The late Zane C. Hodges who was part of The Free Grace Movement, which was a response to the Lordship Salvation movement, advocated what is described as a “crossless gospel” and “the promise only gospel.” The crossless gospel is based primarily on John 6:47 where Jesus said, “He that believes on me has everlasting life.” Zane Hodges’ now famous desert example illustrates his view:
Let me begin with a strange scenario. Try to imagine an unsaved person marooned on a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He has never heard about Christianity in his life. One day a wave washes a fragment of paper up onto the beach. It is wet but still partly readable. On that paper are the words of John 6:43-47. But the only readable portions are: “Jesus therefore answered and said to them” (v. 43) and “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (v. 47). Now suppose that our unsaved man somehow becomes convinced that this person called Jesus can guarantee his eternal future, since He promises everlasting life. In other words, he believes Jesus’ words in John 6:47. Is he saved? I suspect that there are some grace people who would say that this man is not saved because he doesn’t know enough. For example, he doesn’t know that Jesus died for his sins on the cross and rose again the third day. Needless to say, there is a lot more he doesn’t know either, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the eternal Sonship of Jesus or the doctrine of the virgin birth. But why is he not saved if he believes the promise of Jesus’ words? (Zane C. Hodges, “How to Lead People to Christ, Part 1: The Content of Our Message,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 13, Autumn 2000: 4).
Hodges states his view of the gospel even more bluntly later: “People are not saved by believing that Jesus died on the cross; they are saved by believing in Jesus for eternal life” (Zane C. Hodges, “How to Lead People to Christ, Part 2: Our Invitation to Respond,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 14, Spring 2001: 10). In other words, a sinner can be saved not knowing about or believing in the death, burial and resurrection Jesus Christ.
What says the Scriptures concerning the necessary content of saving faith? When Paul, who was competent in witnessing to sinners, was at Corinth he informs us as to the content of his witnessing in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5: “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” In Paul’s resurrection chapter, he definitively declares the content of the gospel that must be preached (15:1a) and received (15:1b). What is the content of the gospel that must be preached and received? “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (15:3-4).
In Paul’s most comprehensive presentation of the gospel, the book of Romans (1:15), Paul plainly states what is the sine qua non of the gospel that must be believed: “If you will confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus i.e., Jesus is God, and will believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The irreducible minimum of the gospel is that Jesus is God’s son who died for our sins (substitutionary death) and that He was buried and that He arose from the dead.
Robert N. Wilkin, the executive director of the Grace Evangelical Society, disagrees that the above quoted verses give the content of the gospel that sinners must believe in order to be saved. “The good news in First Corinthians is the good news that Paul preached to the believers, not unbelievers, in the church of Corinth. The good news message he preached was Christ crucified. This was a sanctification message that a divided church needed to hear badly…. The reason we don’t find justification by faith alone anywhere in 1 Cor 15:3-11 is because this was sanctification good news” (Robert N. Wilkin, “Justification by Faith Alone is an Essential Part of the Gospel,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 18, Autumn 2005: 13).
Paul is battling incipient Gnosticism’s moral and doctrinal influence on the church at Corinth. The dualism of Gnosticism stated that the flesh is evil and the spirit is good which resulted in the Corinthian’s immorality (1 Corinthians 5). But Gnosticism’s denial of the worth of the physical body rejected a literal and physical resurrection which cut the heart out of the gospel. Paul corrected the immoral impact of Gnosticism in chapters 1-14; Paul refuted it’s corruption of the gospel in chapter 15. Chapter 15 is not just about sanctification but rather is Paul’s defense of physical resurrection which was being denied as 15:12 indicates: “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
What must be preached and received today for a sinner to be saved was true when Paul preached at Corinth in Acts 18: The Son of God died for our sins, was buried and arose. Let’s assume Wilkin is right about 1 Corinthians 15 (which I do not believe), are there examples of the gospel being preached to sinners in the first century and if so what was the content of that gospel? On the day of Pentecost Peter preached and 3000 were saved. What did Peter preach? Was Peter’s sermon to the Jewish multitude, “Believe on the name of Jesus who promises eternal life?” No! Peter preached that Jesus was the Son of God (2:36) who died “according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (2:23) which was carried out when the Jews put the Messiah to death with “wicked hands” (Acts 2:23). In addition to the death of Christ, Paul preached the center piece of apostolic preaching: the resurrection. The Jews with wicked hands put Christ to death, “whom God has raised up” (Acts 2:24).
Not all in the Free Grace Movement agree with the Robert Wilkin’s Grace Evangelical Society’s crossless gospel. The Free Grace Alliance issued the following statement which can be found at their website: “The Free Grace Alliance is not associated with the Grace Evangelical Society and does not endorse the GES Gospel (also referred to as “crossless” or “promise only” by some).” In their doctrinal statement, “covenant,” is their position of saving faith with which I agree:
“Faith is a personal response, apart from our works, whereby we are persuaded that the finished work of Jesus Christ has delivered us from condemnation and guaranteed our eternal life.”