Monday, October 19, 2009

Understanding Faith and Salvation

I have come to the conclusion that there is a widespread misunderstanding among Christians about the nature of faith, and the basis of salvation. Most Christians agree that we are not saved by works, although my understanding is that the Roman Catholic Church teaches salvation by faith and works. The main emphasis of the Protestant Reformation was that salvation is by sola fide, faith alone. In opposition to that, in 1547 the Council of Trent stated that “justification does not take place by faith alone without hope, love, and good works…”

On this issue, the Church of Christ has been seen as closer to the Catholic position than the Protestant (though most Church of Christ people would react in horror if someone pointed that out!) That is partly because of the mistaken notion that baptism is a “work.” In actuality baptism is not something one does; it is something one submits to, and is usually administered by a pastor, or other Christian brother. Except for Judaism, you don’t baptize yourself. Thus it is not a “work.”

If one says that works are necessary to salvation, the counter question arises: “How much works?” And if works are necessary, “can one ever be sure he has done enough?” And if one insists that works are essential, is this not a clear contradiction of Ephesians 2:9 which says: “It is by grace that you are saved, through faith—and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast…” I believe most Church of Christ people, if pinned down on the subject, would agree that salvation cannot in any sense be by works. It is by the grace of God, flowing from His love, that we are saved. At least, that is my position (and I am a member of the Church of Christ).

So, aside from the Catholic Church, most Christians would agree that we are saved by faith. But exactly what part does faith play in this process? Here I believe there is a serious misunderstanding among many believers. I myself have been a victim of this misunderstanding.

Many people see faith as something that merits salvation. We agree that good works will not buy salvation. It is by faith. But we still want to do something for our salvation. So we substitute faith for works. Works will not merit salvation, but faith will. So we think. Many Christians see faith as something that gains us salvation because it is a laudable thing that we have done in believing and God, being pleased, gives us salvation on that basis.

But this is not true. Salvation is by grace, and grace alone. Salvation is something God bestows on us when we are the least deserving. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It is a gift! Purely and simply a gift. There is nothing we are even able to do to gain this gift. Otherwise it would not be a gift; it would be payment for services rendered. For good works. Or for good faith.

Salvation is not based on works.

Salvation is not based on faith.

Salvation is based on grace. It is apprehended through faith, and it produces good works. Let me say that again: we receive it through faith, and it results in works.

Let’s say you want to give me a gift of one thousand dollars. Further, you say this gift will be waiting for me at the post office. Now what work would I have to do to get this gift? Nothing. If there was some good deed I had to do to get your “gift,” it would not be a gift. It would at least partially be a payment. But if it is a gift, the only thing I would need to do (using the word “do” in a slightly different sense now) would be to believe what you said enough to go to the post office to pick up the check.

Since this is a gift, my belief in your promise does not merit the gift. It is merely the means by which I accept it, or the means by which I receive it. If you say, “Please receive this gift,” and I turn around and walk away, apparently I do not trust you to do something good for me. But if, when you say, “Here is a gift,” I say “thank you,” and reach out and take it, then I show my trust in you. I did nothing to get it. I merely believed you when you said, “here is a gift,” and I took it.

I believe that is the role of faith in salvation. Salvation itself is based on grace, and grace is extended to us for one reason alone—because God loves us.

I also believe this takes the pain out of faith. Do I believe enough? What about my doubts? What if I stop believing for a time? I just don’t think my faith is strong enough. These are some of the questions that many of us wrestle with.

But here are some other questions to consider. Do we need God’s salvation? Do we want it? Do we believe enough to reach out and accept it? Probably most of us would say, “Yes.” If so, then we have it. Remember, it is a gift.

Oh, how we hate to accept His gift without adding this and that to it. Oh, how we love to make difficult something that is inherently easy. How we spurn his grace by wanting to do something to get Him to love us and extend his mercy to us. We strive, we sweat, we work, we hope, we doubt, we despair… Will we ever make it?

It’s a gift. Relax and receive the gift! Again, if we are grateful for his gift, then our good works will flow from that gratitude and love.

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