Plan of Salvation

According a 2006 Barna research poll (www.barna.org) more than half of all American adults (54%) believe that if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their life, they will earn a place in Heaven. Since about 90% of Americans who believe in an afterlife classify themselves as Christian, it is reasonable to state that many American Christians believe in salvation based on personal worthiness, or in other words personal works. This is consistent with most of the world’s non-Christian religions, such as Islam, Hindu, and so forth, which formally teach doctrines regarding earning a better afterlife through the achievement of good works, or in other words, obedience to a religious code of commandments.

Other Christians believe in salvation by grace through faith, a salvation into eternal life with God that is not based on personal works or personal worthiness, but is rather a free gift from God to those who have faith. It seems that many grace-oriented Christians believe that once you come to faith in Christ, you are saved no matter what you do. In other words, once you believe that Jesus is real and that He can save you, you can continue to sin all you want because you are saved no matter what. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that coming to faith in Christ and becoming a Christian have no affect on a person other than to get them into the book of life on judgment day. This doctrine assumes that there is no personal transformation and no relationship with Christ. Effectively this doctrine seems to propose that there is no value in Christ’s teachings and no purpose in commandments or laws. Dallas Willard refers to this doctrine as “bar code Christianity” because its adherents simply hope to receive an invisible bar code that God scans at the entrance of Heaven to determine who can enter. (The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard, 1997, page 36) Clearly bar code Christianity contradicts the Bible. The apostle Paul wrote "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? ... What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!" (Rom 6:1-2, 15)

However, there are equally troubling problems with the doctrine of salvation by personal works or personal worthiness. This is even true in the Christian version of that doctrine, which teaches that once an individual ultimately achieves a level of consistent obedience to commandments, he is granted eternal life because he is forgiven of earlier sins through Christ’s atonement. I have listed some of the problems here:

  1. It leads to the sin of pride. People set themselves apart as better than most other people. They view themselves as a “peculiar people” because they see themselves as more obedient to God. Adherents of this doctrine are effective declaring, “I am personally worthy whereas most other people aren’t. I can be admitted to holy places where other people are kept out.” According to C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity this is the worst kind of sin (Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 8, “The Great Sin”). Furthermore, it leads to judgmentalism, and Jesus specifically taught against this (Matthew 7:1-6). In the parable of the religious man and the sinner at the temple, Jesus gave an illustration of the attitudes that are spawned by the doctrine of personal worthiness. In the parable the religious man, a Pharisee, considered himself worthy because of his own obedience to commandments and and he considered the other man unworthy. The sinner considered himself unworthy. At the end of the parable Jesus tells the listener that between the two, the only one that was justified before God was the sinner. (Luke 18:9-14)  In most non-Biblical religions the glory and the exaltation of achieving eternal life go to the individual achiever.  In the Bible the glory goes to God who is the One exalted. Most religions seem to reflect the human desire for personal exaltation.

  1. It is based on selfishness. This is doing good works to earn eternal life and a position in God’s kingdom instead of doing good works because of love. It is being motivated to do good works ultimately for one’s own benefit more than for the benefit of those who are served. The New Testament, written in Greek, identifies different kinds of love, one of which is identified by the Greek word agape. Agape love is self-sacrificial love and is unconditional and doesn't seek reward or recognition, and this is the word that is used by Jesus when he answers the question: “What is the greatest commandment?” (Matthew 22:36-40) C. S. Lewis writes that a Christian does not obey commandments “in order to be saved, but because [God] has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.” (Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 12, “Faith”)

  1. It denies the full power of Christ’s atonement. It gives the glory for achieving eternal life to the individual and takes it away from Christ.

  1. It contradicts the Bible. ( See  Salvation by Works)

There is another alternative, the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith as described in the Bible. These are some of the key components of this doctrine:

  1. Eternal life and entry into the kingdom are attributed entirely to the atonement of Christ, not human effort. There is no such thing as personal worthiness: no one is worthy to enter the kingdom based on their own achievements. "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." (Romans 3:20)

  1. Only those people with the kind of faith described in the Bible are able to accept God’s free offer of salvation by grace. In such faith, people consecrate themselves to Christ and allow Him to transform them. Simply believing that Jesus is the Christ and that He is capable of providing salvation is not the kind of faith that brings a person under the transformation by Christ. (See especially the book of James.) Jesus taught that “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (John 14:12)

  1. Jesus taught that faith in Him comes to those who obey his commandments. (John 7:17) For some people the first step to faith, which is the first step to salvation, may be obedience to commandments. However, it is not obedience that brings about the salvation, but rather the gift of grace from God.

  1. This doctrine is consistent with the Bible. (See  Salvation by Grace Alone)

© 2007 William C. Hamer