Tag Archives: Earning Salvation

— Useless vs. Fruitful — Two Competing Faiths. Which One Is Yours?

Two millennia ago Jesus’ sacrificial death established faith as the determining factor in whether an individual spends eternal life in heaven. It is a seismic distinction from other religions, which place the burden on man to earn salvation through some combination of good works, obedience, and holy behavior. But with Christ’s ascension from the grave, belief in Him as Lord and Savior was suddenly wholly sufficient to avoid sin’s consequences (that is, eternal darkness and suffering in hell).

In the years that followed, however, most of Christendom reverted back to emphasizing works as an integral part of salvation. That unbiblical view survived for hundreds of years, taught by a church intent on using such heresy to acquire wealth and power. Thankfully, the Reformation arrived in the early 1500’s to counter this false teaching. In time, faith regained its proper place in Church doctrine as the defining element of salvation.

Unfortunately, in recent decades a different but equally dangerous doctrine has emerged inside the Church. This one sits at the opposite end of the theological continuum and teaches that anyone who verbalizes belief in Christ instantaneously secures his or her salvation, irrespective of how they live in the future. A profession of faith in Christ as Savior guarantees eternal life, regardless of whether any evidence exists to support the claim.

Scripture, however, clearly teaches that this version of Christianity is as heretical as ‘salvation by works.’ Its fatal flaw is its failure to recognize that not everyone who expresses a belief in Christ truly believes. Many who claim faith in Jesus continue to place their trust elsewhere. They simply deceive themselves.

The apostle Paul understood this. He notes that some inside the Church are “corrupt and unbelieving” and “such people claim they know God, but they deny Him by the way they live.” (Titus 1:16a, NLT). These people willingly, even enthusiastically, declare Jesus Lord and insist they knew Him personally. So how could anyone argue that such people possess a counterfeit faith?

Paul could, and did, on the basis of their lifestyles, which denied Christ. His insight is critically important to understanding the Christian faith. Those who possess genuine faith in Christ live lives modeled after His example. Their lives profess Him Lord as loudly as their words.

This truth may cause some to cringe. Doesn’t that suggest good works play a role in salvation, they wonder. Does that mean eternally life rests as much on effort as it does on faith, they ask.

The answer to both questions is an emphatic, ‘No!’

Paul explained the proper relationship between faith and works in his powerful letter to the church at Ephesus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).

As in his other epistles, Paul affirms the truth that salvation is by faith alone. We cannot earn God’s mercy and play no role in working our way into heaven.

That said, Paul immediately reminds his readers that God created us to advance His agenda and further His kingdom. We do this by practicing good works and committing ourselves to the lifestyle He prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

Our works and lifestyles have no impact on our salvation. They are not part of the equation. But they do represent essential evidence of our faith. Without them we have no assurance of our salvation. In fact, without good works we can be certain our faith is inauthentic.

James, one of Jesus’ brothers, provides an excellent exposition of the significance of good works in the life of a believer. He begins with a rhetorical question. “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” (James 2:14, NLT). After providing a couple examples that highlight his point (failing to feed and clothe believers who are hungry and naked), he declares, “Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17, emphasis mine).

James uses powerful language to communicate his point. He actually states that faith without works is both dead and useless. It is fraudulent and serves no purpose. The person who practices such faith possesses no faith at all. Genuine faith always produces good works.

He continues, “Now someone may argue, ‘some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (James 2:18).

James dismantles the argument that faith and good works can operate independent of one another. He shows that good works reveal faith. In their absence faith does not exist.

This leads to a very important question. What constitutes good works? Specifically, what type of good works evidence genuine faith?

James gives us two insightful examples: Abraham and Rahab.

He tells us, “Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete… So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.” (James 2:21-22, 24).

Abraham exhibited good works by surrendering to God the one thing most important to him, his only son Isaac. Abraham loved him dearly. Nothing would cause him as much pain as boy’s death. And yet, this is what God required. And so Abraham obeyed. Though God eventually spared Isaac’s life at the last second, Abraham proved his faith by his act of sacrificial obedience.

And so it is with us. God expects us to live sacrificially for Him. At various times in our lives God will test our faith. He will require us to place on the altar something of great value to us. He will ask us to crucify it to faithfully carry out his will. Maybe He will ask us to leave a lucrative job; or move to an unfamiliar country; or sell our house and donate the proceeds to further His Kingdom; or give up a hobby entirely and invest the time in spreading the Gospel. Maybe He will ask us to do all of these.

Whatever the case, we can be sure the decision will require significant sacrifice. And it will be difficult to obey; impossible, in fact, without the Holy Spirit’s strength. Moreover, we can be sure His call to sacrifice will occur more than once. In fact, it will occur throughout our lives. Each instance will be an opportunity to grow in faith and demonstrate our trust in Christ.

In his second example, James tells us Rahab, “was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.” (James 2:25-26).

You may recall that Rahab was a prostitute who lived near Jericho. She housed the scouts Joshua had sent to investigate the land and hid them when the king’s guards came in search of them. On orders from the king, the guards demanded she bring the men outside. Instead, she informed the guards that the two men already had left the city and told them the route the scouts had taken. After the guards departed, Rahab sent the two men on their way in the opposite direction.

Rahab demonstrated good works by risking her life to do God’s will. Acting in faith, she protected the scouts and sent the guards on a wild goose chase. She not only jeopardized her life and freedom (the king likely would have imprisoned or executed her if he had learned the truth), she jeopardized the life and freedom of her family. Her faith compelled her to trust God – not the circumstances.

And so it is with us. God often calls us to put our faith into practice by setting aside our best interests, our freedom, and perhaps even our life. Once again, our faith matures as a result and we grow closer to Christ. Obeying God in such instances is never easy. Our flesh demands we look out for ourselves. Our friends will likely tell us we are fools to obey God when such an existential risk exists. At times like these, then, we must remind ourselves what James said. “Faith by itself is not enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

All of this may sound a little too extreme. Some of us might decide to follow the less radical version of Christianity. Unfortunately, a less extreme form of Christianity does not exist. While the specifics of how God calls us to live in obedience will differ from person to person, there are some commonalities.

  • God will test our faith.
  • He will do so by calling us to take action that substantively demonstrates our trust in Him.
  • He will ask us to surrender those things most important and dear to us.
  • He will send us on assignments that jeopardize our safety, reputation, and/or freedom.
  • He will give us tasks that, to some degree, disrupt our comfortable and organized lives.

As you live this vibrant expression of faith under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, you will draw closer to the Lord and more clearly understand His plans for you.

What an exciting way to spend the rest of your life!!

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Salvation & Discipleship: Two Halves to a Whole Faith

Irrespective of your age, ethnicity, citizenship, upbringing, wealth, or social status, you’ve likely given some thought to God and wondered what happens after you die. And if you’re like most people you’ve probably invested time reflecting on whether heaven exists and what requirements, if any, God demands from those who want to spend eternity with Him.

In your search for answers you may have studied various religions and spiritual texts to understand what God wants from you. Your research may have concluded that securing a place in heaven requires adherence to strict rules, being a moral person, or ensuring your good deeds outweigh your bad. You likely learned that most religions teach that you must earn your way to heaven and work hard to receive God’s mercy. Fortunately, none of this is true.

The fact is we cannot earn salvation. No matter how good our deeds, how holy our lives, or how hard we try, we will never do enough to merit eternal life. Why? Because God has established a standard of perfection to enter heaven. A single sin, then, separates us from God and operates as a barrier to eternal life.

Don’t despair, though, all is not lost. It turns out the truth is much better than having to work your way to heaven. God offers His love, mercy, and forgiveness (as well as eternal life) to anyone who wants it, irrespective of who they are, what they’ve done, or where they’re from. Best of all, God offers salvation without condition – it is a free gift. Scripture explains it like this: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NKJV).

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost. On the contrary, the cost is quite high. How is that possible? To comprehend this apparent dichotomy we need to understand the relationship between the gift of salvation and the cost of discipleship. They are not mutually exclusive concepts but rather two-halves to a whole and healthy faith. Let’s examine what God’s word says about both to discern how these truths co-exist in the Christian faith.

Basics of Salvation:

1] Repent. Repentance represents the first step to a renewed relationship with God. Both Jesus and John the Baptist initiated their ministries with a call to repentance, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2 and 4:17, NKJV). Repentance requires confessing our sins and asking for God’s forgiveness.

2] Place your faith in Jesus. Only the blood of Jesus removes the stain of sin from our lives and only His sacrificial death on the cross fulfills the requirement of the law. Jesus died that we might live for eternity. In fact, Scripture states, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NLT). Jesus removed any doubt about the singular path to salvation when he exclaimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6, NKJV). Later, after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostle Peter explained that Jesus “is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in Him will have their sins forgiven through His name” (Acts 10:43, NLT).

3] Confess and Believe. Embrace Jesus as Lord of your life. The apostle Paul tells us how: “If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved” (Romans 10:9-10, NLT).

We must believe and proclaim Jesus is Lord, and that belief must flow from the heart. This is critical because only then will we readily embrace all of Jesus’ teachings and pursue with joy the basics of discipleship outlined below. If our belief is limited to our intellect or emotions, we will reject Jesus’ claim on our lives.

4] Surrender your life to Christ. This is as critical an element of faith as any above, yet for some reason preachers, pastors, and priests often neglect it. Certainly the gift of salvation resonates with more people if we ignore this component of authentic faith. But to do so is to undermine the message of the cross. Besides, if we really believe with our heart that Jesus is Lord then we will enthusiastically surrender our lives to Him – knowing that He first surrendered His life for us.

The apostle Paul provided a clear articulation of this principle and how it relates to faith and grace in his letter to the church at Philippi. After outlining the many advantages he enjoyed before his conversion (wealth, status, power, education, and zeal) he asserts:

“But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11, NKJV).

Paul captures beautifully the truth described earlier, that salvation is free but costs everything. On experiencing the saving grace of Christ, Paul chooses to count all things as loss. He does this not to earn salvation or God’s favor but that He might know Christ more intimately. He wants to remove all distractions and impediments from growing close to the Lord. Because his faith is genuine, he refuses to allow anything in this world to undermine it.

When we embrace Jesus as Lord with all our heart, we gladly echo Paul’s words to the church at Galatia: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NKJV).

Once you profess faith in Christ, embrace Him as Lord, and surrender your life to Him, it is time to get about the business of growing as His disciple. This involves a number of principles, many of which we have discussed in detail previously on this blog. I encourage you to review previous entries to learn more about what it means to live as Jesus’ follower. To get you started, here is a brief overview of what living as Jesus’ disciple involves.

Basics of Discipleship:

1] Cultivate your relationship with Christ. Nothing is as important to the condition of your faith as investing time nurturing a healthy, mature, intimate relationship with the Lord. Carve out time in your schedule to study the Bible, pray to God, and seek His presence on a regular basis. Create opportunities to worship and praise Him in private. Develop the habit of pursuing Him daily and make an effort to increase your time with Him as your faith matures.

2] Adopt Christ’s attributes. Embrace His standards of holiness in your speech, your conduct, your thoughts, and your relationships. Allow the Holy Spirit to transform you from someone focused on the things of this world and the desires of the flesh into someone focused on heavenly things and the desires of the Spirit. Allow Him to replace your pride with humility, your deceit with honesty, your rebellion with submission, your anger with gentleness, and your infidelity with faithfulness. Study the person of Jesus as revealed in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and follow His example in all areas of your life.

3] Treat people as Jesus did. Demonstrate the love, mercy, kindness, gentleness, patience, selflessness, forgiveness and generosity of God to the world. Many will never know God unless they see Him exhibited in our lives on a daily basis. Represent the person of Christ in a way that honors Him by caring for the hurting, the depressed, the poor, the refugee, and the rejected.

4] Evangelize and disciple others. While walking the walk is critical, it is also important to identify opportunities to verbally share the good news of Jesus with others and help them grow in their faith. Ask God to provide you opportunities each week to make known His redemptive sacrifice and unconditional love for everyone, and then capitalize on those openings – even if it costs you your friends, short-circuits your career, or jeopardizes your safety.

If you have yet to repent, trust Jesus as Lord, and surrender your life to Him, I encourage you to consider making that decision today. If you have already committed your life to Christ and are unsure how to grow in your faith, I encourage you to begin incorporating into your life the principles and practices outlined above, especially as it relates to building a robust relationship with Jesus and living as His disciple. He is calling you to follow Him, how will you respond?