Throughout the history of the church one of the most essential questions that has engaged the attention of Christians has been how one obtains forgiveness from a holy God. We have already established in previous articles that our greatest need as humans is neither poverty nor world peace, but salvation from the just wrath of God, which we have deservedly earned through our rebellion. It is therefore right that the question of how we obtain salvation ranks high on the minds of all Christians. Within the church, this question has generated two kinds of response. There are those who argue we are saved by grace alone apart from works, and those who are of the view that we are saved by trying to obey the commandments of God, in other words our works. This debate has caused divisions in the church. It was responsible for the 16th century protestant reformation led by Martin Luther, disputing the official teaching of the Vatican.
According to Roman Catholic teaching, we are saved by grace plus our works. Protestants vehemently hold we are saved by grace alone apart from any works on our part. This debate rages on even today; sometimes unconsciously. I recently had a discussion with a friend who could not hide his disdain for the idea of salvation by grace alone apart from works. In his view, salvation by grace alone is just a license for people to continue in their sins, while holding as it were a free ticket to heaven. He is not alone in his concern; I have met countless number of people with similar suspicion and skepticism about Grace. This perception often is fuelled by the licentious lives of professing Christians which has no semblance to biblical Christianity.
What does it mean to be saved by Grace?
According to the Vine’s Expositionary Dictionary, Grace is translated from the Greek word charis, which means, that which occasions pleasure, delight or causes favorable regard. We read in Mark 1:9-11;
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased”. Unfortunately, God could not say the same thing about us. Ever since Adam rebelled against God’s command (Gen. 3:1-19), everything that could occasion God’s pleasure and delight in us was taken away. Instead of God taking pleasure in us, his wrath rested on us and by nature became children of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
However through our union with Christ, though we were sinful and unlovable, his righteousness has been transferred to us. As a result the Father can now take pleasure in us. “Christ suffered…the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Therefore when we say we are saved by grace alone, what we are saying is that God delights in us because of someone else’s work. For by grace we have been saved through faith. And this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
In our meritorious – reward driven society, the idea of free grace outside our own hard work sounds unpopular. However we must understand without the imputed righteousness of Christ, there is no way we can be at peace with God. Michael Reeves observes rightly when he says “salvation is about adoption, rather than measuring up to set standards”. Many of us think of God as a heavenly headmaster with a set of standards we need to measure up to. However this perception could not be further from the truth. The bible refers to God as our heavenly Father, which means our need is not to measure up to some set of standards. Rather our need is to be adopted into his family. And we know that no one works their way into a family relationship, son-ship is a free gift, so we read in John 1:12, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave them the right to become children of God”. That is why we cannot earn salvation, it is a free gift of God through the finished work of Christ.
If Grace, What of Works?
I recently heard the story of a Christian leader, who when confronted with his sinful lifestyle, responded, “don’t worry about me, I know how to get back with God”. Stories like this abound within the church, men and women who see the grace of God as license to indulge in sin. It is absolutely true we are saved by grace alone apart from works. However, grace is transformative. True grace leads to regeneration of the heart. Paul talks about this in Titus 2:11-14;
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age
Grace, though free, it is not cheap. It was purchased at the cost of the life of the Son of God. A professing Christian without a transformed life has not truly known the grace of God, because the grace of God trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. Martin Luther was right when he said “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saved us is not alone”. It is accurate to say that if your life after receiving the grace of Christ is the same as it was prior, chances are that you haven’t truly encountered him. Elsewhere in Roman 6:1-2, Paul asks a rhetorical question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” His response is very instructive, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” It follows then that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). The grace of God translates us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. It’s therefore strange that in a country where more than two thirds of the population professes Christianity, corruption abounds.
Yes, we are saved by grace alone through faith, but we are saved for good works. That is why a Christian without good works is no Christian at all.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)