If Grace is True

In their 2004 book, If Grace is True, Philip Gulley and James Mulholland make a case for universalism and this is their essential creedal contention:

I believe — on the basis of their experiences;
God — who is the gracious, loving Father Jesus revealed;
will — this is what this God wants;
save — ultimately, finally, perfect;
every person — who has ever lived, is living, and ever will live.

Some of you may have read this book and know of some discussions out there. I’ve not seen them. But, the book is giving expression to a lurking desire on the part of many who have a pluralistic faith or who are moving in that direction. The book is well-written, flows easily, and is laced together with some evocative stories.

Since I’ve been blogging of late on conversion, I thought I’d use this book to illustrate what “crisis” can mean for a (de)conversion, which is for both of the authors a conversion from historic Christianity to universal pluralism.

I find five crises in these two authors:

1. The death of a woman named Sally whom one of the authors could not make sense of and who was beginning to turn to faith. The more he learned about her past (abuse and getting her life turned around) and unlearned the many mean things he had thought about her, the more sympathy he felt for her and therefore, so he reasoned, if God is even more compassionate, then God would also be compassionate on her.

2. A close Christian friend, also a minister, began to admit his gay tendencies, eventually came out, and the author was led to the conviction that it was OK to be gay and that the Bible in this matter had to be wrong.

3. Reading Joshua 10:40, and God’s command to destroy all persons in the city, led the author to the view that some views of God in the Bible are not right; what is right is that God is gracious and loving. He learned to “weigh” Scriptures, “discerning which Scriptures accurately reflect God’s character” (51).

4. Become convinced that eternal punishment is consistent with God’s good and gracious and loving nature. Therefore, once again, the Bible can’t be right in some of its statements.

5. He saw the Ghandi movie. There and then he realized two dimensions of this crisis: (a) that some non-Christians follow Jesus while (b) some Christians do not follow Jesus. What matters is the life one leads, not whether or not they confess Christ.

A major leverage for Gulley/Mulholland is that one has to trust their experience of God. These five crises lead them to “deconvert” from historic Christian faith to universalism.

The fundamental theme is what I would call the radical logic of grace: if grace is true, they contend, universalism follows.

There is only book I’ve read that really takes on this radical logic of grace from a biblical-theological viewpoint, and I think it is the best book I’ve read on atonement. It is by Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross.

But, we can’t get into two books at once. I wonder how has read If Grace is True or who has thoughts. I’ll be reading their second book, If God is Love, next.

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  • I haven’t read either, but just wanted to point out that the terms “de-conversion/re-conversion” are terms some segments in emerging conversation are using to describe those who are unlearning a lifeless “heady” faith and relearning a faith that is more incarnational. In current conversation re-conversion does not always work it’s way into Universalism.Just my thoughts,JeanBTW, the books look like an intereseting read.

  • Ben

    Not having read this book all the way through I don’t feel comfortable commenting too much, except as the Bible and book buyer at our local Christian book store I can say a few things….This is a title we have chosen not to stock, but do take special orders for. I’d say the owners and management of the store are conservative evangelicals, but not prone to censorship. Our inventory represents material from nearly all Protestant denominations, Roman Catholic and eastern Orthodox authors. Since theology and “good” biblical studies books tend not to fly off the shelves I don’t have a huge budget for a gigantic selection, but am pleased that since I started, nearly five years ago, our end-times/prophecy section has diminished to one shelf. It seems, however, the Scot McKnight titles we have to offer are growing in number lately. Hmmmm….In addition to the Gulley/Mulholland book, I tend not to stock material by Borg, Crossan, Spong, Pagels and others. If anyone would like to comment on this topic please feel free to send a message. I read the posts from June, What Pastors Read and What Pastors Should Read, with great interest.By the way, Scot, my pick for our Employee Recommends Wall this month is The Jesus Creed along with the companion guide. We’ve sold a few and I had to re-order. I’m glad to promote good material on spiritual formation. Our manager read from your book a few mornings earlier in the month during daily devotions.I’m enjoying the dialogue on this blog.Peace and Joy to all,Ben

  • Ben,This is a super comment from you, one I treasure.The Gulley/Mulholland book is a deeply challenging book for those who are not really ready to face the issues connected to their radical logic of grace. Most would be put off by their regular statement that they “used to believe the Bible, etc” but no longer do. I do think the book is worthy of response.

  • “By the way, Scot, my pick for our Employee Recommends Wall this month is The Jesus Creed along with the companion guide. We’ve sold a few and I had to re-order. I’m glad to promote good material on spiritual formation.”I would have to add my comments of agreement here. I have been looking for sometime with a little bit of frustration for a book to use in directing a small group of women that I have been walking beside for some years now. I am almost finished with The Jesus Creed, and am so pleased with its content, and flavor. It is no small task to find an aid that conveys a hermeneutic of Love like this one does.Jean

  • First, I have not read the book. But from the points you’ve listed, I find it troubling. I had a few random thoughts and questions that immediately spring to mind:1. Can the Spirit of God within the heart of a man or woman disagree with the Spirit of God who breathed out the Scriptures?2. We must test our experiences by the Scriptures, not the Scriptures by our experiences. Otherwise we become Narcissus worshiping his own reflection. We become the arbiter of truth and arbiter of God. But God is our Judge, we are not His.3. Experience, Feeling, and Reason are dangerous when they are unruled. I am not saying they are unimportant. They are very important, but they must be in submission to God (His word) in order to function properly.4. The radical logic of grace is universalism? It reminds me of a quote by Lewis in The Four Loves: “Love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god; which of course can be re-stated in the form ‘begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a god.’ This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it, the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God.”

  • Scot, I’ve not read IF GRACE IS TRUE, but from your comments I can’t understand what’s so radical about the logic. If grace leads to universalism, my logic concludes grace is no big deal. Grace for what? If everybody is a recipient of grace, then grace is gutted of any significant meaning or at least any redemptive meaning. If grace means that God welcomes everyone and rejects no one, then the cross was unnecessary. Grace requires no sacrifice. Am I off base here?

  • I’ve just read the second volume, which wasn’t nearly as interesting, but I find the whole project dismally simplistic and a failure to interact with the meaning of grace in the Bible. What has surprised me is how little attention this book got. I really did think it would draw discussion.

  • Perhaps the most interesting feature for me was “what led them to their views,” and those five crises are quite typical of the tension points in the emerging movement with postmodern culture: world religions, homosexuality and sexual ethics, war, premature death, the presentation of God in some OT passages.

  • John,Your comments make me think you think I agree with these authors.?

  • Scot, are you saying that the Emerging movement needs to be cautious? Or to wake up? Or what exactly?As much as I am drawn to the Emerging movement and much of what they are about, some with whom I’ve spoken consciously elevate their reason over God’s revelation. (I’m sure we all do at times, unconsciously.) And I can’t accept that. I would be more comfortable if they came out as a group (Can a movement do that? Certainly the identified “leaders” can), and as many have – Rob Bell comes to mind – declare that the entirety of Scripture is God’s word and is inerrant in the original mss. At least go that far.Or perhaps they have and I’ve missed it.

  • Dr. Mohler has written a commentary on If Grace is True. It is available here: http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2003-08-15.He has also written a commentary on the sequel, If God is Love. It is here: http://www.albertmohler.com/commentary_read.php?cdate=2005-01-11.I found them thoughtful and informative.What do you think?

  • One, the judgement of God isn’t just a Old Testament throwback…we have to wrestle with John the Baptist and Jesus. I mean, how many of Jesus’ parables end in “and the rest will be thrown into the fire.” It’s not a straight jump to eternal hell…but we have to wrestle with the Incarnation of Grace as Judge with Fire. (all the while our mantra: ‘the lame shall enter first’)Two, “if grace, then ______”…this is just about as dangerous as any Enlightenment thinking. We can obviously toss out God as a person if we just believe in the premise “grace exists.” ‘If grace, then’ statements completely ignore God’s personhood–that grace comes from a Person…it isn’t an assumed premise of reality.

  • Scott,I am intrigued by your thesis that these five crises have brought the authors of this book to a place where they follow a particular logic to grace. So is it fair to say that they have “purely” arrived at this place existentially? or do you think they were grappling with their experiences along with re-thinking the particular theological narrative that informs their convictions. I have to admit that biblically speaking, within the narrative of the text, people situated in the narrative of the Bible meet God and come to understand God in new ways existentially…with in the narrative itself. Which I find interesting. Moses is compelled to “go down” to Egyptland because of a profound experience he has with the burning bush…not because he sat down with some shepherds and discuss the finer points of theological discourse (which is valuable in its own right of course). But in some sense “we”, those of us today, have to “trust” the narrative as it is laid out about Moses…and Moses has an “experience” with God…so we are told. I know you are not discouting experience but I find many in the Evangelical world…particularly the white Evangelical world hand-cuffing themselves to propositions and decrying “experience”. As an African American Christian I am informed by a tradition that doesn’t pit experience and “knowledge” against each other. In one sense I can see how these brother’s conception and understanding of grace can change with their experiences…and still could possibly be “authentic” or possible “true”. Me thinks.

  • Ryan,For me the authors frustrated because they chose a “canon within the canon”, grace as they define it, and then found passages that supported that and when others didn’t they just didn’t believe those. This is very clear. This is so radical of an approach for them, that I wondered why they needed to appeal to the Bible.And, the glaring problem with Jesus and judgment came to my mind constantly when I read the book. They dismiss John Baptist because of judgment, but not Jesus.Posmodernegro,Yes, it is very clear that the authors want to base their views on their experience: trust experience is pretty big to their approach.I really am not sure they needed Scripture.And for those crises:What I am saying is that many are led away from Orthodox faith for the precise reasons that led Gulley and Mulholland away. The issues that I see in the Emergent “conversation” are often the same issues that provoked a crisis for these two authors.Look at the issues Brian McLaren has raised in his novels: he gets his characters to struggle with precisely those issues. What all this means is that I think the sorts of things in If Grace is True are the issues emerging missional churches need to struggle with.

  • Scot, I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I KNOW you don’t agree with the reasoning or conclusions of Gulley/Mulholland. I am just surprised that their kind of reasoning gets a hearing at all. However, in following the blogalogue, I noye that you are more interested in the 5 crises than in any conclusions. I agree, too, that these crises are the substance of many emerging conversations.

  • Mr. McKnight,As with anyone in crisis,those with faith in Christ, and those outside of faith, continue on a trajectory according to those who offer aid and guidance. Could it be that there are several trajectories in emerging conversation? One that leads down a road toward pluralism, and one that leads toward a greater awareness of the reality of incarnational living in the spirit of Jesus Christ? It has been my observation as of late, that the polarizing dialogue is causing the later to separate from what is being defined by some as Emerging.People in Crisis are looking for relief, where they find it will to a great degree depend on who is walking beside them. Walking beside them in print, font, and flesh.Does this make sense?Just my thoughts.

  • Scott (with 2 T’s), known emerging conversation leaders have stated this regarding the Scriptures:”Sixth, we would like to clarify, contrary to statements and inferences made by some, that yes, we truly believe there is such a thing as truth and truth matters – if we did not believe this, we would have no good reason to write or speak; no, we are not moral or epistemological relativists any more than anyone or any community is who takes hermeneutical positions – we believe that radical relativism is absurd and dangerous, as is arrogant absolutism; yes, we affirm the historic Trinitarian Christian faith and the ancient creeds, and seek to learn from all of church history – and we honor the church’s great teachers and leaders from East and West, North and South; yes, we believe that Jesus is the crucified and risen Savior of the cosmos and no one comes to the Father except through Jesus; no, we do not pit reason against experience but seek to use all our God-given faculties to love and serve God and our neighbors; no, we do not endorse false dichotomies – and we regret any false dichotomies unintentionally made by or about us (even in this paragraph!); and yes, we affirm that we love, have confidence in, seek to obey, and strive accurately to teach the sacred Scriptures, because our greatest desire is to be followers and servants of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We regret that we have either been unclear or misinterpreted in these and other areas.”see http://www.theoblogy.blogspot.com

  • I was really disappointed with the book.Though I’m glad they exult our experience of God and question if we *really* believe the Bible, I think they go too far. I fully agree with their notion that the need to discern the “weight” (i.e. priority) of scriptures, but this often leads to poor or little exegesis on their part.E.g. there are a number of places where they simply write of a passage that could refute universalism by suggesting that it obviously isn’t true. They almost seem oblivious to alternative interpretations accept “traditional” and universalist.I’m glad I read the book as I think it gives a good intro to some Quaker methodologies that I really respect. At the end of the day, however, Bonda is much better, as is Klassen.

  • I did see what I am pretty sure was this book at a Barnes and Noble recently and read in it awhile.I wonder…shocks and upheavals come to us all in life- both from personal experience as well as from seeing evil, etc. in the world. For us who are committed to faith in Christ I guess the question seems to be how we process such crises and questions in our lives.Do we do so from our faith-orientation to God’s revelation in Christ? Or do we allow that very orientation to be undermined and ultimately modified or abandoned altogether? It would be my challenge that those whose orientation to Christ is undermined, have failed to see and drink deeply enough into God’s revelation to us in Christ and into God’s inscripturated revelation to us. God help us all in that!I think an emergent emphasis and biblical emphasis- mystery- can be helpful here as well. We get in trouble because we want answers that satisfy and makes sense to us. But God doesn’t give us all the answers (look at Job!).Yes, we must be sensitive to our world and to God’s work everywhere in that world. But we must first in priority seek to be in growing interactivity with God’s revelation to us in Christ- which includes the community of the Jesus way- and in God’s inscripturated revelation- Scripture.

  • Ted,I’m with that last comment. The permission to let experience teach me what is most important is, at the same time, a radical individualism and a denial of the communal nature of the Church and the Spirit’s testimony and guidance through that Church. So, yes, you are right: his book leads us to our pneumatology again (as the Dan Brown DaVinci Code book did, too).