Understanding Salvation by Grace

Guest Author: Jonathan Jones II I am very passionate about the Biblical doctrine of grace because it lies at the heart of our salvation.  It has been my experience that this doctrine has been largely misunderstood by our brethren.  Likewise, a theology of “cheap grace” (to borrow Bonhoeffer’s famous statement) has permeated much of the denominational world and has lead to a distorted view of grace that leads people to believe that salvation is by grace to the exclusion of the cost of discipleship that the importance of heartfelt obedience.

In the previous post I demonstrated that the Apostle Paul repeatedly and consistently states that we are NOT saved by our works.  This is clear.  Yet, James demonstrates that faith alone is dead without works (James 2:17).  That is to say, one must have a “living” faith (i.e. fruit, evidence) that demonstrates the reality of a true, inner-trusting-faith in God’s grace.  We are not saved by our works.  Rather, as Paul states, we are saved “by grace through faith” and not by works (Ephesians 2:8ff).

But one cannot be saved by grace if their faith is not “living.”  You can know a person’s true heart of faith by their behavior.  The behavior (i.e. “works”) is not what saves, it is faith in God’s grace that saves.  But one’s behavior (i.e. “works”) demonstrates the reality of faith.  A dead faith is one that simply acknowledges Jesus but is not submissive (such as the demons, who “believe and shudder”,  James 2:19).

You can see if a person has a true, saving faith within them by the character and conduct of their lives.  As Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits…So every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-20).  A person who says that they have faith in God’s grace but shows no real transformation of life (i.e. “good works”) has only a dead faith.  A dead faith cannot save.  Only a living faith in God’s grace can save.  The works of our faith do not save us, they are simply the evidence of a “living faith” that does save.

One might wonder if any human action is required to receive the grace of God. Clearly the answer is yes.  God’s grace is a free gift (Rom. 6:23), but we must accept it.  That means that we must respond to the call of the gospel and accept the gift.  We must turn away from self and turn to God (Acts 14:15).  Paul clearly states that the “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11, NIV).  That is, salvation by grace is available to anyone that would accept it through a living, saving faith.

According to Peter (who quotes the prophecy of Joel) we must simply “call upon God” to be saved (Acts 2:21).  In context, Peter goes on to explain that this “calling upon God” requires the response of repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).  Luke’s record of the early church further demonstrates that we “call upon the name” of the Lord to save us when we are baptized (Acts 22:16).  Baptism is the event where we cry out (appeal to God) to save us through our faith in his grace (1 Peter 3:21).  Baptism is not a “work” that saves us.  Baptism is the “real sinner’s prayer” where a person comes to God in living faith and pleads for his saving grace (and thus a “good conscience”) (1 Peter 3:21).

We simply cannot be saved by our works, only the work of God can save.  Baptism is about having a living faith in the “work of God.”  Paul states this clearly, “…having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).

After being saved are we required to “walk in the light” and does this require action on our behalf?  This is an important point: “Grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort” (to quote Dallas Willard). A saving faith is one that accepts the life of discipleship (cf. Luke 14:28).  As stated before, grace is not just forgiving it is transformative.  When you really comprehend grace it will radically change the person that you are.  If there is no evidence of a changed life, you have not really been converted to grace.  Paul’s life was radically changed by the message of grace which caused him to work harder than anyone who operates under a “salvation by works” mentality.  Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.  On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Being saved by grace through faith in the event of baptism, we receive the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit (Acts 2:38; 5:32).  By faith we trust that Christ has come to dwell within our hearts as his Spirit dwells in our inner being (Eph. 3:14-19).  The effort we must exert is the inner desire to live a sanctified life that will encourage God’s Spirit to fill our lives (Eph. 5:18; 1 Thes. 5:23).  In this sense I “work out my salvation,” but in reality it is “God who is working within me” (Philippians 2:12-13).

When I exert the effort to remain in relationship (“in the light”) with Christ, my relational connection allows his Spirit to flow through me.  Therefore any fruit I bear (i.e. “works” I do) are not really my works, but God’s work showing through me.  Jesus states this clearly, “As a branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abide in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).  This is why Paul says that any “fruit” that is demonstrated in the life of the Christian is not his/her fruit but is the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22ff).

If a person is lost it will not be because of a lack of “good works” it will be because of a lack of relationship with Jesus Christ.  A person’s good “works” demonstrate whether his relationship with Christ is real or not–whether he has a “living (saving) faith” or just a “dead” faith.

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