I recently had a rather unfortunate debate on Facebook that revolved around a conversation I had with my son. I posted that I had told my son, people don’t go to heaven because they are obedient, they go to heaven because God is gracious and sent Jesus to die on the cross. Of course I wasn’t undermining the importance and necessity of obedience, but I was making the point that God saves us, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). But it seems many are rather uncomfortable with that concept.
So I want to address the question, “Are we saved by grace or not?”
What Does “By Grace” Mean?
There is so much confusion over the issue of grace. We all know there are those who abuse the word, acting as if grace is a license to sin or a freedom from obedience (Jude 1:4; Romans 6:1-7). Those kind of people clearly don’t understand God or His grace.
But on the other hand, there are Christians who seem to only talk about what grace is not. They seldom – if ever – talk about what grace is. They get very nervous when they hear, “Saved by grace.” They are quick to say, “Yeah, kind of, but not really!” They rush to dilute teachings on grace, for fear it might be “taken too far.”
Just so you know, when you hear the words “by grace” it just means something good is given that wasn’t earned or merited. So when you receive something good, it was either given by grace or by merit. Or as the apostle Paul puts in Romans 4:4, it is either a “wage” or a “gift.” It is that simple and there is no middle ground.
The air we breathe, for instance, is given to us from God. Is it given by grace or by merit? What could we possibly do to earn the air we breathe? It is laughable to think we could. Death and punishment are the ONLY wages we’ve earned from God (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Everything else is a gracious gift. When we fill our lungs with air we should say, “Thank you, God for graciously giving me air to breathe!”
It is absolutely impossible to take grace too far! Pervert it, yes! But take it too far, absolutely not! In fact, God desires to show us, “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (Ephesians 2:7).
Salvation by Grace?
This issue is most significant when it comes to salvation. Eternal life is either earned or it is given as a gift of grace. Scripture makes it clear it is the latter. In fact, those in the first-century who claimed to have earned eternal life by their obedience to the Law disqualified themselves from possessing it (Galatians 5:4).
If we’ve received salvation from God then it is either by grace or by merit. It is either deserved or undeserved. To say something like, “Salvation is by grace but not grace alone,” is to say it is somehow merited and unmerited at the same time. This not only makes no sense, but is entirely unbiblical. Listen to the word of God:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand,that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10).
All a person is saying when he says we are saved “by grace” is, our salvation is completely undeserved and unmerited. We deserve punishment, but because of what Jesus did at the cross we are able to receive eternal life. Salvation is “by grace.” That’s what God’s word says; don’t add to that or take away from it.
How Do I Receive the Gift?
The appropriate question then is, “How do I receive this gift?” The biblical answer is, “through faith.” Much like the word “grace,” the word “faith” is also very misunderstood.
Faith might best be understood as a “total surrender” to God. When we hear and believe that God is able and willing to save us from the horrible fate we deserve, we totally surrender ourselves to Him, trusting Him to save us from what we deserve.
Repenting and being immersed in water for the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 2:38) is how we “call on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16) and appeal to Him for “a clean conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). It is in this act of faith that we clothe ourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27). It is at this point – and this point alone – that our sins are washed away (Acts 22:16).
We come up from the water rejoicing (Acts 8:39) because it is by grace that we have been saved! NONE of it by merit, ALL of it by grace!
What About Obedience?
Does this mean we don’t have to obey? Of course not! That is an absolutely absurd suggestion!
It just means your obedience does not merit your salvation (that’s what “by grace” means). We obey because we are trusting in God to save us, both at our baptism and in our continually walking with Him in faith. Obedience is a matter of entrusting our souls to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19).
Disobedience, on the other hand, is how you reject the gift (see Hebrews 3:12-19). The gracious gift of salvation is either accepted by humble obedient faith or – at any point – rejected by stubborn and sinful pride:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:26-29)?
Saying we are saved by grace does NOT negate the necessity of obedience. It does not mean there is nothing we must do to be saved or to remain in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. It just means that even after all of our obedience, we will always be “unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10) who are saved by God’s amazing grace and NOT by our own merit.
I love you and God loves you,
P.S. If you’re interested, I’ve written an entire book on this issue, The Treasure Chest of Grace.