What does salvation by Grace mean, and how can you distinguish salvation by Grace from salvation by works?
Recent conversations I've had with the hosts of The Don Johnson Show have once again brought to my attention the widespread confusion about salvation within a Christian world view. In the recent past I've tried to sort this out, but these discussions have made me realize that my illustrations are still lacking.
My contention is this: The Bible tells us that a single thing is required in order to gain "eternal life" and that "thing" is that you "believe in" Jesus Christ. And this doesn't simply mean believing that a man named Jesus Christ existed at some point. Rather, it means that you trust in or rely on Christ for your salvation. That, of course, assumes that you understand properly who Jesus is and what He did while on the Earth.
I've encountered no shortage of confusion about this sort of thing. The hosts of The Don Johnson Show are examples of this. They claim to believe that salvation is not something that you earn by works. But then they turn right around and say "but you have to do work in order to get to Heaven." Or words to that effect. Well, I'm sorry… but that's like saying "I'm not lost, I just don't know where I'm at." If you have to do works in order to get to Heaven, then that is a works salvation! Whether they realize it or not, the hosts are trying to have it both ways and in the process, they've obfuscated the whole issue and have badly misled their audience.
In my discussions with them, they say they agree with me that you get saved by trusting in Christ. But, and here's where it falls apart for them: they continually asked me how it is that I know I'm trusting in Christ… as if I wasn't sure.
Who else (besides God) would know whether I was trusting in Christ? Why do I need to prove to myself that I trust this or that? I mean… I could understand wanting some sort of proof that someone else is trusting in Christ, but that's only because I'm not inside someone else's head! But I am inside my head, so I ought to know who I trust, right? So for starters, it's a silly question. But there actually is a simple answer to it. The answer is this: if I'm willing to conclude that I can get into Heaven with or without the good works which (may or may not) follow my salvation, then I can rightfully say that I trust in Christ.
But these guys think that unless they can demonstrate good works in their life, they can't be certain that they are saved. In other words, if they lack works, they're not saved. But notice that if a lack of works means you're not saved, then your salvation must depend upon what? Your works. But what happened to Christ in this equation? Their salvation has become a function of their works and not a function of Christ's work, and this necessarily means they're not trusting Christ. It all comes down to one question: Where do we get assurance of our salvation, and can we even have assurance of our salvation?
It turns out that the word "assurance" is linked to the word "trust." Let's say your car is in the shop for repairs, but you're going to need your car to go on a road trip next Wednesday. The mechanic assures you that he'll have your car finished in time for your trip. If his assurance is enough for you, you'll be making hotel reservations for Wednesday night. The mechanic said the car would be done, and you're trusting in him to get it done. Where does your assurance come from? Yourself? No. Your assurance comes from the mechanic who made the promise.
But what if you aren't assured by his promise? Well it seems to me that if you don't feel assured by his promise, that's exactly the same thing as not trusting him. So, you might offer to help the mechanic fix your car to make sure it gets done on time. After all, you're no slouch with a wrench yourself. So you ask your mechanic if you can help. Now put yourself in the shoes of the mechanic. Do you [the mechanic] think your customer trusts you? Your customer wants assurance that their car will be finished on time… but where is your customer getting that assurance? From your promise, or from their own contribution? If your customer trusts you, then why is it they think they need to help? They want to help precisely because they don't trust you.
Much is said within Christianity about good works as evidence of salvation. And it's true that good works can be evidence of salvation. On the other hand, unsaved people can do good works just the same. So are good works necessarily evidence of salvation? No, not really. Good works is evidence of, well, good works. We can't know what motivates another person's good works can we? The guys at the Don Johnson Show were suggesting that I couldn't know whether I really trust Jesus unless I have certain kinds of works in my life. This is totally false. I can know that I trust Jesus simply by realizing that my works have nothing to do with whether I'm saved. The assurance of my salvation is not going to come from my works if my trust is in Christ. The extent to which I look to my works for assurance is the extent to which I don't really trust Christ. But if I trust in Christ, then my assurance must come from Christ and Christ alone, at which point I can comfortably say that I will be in Heaven with or without my works. That is trust. Christ here is like the mechanic in the illustration. If he says your car will be finished in time for your trip, then it'll be finished… with or without your contribution.
I'm convinced that this talk about proving your faith by your works (and questioning your salvation if you think your works aren't up-to-snuff) is extremely counter-productive. While supposing that we need our works in order to "prove" that we trust in Christ, we actually end up betraying our trust in Christ. Ironic? You bet it is.We should realize that reliance on our works for the assurance of our salvation reveals trust, but in the wrong object.
The reason why this can get so convoluted is that the Bible does, in fact, say that we have work to do as Christians. It's just that this work doesn't factor into our salvation in any way. Yes, you are to do the work. But even if you don't, you're saved. That's grace and that's trust.
Here are some contrasts which help to categorize and characterize salvation by works vs. salvation by grace:
One school of thought says that salvation as a PROCESS. A process is generally a gradual, or step-by-step progression toward an end. But this implies work and it implies a lack of assurance. If salvation is a process, then it takes work on your part and you can never be sure you're saved until you die. Why? Because your trust is wrapped up in your works and not in Christ.
The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is a GIFT. (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 6:23) A gift, by definition, isn't something you have to earn or work towards in any stepwise fashion. A gift is simply given to you. You've either received the gift, or you haven't. There's no process there. So guard against the notion that salvation is a process.
Another school of thought says that salvation is something which can be lost, either by forfeit or it can actually be revoked. This is another idea that is inconsistent with the concept of salvation by grace, and very consistent with a salvation by works. You might be saved initially, but if you don't hold up your end of the bargain, then your out on your ear. This is salvation by works. It ends up depending on us and not on Christ.
The Bible says that salvation is a gift from God (Eph 2:8-9 and Rom 6:23) and that God's gifts are not revocable. (Rom 11:29) The Bible also says that you are given Eternal Life when you place your trust in Christ. And Eternal Life lasts forever. If Eternal Life can be lost, then there's nothing "eternal" about it.
Another key contrast that's actually sort-of built-in to the other two is assurance. One school of thought says there's no way for us to have absolute assurance of our salvation. Well, this view, again, is inconsistent with salvation by Grace, and is very consistent with salvation by works. You can never really know if you've done enough works, so how could you ever be certain that you're going to Heaven?
Salvation by grace, on the other hand, would permit you complete and total assurance of salvation because salvation by grace doesn't depend upon you. The salvation is a gift, not a reward.
Thinking clearly about this is extremely important, and yet there is very little in the way of clear thinking about this issue in popular Christianity. Confusion and contradictions abound. Works are not required for salvation… only trust in Christ is required. That necessarily means that a person can go to Heaven without any works (1 Cor 3:15). If you can't go to Heaven without works, then that is a salvation by works and not by grace.