Debunking “Easy-Believism”

Many Evangelicals will tell you that if you just pray the “Sinner’s Prayer,” you’ll be saved, of if that you have faith in Jesus Christ, He’ll save you even if you don’t obey Him.  In light of yesterday’s Gospel  (Matthew 16:21-27), I want to address why this is flawed, and what this says about the larger debate about “faith and works.” I’m very much indebted to a powerful homily delivered by Fr. Kelly yesterday on the true cost of Discipleship.

I. What is Easy-Believism?

So what is easy-believism, and who buys into it?  The Calvinist website has a good description:

The term “easy-believism” is a usually derogatory label, used to characterize the faulty understanding of the nature of saving faith adhered to by much of contemporary Evangelicalism, most notably (and extremely) by such Dispensational authors as Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges. The term was popularized in an ongoing debate between Hodges, to whose theology the label “easy-believism” was affixed, and John MacArthur, to whom the term “lordship salvation” came to be applied.

Essentially, the teaching of “easy-believism” (which proponents prefer to call “free grace,” or some similar term), asserts that the faith which saves is mere intellectual assent to the truths of the gospel, accompanied by an appeal to Christ for salvation (at the end of his life, Hodges embraced the even more extreme position that salvation requires only an appeal to Christ, even by one who does not believe the most basic truths of the gospel, such as his death, burial, and resurrection [which he clearly taught, for example, in “The Hydra’s Other Head: Theological Legalism,” printed in the Grace In Focus Newsletter]). According to proponents of the “free grace” movement (i.e. “easy-believism”), it is not required of the one appealing for salvation that he be willing to submit to the Lordship of Christ. In fact, at least according to some proponents, the person appealing for salvation may at the same time be willfully refusing to obey the commands of Christ; but because he has intellectual faith, he will still be saved, in spite of his ongoing rebellion.

So understand right off that this is something your Evangelical neighbor might well believe in, but probably not your “Reformed” neighbors.

II. What’s an Easy Way to Know It’s False?

Last Sunday’s Gospel was the famous one from Matthew 16:13-20, in which Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, and founds His Church upon Him, after Peter confesses Christ’s Lordship. I want to just remind you of one part, Matthew 16:15-16,

He [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Father Kelly pointed out that this is one of the clearest declarations of faith in the Gospels. And Jesus tells us that this declaration of faith comes from God Himself (v. 17).  It’s not simply an “intellectual belief,” as if Peter deduced it, but Divine revelation.  Jesus responds to this faith by blessing Peter in the ways I’ve described elsewhere. But look what happens next (Matthew 16:21-23):

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Peter’s confession of faith, while inspired by God, doesn’t prevent him from becoming an adversary to God — in fact, it happens almost immediately.  Did Peter stop believing that Christ was the Messiah? Absolutely not: even in rebuking Jesus, he calls Him “Lord.”  Frankly, Peter’s intentions don’t even seem obviously wicked: he’s not pursuing wealth, or fame, or women: he’s just wanting the Gospel to be easy.  

Peter is suffering from a “disordered love,” where he wants what’s easiest, rather than what’s best.  We see this in parents who spoil their children, and (as Father Kelly emphasized in his homily), we’re each guilty of it, every time we avoid proclaiming the Gospel to those we love.  We don’t want to hurt their feelings, or we ourselves don’t want to suffer, so we avoid saying and doing what we need to.  We become obstacles to God, stumbling stones on the way to the Gospel.

Jesus doesn’t let us miss that this is the point of His rebuke (Mt. 16:24-27):

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then He will repay everyone according to his conduct.

Christ makes it clear that total self-denial and obedience is required for Discipleship, and required for salvation.  If you try and cling to your old life, if you want to believe that Jesus is the Messiah but not respond, you will lose your life.  On the other hand, if you respond to the Gospel, He promises to reward your conduct at the end of time.

So Peter’s believing that Christ was the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” was great, but not enough. Next, he had to learn to act upon that belief, by denying himself, taking up his cross, and following.  He does this, and  Jesus hints at his manner of martyrdom in John 21:18-19.  Peter will ultimately be crucified upside-down, after he declares himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

III. What Does This Mean for the Debate About Faith and Works?

We know from the life of St. Peter that mere belief, even a belief revealed to us by God the Father Himself, isn’t enough to save us.  If we want eternal life, we need conduct, not just belief.  When Catholics speak of the need for faith and works, that’s what we mean: belief in Christ’s Messiahship (faith), coupled with the conduct Jesus calls us to (works).

But here’s the deal.  Proper conduct is tied to belief: it’s all part of walking by faith.  We see this also from the life of St. Peter, after Peter sees Jesus walking on the water (Mt. 14:28-31):

“Lord, if it’s You,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to You on the water.”

“Come,” He said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out His Hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” He said, “why did you doubt?”

Peter’s conduct (walking on water) was only possible through faith. We know this, because once he doubted, he could no longer perform the conduct.  That captures the essence perfectly: the sort of works which Catholics talk about aren’t something arising apart from faith, but are a part of faith.

The same is true in Matthew 16.  We only have the ability to deny ourselves when we cling to Him.  Only in believing in Him can we have the courage (or the graces) to take up our Cross and follow.  No one in history has ever lived a life of discipleship without having faith.  It’s just not possible.

All of this makes me think that the classical Reformed (old-school Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the like), are much closer to Catholics than they are to Evangelicals on the question of how we’re saved. Specifically, go back to that definition from Monergism.  They come close to grasping this when they denounce easy-believism like this:

According to proponents of the “free grace” movement (i.e. “easy-believism”), it is not required of the one appealing for salvation that he be willing to submit to the Lordship of Christ. In fact, at least according to some proponents, the person appealing for salvation may at the same time be willfully refusing to obey the commands of Christ; but because he has intellectual faith, he will still be saved, in spite of his ongoing rebellion.

Although they’re Calvinist, they clearly believe that in order to be saved, you need to:

  1. Believe;
  2. Stop intentionally disobeying;
  3. Obey.

Those are the three things which the “Lordship salvation” adherents, like John MacArthur, teach. For Jesus to be Savior, He must also be Lord. Catholics agree completely.  We just describe it differently sometimes.

In a nutshell, mere belief won’t save you, and most Protestants (outside of the so-called “free grace” movement, which proclaims “easy-believism”) seem to agree.


  1. Joe,

    We are saying that we are right because of the theology we are using to ascertain where the authority of Scripture lies.

    We believe that it is clear that God’s Word (His law and gospel) bring people to a living faith in Himself).

    For us, that is authority enough.

    Maybe I am not explaining our position as well as my pastor does it. Here’s his latest class on the subject from this past Sunday:

    Maybe this will help clear up what we believe, even if you do not agree with it.

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