Understanding Salvation by Faith

The notion that salvation is totally of God and is the result of nothing that anyone does is hard to grasp. To many, this solution is too easy. Human nature almost demands us to tack something onto the end. And many through the ages have felt compelled to add onto the central message of Christianity. But the Bible makes it clear that salvation is sola gratia — by grace alone. As Ephesians 2:8–9 says, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. It is not from yourself or anything you've done, but the gift of God." Salvation, therefore, is a free gift of grace from God.

When a person accepts the gift of salvation, he or she is said to be justified — made acceptable before (or made right with) God. The process of being declared righteous is called justification.

Although all Christians agree that God's grace is what saves people, they disagree considerably over what a person's role is in this whole process. Obviously, a Christian needs to believe in Jesus Christ, but a sticky issue has always been whether faith by itself is sufficient for salvation. The Christian Church is split on this issue.

Catholics believe that God's gift of grace is received through faith and by partaking of the sacraments (such as being baptized, taking Communion, being confirmed in the church, and confessing sins to a priest). Baptism is particularly important and Catholics consider it a key requirement for being saved.

Most Orthodox Christians believe salvation is more of a gradual process in which humans become more and more like God as they participate with him in the work of salvation. Protestants see the act of praying the sinner's prayer as the trigger that brings salvation into a person's life. In contrast, Orthodox Christians typically place far less emphasis on a specific "salvation event" that starts the Christian's life, focusing instead on what must be done over the course of a person's life to continue on in the faith. In other words, while Protestants ask, "What can I do to be saved?", Orthodox Christians ask, "What can I do to be most saved?"

Protestants believe in justification sola fide (by faith alone). In other words, faith in Jesus Christ is all that is needed to actually save a person. "Faith" or "belief" in this context isn't simply an intellectual belief in God, but rather something far deeper and life changing than head knowledge. Protestants point to several verses in Acts and Romans to back up their claim:

  • "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." (Acts 16:31)
  • "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (Romans 3:22)
  • "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." (Romans 3:28)
  • "To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." (Romans 4:5)

Protestants are very leery of the W word that Paul speaks so loudly against in the Book of Romans — works. That's why they disagree with the Catholic link between the sacraments and salvation and the tie that Orthodox Christians place on living a Christian life with one's salvation. Protestants consider these efforts to be works, plain and simple, since they are actions that one takes apart from belief. Although Protestants agree with Catholics and Orthodox Christians that a Christian must live out her faith (Philippians 2:12), they see the practice of "living out" as something that is separate from salvation itself — an effect of receiving salvation, rather than a necessity to receive salvation.

Putting aside all these debates and nuances, here are two key truths about salvation and faith that all Christians agree on:

  • Faith in Jesus Christ is essential to be saved and justified. See Ephesians 2:8–9.
  • True faith has a backbone. The Book of James makes it abundantly clear that a declaration of faith by itself doesn't amount to a hill of beans if it isn't backed up by action (James 2:14–26). In other words, if you're gonna talk the talk, you've gotta walk the walk. Therefore, if someone is truly a Christian, his or her life is going to be characterized by a growing faith and, over the long haul, will live in accordance with that faith. However, recognize that this is a consequence of faith, not a condition.
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