Sometimes people claim to have found a “third way” between salvation by grace and salvation by works. In my experience, that’s never true. But David Bercot, an Anabaptist theologian, claims there is a third way.
In this video, Bercot explains that Martin Luther rejected the Catholic beliefs about salvation and “went to the opposite extreme of salvation by faith alone by grace alone” (Anabaptist Perspectives, “An Anabaptist View of Salvation,” 4:13).
Salvation by faith alone by grace alone is “extreme”? Since that is more or less a direct quote from Paul in Eph 2:8-9, that wouldn’t be an extreme position, but the norm and any deviation from that would be a Biblical error.
Still, as Bercot sees it, the two main options in Christianity are that you can be saved by (1) “trying to be good” vs. (2) “it’s all just belief.” But he thinks there is a third way. What is it?
He says that while God requires obedience, He does not require perfection. We can do the best we can and confess and repent as necessary, and God will have mercy on us. Bercot explains that salvation depends on being in a “love-faith relationship” where God doesn’t cut you off for every little sin. He thinks that’s different than trying to earn your salvation by works. And while Bercot could not say how much obedience is required to be saved, he cites Jesus’ discourse in John 15:6 to show that some fruit is necessary, otherwise, you’ll be “lopped off” and thrown into the fire, which he takes as a reference to eternal damnation.
Watch the whole video.
Has Bercot identified a legitimate third way between salvation by being good and salvation by faith?
Not at all.
Bercot’s “third way” is merely works salvation with a lower standard—a popular position I call “cheap law.” In fact, I would say most works salvation preachers teach “cheap law.” Few, if any, tell people that salvation depends on being perfect. They all say do your best, and God makes up for the rest.
Here are three reasons why that is a false gospel.
First, if you want to be saved based on your obedience you must be perfect. Only the doers of the law will be justified (Rom 2:13; cf. Gal 3:11-12). Of course, the problem is that no one does the law. We all stumble and become guilty of breaking it all (Jas 2:10). Hence, anyone trying to be justified by works is actually under a curse (Gal 3:10). Contra cheap law preaching, God does not grade on a curve. It’s a pass/fail situation, and we’ve all failed.
Second, if you require any amount of works for salvation, that ceases to be salvation by grace because grace and works are mutually exclusive: “Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace” (Rom 11:6). Requiring any amount of works for salvation nullifies grace.
Third, the only condition to have eternal life or be justified is to believe (John 3:15-18; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9). Anything else is another gospel (Gal 1:6-9).
If doing good is not necessary for eternal salvation, then why obey? Simple. God wants us to do good for the sake of our well-being, as well as for the well-being of our neighbors. Look at the fruits of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things (Gal 5:22-23).
These fruits are for yourself and others. It’s good for you to be full of joy and peace, and it’s a blessing to others for you to be kind, good, faithful, and gentle to them. God wants to use you in this world. And what’s more, God will reward you for the good you have done (1 Cor 3:11-15). (For more, see the book In Pursuit of Fruit.)
What if you don’t produce fruit? What about Jesus’ warning in John 15:6? The Lord was using parabolic imagery. There are no literal vines, branches…or fires. To say that fruitless branches will be burned is not a threat of hell but a symbolic way of saying such branches are useless (John F. Hart, “John,” p. 1650). Don’t be useless! That’s certainly not a prooftext against salvation by grace, through faith, apart from works.
That Free Grace approach is an authentic “third way” between the position that says any amount of good works are to earn, keep, or prove that you have eternal life and the position that says that behavior doesn’t matter at all.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.