Paranoia over Works Salvation

The Paranoia

If someone asserts that Scripture stipulates a condition one must meet to be saved, especially one related to behavior, many contemporary evangelicals are prepared to pounce, making the charge of a works salvation. I believe this reaction is largely incited by the current evangelical embrace of unconditional acceptance that adversely responds to any hint of conditional acceptance.

The Question

This concern calls for a discussion on what constitutes works salvation. What does Ephesians 2:9 mean when it says “not of works,” or Titus 3:5 in stating, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us”?

It could mean one of two things: either there is no relationship between saving faith and behavior whatever, or a relationship between faith and behavior exists, but that the behavior in view does not earn our salvation.

Repentance Seen As Works

The first option, rejecting any relationship between saving faith and behavior, would eliminate repentance. Repentance does not require that an individual do any works per se; however, it does entail a commitment that would affect future works. That is, repenting conveys that the individual commits himself to turn from past bad behavior and seek to live according to the Word of God in the future. (Some define repentance differently. I have addressed this issue in a previous post.) Some charge that this constitutes a works salvation because repentance so understood includes a commitment to live differently.

Submission to the Authority of Christ Seen As Works

Likewise, this aversion to any relationship between salvation and behavior would view the understanding of faith as including submission to the authority of Christ described in yesterday’s post as salvation by works. Even though, as with repentance, this view of faith does not require an individual to do any works to be saved, it would influence future behavior, and thus be branded as a works salvation by those insisting that no relationship can exist between saving faith and behavior.

Problems with These Views

Insisting on this total disconnect between saving faith and behavior encounters several problems.

Scripture Teaches These Conditions

First, we have demonstrated in previous posts that repentance as defined above does constitute the teaching of the New Testament. In addition, in yesterday’s post we made the case from Scripture and other factors that saving faith does entail submission to the authority of Christ. Therefore, those excluding any relationship between salvation and behavior must deal with the evidence supporting repentance and submission to the authority of Christ as conditions of salvation. Some have in fact attempted to do just that, but at least in my opinion they have had to jump through scriptural and rational hoops in this effort, failing even to come close to making a compelling case.

Meeting a Condition Does Not Constitute Earning

Beyond that, insistence that any condition for salvation in any way connected with behavior is tantamount to salvation by works misses the distinction between meeting a condition and earning something.

If you had Bill Gates’ money, and you had a 25-year-old nephew who graduated from college but could not find a job, you might be inclined to give him $1 million to set him up in business for himself. However, word had gotten to you that he tended to stay up until two in the morning watching movies, would sleep in until 11 AM, was smoking pot, and had girlfriends staying at the house on a regular basis.

So you meet with him, offering him your plan to help him by funding a startup business with $1 million. However, you also stipulate that a condition for giving him the million dollars is that he commits himself to trade in his profligate lifestyle for one that reflects a morality that would support success in business.

Let’s assume that he sincerely responds by acknowledging that he is ashamed of his current lifestyle, recognizes that it is leading him to ruin, and states that he genuinely wants to change, committing himself to do so.

Does committing himself to meeting this condition mean that he earned the million dollars? No rational analysis would support that conclusion. Likewise, Scripture teaches that we are guilty before God and that nothing we can possibly do will remove that guilt. However, Christ provided redemption by dying for our sins. Therefore, repenting and submitting to the authority of Christ in no way earns our salvation, and therefore they can in no way be viewed as embodying a works salvation.

Who Is Doing Whom a Favor?

Beyond that, a rational analysis of your requirement that your nephew clean up his lifestyle would conclude that his commitment to meet this condition does not represent him doing you a favor but rather you doing him a favor. I find it breathtaking that anyone could view repentance and submitting to the authority of Christ as our doing something for Him, when in fact leaving our debilitating lifestyle and enjoying the benefit of God’s direction constitutes His richest blessing on us.

Related to that, it is mind-bending when people take the position that giving up their sin entails doing something for God. Imagine a surgeon offering to operate on a cancer patient free of charge, only to have the cancer patient later assert that it actually was not free because he gave up his cancer. Perhaps one conclusion we can reach from this line of reasoning is that maybe a person who doesn’t see his sin as cancer, who believes his sin to be something of value he must give up, is not ready to receive Christ.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line, then, is that repentance and submission to the authority of Christ do not entail us doing something for God, but rather Him doing something for us. Therefore, this condition related to saving faith cannot be viewed in any way as earning our salvation, which is impossible for us to do in any case. Therefore, viewing a gospel requiring repentance and submission to the authority of Christ as a works gospel represents a very distorted understanding of this transaction.

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