In my last post[1. Don’t Be Fooled By a Counterfeit. It would probably be helpful if you read this first, if you haven’t already.] I went over the four most common versions of salvation in the world and in the church. In the end I concluded all of them were pretty lame. However, I also proposed that the Bible teaches a fifth version, or better put the only version, and that is our topic today. So What is this only version?
Look at it here in Ephesians:
For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing. (Eph 2:8-9 The Voice)
The salvation story that dominated most of my experience was the “but” version that I wrote about in “Don’t Be Fooled By a Counterfeit.” In fact, that is the version that dominates many conservative Adventists. For some reason, many of us have embraced a Catholic/ Mormon view of salvation that teaches a “faith + works = heaven” theology, but nothing could be further from Bible teaching. According to the Bible, salvation is a free gift that we receive apart from works. But what use would that gift be if once we had it we would have to “work” in order to keep it? A free gift that you have to earn the right to keep is not truly free. It is a product with a price tag that comes after you receive the product. Its like those deals you see on TV: “Take it Home for zero down!” But “Payments begin in 60 days.” No one considers the “zero down” deal a gift. It is still a product for sale because you are not able to keep it unless you begin to pay at the specified time. And yet, this was the gospel to me. Not a gift, but a “zero down” option. “You don’t have to be perfect, just accept Christ and you are saved! It’s a free gift, apart from works! No one can earn salvation, just believe and its yours!” But once I accepted Christ, the message came, “Payments begin now.” Salvation was free, but only for the moment. I got it for zero down, but now I had to begin the payments. “Keep the Sabbath, change your diet, don’t do this or that or the other. Oh and by the way, here is a list of Ellen White quotes (out of context, of course) on how everything you enjoy is evil and will keep you out of heaven. So stop doing it because you have to be perfect, without blemish or spot, or else you won’t make it through the judgment.”
Now, let me be clear. No one actually used those words, but this is the picture my mind began to paint as I listened to sermons, read books, and spoke with other Adventists in my faith community. In many ways, I was oblivious to what I actually believed. It wasn’t until I was confronted with the true gospel that I realized that I had believed a false gospel. The light shone on the darkness, and how great was the darkness! I saw for the first time. The scales fell from my eyes, and there I was – stunned beyond belief. When truth came, the lie was exposed in its ugliness and this was it: Salvation is free, but only for acceptance. Once you have it, you have to start making some payments or else you will lose it. And just to be clear on how serious God is about his law, even if you make lots of payments, they won’t do you any good unless you attain a spotless character. If you fail to do that, then you can’t be saved.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is why any time someone spoke about the grace of God I felt compelled to say “Yes, God’s grace is wonderful, but that’s no excuse for sin! You still have to be obedient! That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want!” And so on and so forth. Was there something wrong with my “but” statements? Theologically, no. But the real problem lay in the fact that grace frightened me and because it frightened me I couldn’t enjoy it for what it was. Somehow, I thought grace would open the floodgates of sin and so I couldn’t simply sit back and say “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” because the moment I did, I felt it was too good to be true. There just had to be something for me to add. There just had to be something I had to do in order to enter heaven. A gift was too free, too good, or dare I say, too “gracious.”
Nevertheless, the Bible is clear. Salvation “is God’s gift.” It is not a “zero down” deal. It is not a, “take it home now, pay later” offer. It is a gift. It is free to receive and free to retain. This is the only salvation story the Bible tells. You are saved as a free gift apart from works and are preserved in Christ as a free gift apart from works. This means that you don’t have to do anything in order to be saved or stay saved. You just have to receive the gift though faith and through the same faith that you receive it, you also retain it. This is the foundation of Christianity. We are saved by grace through faith from beginning to middle to end. No if’s, no and’s, and certainly no but’s. It’s all a gift of God.
And the crazy thing is that God gives this gift to evil people, not to good people. Grace is for the sinner not the saint. The more wicked you are the more you qualify! Look at verse five. It says,
[God] infused our lifeless souls with life—even though we were buried under mountains of sin—and saved us by His grace. (Eph 2:5 The Voice)
It is when we were dead in sin that Jesus offered us salvation. It is when we were lifeless, buried under mountains of pride, lust, and addictions, dead in our selfishness and depravity, that Jesus came to give us life. Works cannot save us and works cannot keep us. It has to be a gift of grace from beginning to end. This is the only way. You can’t be vegetarian enough, or know enough Bible verses, or behave well enough for God to accept you. The gift of salvation is not offered to you when you are good. It’s offered to you when you are evil. You did not receive the gift because you were good. You received it because God loved you despite your sin. And you do not keep the gift because you are good. You keep it because God loves you despite your imperfections. Salvation is a gift. It is given without merit. And the end result of this free gift is that no one can “go around bragging that [they] must have done something amazing.” (Eph 2:9 The Voice)
So do you qualify for salvation? I suppose that depends on whether you are a sinner. If you are, then you qualify. And all you have to do is say yes to the gift that God has brought to you. The moment you do, it is yours without any “but’s”. I want to invite you to say yes to God’s finished work. If you have never experienced the forgiveness he offers, or if you have been trying to earn his grace or keep his grace, it’s time to let go. Salvation is a gift for those who are sinners. It is not “What Jesus did + What I do = Salvation.” It is “What Jesus did. Period.”
But what about sanctification and good works? I’m going to say something crazy here, but hang with me. We humans have a strange fascination with ourselves and because of this, the moment we talk of justification we want to run toward sanctification as quick as possible. Not this time. What about sanctification? Put it on the shelf. We’ll talk about it next time. For now, just stop. Take time to reflect on the beauty of justification. Don’t be so quick to move past it. Slow down. Taste it. Thank God for it. We will get to sanctification soon enough, but for the time being forget about it. Let your mind wrap itself around the beauty of being justified freely by His grace. Sing songs about it. Write a Facebook status. Say a prayer. Tell a friend! Whatever you do, don’t be so quick to get away from it because you want to start talking about “works”. They will come. But for now, I challenge you to do something simple. Accept the gift and rejoice.
Each one of you may know for yourself that you have a living Saviour, that he is your helper and your God. You need not stand where you say, “I do not know whether I am saved.” Do you believe in Christ as your personal Saviour? If you do, then rejoice. – Ellen White (GCB April 10, 1901, par. 14).
[For the conclusion, see the follow-up post, “Salvation is Not a ‘Zero Down’ Deal.”]