The Basis of Our Salvation

Here at the Orthosphere, we’ve been discussing Christian salvation. It’s time for another basic point.

If God saves us, what is his specific reason, his specific warrant, as it were, for doing so? One could imagine God saving us on a whim, but being just, God always has valid reasons for doing what he does.

According to the biblical testimony, God saves us because we are righteous. But given that we are sinners, how can we be righteous?

[For proof that all of us are sinners, see, e.g., Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8.

For proof that some of us are also righteous, see, e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3:9.]

Well, if God declares us to be righteous, then you can be assured that we are. As we said, God always has valid reasons for doing whatever he does. And if we are righteous, then all of the other benefits (and “side effects”) of salvation will most assuredly occur: sanctification, love, good works, perseverance, repentance from sin, and so on.

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So on what basis does God declare us righteous?  Scripture declares that God does so on the basis of faith alone. See, e.g., Romans 3:28

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

Justified” means “declared [or proved] righteous.”

[All Bible quotes here are from the King James Version, unless indicated otherwise. When necessary, we use a translation that indicates more accurately what the original writing said.]

And also see Philippians 3:9:

…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…  [ESV]

See also Genesis 15:6:

And he [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and he [God] counted it to him for righteousness.

And also see Romans 4:20—25, in which the Apostle Paul comments on Genesis 15:6:

He [Abraham] staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.

These verses, and others, speak of imputed righteousness. Us getting credit for a righteousness that we do not naturally have, a righteousness that comes from God; specifically God the Son, Jesus Christ. This is why Protestants emphasize faith: Faith in Christ gets the entire enterprise moving. Faith is the ground of salvation.

Now, true faith in Christ issues in all sorts of other goods: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and all of the other benefits of salvation. And the lack of these is primary evidence of lack of faith.

But here is the key point for this essay: When Scripture speaks with precision about the actual cause of our salvation, it identifies it to be imputed righteousness as a result of our faith.

To be sure, our repentance and faith are themselves gifts of God. But they are the mechanism, as it were, of our salvation.

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There is also the question of exactly how we get this saving faith. Romans 10:17 says that faith comes from hearing the word of Christ, that is, the Bible, and Ephesians 2:8—9 say that faith is a gift of God.

And there is also the question of how faith removes our sins. First Peter 2:24 says that our sins were transferred to Christ on the cross, where he atoned for them, so that we no longer are guilty of sin.

*

When the Bible speaks of individuals as being righteousness, it does not always identify what exactly makes them righteous. And we are prone to think that it must be that they are exceptionally good at avoiding sin, because this opinion is the default belief of mankind. But this would be a mistake. We must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture. In both the Old and New Testaments, whenever Scripture speaks of the cause of someone being righteous, that cause is faith in God or, since the coming of Messiah, faith in Christ.

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21 thoughts on “The Basis of Our Salvation

    • 1 Corinthians 9:27 reads

      But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

      Neither this verse not its context is referring to imputed righteousness. It raises the possibility that one who believes himself to saved might in fact not be, but if one is saved, it is by imputed righteousness.

  1. I don’t like prooftexting. Scripture is divinely inspired; you will forgive me for noting that not every reader of scripture is. That’s one reason why sola scriptura was a heresy when Luther claimed it and it’s still a heresy now that we have a defined Bible.

    If we are righteous, we are in one sense righteous because the Creator says so and at the same time on judgement day He says we are righteous because we are righteous. Neither side can be ignored; neither the grace of Providence on the one side that heretics have been so enamored with in the past nor the justification by works of virtue on the other side that heretics are enamored with now.

    • If “prooftexting” means misinterpreting a verse, then I also don’t like it.

      But the Bible teaches a unified system of doctrine; it is not a collection of wise-sounding but ultimately mysterious verses. The Bible, when written, was intended to be understandable to readers who had the necessary background knowledge, and so those with a bit of training can see what it manifestly means. And if the Bible is correctly interpreted, then citation of verses is not “prooftexting.” It is showing what the Bible teaches.

      • Heretics like to treat the Bible as a bag of verses, each perfect in itself. Apostates who claim to have nothing to do with Christianity make fun of them by pointing out contradictions; they are not wrong to do so. The Bible is not a bag of verses and pointing people to this or that verse as proof of the manifestly true and Biblical view that we are all sinners is a pretty lousy way to argue the point.

      • It may appear to be a “bag of verses” to a non-Christian or a Christian of a differing confession, but among two Calvinists or two Catholics, their verses which are plucked from the bag come with all the context that would suffice for any valid intellectual discussion.

        But you do have a point with your little pet peeve that you shared with us: it is often foolish to pluck verses from the bag when dealing with gentiles- it is often useful, as Paul found, to relate to them by naming their unamed gods and then giving them the simple gospel without all the verse plucking. Once they’ve heard the gospel or heard about the power of Christ they can do like the Ethiopian eunuch: make a pilgrimage and find a teacher who has the gift of tongues. The verse plucking seemed to be more useful with the Jews, although I wouldn’t throw out “verse plucking” all together. There is power in those words.

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  3. Through the Middle Ages (and among some, right down to this day), God was said to speak to us in two ways: through the “Book of Nature” and the “Book of Grace” (i.e. Holy Scripture). These were also called the General Revelation and the Special Revelation. The latter was said to complete and clarify the former, which had become at least partly illegible in consequence of the Fall. At the same time, the Book of Nature was thought to make some truths so abundantly evident that there was no need to reiterate, amplify, or elucidate them in the Book of Grace. That the Book of Grace teaches the absolute necessity of faith, there is no reason to doubt. When I turn to the Book of Nature, however, I also discover that nothing happens without effort. Life is an education that should be understood in the light of Scripture, but it most certainly should be understood, for God has made it for our edification. If the lessons it appears to be teaching contradict Scripture, we may be sure we are misreading them; but when they are compatible, I say it is best to heed them. I don’t write this as a dogmatic challenge to what Alan has written. It’s just how I see things.

    • Aaron Wolf (a Lutheran with extensive knowledge of Church history) at Chronicles has written about how historic Protestantism used natural law as a basis for interpreting scripture. Thus, the (traditional) protestant teaching against contraception (now largely abandoned).

      the invisible things of [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.

  4. Alan, if a person trusts that his sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake and is, say, a serial abortionist that continues in her ways is that person saved? Is it impossible for a person who trusts Protestant propositions about God/Christ to keep sinning in such a way?

    • Good question. We cannot know for sure from a person’s acts whether they are saved. God is capable of saving even such a one. But we must presume that one who persists in egregious sin is not a believer.

      The trust that saves is not a trust in Protestant propositions. It is a trust in Christ, a trust that necessarily issues in repentance and the desire to live a more godly life.

      • I guess that sequence is often described: faith, repentance from bad works, then good works. I read a piece somewhere (by Scott Richert I think) that suggested that works (bad and good) can affect our faith. A different way of thinking about the sequence I suppose.

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  6. Some years ago I began to read the works of Krister Stendahl, E.P. Sanders,
    James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright on reading Paul in the context of the First Century and not in the context of Sixteenth Century. Robert H. Gundry and Ben Witherington III have also endorsed these views, which are sometimes called the New Perspective on Paul. I have generally found them to be persuasive. Ever since then, I have come to doubt that the doctrine of imputed righteousness as understood by the Reformers represents what Paul meant, and the argument really is about Paul. The New Perspective faces an uphill battle since Lutheran and Calvinist readings of Paul are so ingrained into our culture, but I recommend it. It does not disparage either faith or repentance, but does call into question the reformist understanding of imputation.

    • Expressed in a nutshell,the New Perspective on Paul is the view that Paul was not talking about salvation as understood especially by Protestants (the forgiveness of sins) but rather Paul was talking about inclusion of the Gentiles into the Jewish covenant with God. The basic problem with this view is that there is then no reason why the typical gentile would either need or want to become a Christian. If it’s just about joining the Jews, then most gentiles would say “No thanks.”

      But Paul and the other biblical writers obviously express an urgency and a necessity for the gentiles to come to Christ. The New Perspective is missing something profound.

      • I think it would be fairer to the New Perspective writers to say that their view is that some of Paul’s more famous phrases that deal with the relation between Gentiles and Jews have been misinterpreted, read through a 16th Century lens and not a 1st Century lens. Moreover, that lens all to easily produces a distorted view of Judaism.

        The 25th chapter of Matthew clearly provides an urgent motive to become a Christian. Is that chapter not profound? If all of Paul’s epistles were lost, it would still be possible to proclaim and discuss the Gospel, including the topics of sin, judgment, and forgiveness. Christianity, after all, existed before St. Paul’s conversion and before Luther’s reading of St. Paul.

      • Perhaps so, but a New Perspective implies that the original perspective is mistaken. At the very least, persons hostile to traditional Christianity will pick up on the claim that Paul got it wrong [Update: I misspoke. The claim is that Protestants got it wrong], and conclude that Christianity is not about the forgiveness of sins, either because there are no sins, or because they are automatically forgiven. The New Perspective is very much attuned to multiculturalist PC, with its demands of inclusion of former outsiders, especially their inclusion with as few demands made on them as possible.

  7. The New Perspective (Dunn’s phrase) doesn’t claim that Paul got it wrong. It states that that the traditional Lutheran understanding of the theology of Judaism and Paul is fundamentally a misreading. The “Old Perspective” in this view is the traditional Lutheran perspective, and “the original perspective” is different from the 16th Century perspective.

    While not identical to Catholicism, New Perspective doesn’t threaten Catholicism or Orthodoxy in the way it threatens the standard Protestant view. The new perspective doesn’t even threaten all of Protestantism. Its leading authors have, in fact, been Protestants. Stendahl was, after all, the Church of Sweden Bishop of Stockholm. The New Perspective not only has relevance for Protestant-Catholic dialog, but also for a Christian-Jewish dialog.

    I haven’t read the 15th chapter of Acts as a “multiculturalist PC” tract, but that would be an interesting interpretation. That chapter does deal with inclusion of former outsiders and a reduction in the number of demands made on them (“it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things”).

    • In the post to which you are responding, I made an error and said that the NPP claims that Paul got it wrong. That’s not their claim; I meant that the NPP claims that Luther and many Protestants got it wrong. The NPP says that Paul was talking about something else.

      But the basic problem remains. The NPP says that Christianity is not about the forgiveness of sins, but about including Gentiles into the Covenant. But Scripture constantly speaks of the forgiveness of sins, so to say otherwise, even as a “New Perspective,” is to contradict core Christian doctrine.

      • Alan. Thank your for the clarification or correction.

        However, I can’t find any support for your claim that the NPP says that Christianity is not about the forgiveness of sins. I am sure the late Bishop Stendahl believed in the forgiveness of sins and that it was a central part of Christianity. How could he not?

        The NPP writers say that the New Testament is not only about the forgiveness of sins, but also about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles and, by extension, that Judaism is not only about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, but also about the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness, mercy, loving kindness and grace are all prominent in what we call the Old Testament. The NPP looks at these weighty issues differently than Luther did. It doesn’t deny that these are core issues for Christians. It recognizes these are core issues for both Christians and Jews. Stendahl didn’t even think Luther was entirely wrong; rather that Luther extended Paul in a way that the text doesn’t necessarily support. Stendahl was a Lutheran, but also a man interested in interfaith issues. I believe Stendahl recognized that reading Luther a certain way was a misunderstanding of Judaism. The NPP attempts to address that misunderstanding through a reading of the text from a First Century perspective rather than a Sixteenth Century perspective. We are so grounded in the Sixteenth Century perspective that questioning that perspective is easily, but incorrectly equated to saying that Christianity is not about the forgiveness of sins.

        The NPP provides the basis for both a new dialog between Catholics and Protestants and a new dialog between Christians and Jews.

      • The NPP writers do vary in their emphases, but the general project is essentially liberal, that is, corrosive of faith. Among other things, it tries to pit Scripture against Scripture by its very title: new perspective on Paul. Even if they didn’t mean it, the title certainly implies that Paul has a different message from the rest of Scripture. And the NPP is part of the general liberal project that we must always be questioning of our understanding of things, forever redefining our beliefs as new ideas strike us.

        NPP writers may have much to say that is valuable (especially N.T. Wright, with his defense of the Resurrection), but one must also guard against imbibing some of the spirit of doubt and rebellion that a project of this type necessarily involves.

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