We are not saved by works. We all know this — Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation and we are saved as a gift of God. We can’t earn it. We agree on that, but not every Christian agrees on what our role is in this process. Are you saved when you accept Christ? When you covenant with Him at baptism? some other time? Is salvation a permanent state or can it be withdrawn? Does salvation require good works, result in good works, or have nothing to do with works at all?
God offers salvation freely as a gift, but we aren’t forced to accept the gift. It’s a choice that’s part of Him giving us free will. Choosing salvation involves more than a verbal acknowledgement of Christ as savior. God doesn’t just care about what we say. He cares about the state of our hearts and how that translates into the way we live our lives. The Bible is very clear that there will be people who think they’re following God, but who won’t be in His kingdom because they’re not following Him in the way He commanded.
The Gift of God
The key passages discussing grace and freely given salvation also have quite a bit to say about works. In Romans, for example, we’re told “the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many” (Rom. 5:15). It doesn’t stop there, though. Paul anticipates his readers’ questions, asking, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” and “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Both are answered with an emphatic “Certainly not!” (Rom. 6:1-2, 15). This phrase is also translated “God forbid!” (KJV), “By no means!” (NIV), and “May it never be!” (NASB). When the gift of God frees us from servitude to sin we become servants of God, and servants are expected to work (Rom. 6:15-23). Freedom from sin gives us the ability to obey God, not license to disobey Him.
Salvation and works are even more explicitly discussed in Ephesians. Here, Paul talks with his readers about their former sinful lives and how they were raised from being dead in sins to live with Christ (Eph. 2:1-7). We used to be sinners under a death penalty, but now we’re cleansed from sin and alive in Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10).
Stopping at verse 9 would give us an incomplete view of salvation. We are not saved by anything we can do, but we are saved so that we can do good works. Salvation isn’t where God stops with us; it’s where He starts. He’s working to make us like Him and He expects growth. We need to do something with the gifts He gives us, not set them on a shelf and go our own way.
Accepting or Rejecting
There’s quite a debate regarding whether or not someone can lose their salvation. I believe that scriptures indicate we are given the option to reject God. We can debate whether these people loose their salvation or didn’t really attain salvation in the first place, but Hebrews 6:4-6 tells us that “it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” This sounds to me like people who repented, turned to God and accepted His gift of salvation, but then decided to turn away and reject eternal life.
This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself. (1 Tim. 2:11-13)
We cannot live lives that deny Jesus Christ and expect to live and reign with Him in His kingdom. God’s faithfulness means He doesn’t give up on us, but it also means He holds true to His statements that only those who believe will enter eternal life. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16, see also Rom. 10:9-10). Belief is an action that results in more actions.
John’s first epistle gives believers several signs by which we can know that we know God. The very first one is connected to actively doing what He tells us to do.
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. (1 John 2:3-5)
It’s a pretty simple idea — you can’t know God if you’re not keeping His commandments. John expands on this as he goes on. We know we’re of the truth if we love in deed and truth (1 John 3:18-19). We dwell in God and His Spirit dwells in us if we keep His commandments (1 John 3:24). We know we dwell in Him because He gives us His Spirit (1 John 4:13). We know that those who are born of God do not practice sin (1 John 5:18).
Denying or Professing With Works
It is not our place to judge nor is it our call to determine who God is and is not working with. However, we can’t do what the Corinthians did and turn a blind eye to sin within the church either. The Corinthians prided themselves on their tolerance (1 Cor. 5:1-2), but Paul wrote that it was shameful for them not to exercise discernment in this matter and “put away from yourselves the evil person” (1 Cor. 5:13). Today, though, rather than pointing fingers at others in the church, let’s look at ourselves. Am I that “wicked person” professing to follow Jesus and still rejecting His authority?
To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work. (Tit. 1:15-16)
This isn’t talking about people in the world. It’s addressing those who say they’re following God and are not. Jesus isn’t in a relationship with everyone who says to Him, “Lord, Lord,” even if they are doing “many wonders” in His name. There will be those who are keeping up a show of following Jesus — of being saved — to whom He will say in the final judgement “I never knew you.” We don’t want to be counted among them.
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matt. 7:21-23)
To avoid hearing Jesus deny us and instead hear “well done, good and faithful servant” we have to actually do good and remain faithful to serving God. We all need to take a prayerful look at ourselves and ask, “Is the way I’m living my life denying the Lord who bought me? or am I truly doing the Father’s will?”Notice I didn’t quote a single verse from the Old Testament in this article. Though I firmly believe the entire Bible “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), I wanted to emphasize that this teaching is for Christians today. This isn’t a legalistic “you have to keep the Law,” but rather a sound Christian principle that “we ought to obey God.”
It’s an incredible blessing to be given salvation and given something to do with it. The Father is fashioning a help-meet for His Son, and Jesus Christ is purifying a Bride who will serve at His side. They’ve washed us clean, given us instructions for attaining the resurrection of the dead, and the ability through Their spirit to remain faithful to the end. God doesn’t want us to be content staying where we were when we were first called — He wants us to “press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:7-14), and to lay-hold of the fullness of the glorious future They offer.