There are many theories out there about what is required of people to attain salvation. Some believe that you have to perform religious rites and rituals such as be baptized, take the Lord’s Supper, be a good person, give money to a church or other religious institution, etc, etc. Others believe that all you have to do is have faith. Just say you believe certain things, say a prayer, sign a card and you’re good. These are just a few of many different thoughts on what makes one right with God. But what if I told you that I don’t think any of these things has any sort of power to save? No, not even faith. Not in and of itself anyway. I’ll explain that in a bit.
First, I want to address the idea that works and religious ceremony can save a person. The main passage of Scripture that comes to mind for me is Titus 3:5: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” I believe this same concept can be found in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:5. Jesus had just told Nicodemus that he had to be born again to be saved. Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born when they are old? Can they enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born?” So Jesus essentially says, “Let me give you another hint.” Then in verse 5, “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water (the washing of regeneration, not physical birth nor baptism) and the Spirit (Renewal of the Holy Spirit obviously), they cannot enter the kingdom of God.'” In other words, Jesus was saying that there is no kind of work you can do to be saved. Salvation is all the work of God.
Some believe that “washing of regeneration” refers to being baptized. But then that would mean that baptism is a required work before salvation. These same people use the idea of circumcision to back up their point. In the Old Testament, God required the Jews to be circumcised as a sign of their separation as His people. But Paul refuted the idea that circumcision saved people in Romans 4:9-17. He made the point that Abraham was considered righteous on the basis of his faith before he was circumcised AND before there was even any law to abide by. The law didn’t come about until Moses’ time which would have been approximately 500 years after Abraham’s time. Just for fun, and to make my point, I am going to write out the passage below and replace the word “circumcised” with the word “baptized.” I’ll only use 4:9-13.
Is this blessing upon the baptized, or upon the unbaptized also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned? While (after) he was baptized or (before he was) baptized? Not while (after) baptized, but (before he was) baptized; and he received the sign of baptism, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had before he was baptized, that he might be the father of all who believe without being baptized, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, and the father of baptism to those who not only are of the baptism, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had before he was baptized. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.
To sum it all up, I believe that John MacArthur made a great point that is a bit shorter. He said, “For the Jew, Passover is a collective symbol of deliverance and circumcision is an individual symbol of justification. For the Christian, communion is the collective corporate symbol of our relationship to Christ; baptism is the individual symbol of it.” These things are just symbols of, not requirements for, salvation.
Now what about faith? Faith is great. By grace alone through faith alone can we be saved. But did you notice which comes first? Grace. Grace is what truly saves, and the only kind of grace that can save is God’s grace. Grace is what gives us faith. Grace is a gift of God, but so is faith. Although the picture may be a bit cheesy, the quote on the picture below is what really grabbed my attention.
John MacArthur once again made a really great point in his commentary on Romans about Abraham’s faith. He says, “It was not the greatness of Abraham’s faith that saved him but the greatness of the gracious Lord in whom he placed his faith. Faith is never the basis or the reason for justification, but only the channel through which God works His redeeming grace. Faith is simply a convicted heart reaching out to receive God’s free and unmerited gift of salvation.” He continues, “Although faith is required for salvation, it has no power in itself to save. It is the power of God’s redemptive grace alone, working through the atoning work of His Son on the cross, that has power to save. Faith is NOT, as some claim, a type of work.” (emphasis added) Can I get an AMEN?? 😛
I think that some people do have “faith in faith,” in other words they think that if faith is strong enough, it will save. But what does James say about this? He says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’- and he was called a friend of God” (James 2:19-23).
The point James is trying to make is that if your faith does not move you into action, or is not accompanied by works, it is not real faith. It is dead faith. Likewise, good works, by themselves are useless. (See 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 which bears the idea that love is characterized by self-sacrifice, but not all self-sacrifice is an act of love.) You cannot have one without the other. If I say that I believe that a chair is going to hold me up if I sit in it, but I refuse to sit in it, I will never be able to prove that my faith is real, because it is likely not real. The works fulfill the faith, but these works and this faith can only come by the grace of God, which alone can truly save.
I sincerely hope that this was encouraging to some and challenging for some. But most importantly, I hope that the truth has been spoken in love. I understand that I don’t always have everything right, and as always, I invite anyone who wishes to add encouragement or ask questions and converse about these things. Grace, peace and love to all through the Lord Jesus Christ!