In 2012 I was confronted with the issue of having to respond to Joseph Prince’s book Unmerited Favor which has caused confusion in a number of local churches including evangelicals from churches that are given to faithful exposition of Scripture. Not to mention pockets of young people who have started walking around with Hebrew and Greek dictionaries and lexicons in order to drive people into believing that they had the biblical texts correct. Unfortunately, these youth can’t even recite the alphabets of these ancient languages. This article is a response to this confusion of radically misplaced concept of grace.
Prince is concerned that some Christians are too focused on sin and have not grasped the extent of God’s forgiveness of them made possible through the cross. I would agree that sometimes some Christians are unhelpfully focused on their guilt and do not grasp fully the forgiveness we have – for there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).
However I feel that Prince goes too far in making his point. I have a number of issues:
1. Prince insists that Christians should not confess their sin. He bases this on the assumption that Paul does not write about confession of sins and that the only verse which does (in 1 John) is written to Christians. There are a number of problems with this argument:
(a) Jesus teaches us to pray “forgive us our sins” in the Lord’s Prayer – the model prayer that is intended to shape our daily prayers (consider the line – give us today our daily bread) – see Luke 11:4.
(b) James calls us to “confess our sins to one another” (Js 5:16) – while a different form of confession may be in mind this verse certainly indicates that Christians are to be aware of their sin (and act accordingly).
(c) Several times in the letters to the churches in Revelation Jesus points out the sin of these Christians and calls on them to repent (see, for example: Rev 2:5; 2:16; 3:3; etc.)
(d) Prince makes the mistake of falsely assuming that because Paul does not use the word “confess” he does not say anything about the concept. This is like arguing that because Paul does not use the word “trinity” therefore the concept is not biblical.
Paul talks frequently (and positively) about the concept of repentance for Christians – sometimes using the word “repentance” (see, for example, 2 Cor 7:9) and sometimes using other language such as “putting to death” or “putting off” sin (see, for example: Col 3:5-11).
2. Prince argues that 1 John 1 was written not for Christians but for Gnostics – this is by no means clear from the text itself (and in fact no major commentator that I looked at held this view).
(a) The fact that 1 John does not begin with a traditional letter opening does not necessarily lead to this conclusion – see Heb 1:1.
(b) Similarly, the use of “my dear children” need not indicate a change of address or audience (cf. 1 Peter 2:11; 4:12)
(c) John’s use of “we” language throughout 1 John 1 suggests that he is writing to Christians. He is saying that for himself if he claims to be without sin he deceives himself..but if he confesses his sin…
(d) It is also difficult to work out how in writing to the Gnostics John hoped his message would get through to them.
3. Prince argues that to teach Christians that they have to confess their sins is to teach works. This is not necessarily true (and in the case of what the Bible teaches is of course not true):
(a) We are not saved by confessing our sin but by Jesus’ death.
(b) In the same way that “believing” is not a work; neither is repenting. Prince is very clear that we are to “believe” but he does not see this as a work – in the same way “repenting” is not a work.
(c) It is worth reading Grudem on the effects of sin on the Christian.
4. The Bible calls us to repent and believe (see for example Mk 1:15). Where the Bible does this the words “repent” and “believe” are present tense commands – in other words they have a continuous sense. Just as we do not believe in the past and no longer believe; neither as Christians should we think that we have repented in the past and no longer need to repent. There is of course a difference between the repentance of a non-Christian in turning to Christ for the first time and the repentance of a Christian who is saved and a child of God – but Christians are repentant people and repentant people repent.
In conclusion, I feel that Prince plays down the seriousness of sin in the life of the Christian. He argues that we should not think about or focus on sin – but I suspect that the Apostle Paul would disagree. See, the following passages: Romans 7; Gal 5:16-25; 6:1; Eph 4:25; Col 3:5-11; 1 Thess 5:14-15. Sin is something that we need to take seriously; and if we are aware of our sin surely we will acknowledge to God that we are sorry for it (surely we will be sorry). From this perspective, Prince’s teaching on grace is “biblically wrong and can be hazardous to one’s spiritual health. He has just enough right knowledge mixed with wrong theology to be dangerous and hurt people as much as he intends to help them” (Let Us Reason Ministries).