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Are We Saved by Faith or Not?

April 26, 2020

A friend of mine recently sent me an email asking about how certain texts can be harmonized with the idea that we are justified by faith, or saved by faith alone. The question is reproduced in its entirety, with my response below. Hopefully this is a blessing.

First, the email with the question:

I have always held the views of justification by faith and “once saved, always saved.”  However, there are some verses that I am grappling with that seem to contradict one or both of the concepts.

Justification by Faith:

In Matthew 5:29-30 (and similar passages), Jesus seems to be teaching here that the way to avoid hell is to exercise self-discipline and make sure your LIFESTYLE is free of sinful habits.  He seems to be saying, “If you successfully overcome sin, you can save yourself from hell.”  Now, I understand that a truly saved person will show fruit in their lives (1 John 3:9), but it seems here that Jesus is saying the WORKS THEMSELVES will prevent a person from going to hell.  How can this passage be understood in light of justification by faith alone?

Eternal Security:

Luke 8:13: Jesus specifically says these people “believe for awhile,” which must mean the person is saved (John 3:16).  Do you think these people are saved people who don’t grow to maturity, or is there some other way to understand the word “believe”?  The first option seems more likely to me.

1 Corinthians 9:27: Here Paul seems to think it is possible for him to become “reprobate” or “disqualified.”

John 15:2, 6: Here Jesus says that the branches that are “cut off” were once IN Him.

Matthew 18:35: Jesus says that if you don’t forgive others, God will not forgive you. 

Any thoughts on these passages and whether or not they can be reconciled with those two doctrines?

Here is my response:

I think the key is first recognizing we interpret the unclear or ambiguous by the clear. So, what clear verses do we have regarding eternal security? Here is just a sample:

1 Peter 1:3b-5: Which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, 5Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Phil 1:6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.

Jude 24: Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.

John 6:37-40: 37All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. 38For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. 39And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. 40And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.

John 6:54: Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.

And also those that clearly teach salvation by faith and not of works:

Romans 3:28: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Galatians 2:16: Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9Not of works, lest any man should boast.

Titus 3:5-7: Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; 6Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; 7That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

These passages are as clear as can be that salvation is not by works. That these passages clearly teach salvation without works is admitted even by those who try to make Christianity a synergistic religion (salvation by God and our efforts/works). They admit that the verses in Ephesians and Titus cannot be interpreted as anything other than salvation by the grace of God through faith alone. So, they say that Paul changed his mind later in his ministry towards a gospel of pure grace. So, if these passages are so clear as to exclude any possible salvation through works, then how can other passages contradict them, unless we are to assert that God is irrational, or that the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God? But if the God of the Bible is irrational then Scripture is just nonsense anyway, so we really wouldn’t have a problem to solve. But we know God is logical and that He does not contradict Himself (2 Tim. 2:13) and that the scriptures are God’s inspired Word (2 Tim. 3:16). So, then we must seek to resolve passages like you mention without contradiction. I personally do not see any reference in the passages that would say someone is saved by works. 

What we do see in Scripture is a constant reference to the perfect call to which we are called. That we are pointed to that high call, does not mean that the scriptures then indicate that we attain heaven by achieving that call, or that anyone actually does achieve that high call. The law called the Israelites to live by the law, yet provided the sacrificial system to point them to the mercy of God in a substitute, that was required because they could not keep the law. The pattern is seen in Romans 2 as Paul moves from there to chapter 3. In chapter 2, he talks about those who would receive eternal life if they did the things the law required. If we stop at Romans 2, then we may think Paul was teaching salvation by works. But as Paul completes his argument in chapter 3, he ends up saying that no one actually does receive eternal life by doing good, because there are none good. No one actually does what the law requires. We are all guilty. That is the entire point of chapter 3. So, we have a pattern in the Bible pointing us towards a holy calling, that if we do not live up to will end in judgment. If we did not fail to meet up to those standards, then of course we would not be judged. But, as the scriptures are replete with telling us, we all fail to meet those standards. I think ultimately that is the key for harmonizing the above scriptures I mention, with passages like the ones you bring up. Certainly, if we did not sin we would be rewarded with eternal life. But we all sin and do so repeatedly. Therefore, we will never will never be justified by works. 

As to the particular texts you bring up, let me deal with them one at a time:

Matt 5:29-30 – In this text, Christ is making a point about how seriously we are to take our sin. He is not advocating literally that people should chop their hands off. The point of the passage is to teach us that we need to severely deal with our sin, because our sin leads us to hell. Notice, there is nothing in this passage about how we attain salvation. This passage does not teach us the way to attain eternal life. It teaches us the path to hell. To learn how we deal with our sin, and how we obtain forgiveness and eternal life, we must look to the other passages of Scripture that teach us those things. To force that into this text is to make Matthew 5 mean something beyond what the text warrants.

Luke 8 is a parable. We have to be very careful of trying to press every detail of a parable to have some separate theological point. The point of a parable is a story that is cast alongside a truth. There is a general connection being taught. Each detail is not intended to be a systematic presentation of a doctrinal point. That being said, I believe the only person saved in the parable is the one who bears fruit. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit,” (Matt. 7:15-20). Good trees produce good fruit and bad trees produce bad fruit. If they don’t bear fruit they are not a good tree. Immediately after Jesus teaches about bearing fruit in Matthew, he explains that there are many who profess faith falsely. They say, “Lord, Lord,” but Jesus does not know them. In addition, as James tells us, some people can have a faith that is not living. It is a dead faith. And as John tells us in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” Their lack of fruit and continuation in the faith shows they were never truly of Christ. They only appeared that way. This understanding of Luke 8, perfectly harmonizes then with the salvation by faith passages above.

1 Corinthians 9 – disqualified or reprobate to the ministry. No mention of hell here.

John 15 – Jesus is speaking to Jews that were part of God’s covenant people. There were those externally connected to God’s covenant people. In the old covenant, you entered by birth. You were cut off from it by disobedience. Paul expounds on this idea in Romans 11. There, in verse 20, he speaks of the Jews being cut off from the olive tree “because of unbelief.” That unbelief led them to sinful behavior. In Hebrews 3, we see the same thing take place. The people did not enter into the land, and were judged, “because of unbelief,” (Hb. 3:19). Their lack of faith led them to sinful works that resulted in judgment. Again, this does not mean we are saved by works. It shows us that people are judged because of them, and that wicked works stem from unbelief, just as fruit bearing stems from true faith.

Matthew 18 – Again, this is one of the “high calling” passages. If we fail to live up to the high calling God will judge us. That does not imply that somehow people can live up to that calling. It just means that if we don’t live up to that calling God will judge us. None of us live up to that calling, therefore we need a Savior. 

Remember, the point of the law was to show us our guilt. Romans 3:20, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. We are often given the perfect law that we are called to obey in order to have life. But, that law shows us our failure. It shows us our guilt. It shows us our need for the Savior. It shows us that we can only be saved by grace through faith in Him!

 

From → Theology

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