The relationship between faith and works is hotly debated between different groups of Christians. On the one side, there are those who feel like salvation by faith alone absolves the Christian of any real moral responsibility and that one can live as they please. On the other side, there are those who feel like emphasizing works promotes an “earn your way to heaven” situation.
I know this is kind of cliché, but I have to drop the “both sides” here. While I believe that we are saved by grace through faith, I do not necessarily believe that I have a golden ticket into heaven based on my profession of faith. And while I believe that Christians must perform certain works, I do not see these works in anyway as earning salvation. Let me explain why.
What We Think About When We Think About Heaven
When we think about heaven, we typically think of white robes, harps, clouds, and choirs of angelic voices. In other words, this whole debate is typically based around where someone goes when they die, but the truth is, I’m not in a hurry to die. Yes, I want to go to heaven, but as Paul says in Philippians 1, there’s a lot of people who need me here: my wife, my son, my daughter who is due to arrive in October, and I’d like to think that the church I’m privileged to work for needs me.
Dying and going to heaven today, if given the option, would be selfish for me personally, and I’ve heard that attitude isn’t welcome there.
But another reason I don’t feel compelled to rush to heaven is because I believe that Jesus is with us now. In John 14:23, Jesus promised, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him” (John 14:23).
This means that most of the people I love, except for a few departed loved ones, are with me now: my family, my church friends, and, of course, God. In other words, I don’t have to die to be in the presence of God. When I die, will my awareness of what has been true all along be increased? Certainly. Paul said it would be “far better,” but in a huge way, I see Jesus’s prayer “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” play out in my life all the time while singing with my church friends, sitting around a campfire, or kayaking and hiking with my wife and son.
I’m not saying you have to feel this way, but it seems so true to me. Even the bad days, which have been pretty bad, have been recast in a new light that has even given them wonderful, heavenly meanings.
What is Salvation?
So, how does this impact my view on the “once saved always saved” debate?
If by “saved” we mean going to heaven when one dies, I’m proudly in the “grace alone” camp, and it is my suspicion that God is more gracious to the people we would typically exclude from heaven ourselves, and God is probably more strict towards the people we would typically assume are in heaven. That is, of course, if we’re playing that game.
However, if we see heaven as something that comes to earth through the work of the Spirit in the church through the gospel and the ever-expanding kingdom of God, then here’s the reality: if you have faith in Jesus but don’t live it out, then the blessings associated with faith will not be clearly seen or experienced. Paul talked about being content in every situation, of having a peace which passes understanding, and having eternal joy (Philippians 4:4-17).
Is it possible to have this joy, this peace, or this comfort while ignoring the pain and suffering in the world around you? Is it possible to sleep at night with the command to “love your enemies” at the back of your mind when you know that you much prefer the “an eye for an eye” mentality?
This isn’t about making you feel bad about yourself. This isn’t about punching a ticket into heaven. This isn’t about works-based salvation.
The Gospel as a Transforming Power
This is about the fact that the gospel is a transforming power. How we look before we are controlled by the love of Jesus, made in Christ for good works, and before we learn to allow Christ to live through us is supposed to be different (2 Corinthians 5:14; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 2:20).
The world doesn’t need people who are content with going to heaven when they die. The world needs people who refuse to die without bringing a little bit of heaven to earth.
Faith alone seems like a bandaid. Works-based salvation seems like a death sentence.
What I’m advocating for is moving the discussion from where we go when we die to what kind of world we are leaving behind. That requires work, not sinless perfection. It requires faith, but not faith alone.
There are things Christians must do, not to be saved, but because we are saved. If we really believe in the gift of eternal life, why wouldn’t we want to share it? If I believe that I go to heaven when I die and that I’m secure in that hope, why wouldn’t I try to live a better life and help others to have that peace?
Being a Christian means living a transformed life, taking risks, and bettering yourself. This isn’t for the sake of yourself or for your own salvation, though. Again, it is for the transformation of the world.
Salvation: Point in Time or Process?
Salvation (or should I say perfection? not sinless perfection) doesn’t come at the point of faith, when someone is dunked under water, or when someone prays a prayer. It is an upward trajectory of living more like God by loving our enemies, caring for those who are in need, and being kind to each other. It’s not about performing outward religious acts; it’s about transformational, sacrificial love.
If we are strictly talking about where we go when we die, I guess I’d be in the “grace alone” crowd. But I don’t think the framework for the debate is really what Jesus had in mind. Salvation includes individuals, but the emphasis is on the whole world. God doesn’t desire that any should perish. God wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Jesus gave his life for the whole world, not just us. But Jesus is the savior of his body, the church.
To me, these passages, which I trust you can find if you don’t know them already, paint the following picture: God desires everyone to be saved from the destruction they bring upon themselves by coming to the knowledge of who Jesus is, and God has chosen that people find Jesus through the church, which is his body.
This doesn’t come through miraculous visions. It doesn’t come through a small voice in the night. The salvation of everyone and everything around you comes through the body of Christ, the church. God uses his people who are broken, imperfect, and who mess things up all the time, to preach the gospel, to live like Jesus, and to be his hands, ears, feet, eyes, etc. in the world.
In other words, salvation can’t come through faith alone. Because faith requires hearing, and hearing requires that someone, somewhere gets off their backside and tells you about it.
The world is transformed by the gospel, and if we hold it captive by demanding works out of everyone that are impossible to fulfill or by saying all they need is faith without any action, then we are forgetting our responsibility.
Let me say it again, works are necessary, but they aren’t for you. Works are for the people you love, including your enemies. The idea and debate surrounding “once saved always saved” gives salvation an individualistic emphasis that I feel is not in line with the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus called his people beyond outward religious acts to transformational love (the golden rule). He called his disciples to follow him, not simply believe in him.
I’ve got more to say on this subject, but I’ll leave you with this teaser: I believe that once someone is saved, they will always be saved. And I think you’ll agree with me once we work a little to define these words in the way I intend them, not in the traditional sense. But that’s tomorrow’s article. 😄