Daniel Montgomery (founding pastor of Sojourn Community Church) and Timothy Paul Jones (professor of leadership at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) are the co-authors of a creative and theologically robust new book, PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace (Zondervan, 2014).
Here’s a conversation we recent had about grace and the gospel, and whether or not they are trying to draw people toward or away from Calvinism.
You open the book by talking about how we live in a delusion from which we need to wake up. What are some of the delusions we have about God and grace?
TIMOTHY: Martin Luther once commented that humanity after the fall is no longer able to imagine any way to be made right with God other than works. Our tendency by nature is to slip into the delusion that our standing before God somehow depends on what we do. Or, with a sincere desire to exalt God’s free grace, we overcorrect and slip into another delusion, that what we do doesn’t matter at all.
In the first instance, we diminish the finished work of Christ by living as if God started our salvation by grace but then we have to finish it. In the second instance, we miss the truth that grace doesn’t simply save us, it also changes us. And so, we constantly need to be awakened to the wonder and the beauty of authentic grace–God’s wonderful acceptance of us not because we have earned it or deserved it but because he gives it to us freely in Christ.
The answer isn’t found in trying to balance legalism and license. It’s rather in recognizing that, everything God gives to us, he gives in Christ and that this placement of us in Christ and Christ in us changes everything. United with Christ, we are both captive and crowned, slaves of Christ yet free, already positioned as righteous in Christ yet empowered by his Spirit to pursue righteousness. This is a beautiful paradox to which we need to be constantly reawakened.
What do you see as the five phases of grace?
DANIEL: The five facets of grace described in PROOF are a biblical and theological re-framing and re-envisioning of TULIP. TULIP is a nifty mnemonic device but hasn’t proven to be the most helpful tool, in our estimation, in magnifying the glorious gospel of God’s grace:
- Planned Grace re-envisions limited atonement and we begin here because the story of grace begins with a perfect plan in eternity past. Before time began, God mapped out the plan of salvation from first to last. It’s a loving plan made by the Father for a particular people. It’s a victorious plan achieved by the Son for a definite people. It’s an effective and guaranteed plan sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit. God planned to adopt a particular people as his own children; Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for these people’s sins and as a substitute who satisfied God’s righteous requirements in their place. When God makes a plan, he can always pay the price and he never lacks the power to make it happen.
- Resurrecting Grace re-envisions total depravity. Everyone is born spiritually dead—we’re the walking dead. And spiritual zombies don’t choose life for the same reason prison escapees don’t show up voluntarily at police stations. Left to ourselves, we will never choose God’s way. God enables people to respond freely to his grace by giving them spiritual life through the power of Christ’s resurrection.
- Outrageous Grace re-envisions unconditional election. God saves us not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, but because He freely chooses us at Christ’s expense. God chooses people to be saved on the basis of his own sovereign will. He doesn’t base his choice to give us grace on anything that we did or might do. God’s outrageous grace leaves us with nothing to prove because, in Christ, everything that needs to be proven has already been provided.
- Overcoming Grace re-envisions irresistible grace. God works in the lives of his chosen people to transform their rebellion into surrender so that they freely repent and recognize Christ as the risen King. God changes his chosen people one by one so that they abandon rebellion, long for holiness, and freely surrender to Jesus. His plan all along was to call a diverse people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, and then empower them as a community of overcomers.
- Forever Grace re-envisions perseverance of the saints. God seals his people with his Holy Spirit so that they are preserved and persevere in faith until the final restoration of God’s kingdom on the earth. As long as we are in Christ, the Father cannot reject his covenant with us without rejecting his beloved Son.
This reframing puts God and his grace at the center. Good theology requires both defense and offense. In our estimation, TULIP is mostly defense, and the mission of grace is far bigger and more beautiful than that.
Some people will read this book and think “they are trying to make everyone Calvinists,” but you guys write that “part of our purpose is to point you away from Calvinism.” Can you explain?
DANIEL: Recently, Jonathan Merritt came out with an article titled, “The Troubling Trends in America’s ‘Calvinist Revival,'” where he essentially claims YRR are isolationists, tribalistic, and prideful. While I don’t necessarily agree with the full assessment, his words are fair in regard to some facts of what we might call “reductionistic Calvinism.” Many who go by the name Calvinist are so concerned with Calvinism that they have overreacted, almost reducing Christianity to the five points of Calvinism.
For a number of years I have assessed potential church planting candidates both in Acts 29 and in Sojourn Network. I’ve interacted with scores of young, passionate men who are ready to start churches that are gospel-centered, Reformed, and misssional. They could, for the most part pass, any confessional test but they don’t know how to do theology. Another way to put it is they have a theological confession but they are without any theological vision. They are lacking a vision of life with God, and the ability to make the connections between what they know and how they can creatively and constructively advance the mission of God in the world.
And this returns us to a rallying cry from the seventeenth-century heirs of the Reformation: Ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda: The church, always reforming and always in need of reform.
We have found in our experience and practice in the local church five pathways to ongoing reform.
The five solas were the rallying cries that summarized the Reformation in the centuries after the Reformation. We want to continue those rally cries, while also crying out for more mystery, beauty, paradox, community and mission. In PROOF, we spell out how these are essential for what we believe and for answering what many critics both inside and outside Calvinism see as blind spots.
You argue that when we misunderstand grace, we lose freedom and joy. How does this happen?
TIMOTHY: When we distort grace and see it as approval instead of undeserved favor, our joy is diminished because we miss the truth that God predestined us for a purpose, to conform us to Christ. We tell ourselves, “God loves me and accepts me just the way I am”—which isn’t true at all. God loves us and accepts us not as we are but as Jesus is, and God loves us so much that he refuses to leave us the way he found us.
On the other hand, if we misconstrue grace into a starting-point where our salvation begins but then it’s up to us to keep God’s favor, we end up frustrated and exhausted because we feel like we never can measure up—and we’re right; we can’t. But Jesus measured up to God’s standard in our place, and God has given us the goodness of Jesus himself as a free gift.
Authentic grace sets us free because, in Christ, everything that needs to be proven has already been provided. Freedom and joy come when we simultaneously rest completely in Christ and recognize this rest as the foundation for our active pursuit of holiness.
You both live, teach, and minister in a Southern Baptist context where it’s common to hear the phrase, “once saved, always saved.” What’s your perspective on perseverance—and on the role of the warnings in particular—and why does it matter?
TIMOTHY: It’s true that once someone is saved, that person will always be saved. Yet, unfortunately, the phrase “once saved, always saved” places almost all the emphasis on what happens when we first trust Jesus. That’s not where the New Testament authors place the emphasis when they use the words “saved” and “salvation.”
In the New Testament, “saved” refers primarily to a future and final rescue from divine wrath. But, when someone says “once saved, always saved,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that believers are called to persevere to the end and that salvation is both present and future. The warnings in Scripture, particularly in the letter to the Hebrews, are not merely hypothetical. Warnings are one of the means that God uses to secure our salvation by calling his chosen children to persevere and to repent.
On this point, The Race Set Before Us by Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday is simply unsurpassed. The Race Set Before Us gives no ground to the delusion that it’s up to us to keep ourselves saved, yet Schreiner and Caneday simultaneously refuse to dilute biblical warnings into mere admonitions about loss of future rewards. They recognize the warnings as real warnings about real eternal consequences without slipping into the false notion that Christians might lose their salvation.
The canons of Dort declare that God preserves his people by means of “gospel exhortations, threats, and promises.” In many instances, we as pastors have provided people with gospel promises and even gospel exhortations but we’ve neglected the gospel threats—the painful truth that, where there is no perseverance in a person’s life, there will be no salvation. This isn’t because faith was forfeited. It’s because faith that fails to persevere was never authentic faith in the first place.
What effect would your understanding of grace have on the way in which we interact with one another?
DANIEL: When we see that our salvation depends on a singlehanded work of God’s grace, we see we have nothing to fear and nothing to prove. God in Christ has already provided every proof we need to be acquitted of every charge against us.
We are free to forgive those who have wronged us because God forgave us when we deserved only hell.
We are free to share with others because we don’t need to hold on to our possessions to impress people around us.
We can confess our sins freely instead of hiding our failures.
We can receive correction without feeling devastated because we know that God’s choice to make us his children was never based on our performance in the first place.
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There authors have put together a number of supplemental resources to go along with the book. Their website has free devotionals and a free Kids Curriculum called “Proof Pirates.” The Proof EP from Sojourn Music holds 7 songs from the book, the first 5,000 downloads are free. They also we have a free kids catechism call “North Star Catechism,” which has much of the language they use in the interview and devotionals.