Last year it was brought to my attention on a few occasions that I had been teaching salvation by works. Now, it’s essential to understand that no gospel-preaching pastor would ever want to be accused of leading people to believe that salvation comes by any other means than by the grace of God through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, the assertion that I was teaching a false gospel was, to put it mildly, a gut-punch. I did not understand why anyone would think or say that I believe salvation can be earned by our works. That being said, I felt compelled to evaluate my teaching in order to try to hear what those who made the observation were hearing. This blog is the result of my evaluation.
First, I fully believe and teach that salvation—meaning a person is saved from their sin and from the future judgment of the righteous and holy God—can not be attained by anything we can do to please God or earn His favor. Isaiah 64:6 makes it clear that all our righteous acts are like a polluted and filthy garment. This means that God takes all the righteous deeds that impress us, and when they are offered to God, He discards them in the same way we would discard a shirt that is stained with and reeks of feces. God is not impressed with any good work we can offer Him because all of our righteous deeds pale in comparison to His holiness, and the perfect righteousness of His Son, Jesus.
How then is a person saved? A person is saved, not by counting on their righteous deeds, but by faith in Jesus Christ. A saved person is simply a person who, after having their eyes opened to their sinful condition and the need for divine rescue, places all their hope and trust in Jesus who sacrificed Himself for their sin, in their place, so that they could be finally and fully counted as righteous before God. This “great exchange” is not the result of some sort of spiritual trade whereby we offer God our best efforts, and God gives us forgiveness and everlasting life in return. The exchange takes place only when we understand we have nothing to offer God—that we are entirely corrupt and spiritually bankrupt. We must fully depend on God to grant us mercy and pardon because of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. When a person comes to God in humility, brokenness, and faith, that person is granted new life in Christ. Faith in Jesus is the only way for sinners to be saved. This is what I’ve taught, and this is what I will continue to teach.
Second, I fully believe and teach that biblical salvation leads to a change of attitude, priorities, motivation, affection, and behavior. A person who has been saved by grace through faith is more than just a saved person, they are a disciple of Jesus Christ. What does a disciple do? A disciple learns and applies the teaching of their teacher. The result of discipleship is that the disciple begins to look, think, and act like their teacher. The apostle Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10) This means that we were not just saved from someone, and from something. We were saved to someone and for something. Namely, we were saved to Christ and for good works by which God is glorified, and Jesus is seen in and through His people.
In an age of easy believism in which salvation is largely valued as the means by which a person is freed from the penalty of sin and is really nothing more than a get-out-of-hell pass, the idea of spiritual and practical transformation is commonly rejected. Why? Because people love the biblical truths assuring them that “the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” and “where sin increased, grace multiplied even more” and “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Every saved person can and should rejoice in these truths. However, many do not want to hear that biblical salvation also means that a believer is also a committed disciple of Jesus who increasingly displays actions consistent with the transformation genuine conversion produces. As a result, some charge those who teach the necessity of possessing and exhibiting a living faith with teaching works-based salvation.
The charge levied against those who teach that works are the result of salvation is nothing new. In fact, the book of James was, at one time, debated as to its authenticity and acceptance as part of Scripture. The issue some had with the book of James was that it seemed as if James’ teaching contradicted the teaching of Paul—that salvation comes by grace through faith. However, when you read what James wrote, you quickly realize that James was not contradicting that we are saved by faith, he was teaching that genuine saving faith is useful. James’ point was that our faith in Christ produces works, and our works prove that our faith in Christ is real. James wrote, “Faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder. Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:17-20). Simply put, it makes no sense to teach a salvation that does not produce works.
What did I learn from all this? I learned that I should continue to teach as I have explained, but I also realize that I must do a better job of continually reminding believers that we obey, serve, and submit to Christ—not to earn salvation, but because we have received salvation. Jesus’ work on our behalf and the blessings that come through salvation produce gratitude and love for Him and a desire to bring glory to God by our behavior.