Grace, Faith, and Salvation

There’s a cute little saying related to grace, faith and salvation that’s been circulating through religious circles for years, and it goes something like this: "God did everything, we do nothing; God gets all the credit, we get all the blessings."  I know the saying well.  I used to teach it.  Of course the message of this little ditty is that salvation requires nothing on our part, God has already done everything necessary.  The view in more conservative, Jesus-centered groups is that Jesus did it all on the cross.  Now all we have to do is believe it, accept it, sit back and enjoy it.  There’s only one small problem with this – it’s not exactly true.

The concepts of grace, faith and salvation have always been distorted in the institutional church.  As I’ve said before, the goal of any institution is to perpetuate itself.  That’s why it’s called an institution.  The so-called church is no different.  To get people involved in religion, you have to make that religion palatable.  It has to be enticing and enjoyable.  Salvation has to be quick and easy.  It has to involve positive thinking, but it also has to have rules.  And it has to have a hook, something to offer.  "Come to God and let Him give you everything you ever wanted.  All He wants to do is bless you, all you have to do is let Him."  Religion wants us to think we can enjoy all that the world has to offer, have a relationship with God and eternal life, and we can get it all wrapped up in the same, neat little package.

Anyone who ever took the time to read the red letters in the Gospels should know that Jesus never encouraged or misled anyone by telling them salvation was quick or easy.  And He never promised them worldly blessings.  In fact, He told them they had to choose between God and worldly things, because the two don’t mix!  He never told anyone that following God was fun; He said it required suffering and self-sacrifice.  You cannot find anything in what Jesus said that would lead you to believe that salvation was based entirely on something that God would do, and that you would never be required to do anything.  And Jesus never held salvation out like a carrot, appealing to our flesh, saying, "follow Me and I’ll give you anything you want."  He said we would have to be willing to forsake everything and everyone in order to be His disciple.  God insists that we have no idols.  He’s very clear on that point.

The sacred mantra of institutional Christianity is "For by grace are ye saved; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast."  And if you can read that and not see that there’s something wrong with it, then you’ve been lulled to sleep with the rest of them.  Salvation is God’s free gift, they say.  Works of any kind are not acceptable, they say.  The preacher trying his best to manipulate and tempt people to respond to his invitation tells his potential converts to simply stretch out their hands and receive what God has to offer.  Implying, of course, that nothing is required of them.  Just believe.  Just receive.  It’s so simple, so easy.

Did you see anything wrong with the quote of Ephesians 2:8,9 above.  I quoted it like most evangelicals and fundamentalists quote it to me.  Which means I left part of it out.  And, it is my contention that they leave out the part they don’t want to deal with or don’t understand.  What part is that, you ask?  It’s the part that mentions faith.  The first phrase of verse 8 says, "For by grace are ye saved through faith". Now, if I understand anything at all, it seems to me that Paul is expressing something here that connects the concepts of grace, faith and salvation.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t think this verse says that it’s grace alone that saves us.

There are two prepositions here.  And they’re used to illustrate the relation of grace and faith to salvation.  Salvation comes by (means of) grace, through (the way of) faith.  In other words, grace doesn’t save us.  It makes salvation possible.  And faith can’t be ignored.  It’s the essential activity that makes salvation a reality!

This makes even more sense when you look at the meanings of grace and faith.  Both of these terms are seriously distorted by institutional religion.  The word "grace" is translated from the Greek charis, and describes the result of God’s loving-kindness towards men, the result of which is His unearned and undeserved favor.  It is God’s grace that puts man in a position to experience salvation – a position we could never earn or deserve.  There is nothing that we could ever do that would make God indebted to us, nor is there anything we could ever do that would make us equal to His righteous perfection.  Without His grace, we’re dead in the water, no hope, zip!  But God’s grace doesn’t save us.  It gives us the opportunity to be saved!

Then, there’s the issue of faith.  What a can of worms this is!  In the traditional church today, faith can mean almost anything you want it to mean.  But, in the word of God, faith describes man’s relationship with an unseen God and the meaning is specific and unchanging.  The Greek word translated "faith" is pistis.  It comes from the word peitho, to persuade.  The noun "faith" and the corresponding verb pisteuo, translated "believe", both have the same basic elements in their definition.

First and most importantly, they require revelation from God.  You cannot exercise faith or truly believe anything from a Biblical perspective unless you receive revelation from God.  You have to learn to recognize His still, small voice.  That’s a real problem for all those religious types who don’t think that God is able to communicate with men today, or that He chooses not to.  The second thing involved in the meaning of faith and believe involves surrender.  We have to submit to what He says.  It’s proof that we agree with Him.  And the third aspect of these two words is obedience.  We have to do what He says.  So, faith includes all of these.  We have to hear God, submit or agree with Him, and then we have to be obedient and do what He says.

And just in case you don’t want to accept the fact that "faith" and "believe" mean the same thing, argue with Paul.  In Romans 4:22 he says that Abraham had right standing with God because of his faith (pistis).  Then in Galatians 3:6, he says the reason Abraham had right standing with God was because he believed (pisteuo).  The fact is Abraham learned how to recognize the voice of God.  When he realized that God was speaking to him, he submitted.  And then he obeyed.  Read Genesis 22:1-14and you’ll see what I mean.  If that’s not enough to convince you, read chapters 12through 22 of Genesis and see time after time where Abraham heard God, submitted to Him and obeyed Him.

I love what Paul says in Philippians 3:7-9.  This puts grace and faith in perspective for me as well as any Scripture I know.

"But what things I had in my life that might have been considered an advantage to me in a religious way, I have come to the point that I know they’re all worthless.  They are, in fact, nothing at all, compared to the possession of the priceless privilege of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.  And it is for this intimate relationship with Him that I am willing to suffer the loss of all things and consider them garbage.  I must know Him.  I will not settle for a false, self-achieved righteousness that comes from following the rules of men.  My aim is to possess that genuine righteousness that comes only through the faith of Christ, that real right standing with God that is the result of saving faith."

Now, when you read this don’t even think about changing the definition of faith, because if you do, this verse won’t make sense.  Paul knew that real righteousness came from hearing God, submitting to Him and obeying Him, not from keeping the rules.  And you may be wondering where grace is in this passage, since the word is nowhere to be found.  I’ll tell you where it is.  To Paul, grace is found in the "possession of the priceless privilege of knowing Jesus".  He couldn’t earn it and nothing that he was before in the religious world made him deserve it.  To Paul (and to us) grace was the source of his privilege or opportunity to know God, but faith was the operative means needed to accomplish it.

And don’t give me any of that irresponsible, religious baloney about how God doesn’t speak to men today like He did in Biblical times.  Or how it was different for them.  People want to assume that God did something different with Abraham or Moses or David.  That He spoke to them in an unmistakable, booming voice out of clouds or burning bushes or the wind.  But God doesn’t change and the way in which He relates to men doesn’t change either (Malachi 3:6,7).  The truth is these men learned how to hear God’s voice and followed Him.  And the accounts of their lives and their experiences with God are recorded for us as an example to follow.  Religion teaches us to follow man, and man’s reasoning.  That reasoning tries to convince us that God changed.  He didn’t.  He won’t.  He can't.

Today "faith" stands for what you supposedly "believe".  In religion your faith is based on a combination of doctrinal positions, traditional rituals and rules of acceptable behavior.  And "believe" means what you agree with intellectually.  But Abraham was not declared righteous by God because he agreed with a particular doctrinal position or because he followed the rules.  He was declared righteous because he heard God, submitted to Him and obeyed Him.  It had nothing to do with man or man’s religion.

God never intended for us to be dependent on men, books, traditions or rituals.  He wants (He requires) that we be dependent on Him and Him alone.  He never intended for us to have a relationship with a book, nor will He excuse us for making that choice.  The Scriptures have only one purpose; to point us to a real, living God Who wants to have a personal, intimate relationship with us.  Go back up and read Philippians 3:7-9 again, that’s what Paul is talking about.  But religion wants us to have a relationship with a book and miss out on the real thing.  The Pharisees were guilty of this and Jesus was careful to point it out to them (John 5:39,40).  Supposed conservative Christians who claim to "believe the Bible, nothing more, nothing less" will never know or experience God.  They can only know about Him and experience their own emotions.  Neither of those will get you to heaven.

"Then I will say to them openly (and this will be the first time they have truly heard My voice), I never knew you, we were never intimate, you must leave Me now, all of you who disregarded the things I clearly taught." (Matthew 7:23)

If you ever get to the point where you understand the definitions of grace and faith and aren’t confused when you see them in the Scriptures, then you should be able to read Romans 34 and and actually understand what Paul is talking about.  And I’m not being sarcastic here (believe it or not).  I’m saying this because I still have to think about it myself.  My 35 years in religion still messes me up from time to time.

But while we’re here, let me give you one more passage that points out the true relationship between grace and faith.  Again, this is Paul in Romans 5:1,2.

"Now, since we receive right standing with God only through our exercise of faith, let us rejoice in that wonderful peace that comes from our reconciliation with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord, the unspeakable privilege of being face to face with Him.  It is through Christ that we have access by means of faith into this grace (opportunity) in which we stand. And let us exult in our hope of experiencing the reality of God.  And not only that, let us triumph in our tribulations and sufferings as well, knowing that the pressures of these hardships will only produce that patient endurance we all need to follow after Him."

I can’t resist pointing out a couple of things here.  First, our right standing or approval with God comes only by faith, and remember, faith has only one definition so don’t try to make it mean something else.  The second is, and Paul is perfectly clear on this point, we access God’s grace only through faith (and it still means the same thing).  Grace is real.  It’s out there waiting.  But grace alone will never save you.  You have to access grace by faith.  You have to access the opportunity to know God by listening to Him, submitting to Him and doing what He says.  And then finally, Paul mentions tribulations and suffering.  This is not strictly on the subject of grace and faith, but I like to point it out whenever I get the chance so I can show you that suffering and self-sacrifice is part of the deal.

The bottom line here is that we cannot accept the religious view that you can somehow have a relationship with God by reading a book (the Bible).  At some point you must accept the fact that all the men you are reading about in that book had a relationship with God that was based on hearing, submitting and obeying Him and had nothing whatsoever to do with anything they had to read.  Abraham didn’t have an extensive library filled with Christian "how to" books and seven or eight different translations of the Bible.  He wasn’t a "King James only" kind of guy.

And the argument that says we have to be careful about hearing God is ludicrous.  Of course there are all those nut cases out there that claim to hear God and get involved in all sorts of strange and dangerous perversions.  They all claim to have the truth.  I’ve heard the warnings hundreds of times.  "Be careful about this business of hearing God, you’ll open yourself up to all kinds of evil influences."  Or, how about this one, it’s pretty common.  "How can you know it’s really God?"

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until the Lord takes me home, "man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (I Samuel 16:7)  If people would really read the book they place so much confidence in, then they would realize that it points us to an unseen but real, living God Who wants to have a personal and intimate relationship with us.  And He knows when we really want to know Him, because He knows what’s in our heart.  He knows the difference between man seeking Him and man trying to come up with new ways to manipulate and control other men.  He knows when we’re sincere in our desire for Him and He knows when we’re content to follow man’s religion.  Look at Luke 18:10-14 if you don’t think God knows the difference.  And look at II Thessalonians 2:9-12 if you don’t think He will allow deception to come on those who are trusting in religion or in themselves.  Don’t kid yourself; absolutely nothing is hidden from Him (Hebrews 4:13).  He knows your heart.  And if your heart is right, He’ll honor it.

Here’s a great illustration of how God responds when we’re serious about seeking Him.  It’s found in II Chronicles 15, and this is how it shakes out.

"…The Lord is with you while you are with Him.  If you will seek Him, He will be found by you.  But if you are indifferent towards Him and forsake Him, He will forsake you." (Verse 2)

"So they agreed together to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers.  With all their heart they desired Him and with all their soul they sought after Him." (Verse 12)

"And all Judah rejoiced, because they had sworn with their whole heart and sought Him with their whole desire, and He was found by them.  And the Lord gave them both rest and peace." (Verse 15)

And if that’s not enough to convince you (and for some, I know it’s not), look at the advice David gives to his son Solomon in I Chronicles 28:9.

"And you Solomon my son, know the God of your father [have personal knowledge of Him, be acquainted with, and understand Him; appreciate, heed and cherish Him] and serve Him with a blameless heart and a willing mind, for the Lord searches all hearts and minds and understands all the wanderings of the thoughts.  If you seek Him [inquiring for and of Him and requiring Him as your first and vital necessity] you will find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever!" (Amplified Version)

Now, that’s a verse that needs no explanation, but if that’s still not enough, how about this one? This is Hebrews 11:6.

"But without faith it is impossible to please Him.  And those who intend to come near to God must, by necessity, believe that He exists and that He will respond with kindness and generosity to those who earnestly and diligently seek for Him."

I hope you haven’t forgotten the definition of faith already, because it means the same thing here that it does everywhere else.  If you don’t learn to recognize His still, small voice, you can’t please Him.  But if you seek after Him, He will respond to you and you will learn to recognize His voice.  It’s His promise, not mine.

I want to mention one more passage.  Then we’ll put this issue to rest. This is Matthew 7:9-11.

"And is there any man who, if his son asks him for a loaf of bread, will hand him a stone?  Or if his son asks for a fish, will he hand him a serpent?  If you then, as evil as you are, know how to give your children the things they need, how much more should your Father Who is in heaven know how to give you the things that you need?"

It’s ridiculous for all those people who claim to believe in God and say they trust Him to think that if they seek after Him with a sincere heart the devil is going to show up instead.  Who’s in charge anyway?  Neither the devil nor his demons are able to do anything without God’s knowledge and permission.  If you’re too lazy to read the whole book, at least read Job 1:6-12 and see what I mean.

And by now I’ve come to realize how humorous it really is for anyone to think that the devil is the problem when it comes to knowing God.  Our flesh is the problem!  If you don’t believe me, try to get alone with God, submit to Him and wait on Him.  Your mind will race, your imagination will soar and your flesh will go positively wild!  You’ll likely be shocked by the evil and disgusting thoughts that come into your mind.  But let me give you a little advice.  When they come, don’t blame the devil.  Be honest, own them and deal with them as your own.

There is one more passage that I’d like to look at that puts grace and faith into perspective.  This is Romans 4:13-22 and is somewhat longer than the others, so bear with me.

"Now God’s promise given to Abraham and to his descendants (that He would be their God and they would be his people) was not based on their obedience to a set of written rules, but on a relationship with Him that can only come through faith.  So, if you think God’s promise is for those who keep the rules, those who have supposedly earned it, you make faith meaningless and useless.  The truth is, no one can really keep the rules completely, so they bring punishment on themselves when they try.  Therefore, inheriting the promise depends entirely on faith that it may be given as an act of grace (not earned or deserved), and this promise is guaranteed to all of Abraham’s descendants, regardless of whether they keep the rules or not, as long as they have a faith like his.  For this reason Abraham is the father of all who will live by faith.  This is what the Lord meant when He said of Abraham, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.’  And He said that because Abraham believed in the invisible God Who can bring the dead back to life and speaks of things that don’t exist as if they already existed.  For Abraham human reason would have been futile, yet his living faith convinced him that he would become the father of many nations with descendants impossible to count.  So he did not abandon his faith when he considered his own impotence or the frailty of his hundred-year-old body or the barrenness of Sarah’s dead womb.  Abraham never wavered concerning God’s promise of a son and his faith grew stronger and he gave glory to God, fully persuaded that God was able to do what He had spoken.  So, because of Abraham’s persistent faith, God declared that he was a righteous man."

I really think this passage is clear enough, but just in case your religion is still blinding you from the truth and you still don’t get it, let me help you out.  Paul builds his case for faith and grace by using Abraham as his example.  Abraham inherited God’s promise because of his faith, not because he followed the rules.  And Paul is careful to point out the fact that since it was by faith, the promise was truly given as an act of grace, because Abraham didn’t try to do anything to earn it or deserve it.  And, as it says above, Abraham is the father of all who live by faith (if you need to read that in another place, look at Galatians 3:7).

Now, somebody needs to help me out here.  I know what’s going to happen.  There will be some that will read this, completely disregard the Scripture references and accuse me of teaching salvation by works.  And I can almost guarantee that the ones who do it will be the religious types who go to church every time the doors are open, get up at 5 am every day to read their devotional books, faithfully pray every prayer request that every Tom, Dick and Harry in the world has given them (and don’t forget to pray for all the missionaries and for our government officials too), teach Sunday School on Sunday morning and lead a divorce recovery group on Thursday night, sing in the choir and, of course, tithe and give generously to the building fund.  Or, they’ll be the kind who did all those things for years, but now they’re burned out and don’t want to do anything.  Anyway, don’t compare a life of faith to religious works.  I was in the traditional church for 35 years and I know what religious works are.

There’s one more thing I want to clear up before I’m finished with this paper.  I don’t know how to break this to you easy, so I’ll just come right out and say it.  You can’t have salvation without works.  That’s what the Bible says, which makes for an interesting situation for all you "The Bible says it, I believe it and that settles it!" folks who want to rest your case on "not of works, lest any man should boast."

This is a great illustration of how religion distorts truth by choosing isolated verses or parts of verses to support their doctrine.  While it’s certainly true that Ephesians 2:9tells us that salvation is not by works, it’s equally true that Ephesians 2:10 tells us that works are essential.  We simply have to understand which works are good and which are bad.  And that is established by the context and by an honest examination of the complete passage that deals with the subject at hand.  So, let’s look at Ephesians 2:8,9 and 10.

"And it is by grace (the favor of God that we cannot earn and do not deserve) that we can be saved through the exercise of our faith.  This grace is not the result of anything we could do.  It’s the free gift of God.  And it’s not ours because we were diligent to keep all the rules, so there’s no reason to be prideful about it.  It is, in fact, our opportunity to be God’s own handiwork as He personally recreates us in the image of Christ through those good works which He has already prepared for us, so we could walk in them and so accomplish His purpose for us."

So, which works are bad and which are good?  The context tells us everything we need to know.  The bad works are the religious things we think up on our own because we think they make us look good or because we think we can gain God or man’s approval if we do them.  The good works are the things God has prepared for us to do because they’re what He has determined to use in conforming us to the image of His Son.  The bad works are man’s plan.  The good works are God’s plan.  It’s real simple.

And how do you find out what those good works are that God has planned for you?  I’m sorry to tell you this, but He didn’t write our entire individual, personal plans down in a book.  And regardless of what you think, you won’t find His plan for you in the Bible.  Sooner or later you’re going to have to grasp this concept.  God wants to have a personal relationship with you based on you accessing His plan of grace through your faith in Him.  And that faith requires that you learn how to recognize His voice so you can hear Him tell you what they are.  Then you can submit to Him, obey Him and see His purpose unfold in your life.  And that is your salvation.  It’s made possible by God’s grace.  And it becomes a reality only through the exercise of your faith!  That’s why Paul calls it saving faith (Philippians 3:9).