Which Way is the Right Way to “Salvation”?
(Regardless of what name you call it)
by Christopher Andrus
Christianity’s meta-narrative explains those of other religions, but the others’ cannot explain what is unique about Christianity. This is especially evident with regard to how it is that one reaches what the religion considers to be the ultimate goal (regardless of what it is called). A good way to see the differences is to consider that there are four ways which these three are believed to relate: faith, good works and salvation. They are as follows:
1) “Faith” → Salvation (Good Works are unnecessary.)
2) “Good Works” → Salvation (No particular kind of Faith is necessary.)
3) “Faith” + “Good Works” → Salvation
4) Salvation (Accomplished by Christ) → Faith → Good Works → Heaven
“Faith” → Salvation (Good Works are unnecessary.)
The first of these is what Roman Catholics and many other non-Evangelicals believe the Protestant Christian Gospel teaches. But it is a misunderstanding, although it is regrettably true that Evangelical churches do sometimes fall into this error. This understanding of how one is saved is known as Antinomianism. It has also been called “cheap grace”. But it is really a denial of grace. For, even though the credo of the Reformation was that we are saved by faith alone, it has always been understood that true faith must lead to the doing of good works. This is in keeping with the words of the New Testament book of James (chapter 2, verse 26): “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Another way of putting it is that “we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.”
Consequently, a person claiming to have faith who doesn’t show this faith by doing good deeds, as opportunities come, is rightly regarded as being either a liar or self-deceived. This is why “Faith” has been placed in quotes above. Any understanding of faith which does not hold good works to be a necessary result of faith is a false view of faith. This is also reflected in the New Testament book of 1 John (chapter 3, verses 17-19):
“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him.”
“Good Works” → Salvation (No particular kind of Faith is necessary.)
The second is known as Moralism. It is probably the most popular notion for people identifying as non-religious (that is, Humanists) or nominally-religious people in the modern pluralistic world. (The latter refers to people who claim to belong to a particular religion but do not really hold to the teachings of that religion.) Of course, the “salvation” in view for most of these people is a sense of well-being in this world, rather than in a future world.
Unfortunately, it is also a way that does not work. This is because, from the Christian point-of-view no matter how many “good works” one does, these could not wash away the sin that separates us from God. (Beyond our behavior and thoughts, what we should not do and do or what we should do and don’t, is the root of mankind’s universal sinfulness – our inescapable tendency to deny or resist God.) Moreover, “good works” which are not performed for the right motive, which is love for God and neighbor, and for the right end, which is the glory of God, are not truly good (hence the quotation marks again).
“Faith” + “Good Works” → Salvation
The third conception is probably the most popular one for serious practitioners of all of the major religions of the world, including Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and, even (in practice, at least) Protestant Christianity. However, in spite of the popularity of this view and regardless of the sincerity with which it is pursued, it too is a false way! This is the error of Legalism, which makes Salvation dependent on what man does: namely, to have the right kind of “Faith” and the right “Good Works”. But, man is unable to have either on his own.
[Related to this is a recently-developed approach in Reformed Christian circles which considers Faith and Good Works to be two sides of the same coin. Thus: Faith/Works → Salvation
Or: “The Obedience of Faith” or Faithfulness → Salvation
While this view is somewhat of an improvement on the first two ways, in pointing to the inseparability of Faith and Good Works, it too fails to capture the true nature of God’s Saving Grace. It also fails to recognize that Faith and Works, while inseparable, are nonetheless also distinct entities, with the former being passive and the latter active.]
Salvation (Accomplished by Christ) → Faith → Good Works → Heaven
This brings us to the final conception, which is the only true one, what Jesus called the narrow path which leads to life (in contrast with the other ways, which make up the broad way which leads to destruction). For, the true Christian Gospel declares that Salvation is dependent only on what God does (in the past, the present and the future), both what He has done for us, in the saving work of His Eternal Son, Jesus Christ and what He does in us, in giving us true Faith and empowering us to do true Good Works. In this way, the Salvation which was perfectly accomplished by Christ is applied to believers in Him more and more until they are brought to Full Salvation in eternity.
The application of the Salvation accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ comes through the working of the Holy Spirit, Who takes up residence in the heart of God’s true Children as a true Divine Presence and Counselor. In this we see the necessity of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, as well as the Second, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in order for Salvation to be possible. The uniqueness of the Gospel, then, is the glorious truth that we have already been saved by Christ, although we have not yet reached the full experience of our salvation. This means that, if Christ died for us, our salvation is certain because it has already been fully accomplished. But it is not yet complete from our point-of-view.