Are You Saved by What You Do?

Are You Saved by What You do?

Are You Saved by What You Do?

Richard Hollerman

How often have you heard the assertion, “You can’t be saved by anything you do but only what God does!”? Of course this is meant to be a safeguard against the erroneous understanding that a person can save himself by what he does or doesn’t do. In other words, people are trying to make sure that we don’t mistakenly think that we can merit or deserve salvation.

There definitely is an element of truth in this view. Remember that Paul the apostle wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This clearly says that we can’t be saved, forgiven, or born again based on our own deeds, worth, or merit. The reason why Paul could say that we are saved “through faith” is that faith saves because it looks beyond itself to the object of faith—Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God!

Sometimes we find the denial of salvation by works coming from one who seeks to refute the false teaching of Roman Catholicism that says that one can be saved by his own deeds or worth. Since this is false, one may go to the opposite extreme by claiming that deeds have no place at all in salvation. As some say, “Salvation is faith, plus nothing!” Or sometimes, we hear, “We are saved by faith alone!” Luther went so far as to insert the word “alone” into Romans 3:28: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith alone,” whereas Paul the apostle wrote, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith, apart from works of the Law.” In fact, this has become something of the epitome of the Protestant Reformation, as initiated by Luther and continued by Calvin and others. But is this true?

Are you saved by what you do?

To his credit, Luther did assert, “We are saved by faith alone—but not by faith that is alone!” Too many Protestants overlook the second part, that any faith that saves must be a faith that isn’t alone. It is also interesting that Luther was a great proponent of salvation through baptism! He taught that baptism “works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare” (Luther’s Small Catechism). In the case of babies, we acknowledge that the infant doesn’t know what is happening, but in the case of adults, the man or woman does consciously seek baptism to receive all of these spiritual blessings!

Have you heard, as I have, something like this: “You don’t need to do anything to be saved!” “Salvation is not by doing—but by dying!” But is it true that we don’t really need to “do” anything at all to be saved? What about Paul the apostle? Jesus told him (then Saul) that he should go to Damascus where “it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6). Remember that this is Jesus saying that Saul would be told what he had to do! When Paul was a prisoner in Philippi, the jailer said to Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (16:30). Paul didn’t correct him by saying that he didn’t have to “do” anything! Instead, he answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (v. 31a). The jailer then manifested repentance in caring for Paul and Silas who had been beaten, and he even was baptized in the middle of the night (vv. 32-34). Even, in the beginning, on the day of Pentecost, the crowd asked Peter and the other apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (2:37b). Did Peter say that there was nothing to do? No, he answered, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). There was something that these lost people had to “do” to be saved (cf. vv. 40-41).

Let’s return to the matter of baptism for a moment. In the Great Commission, Jesus declared, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16a). This surely sounds like the believer must “do” something—namely believe and be baptized. In the case of belief, many Evangelicals would say that God is the one who “does” this in us. He is the one who gives the “gift” of faith to a person, thus the person himself or herself is not really responsible for this act. This, however, is making a point that is definitely questionable, one that is not clearly and unambiguously stated.

Consider, for example, the words of Peter on the day of Pentecost. When the inquiring and convicted people say, “Brethren, what shall we do?,” the apostle replied, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38; cf. vv. 39-31). Was Peter saying that these lost sinners were to perform a “work” or “deed” in repentance and baptism that would enable them to boast before God because of their “accomplishment” or “achievement”? By no means! When these sincere and convicted people repented of their sins and submitted to baptism, they knew that they would be saved by grace through faith (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).

Consider also the words of Ananias to Paul (Saul) who had been praying and fasting for three days in Damascus: “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Yes, Paul had to “do” something but the effective power was in the “name” of Jesus Christ into whom Paul was baptized. There was no merit involved here. But there was God’s grace, bestowed through Saul’s faith, when he submitted to baptism at the hands of Ananias.

What has been said of baptism above could also be said of our life of “doing.” After his familiar words of Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul goes on to say, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (v. 10). In other words, God “created” us in Christ Jesus so that we might live a life of “good works” (or good deeds). God plans that we would “walk” in these good deeds! One who would do this in no way would be able to boast of his own achievement (as Paul explains more fully in Romans 4:1-8).

As you may have noticed, we are dealing with a theological issue that has been debated since the time of Augustine, but on through the time of Luther and Calvin, and up until the modern times. Just what is mongergism? This is what one dictionary says:

The teaching that conversion is accomplished exclusively by the working of God. Monergism states that if a person is saved, it results entirely from the work of God. Based on a misunderstanding of Ephesians 2:8, monergists see even faith as a gift from God, a special gift of God given only to those God has chosen. But in the Greek text of Ephesians 2:8 (‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is a gift of God’) there is only one pronoun, not two. It does not agree grammatically with the word “faith”; the pronoun is neuter in gender, while “faith” is feminine. According to all grammatical rules, the gift to which the verse refers cannot be faith. The gift is salvation, which none can merit” (Terry L. Miethe, The compact Dictionary of Doctrinal Words, pp. 139-140).

In other words, we must not see Monergism in Ephesians 2:8 (or elsewhere), for faith is not the “gift” that God gives arbitrarily, but salvation that is given to all of those who exercise faith. And true faith is a faith that is expressed in deeds and action.

We would encourage you to believe and obey God’s words and leave the results to Him. We can’t save ourselves, independent of God, but we can cast ourselves on God’s mercy and grace, pleading for God to forgive and save us through Jesus Christ and His atoning blood, and allowing God to do what He has said that He will do! Remember, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

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