As children of the Reformation, scarred survivors in a war against that great Satan known as Roman Catholicism, have we leaned so far to the right in an effort to distance ourselves from the left that we are no longer centered? In a great effort to prove to the world that we, the protestants, would not fall into the same trap that ensnared the Roman Catholic Church, mainly attempting to ensure eternal security through works, we have instead backed so far away that we now expect no responsibility or role on the part of human effort. This is what some mainstream Protestants would have everyone believe.
However, is salvation truly unconditional, or does it instead have contractual responsibilities for both parties, ourselves as well as God? For proof of conditional salvation, I will simply allow scripture to speak. “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” (John 3:16, NIV, italics added). The condition is clear that one must believe to receive eternal life. The reverse would also be true. Those who do not believe (have faith, trust, etc…) will not gain eternal life. John 3:36 again states that “he who believes in the son has eternal life” (NIV, italics added). Acts 13:48 tells us that “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (NIV, italics added). Paul displays his own salvation experience as an example “for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16, NIV, italics added).
Belief, as used in each of the above verses as well as in many more, is an action completed by the seeker of eternal life. In fact, as illustrated over and over, faith is a condition for eternal life. Who is responsible to provide this faith? Faith is solely a responsibility of the believer. It can be buttressed and strengthened by God. But faith remains an action of the believer. Some claim that faith is provided solely by God as the believer’s sin is too great to allow him to come to faith in Christ alone. They use, as reference, Ephesians 2:8 as proof. Ephesians 2:8 states “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (KJV). Some point that the phrase “through faith” is a prepositional phrase that modifies saved, describing the method of salvation.
As a point, the phrase “through faith” is used in several other places to describe the method in which a Christian is “saved”. In Romans 3:21-31, Paul uses the phrase “through faith” twice to describe the method that leads to righteousness and leads to eternal life. He uses the phrase again in Galatians 3:26 to emphasize a Christian’s inheritance as a Son of God. You can see the repetition of the phrase in Ephesians 3:17, Colossians 2:12, 2 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 6:12 and 1 Peter 1:5. Each time, the phrase is used as an adjective action describing the method of salvation.
Another common prepositional phrase that characterizes salvation is “by faith”. This phrase is used an average of sixty-two times in the New Testament. Again, “faith” is always a verb or noun that modifies action on the part of the believer. Never is the condition of faith for salvation stated to come from God. In fact, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews all denote at least a chapter to praise the faith of an Old Testament prophet or father. Why would the writers praise Abraham for his faith if that faith was given to him by God?
Another verse commonly used to defend the position that God provides the faith necessary for salvation is Philippians 1:29. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (NIV). However, the belief itself was not issued to the believer, but the option or privilege of believing, as well as the option of suffering for him. Can it truly be stated that every Christian has suffered for the cause of Christ? No. But if a Christian correctly stands opposed to sins exemplified in a given society, that Christian would suffer because of the convictions of Christ. But the believer has an option to stand against sin or sit quietly. The same can be said of faith as it is used in the same context as suffering in the above verse.
Now, exceptional faith is granted by God as a spiritual gift to some, as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12:8. “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:8-9, NIV, italics added). But, this in no wise indicates that the faith that is required for salvation is given or provided by God. In fact, these verses support the opposite conclusion as they explain that not every Christian will receive this particular gift of the Spirit. Obviously, this gift of faith cannot be the same faith that is required to gain eternal life, as all would need that faith.
So, what about those proponents who state that faith is a “work” and therefore cannot be originated by the believer but must be from God or it could be used to boast with? I think we need to take a good look at the definition of “works”. The “works” that Paul refers to is the Jewish reliance upon the Law for salvation as opposed to reliance upon God. Salvation via the Law is a direct result of a person’s actions and will. That person is relying upon himself to adhere to the Law and thus gain salvation. As Paul points out in Romans 9, salvation was never meant to be gained from adhering to the Law. Instead, salvation met its definition in the Abrahamic Covenant. Justification, that righting of our relationship and position with God through Christ is fulfilled through one means only, and that is through faith. Again and again, Paul points out that Abraham, and the believer today, is justified by his faith.
In Romans 3:28, Paul even contrasts works and faith. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28, NASB). How can faith be a work if it directly contrasted with works? Also, how can faith be a work and able to be boasted of, if it is a weakness? When we trust and rely upon someone else, we are unable to boast in this reliance, as it is a clear demonstration of our weakness and someone else’s strength. In Romans 4:2, Paul explains that if justification comes from works, then Abraham could have boasted. However, since justification comes from faith, and we cannot boast of our faith, then our “faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:5-6, NASB). Romans 5:1 sums up the believer’s current condition. “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, NASB). This justification eventually saves us from “the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9, NASB).
So, has the reformers aversion to the Catholic concept of works deluded our current concept of the means of salvation? Definitely. We are so afraid of being labeled as believing in a “works theology” that we hesitate to point out what the Bible indicates as obvious. A person is justified by their faith in Jesus. A person does contribute to their own salvation by placing their faith in Jesus Christ, who is God. A person does have an active part and a responsibility in their salvation.
This takes absolutely nothing away from the glory and sovereignty of God. In fact, your reliance upon Him, your acknowledgement of your own weakness and His strength increases His glory alone.