Salvation by Grace

C. S. Lewis said, "…the Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or … at least they hope to deserve the approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it." (Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1943, book II, chapter 5) In this regard Christianity differs from the other formal religions (those based on a documented systematic theology).

So, what does it take for us to respond to God's plan of salvation? There is one and only one requirement: we must have such faith in the Lord that we allow Him to transform us. There are no emblems, symbols, sacred clothing, or secret rituals specified here. This leads to the whole question of faith versus works, and the Bible provides much information on this question.

The Bible explains that salvation and eternal life can only be received as a gift through the grace of God by faith. Only people who humbly realize that it is their singular hope for salvation can accept grace. It transforms the recipient into a new person. Eternal life is not a reward for progressing through a sequence of rituals.  The doctrine of salvation by grace has been taught in the Christian church from Biblical times to the present, in both Catholicism and Protestantism. St. Augustine, who lived from 354 to 440, was one of the greatest leaders of the early Christian church. He taught that that people are totally dependent on God's grace for any good action, even the desire to do good depends on the action of the Holy Spirit in us.  The Christian church in general, and the Catholic Church specifically, have revered Augustine's teachings since his time.  It is true that by the beginning of the 16th Century, the Catholic Church had shifted towards a works-based theology, prompting Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, thus triggering the Protestant Reformation.  However, following the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church has returned to the Biblical doctrine of salvation by grace.

The doctrinal reunification of Catholicism and Protestantism was officially signified by the Joint Declaration on Justification.  On October 31, 1999, officials from The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the declaration, ending over four centuries of mutual condemnation. It includes these statements:

“All people are called by God to salvation in Christ. Through Christ alone are we justified, when we receive this salvation in faith… Therefore the doctrine of justification, which takes up this message and explicates it, is more than just one part of Christian doctrine. It stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other. It is an indispensable criterion, which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ.”

In the early days of the church, some believers claimed that new converts to Christianity must obey the law in order to be saved, "Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, 'The Gentiles must be ... required to obey the law of Moses.'" (Acts 15:5)  But the apostle Peter responded, "Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved." (Acts 15:10-11)

I have provided scriptural background for each of these statements regarding the Lord's plan of salvation:

Bodily resurrection is universal. Everyone without exception will be resurrected.

    And I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. (Acts 24:15)

    For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)

    Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt 25:46)

Salvation, unlike resurrection, is exclusively for those who are faithful to the Savior. Therefore, salvation is not merely a synonym for resurrection.

    I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. (John 10:9)

    Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" He said to them, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. (Luke 13:23-24)

    But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Heb 10:39)

Salvation means redemption from spiritual death. It results in eternal life with the Lord.

    Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)

    So that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5:21)

    For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23)

    I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

    And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)

    For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. (1 Thess 5:9-10)

Salvation is a free gift to those who accept it through faith. It is not earned through works or obedience to commandments.

    For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

    For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

    He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)

    Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Rom 3:20-24)

    Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:16)

    The Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Rev 22:17)

Salvation is made available through the atonement of Christ through His death on the cross.

    For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit. (1 Peter 3:18)

    I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Gal 2:21)

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:18)

    He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:13-15)

    Through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:20)

    Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matt 16:24)

Faith is more than academic belief. It is a transforming commitment that always results in repentance and good works. But good works for the wrong reason are of no eternal value.

    In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:17)

    Even the demons believe that and shudder. (James 2:19)

    Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom 12:2)

    Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt 6:1)

    For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:35)

The law remains in force for those who choose not to accept the grace of God. They will be judged according to their works.

    You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. (Gal 5:4-5)

    For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)

    For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)

    The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:9)

    The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (Rev 20:13-14)

Faith is necessary to receive the gift of salvation, and faith is always accompanied by works, but it must be recognized that a person’s works do not earn him a place in heaven.

The Apostle Paul taught that a legalistic approach to commandments creates false humility:

    Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. (Col 2:16-18)

In the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus scolded the Pharisees for their emphasis on false humility. The Pharisees were devoutly religious. They believed in God, and they believed in the resurrection. They kept the Sabbath day holy, and they went to the temple. They were absolutely obedient to their church leaders (verse 3). They were dedicated to their missionary program (verse 15). They were so careful and obedient in their tithe paying that they even tithed the spices from their spice gardens (verse 23). They carefully avoided the appearance of evil (verse 5). But Jesus told them that their motivation was from duty and obligation rather than faith and love (verse 23). So no matter how obedient they were to commandments, they were destined for hell (verse 33).

The church is a reflection of the Savior. It does not create latter-day Pharisees who are driven to optimize outward appearances by strict adherence to behavioral commandments. Jesus said of the Pharisees, "On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy." (Matt 23:28) It teaches people to open their hearts to the transforming influence of God, which changes the people themselves and why they undertake acts of love. The Lord first changes a person on the inside and then the outside follows: "Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." (Matt 23:26)  By "the inside" He is referring to a person's heart. By "the outside" He is referring to a person's actions. Every religion other than Biblical Christianity teaches that striving for personal righteousness is the means of achieving a good relationship with God.  However, the Lord teaches here that a good relationship with God must come first, and it is the only way to true righteousness.

Good works and the obedience to commandments should be either the result of faith or for the purpose of developing faith. However Jesus explained to the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that obeying commandments for the purpose of earning a reward results not in exaltation, but actually damnation. This includes attempting to earn justification before God, or working to earn status or approval before church leaders, or seeking the respect of other people.

The problem with working towards personal worthiness by obedience to church leaders or commandments is that it leads to the most insidious sin - the sin of pride. C.S. Lewis, who was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities, wrote:

"It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life. But you can see why. The other, less bad, vices come from the devil working on us through our animal nature. But this does not come through our animal nature at all. It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly. For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices… The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the dictatorship of Pride… For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense… Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good - above all that we are better than someone else - I think that we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil." (Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1943, book III, chapter 8) He also wrote, "We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort." (ibid, book III, chapter 2)

The Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah foresaw the new covenant that would be established by the Messiah. Instead of living by a complex code of written commandments, the children of the new covenant would be committed to God through faith and love. Their commandments would be in their hearts:

    "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD.

    "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.

    I will be their God, and they will be my people." (Jer 31:31-33)

Of course salvation is not received through academic belief or head knowledge alone. Even demons testified of Christ (Mark 1:24, 5:7), and Satan has perfect knowledge that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 4:1-11). Salvation is accepted as a gift by people who have the faith in Christ to allow Him to direct their lives through personal revelation. Complete faith in the Biblical sense means consecrating oneself to the Lord and allowing Him to transform one's life.

Salvation is not possible without repentance and good works, but it does not result from repentance and good works. Salvation, repentance, and good works are all the accomplishments of God working through faithful people. People do not accomplish salvation through rituals or any other man-made activities. Rather, God saves people who accept his will. They are doing the will of the Father when they live by faith.

Faith grows through obedience to commandments (John 7:17), and this is particularly true when the obedience is motivated by love or by a sincere quest for truth. These motivations bring one into a deeper relationship with Christ.

But when people expect to earn something in return for their obedience, pride, rather than faith, is the result of obedience. (Matt 6:1) Take for example external sources of motivation for obedience such as seeking respect from peers or seeking approval from church leaders in worthiness interviews. These increase a person's proud religiousness, moving one further away from truth. Participating in worthiness interviews with church leaders for the purpose of maintaining the status of membership in full standing in a religion with all of the rights and privileges thereof is different from confession. In the first case, a person is testifying of personal worthiness, and in the second case a person is testifying with a broken spirit and a contrite heart of his or her unworthiness. (Ps 51:17) Testifying for the purpose of obtaining status and privileges in a church organization is an act of pride. (Matt 23:5-6) On the other hand, confessing sins to a church leader, a counselor, a close trusted friend, or directly to God, with the objective of seeking guidance towards a path of redemption is therapeutic. (1 John 1:9) Both are private meetings, but the outcomes are very different. One results only in rights and privileges on this earth and the ensuing status among people. The other results in an improved relationship with Christ.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14)

© 2004 William C. Hamer