Are We Saved by Faith?
NCW 8, January 1994
Q. In your pamphlet, "Seventh-Day Adventist Belief Compared With New Covenant Christian Belief" you say that "we are saved by faith, and not by works or by living the Law" and that "good works are the fruit of true faith" (#5 & 6) (New Covenant Press, December 1993). This is standard evangelical doctrine, isn't it? Or is it different in any way?
In our experience, the salvation by faith/works question is one of the most misunderstood doctrines of the Christian faith. We are asked questions about it time and time again.
New Covenant Christians like to use the analogy of breathing in and out, respectively, to explain the relationship between faith and works. The first breath and new-born baby takes is an inward motion as it sucks air into its lungs. The last breath of an adult on his deathbed is usually outwards -- "he breathed his last breath" is a popular expression.
A new-born baby who tried to breathe out before it had breathed in would die. We may liken such a person to those Paul described when he said that they tried to earn salvation by works without faith. In actual fact, the first breath a baby takes is not a conscious decision -- it is an automatic reaction caused by the release of certain biochemical enzymes in the lungs. The baby does not in fact "work" to take its first breath.
Nothing we can do outwardly will bring us into a saved condition. The person who is saved -- and by "saved" we mean brought into a right relationship with God -- cannot earn that "savedness". Nothing we can do outwardly can bring us into right relationship with God because God judges the heart of man. If a man repents of his sins and accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, trusting in the Master's promises, He is brought into right relationship with God.
We know this to be so from the clear witness given by the story of the thief on the cross (see NCCW, No.7, December 1993, "The Thief who was Saved", pp.3-12). This man, by virtue of being nailed to a cross, had no opportunity to do good works yet Jesus pronounced him saved by virtue of promising him a place in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43). His salvation was predicated upon a genuine change of heart. He believed, repented, and desired to follow.
If, however, the thief, let us say, had been pardoned and taken down off the cross, and had lived many more years, and had done no good works afterwards, then that would be evidence that his heart had not been right and that he was not saved. Indeed, the relationship between faith and works is so close that the honest investigator must at some time be led to wonder if in fact the two are inseparable.
There is one school of evangelical thought which teaches that "once saved, always saved". This we do not accept because it is not what the apostles taught. James is absolutely clear about this: "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds (works) is dead" (Jas.2:26, also v. 20, NIV). In other words, the relationship between faith and works is so close that in fact they are one entity, just as the spirit and body and one life. If the spirit leaves the body, the body dies; if the man saved by faith does no good works, then that faith -- and his salvation -- must die also.
When you talk with someone, do you consciously think of them as spirit and body, or as one whole person? Whilst a man indeed consists of two parts, he is one whole -- at least until he is dead. We should view faith and works in the same way. So long as we are able to do good works, faith and works are inseparable. But if at any time we find ourselves unable to do good works like the thief on the cross because of a predicament -- like, for example, someone totally paralysed in a wheel chair -- then clearly we are saved by faith alone.
If we analyse this critically, then just as a human life is a combination of spirit and body, then salvation is in truth a combination of faith and works. We are therefore saved by faith and works but faith is always the first, justifying cause. In other words, we are made right in the first instance by our faith but thereafter by a harmonious combination of faith and works.
Christians know that in their own power they cannot earn salvation. I cannot say to myself: "I will go and do this so that I may be saved". That is not true salvation. However, if I say: "I will believe and do whatever I want," then that is not true salvation either. Only if I say: "I believe, and I trust my salvation in this, and I will do as many good works as I can because I love my Lord" then that is surely true salvation.
So what is the common denominator of salvation? It is faith in, and love of, the Lord. Love is expressed in works. Salvation, to be real, must also be expressed. If I am capable of doing good works but stop doing them, then my love has waxed cold and my belief has ebbed. Since salvation is by faith, then if my faith ebbs, so also must my salvation.
To say that once one is saved one is always saved is as foolish as saying that once my spirit is in my body I will always be alive even if I have a fatal accident.
Does this doctrine mean, therefore, that we must go around never really being sure if we are saved or not? No, it doesn't. Once a person has received Christ, he does so because he has received light and truth through the Holy Spirit. He knows who Jesus is, even if that knowledge is imperfect. So long as one does not deny that knowledge but seeks to realise it, however imperfectly, then a soul is walking in salvation. We do not have to be perfect to be saved. We only have to be living in a spirit of repentance.
Does that mean that is I sin, and do not repent immediately, that in the period between sinning and repenting that I am in an unsaved condition? In a way, yes, because there is something we must do -- repent -- before we are made right with God. Most of us don't know how to repent instantaneously, however, and God would not condemn us while we are working out our salvation -- He is patient and longsuffering.
If my child does something wrong and does not repent immediately, I give him time, so that he can work it out and restore our broken relationship. God, too, waits. He does not cause us out into an "unsaved" condition. There is always space granted for repentance. Technically, we are unsaved during that period, yet God, in his loving kindness, declares us saved -- keeps us in right relationship -- while we work it out. The key question is this: Are we still trusting in Jesus? In my opinion, so long as we are genuinely trusting in Christ, we are conditionally saved -- that is, on condition that we continue working out or repentance -- on condition we continue "working out our salvation in fear and trembling" (Phil.2:12).
It is clear from the scriptures that salvation is both an event AND a process. On the one hand we are "saved" when we receive Christ and are true to that belief -- that is, not consciously denying it. It is our first act of faith and requires no works. Perhaps this might be called our initial salvation, our first awareness of eternal life through knowing who Jesus and God are (John 17:3). But in addition, there must be a continuing process of salvation, else who could Paul say that we have to keep working it out? That which has been received doesn't need working out.
The scriptures are consistent in saying that the evidence of salvation is good works. Without them, at least in some degree, there is no salvation. In Titus, we are told of people who claim to be saved -- who "claim to know God, but by their actions they deny Him..." (Titus 1:16, NIV). James reminds us of what Jesus Himself publicly taught: "My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water" (Jas.3:12, NIV) and reminded his readers that such people are, in fact, from the devil. Anyone who claims to have received Jesus as Saviour, and says he is "saved", but who lacks the graces of salvation, is not saved. James says that a saved person is a wise one, and that such wisdom brings the following fruits: purity, peace-lovingness, consideration, submissiveness, mercy, GOOD FRUITS, impartiality and sincerity (Jas.3:17).
As you saved? Then look to the fruits. "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (Jas.3:18, NIV). Never suppose that "once saved, always saved", but ask yourself honestly HOW much am I saved? What is lacking in my profession of salvation? Have I stopped working out my salvation "in fear and trembling"? Am I relying on my first encounter with Jesus to get me into heaven? If you are, BEWARE! Because in a way you are trusting in your own righteousness to keep you saved since the day you first received Christ. Such an attitude is always a prelude to a fall. I have seen so many so-called Christians filled with hostility and anger against others who do not accept their point-of-view because they think they are saved for good. Such have put themselves into the jaws of the lion and are storing up a terrible condemnation for themselves.
It is time that the fanatical wing of Christianity stopped misrepresenting Paul's teachings and started believing more in what Jesus Himself taught. It is time they learned obedience to the Commandments and the Law -- not because they can earn salvation through such obedience -- but because obedience is a test on their love for Christ and is a SIGN of their savedness.
If you would like to know what Christ expects of those who love and serve Him, write into us or ask one of our ministers to come and visit you to explain what the New Covenant Law is. You may discover, as we have done, that there is much more to being saved than simply professing the Name of Christ.
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Last updated on 18 April 1998
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