Describing our salvation

One reason that people use the phrase “faith alone” when talking about salvation is a reaction to the idea that people somehow earn salvation by doing certain things. In the same way, people in my fellowship often reject the phrase “faith alone” out of a desire to emphasize the role of baptism in salvation.

Some of the discussion is mere semantics. Some reflects essential heart issues behind the words. Let me lay out some thoughts on the subject in general:

  • We are saved by the grace of God. We do not earn salvation, deserve salvation, nor anything of the sort. Salvation is a free gift from God.
  • Only God will ultimately decide who is saved and who is not. Modernism makes us want to be able to define everything in terms of lists, formulas, steps, and procedures. My list is short: God saves.
  • Salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ. I think Jesus’ words leave little wiggle room. If we believe in him, then we have to believe that he is the only way to the Father.
  • We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
  • The word faith in the New Testament can usually be translated as faithfulness; it is not mere intellectual belief. It is a choice to believe and live in accordance with that belief.
  • The Bible includes a number of things within what I call the faith response. These include repentance, confession, and baptism. Our ongoing response must be a life of love toward others; the Bible makes it clear that no one is saved without love.
  • Someone who refuses to do the things that God tells us to do cannot be seen as having faith. I compare it to someone who says they believe in their doctor. That doesn’t mean they believe their doctor really is certified to practice medicine (though that’s included). It means they trust and follow their doctor’s indications. In the same way, if we don’t want to do what God says, we don’t have faith in him.
  • I hesitate to qualify anything as “essential” for salvation. God can save anyone. He can save everyone. He is God. As someone once said, the Bible wasn’t written to tell God what he has to do.
  • Salvation is by faith through grace.

Not an exhaustive list, but enough to show you some of my thinking on the subject.

James versus Paul regarding faith and works

One major problem with stating that we are saved by faith alone is that the Bible never says that, at least not directly. The only statement made about “faith alone” is negative:

“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)

Oops!

Does James really contradict Paul? I mean Paul says things like:

“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:28)
“However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)
“So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:5–6)
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Yet James insists that faith is insufficient:

“In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:17–19)

I think James and Paul are using words differently, as biblical writers often do. When Luke speaks of “apostles,” he almost always means the Twelve. When Paul speaks of “apostles,” he is usually referring to those sent out by the church as evangelists.

When James speaks of a faith that even demons have, he’s not speaking of the saving faith that Abraham had. When Paul talks about faith, it’s an active, obedient faith. James is addressing the lifestyle we live as a Christian; Paul is talking about how we achieve justification.

Using James’ terminology, we can’t be saved by faith alone; we also need works. Using Paul’s terminology, works have nothing to do with our salvation; it all depends on faith.

IF we understand how each author uses the words they use, we’ll see there’s no real conflict between their ideas.

Faith alone and the response of faith

Yesterday I asked these questions:

Do you think that most people think “faith alone” excludes the thing the commenter mentions? Or do most people think that saving faith includes a certain response?

The commenter I referred to had listed “repentance, confession, baptism, or anything else.” I would argue that I have yet to meet anyone who felt that “faith alone” didn’t require some response. Most base that belief on verses like Romans 10:9

“That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”

I’ve generally heard it taught that there needs to be some response, be it a praying of the sinner’s prayer or a public confession of faith. Few would believe in salvation of an unrepentant person. Believing in Jesus involves some change, some response.

Where the debate comes in, in my experience, is what form that response needs to take. I’m among those who believes that the biblical response includes immersion; that view is not held by all, and is, in fact, rejected by many.

Is a faith that doesn’t respond truly faith? If you strictly believe that it is, then your view of “faith alone” excludes the need for the things listed above. If you feel that faith that doesn’t respond is sterile, then I would guess “faith alone” doesn’t mean “intellectual assent alone” to you.

I want to keep unpacking these ideas. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Saved by faith alone?

I want to get back to a minor controversy that happened on the blog a couple of months ago. Ryan Lassiter made the statement that “you are saved by faith alone.” One commenter took great exception to this phrase. Even though Ryan had previously rejected the idea of biblical being merely intellectual, this commenter said:

My point is that when the majority of people, see the words “saved by faith alone”, it is understood to mean without repentance, confession, baptism, or anything else.

So I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think that most people think “faith alone” excludes the thing the commenter mentions? Or do most people think that saving faith includes a certain response? (We’ll talk more about what that response might look like. For now, I’d like to know if you see most people as viewing “faith alone” as mere intellectual assent to certain religious propositions.)

How much room is there for bad news in the good news?

Question markI’ve been thinking about the gospel. The good news of Jesus. I’m wondering how much bad news is an inherent part of the good news.

There has to be some. For Jesus to be the answer, there has to be a problem that needs a solution. But what is the problem?

Is it sin? Is it personal sin or universal sin?

Is it the powers of evil? Is that the problem? Satan and his minions that have rebelled against God, deceived mankind, and sown seeds of death and destruction; is that what Jesus came to fix?

Why did Jesus have to die? Is his death part of the good news or the bad news? Some would argue that his death is the bad news and his resurrection the good. Is that it?

Why do people need to be Christians? To be saved from eternal damnation? To be part of God’s Kingdom? To find purpose and community? What’s the point?

I guess here’s what I’d like to hear your thoughts on:

  • What did Jesus accomplish with his death that couldn’t be accomplished any other way?
  • If Jesus is our Savior, what is he saving us from?
  • What do we gain by becoming a Christian that we couldn’t have otherwise?

How would you answer?