Salvation by faith
‘Are you saved?’ Some Christians will immediately and spontaneously answer: ‘Yes, I am saved’. Many refer without any hesitation to themselves as ‘born-again Christians.’ But many other Christians do not like this direct question. They feel it is too presumpuous. How can they be sure that they are going to be saved? How do they know that they are good enough? Can a human being ever be sure that he will make it to heaven? I must admit that it has taken me some time before I came to the point that I dared to say: ‘Yes, thank God! I am saved.’ I am far from perfect, but my Bible tells me that I can be sure that I am accepted by God, as long as I have faith!
Being a christian and being sure of salvation is not primarily a matter of having certain views and opinions about certain issues. The christian religion is a matter of life and death—that is: a matter of eternal life and eternal death. Embarking on the path of faith means ‘crossing’ from death to life (John 5:24). Salvation, therefore, is a serious business. The apostle Paul admonishes the members of the church in the city of Philippi (as elsewhere) to ‘work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling’. That’s pretty graphic terminology, don’t you think?
Also in the non-christian religions salvation is invariably considered a very serious business. It usually demands a lot of hard work and sacrifice—often a lifelong process of intense prayer and meditation. The orthodox buddhist speaks of the eightfold path—a way of life consisting of eight steps in which he disciplines himself till all earthly desires are at long last eliminated. Great self-control is needed and many lifetimes are required to reach perfection. The strict jew observes a long list of prescribed practices in all domains of life in order to be acceptable to God. The islamic religion points to the five pillars. Any believer in Allah and follower of the prophet who wants to arrive in the heavenly paradise must carefully observe the ‘pillars’ of his faith, such as the five daily prayer times, the giving of alms and at least one trip to the holy sites in Mecca. Indeed, the oft-made assertion that the non-christian religions offer a system of salvation through human works is basically correct.
Is the christian religion different? It should be. Its core teaching is summarized by the apostle Paul in Romans 3: ‘Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe … . 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’ (vs. 22-24).
Faith, or (also) works?
If that is true, why have so many christians so frantically attempted to earn their salvation by what they themselves can bring to the table. Ever heard of Simeon Stylites? He was the man who spent 36 years on the top of a 20-metre pillar, preaching to the passers-by, before his death in 459 AD. Granted, he was an extreme example. But it does not take long for anyone who studies the history of christianity to find lots of people who spent their entire life in acts of mortification, often in total isolation. And there have always been christians who believed that subjecting themselves to a rigid regime of spiritual discipline would earn them brownie point with the Lord. Roman Catholicism has traditionally stressed the value of good works as a necessary condition to salvation. At the same time, many protestants who say that they believe in salvation though grace, have in actual practice often also focused on a strict observance of rites and rituals and practiced their faith in ways that suggested that their eternal destiny would, in the end, depend on their strict obedience to the commandments of God and on careful adherence to the rules of the church.
Salvation by faith alone was a core doctrine of the protestant Reformers. As formulated by Luther, it is a controlling doctrine, in that all other teachings are held to stand or fall by it. Do the following words of Paul leave any doubt? He wrote to the Ephesian believers: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; and this is not from yourselves: it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no man should boast” (2:8-9). And from this follows that, ‘since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1).
So, if these and other statements are so clear, why is there so much disagreement among christians on the issue of faith verses works, and why do so many christians agree with their lips that they are saved by faith alone, but practice something else? The reason is, of course, because there are also other texts in the Bible which seem to suggest that there is another side to the coin. For, as soon as the apostle Paul has affirmed in his letter to the Ephesians that all men and women who will make it to heaven, do so on the basis of having faith, and not because their good works have earned them entrance, he adds these words: ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works’ (2:10). And the apostle James states it even more plainly: ‘What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?’ (2:10) The reader is supposed to understand that this rethorical question must be answered negatively. A few lines further James asserts that if someone claims to have ‘saving’ faith, he himself will show his faith ‘by what I do’ (2:18).
What kind of faith?
What do we make of this contradiction? Is this one of those instances where you can call the Bible to the defense of totally opposing viewpoints? No, not really. The contradiction is only apparent. James does not claim that he is actually saved by what he does himself, in his own power, through his good works. He only wants to stress that genuine faith does not remain a hidden secret but manifests itself in our lives. It gives direction to what we do and leads us to make conscious choices. ‘Works’ are not the condition of our salvation, they are the fruits of our status of having been saved. In fact, that becomes also very clear when we return to the passage in Ephesians 2. We stopped quoting from that section prematurely. If we read on, we see that we cannot claim any personal credit for the ‘good works’ that we are ‘created to do’. Ultimately, it is not what we may be able to do through our own volition and perseverance. ‘God prepared’ these works for us (Eph. 2:10). One further text underlines this even more succinctly: ‘It is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose’ (Philppians 2:13).
Thank God for the fact that all depends on what He does for us and not on what we try to do for Him in return. Of course, God expects us to show our gratitude for what He does for us, by our loyalty and adherence to the guidelines He has provided for a happy and satisfactory life. But if we had to depend on what we ourselves can do, we would always fall short of the minimum requirements. Our good works would never cancel out our fundamental sinfulness and our constant failure to even come close to a state of perfection. When all is said and done, the basis for our religion is summed up in the best known text from the Bible. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
Yet, something needs to be added. We must be sure that we have the right kind of understanding of what these words ‘believe’ and ‘faith’ mean. Some define ‘faith’ primarily in intellectual terms. To have faith, they say, means to believe in the existence of God. Of course, we must come to the point where we accept the existence of a Creator-God. Any who comes to God ‘must believe that he exists’ (Hebrews 11:6). But that is not enough. Make no mistake, even the devil believes that God exists, but that will, in the end, only bring him eternal harm (James 2:19). Faith is more than intellectual assent. The faith that brings salvation is trusting faith. ‘Whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe’ (Proverbs 29:25).
Faith is not based on scientific evidence and on what we can verify with our senses. The faith that God wants us to have is of a different order. It is ‘being sure’—deep down—of ‘what we hope for’ and being ‘certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). It is a relationship, a surrender, a commitment, an inner attachment to the God who is eager to save us.
This trusting faith relationship, which comes as a free gift from the One who created us and wants to see us fulfilled and happy in this life and to have us near Him in all eternity, is an active faith. When the great day arrives and God will ask his Son Jesus Christ to put the capstone on this serious business of salvation by pointing out who have accepted this free gift of grace, it will be clear that perfect theological orthodoxy will not be the determining factor, however important it may be to search the Scriptures and to understand as fully as we can what He wanted to reveal to us. What will then make the ultimate difference is whether we have lived our faith in a way that people recognized something of the character of the Lord Jesus in us. Read Matthew 25:31-46 to get the full picture. Yes, we are saved through faith. But it is a faith that ‘expresses itself through love!’ (Galatians 5:6).