I listened to a sermon last week on the nature of faith and works. The preacher was concerned that so many have been led to sinner’s prayers without making a firm commitment to follow Christ and was advocating that believers present a fuller gospel to prospective converts in order to press upon them a necessary willingness to reject sin and follow Christ. This idea has some merit, but it comes all to close to the errors of John MacArthur’s so-called ‘Lordship Salvation’ where a person is saved (in part) by making a pre-conversion commitment to good works in order to receive salvation (or at least his views can easily be confused this way).
The most popular opposing view to this doctrine is that of another dispensationalist group – the Grace Evangelical Society. Their view is that since salvation is all of grace (and not of works), no pre-conversion commitment to follow Christ (a good work) is necessary. In fact, no good works are necessary at all (!!) – even after conversion. One may be in a state of justification with seemingly no change of nature or visible sanctification at all.
The problem with both of these views is that they are man-centered. Salvation is not of man, salvation is of the Lord! It is His work through and through. On the one hand, it is certainly not a commitment to Christian cross-bearing that saves us, it is Christ’s cross-bearing that saves us. On the other hand, it is not possible that the Holy Spirit washes one, takes out his heart of stone, writes God’s law on his heart, makes him a new creature for whom all old things (life of sin) are passed away, and seals him with the Holy Spirit of Promise, and all this can make no impact or change on him whatsoever.
In the sermon I heard, the preacher at one point made the mistaken statement that works are the ‘basis’ for our salvation. I certainly don’t think he meant exactly what he said – he was not being careful. But oh what confusion we cause when we are not careful in what we say! We must understand, of course, that works ARE NOT the ‘basis’ of our salvation, but are the ‘necessary evidence’ of our salvation. This may sound like a mere semantic distinction, but the difference between the two is the difference between sound doctrine and heresy!
Below is an examination of the key passage of Scripture bearing on the nature of faith, grace, and good works – Ephesians 2:8-10.
Bringing Scripture to Bear
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
Paul begins here by telling us that our salvation is ‘BY GRACE’ … ‘Not of works’. In matter of fact, our salvation is wholly of works. No one is saved apart from sinless perfection. What makes salvation gracious is that when we rebelled (in our father Adam) and lost all ability to obey God or do anything to please him, He sent his son to bear away our sin and live a life of sinless perfection on our behalf. Yes – salvation must be merited, but it is merited by Christ for us! There is so much comprehended in that simple phrase “By Grace…”.
So how do we attain this gracious gift? By making a firm commitment to our own sub-par and ineffectual good works? By pure force of will or intellect? No! This grace comes to us simply through the instrumental means of faith. A simple child-like faith that trusts in Christ and his merit receives life-giving (and sustaining) grace from God.
But is that act of faith itself a good work? Paul tells us that it is not – “and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God”. Paul teaches us that faith is far from being a human effort – it is a gift given by God. Even the very pleading for mercy is not a capacity the hardened sinner possesses. God Himself gives the desire to reach out to him for mercy and grace.
The reason you or anyone is saved is not because of ANYTHING you have done – NOT your willingness to exercise your own man-made faith or a commitment to clean living. The application of this is “lest any man should boast”. There is nothing that distinguishes one from another in God’s Kingdom, except God’s free dispensing of grace – “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” (Rom 12:30)
Unto Good Works
So what is the result of our salvation – good works – a changed life that glorifies God, the mortification of sin. One is not saved based on a pre-commitment to good works, but for the one who is regenerated, good works necessarily follow.
I think the reason there is so much confusion in the church about this issue is because those who share the gospel are confused about 1) how much content they need to impart to the hearer for the hearer to make a sound decision, and 2) how much commitment is required from the hearer before we consider the conversion legitimate. This is the wrong approach! We should be concerned with presenting as much gospel truth as we are capable of and have time for and leave the converting work to the Holy Spirit. Preachers should strive to teach the whole counsel of God – those given faith to believe will take hold of it (perhaps slowly). Those who simply have not been given the gift of faith will drift away. True believers will evidence fruit in their life by the power of the holy spirit – public profession in Baptism, hatred for and rooting out of sin, desire to know God and to seek His face, etc.
But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
These are my thoughts… put yours in the comment section below.