes the law irrelevant. In most cases, it retires the law for good. According to Joseph Prince, the “law demands, and it results in fear, guilt, and sorrow. Grace supplies, and it produces generosity, holiness, and inward heart transformation.” He also wrote that “the law stirs up our sinful nature, whereas grace produces true holiness.” After what I have written above, I can’t reconcile my heart with this teaching about the law. It is to me a distortion of the godly function of the law in the larger scheme of my salvation and sanctification. Daniel Tong highlighted this quote about the law that clarifies for me its essential role: “The real issue with the Law is the company it keeps. If it is joined to sin, humanity apart from God, and death, it really is negative and becomes another tyrant enslaving us. If, however, as it was intended, the Law is placed within the context of the covenant with God, and the work of God’s spirit in us, then it is not a tyrant but a gift from God.” This reminds me of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. Notwithstanding that this is before Calvary, the parable speaks about the condition of our heart. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector knew the law. I am sure they meditated on it day and night. However, it is the heart that Jesus saw most clearly. The Pharisee used the law to declare himself righteous while the tax collector was convicted by it. The former was filled with arrogance and pride while the latter was expressing true contrition and faith. Here, you can see how different the two individuals responded to the law. One remained corrupt (and unrepentant) and the other came to true repentance. The law is therefore not irrelevant or Old Testament. It plays a vital role in the conviction of our heart according to the parable. And after Calvary, it partners or joins with grace to empower us to overcome sin and all. We may fall along the way, but it is not the law that “stirs up our sinful nature” (seen in the light of Calvary and not in the realm of the flesh), it is our distracted and deceitful heart. Don’t blame the Law so as to exculpate our sinful nature. The issue has always been us.
2) Hyper-grace makes repentance unnecessary. This is the part that confuses me most. With respect, I find that Joseph Prince’s version of “repentance” misleading. He obscures it further by saying that we confess our sins not to ask for forgiveness but because we are already forgiven. At this time, I really wonder how would fallen pastoral leaders respond to this version of the gospel? There are leaders of late who were caught in adultery, financial fraud and homosexuality. When they do repent, what do they then say to God? Do they just tell God about their sins, proclaim that they are righteous, walk away with their head held high, and return to their respective ministry? Is that how hyper-grace believers would repent by stopping short at asking for forgiveness? Is this full and complete restoration under hyper-grace teachings? Isn’t repentance and asking for forgiveness an essential part of our spiritual maturity and growth? Shouldn’t we distinguish between godly grief and other worldly grief as it is written, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10)? Of course, we are not going to be neurotic about repenting and do what Martin Luther did by camping in the confessional to confess every single little infraction, or be condemned by each one of them. I trust that the legacy of Calvary is not to dispense with repentance after the altar call, but instead to make every repentance counts towards the believer's maturity and growth. In other word, such a believer is not obsessed with seeking repentance at every waking moment of his life. For the believer, it does not become a crippling obsession out of fear or anxiety. It is therefore not about this, "have I repented enough to secure my salvation?" but it is about this, "I seek repentance as I draw near to Him."
3) Hyper-grace makes God one-dimensional. There is two parts to this. First, I take issue with Joseph Prince’s streamlining of the Holy Spirit’s works in our life. According to him, the Holy Spirit “never convicts you of your sins. He NEVER comes to point out your faults.” He even challenged believers to “find a scripture in the Bible that the Holy Spirit comes to convict you of your sins.” I am not a biblical scholar and therefore, I will reserve that challenge for theologians and Professors of the New Testament. In fact, I feel that Daniel Tong, Roland Chia and Michael Brown have all met the challenge brilliantly, completely and satisfactorily. I however appeal to human nature and common sense. I trust the Holy Spirit still disciplines us (reproves, reprimands and exhorts us). If we can grieve the Holy Spirit by our words and deeds, and in return, we respond to such grief caused with remorse and repentance, isn’t this God’s way of correcting us, molding us, guiding us, mentoring us, even convicting us of our wrongdoing after the altar call experience? The other part is about Joseph Prince’s unilateral makeover of God. After Calvary, we no longer serve an angry God. He is no longer the God of law and judgment. We can forget about punishment or discipline. Once saved and we are always saved. All of a sudden, God is this loving, happy and generous sovereign with a temperament no different from that of Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus. Joseph Prince even knows the mind of God at all times, that is, it is a safe bet to him that He is perpetually in a state of heightened charity, vivaciousness, and joviality. And although His thoughts may be higher than ours (so the scriptures tell us), it doesn’t appear that God’s thoughts can escape Prince’s body-and-mind reading of him? According to Prince, God heals regardless, He blesses guaranteed (or your money back – so to speak), He cheerleads us into unwavering righteousness every time we sin, He is dying to promote us, enrich us, and prosper us. This actually reminds me of Matthew 16:22 where you will find Peter taking Jesus to one side and rebuking him. Yes, you heard it right, a man told God off (so to speak). Peter said, “Never Lord. This shall never happen to you.” (referring to Calvary). Jesus’ response? Here it is in full extract: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” This exchange is instructive. It tells me about how presumptuous we can be about God. Every Sunday, we confidently tell thousands about what we believe God ought to be because this is what we want Him to be. We only want to hear the good stuff. We only want to pander or appeal to human concerns. For Peter, he foresaw a triumphalist path to bypass Calvary. For Joseph Prince, I guess he foresaw a prosperity path to bypass genuine suffering and godly sorrow that are more reflective of the reality that millions are currently struggling in. To the Prince of radical grace, redemptive suffering is simply oxymoronic. Redemption to him only comes with prosperity, promotion and perpetual bliss.
Let me end with the same question I started with - “Who do you say I am?” As a believer, my reply is that Jesus is the Messiah. There is another question Jesus posed to Peter in John 21:15-17. He asked him three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And He followed the affirmative reply with this threefold commission, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep.” For me, acknowledging His messiah-ship is to know the rights of my inheritance in Him and to stand justified by His righteousness bestowed upon me. And the threefold commission is about working out my salvation as I strive with His strength to comply with His laws, will and commands. Both Grace and Law are therefore indispensable to me. Cheerz.