In Part I, we saw that the Apostles’ primary evangelistic message was of the need for all men to repent of their sins and to turn to Christ in faith. In Part II, we explored some of the biblical testimony that all men are sinners, and therefore in need of salvation. Let us now see how that salvation proceeds.
God declares clearly throughout the entire Bible that the only way for an individual to be saved from divine wrath is to repent of his sins and have faith in (i.e., trust) God. In the New Testament, the explicit mechanism of God’s salvation of man is revealed to be the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
God also declares throughout Scripture that only the righteous will be saved. This does not contradict the necessity of repentance and faith, because faith confers righteousness. See, for example, Genesis 15:6:
Then he [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Note that “reckoned” means “credited” or “imputed.” The Lord credited Abraham with righteousness on account of Abraham’s believing in, that is, having faith in, the Lord.
And see also Romans 4:5:
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…
Salvation begins with repentance. To repent of sins is not to stop sinning. Instead, it is to turn one’s inner orientation away from the desire to sin and toward the God who saves. It is the very beginning of salvation. The necessity of repentance is expressed, for example, in Luke 24:45—47:
Then He [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
And note that when Christ said “it is written…,” it was written in the Old Testament. Jesus himself affirms that the Old Testament speaks of him, and of how he saves people through repentance and faith. For example, Luke 24:27 reads “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”
Consider also Acts 3:19, quoted above, where the Apostle Peter is speaking:
Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord;
Salvation also requires faith (also called “belief” or “trust”) in Christ.
Right away, we must confront the fact that the word “faith” has many current meanings, and only one of them expresses the type of faith necessary for salvation.
There are several widely-used incorrect meanings of “faith.” One of them is sometimes called “blind faith.” Whereas true faith is always a trust based on accurate knowledge of a trustworthy object of faith, “blind” faith is a trust based on little more than the desire to trust. “Blind” faith does not have good reasons to trust.
Another, more exotic, false meaning of faith arises from the so-called “word-faith” heresy. In this corruption of Christianity, “faith” is a force of nature, and words are its carrier. Word-faith heretics believe they can create blessings for themselves by speaking as if they have confidence that the blessings will come true. They even believe that God Himself works miracles by manipulating the force of faith with the words He speaks. This, of course, is absurd. God does not need faith, either as trust or as a force external to Himself. He is the Force, and He is the One to be trusted.
A final false definition of faith must be mentioned. For some, especially within Protestantism, biblical faith is nothing more than intellectual assent to the facts about God, especially Jesus, who is God the Son. This view has deservedly earned the nickname “easy believism,” for it oversimplifies faith into something that does not save. According to this point of view, if a person at any time in his life has expressed a belief that Jesus is the son of God who died to atone for his sins, then he is saved for all time, regardless of his subsequent behavior. But this view is not biblical, and it gives many people a false confidence that they are saved when, in reality, they are still unbelievers. True saving faith is more than intellectual assent.
None of these false definitions express what the biblical authors mean by faith. Biblical faith, as expanded on below, is accurate knowledge of Christ, assent to this knowledge, and trust in God.
Some of the verses that express the need for faith are:
John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Hebrews 10:39: But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
Hebrews 11:6: And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
And, perhaps most decisively, John 6:28, 29:
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
These verses establish that those who trust in Christ will be saved. Other verses, such as Acts 4:12 quoted above, establish that those who lack this trust will not be saved
This saving trust is commonly called “faith,” and it has three components: knowledge of Christ and what he did and taught, agreement with these truths, and a trust that those who ask for forgiveness of their sins in true faith will be forgiven by and through Jesus.
Faith as knowledge and assent is expressed in, for example, John 17, which quotes Jesus praying to God the Father on behalf of believers:
John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”
Faith as trust is expressed in, for example, Hebrews 4:16:
Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
It is also expressed in Romans 4:19—21, in which the Apostle Paul speaks of Abraham’s trust in God’s promise to him that he would have a son and heir despite his old age:
Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.
Note that Abraham had “full assurance” that God’s promises would be fulfilled. This is faith.
Faith as trust is also expressed by the very language in which the New Testament was written. Where our English translations read “faith,” the original Greek word (in noun form) is pistis, a word which primarily denotes trust, confidence in, or assurance.
As a part of this trust, a Christian will believe what God teaches in the Bible, and will generally do what God wants him to do, including repent of his sins, that is, be sorry for them and turn away from them. Christians, like non-Christians, are sinners, so they will not live perfect lives. But the Bible teaches that those who have trusted in Christ will be “indwelled” by God the Holy Spirit. See I Corinthians 6:19:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
This indwelling of God will begin to change the Christian’s life, making him a better person; this is one of the benefits of being a Christian. See II Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.
The basic meaning of “Christian,” then, is one who trusts in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. The Bible asserts that trusting in Christ confers other benefits, although nowhere does God guarantee that Christians will avoid hardship. Some Christians, in fact, have suffered horribly in this life. But all who trust in Christ will be saved and go to Heaven.
And this is the part of Christianity that arouses the most disagreement: You do not get saved by doing good deeds, or by refraining from doing bad deeds. Being a morally good person is the result of being saved, not the cause. The cause of salvation is only trusting Christ. This doctrine is called “justification by faith alone,” and it is expressed directly in Ephesians 2:8, 9:
For it is by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
See also Romans 3:28:
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
[“Justified” means “declared to be righteous.”]
The context of this verse, and also Paul’s more extended discussion in the Epistle to the Galatians, makes it clear that the “works of the law” to which he is contrasting faith are not just the Old Testament Jewish ceremonial laws. They are all of the moral law. Being moral does not contribute to our salvation, it is a result of our salvation.
A side note: The ultimate reason anyone trusts in Christ is because God caused him to do so. Faith and repentance are gifts of God. God does this in a way that does not override man’s free will as the term “free will” is commonly understood: the ability to choose what you want. People trust or reject Christ according to their desires, but behind the scenes, in a way that cannot be understood by man, God makes some people want to trust in Christ. This is called “election,” but it is a subsidiary point here. See. e.g, Ephesians 1:3—6.
Aside from the fact that it is a gift of God, how in the ordinary sense does one obtain faith? Repentance is something you do, but faith is something you have. How do we get faith in Christ? Do we simply have to wait for God to give us this gift? Or is there another way?
The clearest biblical discussion of this question occurs in Romans 10:11—17:
For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”
However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
The key sentence here is the last one. “…faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Faith comes from hearing the “word of Christ,” which is Scripture.
But not all who hear (or read) the words of the Bible come to faith in Christ. Faith comes only to those who have been given the gift of faith, on the occasion of their hearing the word.
[Some people need to hear the word many times before coming to faith. No rejection of Christ is final until you die.]
Justification by faith often arouses opposition because it seems wrong. The rest of the world, including all the other religions, does not operate this way. Everywhere else, you get what you pay for. In salvation, though, you get what Christ paid for, and what you cannot possibly pay for. That’s why the gospel is good news.
Within Christendom, justification by faith is not controversial. Justification by faith alone is, unfortunately, only held by Protestants. But since it is, in my view, a biblical doctrine, all Christians ought to believe it.
Those who deny justification by faith alone will often cite James 2:24:
You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
Aside from the fact that one verse cannot override the clear testimony of many other passages of Scripture, observe that the word “justified” has at least two meanings. In the concept of “justification by faith,” the word “justified” means “declared [by God] to be righteous,” but in James 2:24, it means “proved to be righteous,” as is clear from the context of the verse. James 2:24 does not contradict justification by faith alone.
There are other verses that, taken in isolation, could reasonably be taken to mean that our efforts contribute to our salvation. But these verses are ambiguous in the sense that their meaning is not necessarily that our works contribute to our salvation, whereas there are many verses (some of which have been quoted above) which maintain unambiguously that salvation is by faith and not works. According to a basic principle of hermeneutics (the interpretation of texts), we judge the unclear passages in light of the clear ones.
Part of the controversy arises because of the concepts and terminology used. We Protestants maintain that the Bible makes a distinction between justification and sanctification. “Justification” is God’s declaration that we are righteous, on account of Christ’s having atoned for our sins and of God the Father imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to us. Recall Romans 4:5:
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…
The phrase “Him who justifies the ungodly” indicates that justification is what God does, not what we do. This verse also shows that we receive credit for being righteous, even though we are not actually perfectly righteous, if we have faith.
God’s declaration of righteousness is a one-time act that instantly gives the Christian a proper standing before God, meaning that he is fit to be adopted as a son or daughter of God, to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, and to go to heaven when he dies, among other benefits. Since the Christian is already credited with being perfectly righteous (although he is not actually perfectly righteous), he has no need to receive “infusions” of grace or righteousness, as the Catholic system describes.
“Sanctification,” though, is the life-long process of the justified Christian becoming more holy. When Christians receive the sacraments, when they do acts of charity, when they hear God’s Word preached to them, when they resist the temptation to sin, they become more holy. They increase in sanctification. But we cannot contribute to our justification, for that is a “forensic declaration” by God. In justification, God the Father acts as a judge, pronouncing a defendant to be “not guilty” solely on account of the work of Christ and of the defendant’s repentance and faith. The Christian’s state of sanctification does not play a role in his justification.
But we most certainly can contribute to our sanctification through our deeds. And it is, in part, by conflating justification and sanctification that the Catholic Church weakens the biblical doctrine of justification—and therefore salvation—by faith alone. For example, Rome has declared that good works are necessary to “increase our merit” in God’s eyes. [See, e.g., the Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 24.] The best that could be said here is that they are confusing justification with sanctification.
This is the end of part III of this series. In part IV (click here), we will see the biblical mechanism of how Jesus saves us from our sins.