"Have you ever heard of free grace theology?" I asked my friend Teddy. Free grace was what I had learned to call the theological outlook which I had now adopted. I was finding it difficult to explain to my old friends what my new perspective was. Teddy was a pastor in his late fifties. He ministered at a local but sizable baptist church. At my question, he furrowed his eyebrows and looked to the ceiling.
“I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” he said.
"My financé goes to a Bible church where they teach free grace theology. It's neither Calvinism nor Arminianism. It's fascinating," I said. Teddy leaned in, always eager for those rare theological conversations. He had just received his Ph.D. and seemed to be interested. I was ready to try to explain my new understanding of the Gospel. I was excited, thinking it would be as simple as tipping over dominos.
"Give me the overview. What's free grace all about?" he said. It was a little jarring to realize that a long-time pastor with a Ph.D. in theology had never even heard of this brand of Biblical interpretation.
"The basic premise is that there is a difference between a believer and a follower. To be saved, you simply have to believe in Jesus, but becoming a follower is not automatic. It's possible to get saved but then do nothing of spiritual value afterward." I said this suspecting I probably wasn't explaining it quite right. Even as the words came out, they didn't feel complete. The look on Teddy's face let me know that it was not only unfamiliar but that it didn't compute. I resisted the urge to try for more explanation as he considered his response.
“I don’t know. It seems to me that one of the things the church has failed to understand is the corporate nature of the salvific narrative. Salvation, although applicable to the individual when appropriated by faith, is experienced corporately by the bride of Christ as a whole,” he said. He seemed to think that he was talking about the same thing as I was, though I could not see how that had anything to do with what I had said. I tried again.
"I've often heard 'someone who is really saved will inevitably bear fruit,' which means doing good works. I've also heard 'If there's no fruit, there's no root.' Free grace claims that is not true. Grace theology says that believers should bear fruit but that it's not automatic. Have you ever encountered that idea?" I asked. At this point, I was no longer trying to convince him, but just trying to explain the position. Teddy took a deep breath. He looked like he was tracking with me this time.
"I see what you're saying," Teddy responded. Now it was me that leaned in thinking we were getting somewhere. "The problem with a lot of Christians is that they do not realize that this whole thing is not about ritualistic religion; it's relational and experiential." He went on for another minute or two, discussing the various misunderstandings that others experience. As far as I could tell, it didn't have anything to do with what I was discussing. It felt like an avoidance mechanism more than an attempt to answer my genuine inquiry. I tried once again.
"It's the idea that salvation is completely free to those who have faith alone in Christ alone. On that, most evangelicals agree. Where the debate rests is upon whether or not a person can really have assurance. If I have to persevere until the end of my life to know that I'm saved, then I can't know if I'm truly and finally saved until I'm dead. However, First John says that I can know that—" He cut me off this time.
"Ahh, that's a good point. I see where you're going with this, and I can't say that I disagree," he said. I was relieved. We had finally landed on the same page. I listened as he laid out his opinion on the matter, or so I thought. "It's similar to the mystery of the hypostatic union, the trinity, or transubstantiation for catholics. These are divine mysteries that we should take joy in, even celebrate. We can embrace the mysteries of God and love Him more for them. It's in His immense mystery that we realize his incredible sovereignty."
"So, how are your kids doing these days," I asked. I was done trying to get answers from him. Appealing to divine mystery was an old tired trope I had seen plenty of times. When a question arises that a pastor or teacher can't answer, rather than merely saying, "I don't know." they will pontificate on the sovereign mysterious depths of God. Obviously, there are plenty of mysteries concerning God, but I was quite sure that the requirements for salvation could not be a mystery, or no one could get saved. I could see I would not find answers with this Ph.D.
In the following weeks and months, I would receive many blank stares, befuddling responses, and irritated rebuttals. It was as if I had found a pearl of high price, but every time I showed it off to someone, they scoffed as if it were only a discarded clod of mud. My failure to communicate reached its apex a few months later, when I decided it was time to go public.