I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: you and I might read the bible and come away with different theological interpretations on what we’re reading. The further we dive into the details, the murkier the waters get. The bible models a believer’s baptism, but is infant baptism okay? The bible doesn’t speak against it. What about “just war”? Is there such a thing? Certainly there was in Old Testament times, but does that apply to new covenant Christians? Sincere bible believing Christians can believe numerous and opposing things on many such subjects, and still be sanctified by the blood of Christ. We’ll know one day; for now, we postulate.
With that being said, we ought not to come to different conclusions about what we are to do.
There are more things on the list of course (the Lord’s supper for example), but you get the point. These commands are clear, crystal clear; they brook little debate.
And yet, I can sense the opposition coming on already, armed with Ephesians 2:8 (“for it is by grace you have been saved…”) and an accusation that I’m “preaching works”. Such people will grudgingly acknowledge that Jesus actually told us to do stuff, but infer that any attempt to remind confessing Christians of such commands is somehow heretical; it may lead the faithful to incorrectly believe they’re saved by what they do, rather than what Jesus has done. Our obligation is to believe, and only to believe. Anything else is essentially optional. Ephesians 2:8, end of discussion.
Okay, let’s do this, shall we? We can start by putting this verse in its proper context, which is best done (first and foremost) but providing the verses that surround it. What does Paul have to say? He says that we used to be disobedient, dead in our transgressions and sins, but aren’t anymore (v. 1). This disobedience is now the exclusive domain of those who remain under the power of Satan (v. 2). He says we were made alive, as opposed to remaining dead in our disobedience (v. 5). He goes on to state that we were created specifically to do good works (v. 10).
Clearly, Paul believes (and this is stated repeatedly in his many letters) that we were saved from our sin and disobedience to enter into a life of obedience and overall God-pleasing behavior. To this end, Jesus goes out of His way to clarify the differences between what pleases man, and what pleases God (this is, essentially, the whole tenor of the Sermon on the Mount - read Matthew chapters 5 & 6), just so we’re not confused as to what this looks like.
Further, Jesus clarifies and solidifies Paul’s contention on the primacy of good works:
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
- Matthew 5:16 (emphasis mine)
Contrary to popular belief, this verse isn’t about putting a Jesus fish on the back of your car, listening to Christian music, wearing Christian baubles or even telling people that you love Jesus. There’s nothing with any of these things, of course, but that’s not what Jesus is saying here. We are to let God’s light shine out to the world through our good works. We are to be “guilty” of such acts of kindness and benevolence that people around us don’t know what to do except glorify God. Our moral character is to be so radically changed for the better that the devil doesn’t have any grounds from which to launch his accusations.
So what is Paul saying? After all, he goes on quite the tangent in Galatians 5, stating:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
- Galatians 5:1
Aren’t I just trying to yoke you in slavery, to tangle you back up in a web of legalistic rule-keeping? Aren’t I trying to detract from the assurance of your salvation and set you back to earning it?
No, I’m not. You are saved by grace through faith, and faith means a lot more than attending church once a week and telling people that you believe stuff. Satan believes that Jesus is the son of God (James 2:19), and he’s not saved, is he?
Look, I’m not qualified to get into a debate on the mechanics of salvation. Frankly, I’m not sure any of us are. How exactly does it work? At which point to we become saved? The moment we confess? Baptism? First act of repentance? If we were predestined for salvation, were we ever damned in the first place? But again, the bible is clear on what we are to do. Believe, repent, get baptized (etc.), and don’t get cocky, because it’s God’s grace that saves, not human effort.
I will say that in Galatians 5 Paul is talking very specifically about circumcision and a ceremonial law that was given to the Israelites for the purposes of identification and the forgiveness of sin. Sacrificing animals for the forgiveness of sins seems awfully redundant and pointless if our sins are forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice, does it not? But never did Paul, or Jesus, or any biblical writer, ever advocate against the performance of good works.
Good works are not the same thing as religious works, and in these passages, Paul was trying to address the latter. For Paul, good works should be the necessary and inevitable outpourings of faithful and obedient hearts, which in themselves ought to be the true identification of a sincere believer (see Romans 6:1-14, Galatians 6:1-10, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Though he doesn’t state this outright, it could be argued that one of the reasons Paul thinks so little of circumcision is because it’s no longer necessary; God’s people should now be readily identifiable by the radical transformation that has taken place in their lives.
True, if you’re saved, you’re saved by God’s grace through your faith, not by works. But an “acceptance” of Christ that engenders no actual intent to change one’s life is not a biblical description of faith.
Are you saved? Great! Now get to work.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
I'd like you to take a moment to visualize something with me:
You're on an airplane, pleasantly staring out the window and lost in thought when a crew member comes up to you and thrusts a funny looking, over-sized backpack into your arms.
"This plane", he explains, "is going down. We've lost all four engines, and there's no repairing them. We may be able to keep this rig flying for five minutes, maybe for an hour; it depends on the air currents. The good news is that we have parachutes to spare, and we're currently flying over some very smooth grassland. Take this parachute, jump out that door over there, wait five seconds, and pull the ripcord. You'll float gently to the ground. An emergency team will pick up on the attached emergency beacon and meet you where you land within twenty minutes".
You thank the crew member, take the parachute and sit back down, saying to yourself that if you feel the plane start to plummet, you'll have time to jump then. In the meantime, maybe the engines will come back to life. Who knows?
Now you tell me: if this is the choice that you made, did you really believe what the crew member told you, and do you really have faith in that parachute's ability to save your life?
Hold that thought.
I recently stumbled into an online debate between Christians that went something like this:
Person 1: Christians need to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Person 2: We’re saved by grace through faith, you’re preaching salvation by works.
Person 1: We are saved by grace though faith, but if you’re not obedient, you’re not saved.
Person 2: That doesn’t make any sense, you’re cheapening grace.
Person 1: No, you’re cheapening grace.
Person 2: No, you are.
Person 1: You’re a stupid-head.
Person 2: No, you’re a stupid-head.
Okay so maybe I’m taking a little dramatic license here. But the bible quotes were flying back and forth like bullets, and none seemed to be landing. All parties to the discussion felt very convicted about what they were saying, and none-too-interested in what the others had to say. And when I unwisely intervened with a less-than charitable call to quit squabbling; I was told in no uncertain terms that it is their duty to defend the word of God. Fair enough I guess; I didn’t respond (I should have stayed out of it in the first place).
In any case, what this highlights for me is a two-thousand year debate that just, doesn’t, want, to, end.
Every believing Christian should, I think, struggle somewhat with this issue in his/her own heart; we are all called to work out our own salvation with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and should take care to ensure that we are neither too complacent nor too dogmatic about our obedience to Jesus. However, when this turns into a debate, it can become a polarizing obstacle to our faith, rather than a healthy challenge to our own complacency.
Therefore, for your reading pleasure (or displeasure), here is my (hopefully) simple answer to this question:
Q. Are we saved by what we believe, or by what we do?
A. Incorrect. Thanks for coming out.
Look, there is no doubt: a sincere Christian is NOT in any way, shape, or form under the law. The Law only exists in the first place because of sin. Pre-fall, God didn’t set out a complex set of rules and regulations, but one simple instruction that was intended for the benefit of those who were charged with keeping it.
“And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 NIV)
As we progress through the bible, the sin gets worse. As the sin worsens, the law becomes more detailed, more complex, more robust. The closer the Israelites get to the promised land, the more ungracious their behaviour seems to become. As the behaviour worsens, the laws continue to pile on, and the punishments become more severe.
Here’s an illustration: say you have a trustworthy 16 year-old daughter who wants to borrow the car to go bowling with her youth group. You assent and tell her to come home at a reasonable hour. If she comes home at 8:30 PM, kisses you on the cheek, thanks you for the car and retires upstairs to do some homework, there will be no need to implement a specific curfew in the future. In fact, the next time around, you may not even need bother with the "reasonable hour" bit. If, on the other hand, she comes home at 1:30 AM smelling faintly of beer and cigarettes and a very poor excuse as to why she's worried you half-to-death, not only are you likely to implement a specific curfew going forward, you may ground her to her room for a week (month?) or two to ponder why that curfew now exists. The more undesirable the behaviour becomes, the thicker the rule-book gets. Less sin, less law. More sin, more law, greater punishments.
Now, as we place our faith in Christ, His substitutionary atonement does two things:
In the eyes of God, we no longer carry the guilt of sin; and we now embody the righteousness of Christ. No sin is held against us; therefore, no law needs to be applied to us: no sin, no law, no condemnation. Even if we do mess up and come home at 1:30 AM smelling like booze and cigarettes, Jesus' righteousness is credited to us and, though we may be disciplined by our Lord, the curfew does not and will not apply. See how that works?
Now, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, does this mean we’re off the hook, free to do whatever we want, whenever we want, without consequence of any sort, confident that God has no choice but to hold up His end of the bargain no matter how disobediently we behave or how much discredit we bring to His name?
Answer: no, of course not, what kind of stupid question is that?
If you have merely assented to the theological premise that Jesus died for you in a cynical ploy to buy yourself hell insurance, and if you have no real desire to love Jesus or take an active role in His kingdom, chances are, you’re not saved. God is gracious; but He’s not a rube.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21 NIV)
Faith is more than intellectual assent. One who has faith puts their trust in the object of their faith. If you don't have faith in that parachute’s ability to save you from plummeting to your death, you won't jump out of the plane. You may ardently and enthusiastically support the notion that this plane is going down and everyone needs to jump, but if, when the time comes, you don’t actually jump out of the airplane, what does that say about your faith in parachutes?
In the same way, if you have faith in Jesus, you’ll place your trust in Him. You’ll endeavour to obey Him because you’ll be confident that He intends good for you, not evil; and you’ll gradually increase that trust in Him as time goes by.
Will you screw that up? Absolutely! Daily! As you walk the narrow path, you’ll fall off every conceivable cliff and need Jesus to pick you up again every time. Will you doubt? Of course you will. There will be numerous occasions where you’ll need to declare “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 NIV). You will not love Jesus and others as they should be loved. You will not be a flawless model of Christian obedience. The apostles didn’t manage this, what makes you think you can? Nonetheless, as long as our faith is sincere, saved we are – no matter how badly we screw up.
We are called to step out in faith and, in faith, we may want to leave it to God to work out the mechanics of salvation. We don’t know that we’re saved because of what we do, we know that we’re saved because our God always abides by His promises. We are saved by His grace through our faith. Faith means jumping, but it's the parachute that saves your life.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.