Dr. Paul Ellis Underscores the Errors of Hyper-Grace

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Before I even sent in my article, “Some Honest Questions for Joseph Prince,” to the CharismaNews.com website, I expected Dr. Paul Ellis to post a response – and to do it very quickly.

I was not disappointed. My article was posted on January 23rd, and his article, “Some Honest Answer for Michael Brown,” was posted on January 24th. Thank you, Dr. Ellis, for the quick turnaround!

Dr. Ellis and I have interacted privately via email a number of times, and at some point, I hope to write a rebuttal to his book-length response to my book on hyper-grace, since I found his book greatly lacking at many points, not to mention poorly representing my own position and, at times, misinterpreting the Word.

But we are brothers in the Lord, we celebrate the same death and resurrection of the same Lord Jesus in whom we have forgiveness and redemption, and we are both lovers of grace. In fact, I resonate with so much of what Dr. Ellis has written (he has lots of terrific insights, and he loves righteousness and hates sin) but I believe his teaching is mixed with some serious error as well. (I imagine he feels the same about me.)

For the purpose of growing in understanding before the Lord and holding faithfully to His Word, I’ve written this response to his article, “Some Honest Answers for Michael Brown.”

What follows below is Dr. Ellis’s posting of each of my questions to Pastor Prince (some of which he broke up into two parts or shortened) – these will be in bold – followed by his response, which will be italics, followed by mine, in regular type. And note that he wrote his article “on behalf of all who embrace the gospel of grace.”

1.Does God require anything from you as his child, other than receive his grace? If so, are there spiritual benefits that come through obeying these requirements and spiritual losses that come from ignoring them?

Ephesians 1:3 tells us that every spiritual blessing comes to us through Christ. There are no extra blessings that come to us separately from Christ and in response to our obedience. All is grace.

First, this avoids the simple question of, “Does God require anything from you as his child, other than receive his grace?” Of course He does. Jesus says that not everyone who says to Him, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who do the will of His Father (Matthew 7:21). He also said that if anyone would come after Him, he must deny Himself and take up the cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34).

Paul in his letters lists many things that God requires of us – after all, we have received Jesus as our Lord and it is now our sacred calling to do His will – not to be saved but because we are saved. Just take out your Bibles and read Ephesians 5:1-6 (or, if you like, start in the fourth chapter and read through to the end of the fifth) and very clearly, Paul tells us how we are to live and warns us about the dangers of deviation from God’s ways. Or read 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 (again, among many other passages), where Paul lays out what God requires of us as His children.

Second, Dr. Ellis rephrases his answer to make it fit with his theology, stating, “There are no extra blessings that come to us separately from Christ and in response to our obedience.

Who ever said anything about doing anything “separately from Christ”? Everything we do for God is in and through Jesus.

At the same time, the New Testament tells us over and over again that certain lifestyles will bring greater blessing than others. For example, Jesus taught that if we walked in unity with Him and stored His words in our hearts, we would bear much, lasting fruit, which is why some believers bear much more fruit than others (John 15:1-9). That’s also why Paul urged Timothy to live a certain way before God, separating himself from what was unclean, to have the maximum effectiveness in the Lord (see 2 Timothy 2:19-21).

Without a doubt, every spiritual blessing we could ever need is found in Jesus. But those blessings are accessed through obedience and faith, and the believer who is lax and careless in his walk with God cannot say, “It’s all grace!” and then expect the same effectiveness and blessing as the one who serves faithfully – by grace, of course.

2.Is it possible for us to displease the Lord? Is he always pleased with us? Can we grieve the Holy Spirit?

As I say elsewhere, the notion that “Hyper-grace preachers say God is not grieved by your sin” is a myth. Your choices and behavior can grieve the Holy Spirit, but only because he cares for you and wants you to prosper in every area of your life. Your behavior matters because you matter. But don’t confuse behavior with identity. You are not defined by what you do. Your identity is Christ and in him you are and always will be 100 percent pleasing and acceptable to God.

This is seriously wrong on several fronts.

First, Dr. Ellis has just contradicted his previous answer, since he says here that God doesn’t want us to sin because we won’t fully prosper if we do, yet in the previous answer he said that, “There are no extra blessings that come to us separately from Christ and in response to our obedience.” Both can’t be true.

Second, our sin grieves God not “only” because He cares for us – although He certainly cares for us far more than we could ever imagine and He absolutely grieves for the harm we do to ourselves – but our sin also grieves God because it is an affront to His holiness and because often, our sin brings reproach to the name of Jesus. Dr. Ellis’s answer is part of the “it’s all about me” mentality of this generation, sad to say.

Third, Dr. Ellis makes a wrong distinction between behavior and identity. True, my identity is not defined by my behavior, and so, when I was a rebellious 15-year-old, I was still my father’s son, deeply loved by him. But my behavior grieved and displeased him. In the same way, as attested from Genesis to Revelation, our disobedience displeases our Father, who still loves us as His children but who is not pleased with our sinful conduct, especially because we are His children.

In Hyper-Grace, I cite numerous verses from the New Testament where the Lord calls us to please Him or where He expresses His displeasure with us. A simple reading of Revelation 2-3, the words of Jesus to seven congregations in Asia Minor, indicates that it is scriptural nonsense to claim that “we are and always will be 100 percent pleasing and acceptable to God.” Not so. Paul’s corrections to the Corinthian church are another reminder that we are not always “100 percent pleasing” to God.

3.If the Lord always sees you as perfect, is there any way for you to disappoint him? I’ve heard it said that we can only grieve or disappoint him by not trusting his grace, but according to your message, hasn’t that sin been forgiven as well?

Yes, every sin was carried on the cross and in Christ we are completely and eternally forgiven. Still, there are things we can do that make the Lord sad, such as being slow of heart to believe the good news of his grace.

As demonstrated in Hyper-Grace, and as Dr. Ellis acknowledged in his rebuttal, there is not a single verse in the Bible that states that when we get saved, God pronounces our future sins forgiven. As Dr. Ellis wrote, “Dr. Brown notes that there is not one verse in the Bible that pronounces us already forgiven for our future sins (page 43). Nor is there any verse that says Jesus will come and die a second time for your sins” (pp. 54-55).

But that’s whole point. There is no verse that says “Jesus will come and die a second time for your sins” because He won’t, just as there is no verse that says that God “pronounces us already forgiven for our future sins” because He doesn’t. Jesus paid for our sins once and for all on the cross, but the blood is applied to our lives the moment we are saved and then in an ongoing way once we are saved (notice the present continuous tense of the Greek in 1 John 1:7).

Without a doubt, we are placed in the “forgiven” column the moment we are born again, and without a doubt, all our sins were paid in full at the cross. But throughout Scripture, God forgives sins we have committed, not sins we have not yet committed.

4.If God has pronounced your future sins forgiven in the same way he has pronounced your past sins forgiven, why do Paul and other New Testament writers address these very sins in their letters? Why does God bring our present sins up to us in the New Testament, even warning us about the dangers of walking in those sins, if they have also been forgiven and forgotten in advance?

God will never judge or punish you for the sins that Christ bore on the cross. The audacious claim that he chooses not to remember or record your sins comes straight from scripture (Rom 4:7-8, 2 Cor 5:19). In Christ, you have received redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7, Col 1:14). So why do Paul and the other NT writers talk about sin? Because sin is destructive. Sin can hurt you. Your Father loves you too much to say nothing while you ruin your life. Your sin won’t undo the work of the cross, but it could undo you, your marriage, and your family.

We agree that sin can be deadly and costly. Where we disagree is whether sin can “undo the work of the cross.” In short, in the same way an unbeliever can reject the finished work of Jesus, thereby not receiving the forgiveness that was paid for, numerous exhortations in the New Testament indicate that as believers, we can walk away from God’s mercy and reject His grace, thereby forfeiting our salvation. There is absolute security in Jesus, but if we absolutely reject Him, we lose that security.

5a. A leading hyper-grace teacher claims that the doctrine of progressive sanctification is a “spiritually murderous lie”…
Clark Whitten makes this claim (on page 28 of his excellent book Pure Grace) and I agree with him. The “saved by grace but perfected by human effort” teaching has produced a church that is, in Whitten’s words, “judgmental, angry, hopeless, helpless, dependent, fearful, uninspired, ineffective, and perpetually spiritually immature.” He’s right. The idea that sanctification is something we produce is a stone cold grace-killer.

I take issue with Clark Whitten a number of times in Hyper-Grace, pointing in particular to his harsh rhetoric against other believers who do not embrace his message. (Note here his exaggerated assessment of churches that do not embrace hyper-grace.) The reality is that some of the finest, most vibrant, Jesus-exalting, fruit-bearing, Spirit-empowered churches in the world are those which preach a message of scriptural sanctification and reject hyper-grace.

But again, Dr. Ellis has misrepresented the question and painted a misleading picture when he claims that I’m saying that “sanctification is something we produce.” This is a common trait (intentional or not) in hyper-grace circles, namely the caricaturing of an argument to sidestep the real issue. According to the Scriptures, sanctification is both instantaneous and a process, yet all of it is done with the Spirit’s help and we are active participants in all of it, as I’ll explain in the next answer.

5b. If “progressive sanctification” simply means to walk out our holiness with the help of the Spirit, what is so dangerous about this teaching?
There is nothing dangerous about it, since that is what scripture and hyper-grace teachers teach. In Christ we are 100 percent holy. The message we preach is “be who you truly are.” But this is not progressive sanctification as most understand the phrase, or as Michael himself describes in his Hyper-grace book when he says our sanctification is positional (ie: not real) and something to pursue. Michael insists “sanctification is a process!” (p.100) and he interprets New Testament exhortations as demands and requirements that must be obeyed, but I smell carrots and sticks.

Notice again the rhetoric (“I smell carrots and sticks”) along with the misrepresentation of progressive sanctification. Let me clarify.

First, I actually teach what he claims I don’t teach, namely that the moment we are saved, we are set apart by God as holy and called “holy ones” (saints). That is our identity in Jesus – saints, not sinners – and now we are called to live that out. That’s why Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:14-16)

Unfortunately, many in the hyper-grace camp react against calls to holiness, branding it legalism and calling you a grace hater. (If I had spoken these words rather than Peter, I would certainly be accused of hating grace or misunderstanding grace.) And notice that Peter does not first say to his readers, “You are already 100% holy; just be who you are.” He simply calls them, as beloved children of the Father, to live lives of obedience and holiness.

Second, Dr. Ellis is entirely wrong to say that “positional” holiness is “not real.” Of course it’s real. It’s simply not the entire story. In other words, just as, in a real sense, we are seated with Jesus in heavenly places (this is positional and it is real), in another sense, we still live in this world, in earthly bodies. Both are true. In the same way, we have already been made holy and we are being made holy, meaning, walking that holiness out. Both are true.

Third, hyper-grace theology breaks down at the foot of the Word of God, having to reinterpret verses like 2 Corinthians 7:1, where Paul writes, “Since we have these promises [see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18], beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” Our holiness has not yet been completed; it is progressive, according to the Word.

Similarly, Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality,” after which Paul gives specific instructions for how we are to live, closing this with, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Ellis must conform the Word to fit his theology, as illustrated by his paraphrase of 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (also p. 73). The verse states, “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through” (1 Thessalonians 5: 23a). He rewrites it to say, “Sanctification is God’s work, not yours. Just as His gift of salvation is something to work out in your life, so is His sanctification. You already have it, so enjoy it!”

That is not what Paul was praying for. He recognized the “already-not-yet” aspect of our experience: We are holy but we are not perfectly holy in every area of our lives, as we will be when Jesus returns and we become like Him in a way beyond what we have experienced so far (1 John 3:2). And in this world, as God’s holy people, we are to grow in holiness.

6.We agree that the Holy Spirit never condemns us for our sins as believers, but does he ever make us uncomfortable when we sin?

Jesus called him the Comforter, not the Discomforter, so I guess not (John 14:16). I have written elsewhere on how God deals with us when we sin.

This too is wrong on several fronts. First, although the King James Version translates paraklētos as “Comforter” in John 14:16, the word is best rendered “Helper” or “Advocate.”

Second, because God loves us so much, He makes us uncomfortable in our sins, which is why Jesus, speaking by the Spirit to Laodicea, says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19; note that the Greek word for “reprove” is the same as the word used for “convict” in John 16:8). These words – and the ones that preceded them in chapters 2-3 of Revelation – were hardly designed to “comfort.” Rather, Jesus brought strong correction because of His love, with the goal being repentance and restoration. How dangerous it is to say that the Spirit will never make us uncomfortable when we sin. That discomfort might just save our marriage or ministry.

It is a tragic consequence of this anti-conviction preaching that many believers have become compromised in their lifestyles, giving place to enslaving sins. That’s one reason so many leaders worldwide are sounding the alarm against hyper-grace.

7.We agree that we do not need to confess every sin we commit each day in order to “stay saved,” but is any type of confession and request for forgiveness appropriate? For example, is it appropriate for believers to say, “Father, I’m sorry for sinning and I ask you to wash me clean”?

It’s not wrong to ask God for forgiveness and grace in your hour of need. If asking helps you to receive what God has already provided, have the freedom to ask. What’s not okay is telling people that God only forgives them because they ask, confess, repent, or do anything. The Bible teaches that we are forgiven in accordance with the riches of his grace (Eph 1:7), not our asking.

I’m glad to hear Dr. Ellis affirm that it’s acceptable for a believer to ask for forgiveness, since some hyper-grace teachers say that it’s sinful to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. And he is right in saying that our sins have been fully paid for. But as 1 John 1:9 indicates (it is written explicitly to believers and it is in the present, continuous tense in Greek, thus speaking of our ongoing life in the Lord), there is relational forgiveness (not salvific forgiveness) that we receive when we sin and ask God for cleansing. That is healthy and beautiful, not negative and destructive.

8.I know that you are against certain types of self-examination lest you become “sin conscious”… (But) if I understand you correctly, you would question the salvation of someone who demonstrated no change of life and continued to walk in unrepentant sin. But doesn’t this mean that, on some level, you are looking at your “performance” to verify your salvation?

Not performance, but fruit. Performance suggests a show put on to impress others; spiritual fruit can only be produced by the Lord. If you want to know if someone has been apprehended by the love of God, look for the fruit. Fruit are not sin. Fruit always point to Jesus.

Actually, I only used the word “performance” because hyper-grace teachers often speak against a performance mentality, and I agree with Dr. Ellis that we should look for fruit. But according to Jesus, fruit can be good or bad, and so, we are to recognize false prophets by the bad fruit they bring forth (Matthew 7:15-20).

But I’m glad to see that, once again, Dr. Ellis says that a truly saved person will live differently. Amen! Sadly, in interaction with other hyper-grace adherents, they react negatively to any call for self-examination or any exhortations to live differently than the world, as if grace covers it all. Better to say that grace changes us as well as blots out our sins.

9.Do you think there’s any danger in claiming that the teachings of Jesus before the cross don’t apply to us as believers today?

In his book Michael suggests that hyper-grace preachers claim “The teachings of Jesus are not for us today” (p.203). This comes in a chapter entitled “Why are we running from the words of Jesus?” But who’s running? Who is dismissing the pre-cross words of Jesus? Certainly not Joseph Prince or any other prominent grace preacher. These are scurrilous claims which may be why Michael doesn’t repeat them here. Instead, we get the watered-down hypothetical: Is it dangerous to dismiss the pre-cross teachings of Jesus? Of course it is, Michael, which is why we don’t do it. Please stop suggesting that we do.

What is scurrilous is that Dr. Ellis denies the facts. For example, I intentionally started my first answer with quotations from Jesus, knowing that some hyper-grace adherents would say, “But that’s not for us today. That was for His Jewish disciples before the cross.” Precisely my point.

Dr. Ellis himself has written that the Lord’s prayer does not apply to us today, writing, “Jesus said, ‘If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins’ (Matthew 6:15). This is not good news. This is bad news that should make us shake in our boots for it links God’s forgiveness to our own. It is not grace, it is law. It is quid pro quo and tit for tat. It is something you must give to get” (The Gospel in Ten Words, p. 28). He also wrote that, “before the cross Jesus preached conditional forgiveness; forgive to be forgiven.”

Joseph Prince is even more clear: “Whether interpreting the Old Testament, or the words which Jesus spoke in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), let Jesus and His finished work at the cross be the key to unlocking all the precious gems hidden in God’s Word. This means that we have to read everything in the context of what He came to do and what He accomplished at the cross for us. For example, some things that Jesus said in the four gospels were spoken before the cross—before He had died for our sins—and some were said after the cross—when He had already won our complete forgiveness and rightfully given us His righteousness. It is the latter that applies to us (believers under the new covenant) today” (from his website).

How then can Dr. Ellis deny that he and Joseph Prince say that many (or all) of the pre-cross words of Jesus do not apply to us directly today? (These are just two examples among many others, which I document in Hyper-Grace.) How then can he call this scurrilous when it is the very position he holds?

If he has changed his position, I rejoice, but as of now, I have not seen him correct these previous statements. In fact, one of the weakest part of his rebuttal book was his attempt to reject the glorious biblical evidence presented in Hyper-Grace, demonstrating how the words of Jesus before the cross apply to believers today (as always, using right principles of biblical interpretation). Unfortunately, for many in the hyper-grace camp, rather than actually reading what I had compiled – it is life-giving, biblical truth – they simply read Dr. Ellis’s response and said, “Good. I don’t have to deal with the Sermon on the Mount.”

In an email dated January 28th, Dr. Ellis stated that I can put him on record as saying that “the life and teachings of Jesus are divine, beautiful, life-giving and relevant today.” I responded by saying that being consistent with that statement would necessitate him repudiating some of his former teaching, which I strongly encourage him to do.

10.What does it mean to walk in the fear of the Lord? What do you make of verses like this: “And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear… (1 Pet. 1:17).

What does it mean for the wives of unbelieving husbands to live in “purity and reverence” (1 Peter 3:2)? I only mention this because the word for reverence is the same word for fear Peter uses in chapter 1. If Michael is suggesting that we fear the Lord, is he also suggesting wives fear their husbands? Surely not. Jesus says that to fear the Lord is to worship him.

Actually, context is everything, and it is clear that the fear of the Lord is not simply a matter of “worship” (although worship is certainly a part of it), while a wife’s reverential respect for her husband is going to be quite different than our reverential awe of the Lord. The fact that Dr. Ellis answers as he does once again reveals some of the problems in hyper-grace theology.

Consider some of these verses: Jesus, speaking to His disciples said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

After the sudden deaths of Annanias and Sapphira after they lied to the Spirit, Acts tells us, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Act 5:11).

And notice the larger context and warnings of Hebrews 12:25-29, then read these last two verses: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29, quoting from Deuteronomy 4:24; and note the warning to believers in 10:31: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”)

Day and night, we serve God out of love, overwhelmed by His mercy and goodness, basking in the ocean of His grace. And we recognize He is the all powerful and holy God, and therefore we don’t play foolish games with Him.

11.Do you see any possible danger in emphasizing that it is impossible for a believer to lose his or her salvation? On a practical level, do you feel it’s important to add any scriptural caveats to your teaching of eternal security and, if so, how can you do this without putting an emphasis on “performance”?

There is no danger in reassuring believers that Jesus keeps his promises. Instead of preaching “scriptural caveats” I recommend we preach the gospel. Instead of judging the performance of others, I recommend we preach the performance of Jesus. This is what Joseph Prince and every other grace preacher does.

It looks like Dr. Ellis understood the gospel better than Paul, since Paul freely used “scriptural caveats” like this while also exalting “the performance of Jesus.” Paul wrote, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Colossians 1:21-23a).

The author of Hebrews had no problem with “scriptural caveats” either, like this: “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14).

The same goes for Peter: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11)

Why can’t hyper-grace believers simply say “Amen,” to these exhortations, believing that the one who started the work will bring it to completion, that the Lord is the author and finisher of our faith, and that Jesus is our good and great Shepherd who will never leave us or forsake us? Why will we be accused of preaching a “works righteousness” or adhering to a “saved by human effort” mentality when we are simply sharing God’s Word, with each of the verses holding to the exact same meaning when studied in context.

All this being said, may I encourage continued dialogue, since I’m convinced the hyper-grace camp is continually misunderstanding and misrepresenting my position (along with those, like me, who reject hyper-grace), while they feel the same about us. Only continued, patient, candid interaction will bridge these misunderstandings, and if we all humble ourselves before the Lord, we will embrace the full counsel of God, in particular, God’s true grace. Let’s pursue that together!

Perhaps one day the Lord will enable us to sit in the same room for a solid day or more, talking and praying together and opening up the Scriptures. I for one would welcome that with joy.

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