By grace you have saved us, through faith. Ephesians 2:8
When we say that we are ‘saved by grace’, what exactly does that mean? It starts with an understanding that it is only by grace that we even exist. We did not will ourselves into being – it was God himself who formed us and gave us life. Grace is also the actor when we ‘do good’. Our actions that honor and please God are not really ours, but God working within us. It is only through God’s grace that we receive any blessing in life. Grace, then, is central not only to faith, but to life.
So, how do we then understand God’s grace as it comes to salvation? To understand this we need to understand 3 things – 1) What it means to have faith, 2) What it means to be saved, and 3) how do we answer the objections some have to the doctrine of salvation by faith.
What do we mean by faith?
Faith is more than just belief in God. Even those who know nothing about scripture or live with a different set of religious beliefs hold to an understanding of God. God has designed a world that leads everyone to this most basic belief. But just believing that there is a God is not enough for salvation. It is only the most basic minimum when it comes to belief.
Faith is also more than belief that God can save. The devil himself believes that God is in the business of salvation. Understanding the attributes of God does not automatically grant one salvation. Faith is more than a mental exercise of knowing about God and what God can do.
Faith is, surprisingly, also more than following the teachings of God. There are many good people who try to live by the words of scripture but fail to have faith. They may even understand that salvation is a free gift of grace through faith, but they fail to make the all important step of moving beyond belief to trust.
And that is what is essential to faith – trust. Saving faith is not just a cold mental exercise. It is primarily an attitude of the heart. Saving faith understands that the only means of salvation comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a complete reliance on Christ, a full trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection.
What does it mean to be saved?
The biggest confusion with salvation is that it is some future, eternal promise. But salvation is really a present reality that God grants us in life today. Christ saves us from our sin. He saves us from the sins of our past and the guilt they bring. The law (the Old Testament) tells us when we have gone against God’s will, but it cannot bring us deliverance from sin. No human action can do this – only God can forgive us for our sins. Salvation is that freedom we have from the guilt and shame of our sins, our actions against the will of God.
Salvation also saves us from the fear of punishment. When we are saved we no longer have to fear what will happen to us because of our sins. We are saved from the fear that comes with the guilt of sin. Salvation also frees us from the fear that we might fall away from God’s grace. (Though this is still a possibility, we don’t need to fear it happening by accident!) Salvation sets us in a place where we are convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Beyond just guilt and fear, salvation also frees us from the power and control of sin in our lives. Sin is no longer the ruler in our lives. When we are saved, we are set free from the slavery of sin that demands of us to obey. We are free to follow Christ and we are strengthened to live holy lives through the Holy Spirit. We do not need to continue in sin and can begin to live sinless lives – no longer struggling with willful sin but longing to live instead by God’s will.
All of this – this deliverance from the guilt, punishment, and control of sin, is often referred to as ‘justification’. It happens when we trust that God will save us and allow Him to take control of our lives. In this way God saves us from ourselves, from our sin (all of it – original sin, past sin, present sin, future sin), and gives us the strength to live holy lives.
But doesn’t preaching salvation by grace diminish a call to holy living? No. In fact, a life of faith is the true foundation of holy living and doing good. To encourage people to do good things without a focus on grace is to return to a rules oriented faith. It is focusing on our actions and not God. To promote salvation by faith is to encourage a life of faith that then flows forth in holy living. The only way to promote true holy living is to promote salvation by grace.
Wouldn’t focusing on grace lead us to pride? Far from it! While one could be confused into being proud that they are saved, salvation by grace through faith puts the action of salvation squarely in the hands of Christ. We have nothing on which to base our pride if our salvation is not of our own works. When we trust in God alone for salvation, we lay aside any pride that we have in our abilities to save ourselves. We ourselves can produce neither faith or salvation – they are both the gracious actions of God.
If it is only God’s actions that save us and we have no part in it, wouldn’t that invite us to more sin? It might for some, but true faith leads us to a life that seeks to please God. If we live a sincere faith we are awed by the grace of God and seek to live in harmony with His will. We long that God would not just accept us, but that he would continue to work in us to cleanse us from sin.
But if we can’t save ourselves, what hope do we have? That’s the very heart of it! We don’t have to live desperate lives grasping at ways to make our lives right with God. It merely requires that we relent to God’s will for us and allow His will to supersede our will. It is very comfortable to think that we have control over our salvation by what we do, but it’s a false belief. Our true comfort comes when we trust that God alone can save us.
‘Salvation by faith’ is great for converts and new believers, but shouldn’t more seasoned Christians focus on deeper aspects of faith? Salvation is not just the ‘beginners course’ of faith, it is the very foundation of faith! We all need to hear, saint and sinner alike, that we are not saved by any action of our own but only by the grace of God. We need to be reminded that it is not what we do that saves us but what Jesus has done that gives us freedom from sin. There is nothing more foundational to faith and worthy of our focus and attention!
As much as we think a focus on holy living will bring about change in peoples lives and in the world, there is nothing that we can do that will change the hearts and minds of the world. It is God alone that has the power to break the bondage of sin and to bring salvation. Telling others to do good will not change their hearts. Focusing on holiness will not bring about freedom from sin. The only way that the world will change is if the gospel of God changes hearts and leads people into a life free from sin.
It is for this reason that the doctrine of salvation by faith is the most dangerous and challenging idea to the world. The devil would like nothing more than to shift our focus to good works. He would want no less of us than we toil our days away struggling to save ourselves or leading others in a struggle to obtain holiness. Our lives will only be fulfilled, the world will only be saved, through Christ alone. And our salvation, our freedom from the guilt, consequences, and control of sin, comes only when we trust in Jesus as our Savior and allow the Holy Spirit to bring freedom to us and guide us into a life that is in true harmony with the will of God.
This is the 1st in a series of posts based on the Standard Sermons of John Wesley. These 53 sermons are required reading for every Methodist preacher and form the basis of Methodist theology.