Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)

Who are the Christians? Part 2: faith and salvation

Continued from part 1 « Now, it must be acknowledged that faith, in and of itself, is a very simple thing. It requires very little knowledge. For Paul says, Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being […]

Continued from part 1 «

Now, it must be acknowledged that faith, in and of itself, is a very simple thing. It requires very little knowledge. For Paul says,

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:1-4).

Two things must first be noted: that is, the importance both of the word, and of believing the word. It is true that Christ died for our sins and that he was raised again, in accordance with the Scriptures. However, it is by standing firm in this gospel and holding fast to it that we are being saved. If we do not hold fast, if we do not continue to stand in the gospel, then whatever we once believed, we believed in vain. We will not be saved.

Put another way, there are two separate aspects to faith which must be considered. First is the propositional content of the gospel, to which we assent. Second is the assent itself, by which we are saved; and particularly the way in which the permanence of salvation necessitates the continuance of assent. We ought to examine both of these carefully, as they are equally vital to our question. However, it is helpful to work our way backward in so doing; therefore, we will start with salvation itself.

The Permanence Of Salvation

People are sometimes confused by the way in which Scripture exhorts us to continue in faith, lest we find that we have run in vain. Paul, for example, urges the Philippians: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). We can consider also 1 Corinthians 9:26-27, and Hebrews 2:1-3 and 10:29. These all seem to state quite clearly that our salvation is something which we must continually work out, lest we lose it. People therefore assume that this means our salvation is effected by our own willpower, and that justification is an ongoing affair. It seems as if, since we are being saved by our continued belief, and since if we do not continue in that belief we will not be saved, then justification must be a state into which we can enter, and then out of which we can again fall. Thus, many Christians think that the Bible is saying that our salvation is not something achieved by an instantaneous act of God, but rather by a continuous act of man.

But it is not saying this. Such an interpretation seems reasonable only if we are confused about the way in which Scripture speaks of salvation. We tend to use the words belief and salvation as synonyms for faith and justification. But Scripture does not use them so unambiguously. For example, it reports that many people believed in Jesus in John 8:42-47; yet shortly afterward

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

It is perfectly evident that the belief of these people was not a saving faith. To place this in the context of our topic, we would not call these people Christians. Jesus understood very well that one can believe certain things about him, yet not believe unto salvation. Surely his brother James recalled this to mind as he wrote that even the demons believe—but shudder (James 2:19).

So we should acknowledge that belief is fluid, and not necessarily effectual. But this fact alone does not permit us to suppose that justification is similarly fickle; nor that it is something we must continually work at to achieve by our own willpower. The reason we cannot make such a supposition is that to do so would reverse both the logical and chronological priority of the events which Scripture describes in the process of salvation. Let me explain further—

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

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 (Eph 1:3-10, 2:4-10).

So as to elucidate the process of salvation more clearly, I am going to itemize the various steps described in the passage from chapter 1, elaborated and informed by the passage from chapter 2:

  1. Firstly, before he created the universe, God chose us—that is each and every person he would save—to be holy and blameless in Christ. Having determined absolutely from eternity who he would save,
  2. He then predestined every one of us for adoption as his sons, through Christ Jesus, and purposed good works for us to perform. In order to effect this adoption and sanctification,
  3. In due time, Christ died for our sins and was raised again. (This is not stated explicitly here, but is implied by verses 9 and 10, as well as step 4 below, and is clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.) Having thus paid the penalty for our sins, making possible our redemption,
  4. At the aforepurposed time, while we were still spiritually lifeless and completely unable to believe in him of our own accord, God himself gave us spiritual life by making known to us the mystery of his will: that is, the revelation of the gospel stated in steps 1 to 3. Having now received this faith, we are a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), and so,
  5. We now perform good works as a result of our faith; works which God prepared for us to do beforehand, just as he prepared all things.

It is item 5 to which Paul is speaking in Philippians 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 15—the working out of our salvation; the action of which relies, in turn, on our continuing belief in Christ. Given the sequence above, however, we could never suppose that Paul is saying that our salvation relies upon, or is achieved by, our own effort. Clearly, step 5 is the very last in a sequence of events which were decided before the foundation of the world. It remains that we must do the works prepared for us, that we must continue in faith, but to suppose that it is this which ensures our redemption is really to get the entire order of events completely backwards.

No, the fact is that everything about our salvation is established with certainty: it was planned and purposed from eternity, then secured for us in the fullness of time, then given to us through the gift of faith, and finally confirmed by the works that faith produces. For everyone given to Christ by the Father will come to him, and whoever comes to him he will never cast out—he will by no means lose anyone the Father has given to him, but will raise them up on the last day (John 6:37,39-40). Scripture is precise in the scope of these statements. Everyone chosen in God is given to Christ; not a single one of them will be lost. Their salvation is not in their own hands, but in God’s hands. In fact, that is the very point of the gospel: that our salvation is completely out of our hands, and we can only receive it with the empty hands of faith. Conversely, then, no one who is not chosen by God will ever genuinely come to Christ. They may appear to follow him for a while, but because they have not been given to him, he does not receive them, and because he does not receive them, they are already lost. Thus, they will not remain with the elect, but will leave them after a time and return to the world. “If they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

So what, then, does Paul mean when he speaks of “working out our salvation”; of holding fast to the word lest we believed in vain? Given the above, we can see that he cannot mean that we labor for our own justification, ensuring by our own efforts that we remain in a state of grace. Rather, to ever believe in vain implies having always believed in vain—of never having had a saving faith to lose later on through one’s own action or inaction. More precisely, to have believed in vain means to never have truly believed at all. But what of holding fast, and working out our salvation?

The question is similar to the objections I discuss in ‘The Salvation Strawman’ regarding whether it is necessary for us to evangelize and pray, given God’s sovereign causation of all things. In our current example, Paul is not urging his readers to save themselves. He is urging them to work out the salvation they already have been given—that is, unless they have not been given it. If we do not hold fast to the word of the gospel, then it is certain that we were never saved. But if we are saved, then it is equally certain that we will hold fast to the word. Nonetheless, we do not do so, as it were, in a vacuum. As with all of God’s plans, he has determined means by which to bring about his final purposes; and the means by which he ensures we continue in good works is often the Bible’s own commands and exhortations to do so; as well as the encouragement of our brothers. A problem we have as human beings is that we see our current actions leading toward a final salvation, in which we enjoy fellowship with God forever. It is easy to forget that this final salvation is already assured because God has planned and decreed it definitely from eternity. It is so certain that it is as if it had already happened.

Now, only God knows who is finally saved, and who will instead wither like many of the shoots in the parable of the seeds. But we do know that the means by which God effects the final salvation of his elect—that is, their final situation of enjoying fellowship with him forever—after their immediate justification, is through their own faith. Now genuine faith always produces works, for “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14). Therefore, everyone who perseveres in faith till the end will produce works, and so everyone who produces works till the end will be saved. But anyone who does not do so will be lost. So we should hardly be surprised that Paul exhorts and encourages the Corinthians and the Philippians to work out their salvation. It is no more mysterious than if he had urged them to eat, lest they starve. God provides the bread; he makes us alive so that we may eat; and he even causes us to eat at all—but we must still eat if we are not to die (see John 6:35ff).

This diatribe may seem rather tangential to the issue of who are the Christians? But I assure you it is not. As I started writing it, I considered foreclosing the discussion by deferring it to another article. But although it seems like a lengthy detour, it is an essential one, in that it establishes a key doctrine within which we must evaluate our question as we continue to work forward. Christians (that is, people saved by God) persevere to the end. As I have discussed once before in an article titled ‘On “Deconversion”‘, those people who claim to once have been Christians are either lying, or temporarily deceived. They will either never be saved, and so never were saved; or they will ultimately be saved despite their current situation.

This also engages with and refutes the idea that one can become a Christian through a one-time human action, such as being baptized, or saying a prayer. It is typical, for example, for Roman Catholics to regard as a Christian anyone who was baptized as an infant, since they erroneously conflate baptism and the new birth of John 3:5. Or, we may encounter someone who thinks he is now a Christian because he has said the “sinner’s prayer”—as if a one-time recital of a prayer, though immediately followed by a return to his old life and sins, could magically elevate him to salvation. Lastly, there are those who have been taken in by the irrationalism of Søren Kierkegaard and his neo-orthodox, post-modern followers, where doctrine and knowledge give way to emotion and opinion, and salvation need not depend on any specific propositions, but rather on some kind of an “experience” of God.

None of these sorts of people are Christians. They are not Christians because they do not persevere in faith. In fact, they do not have faith at all in which to persevere. However, having said this, there are certainly professing Christians who hold to and persevere in faith; yet their faith differs in some degree to that of others. Indeed, one need only consider the denominational differences between Protestant churches to see that the precise content of faith is a subject of great disagreement. We should therefore proceed on to examine the second aspect of faith mentioned at the beginning of this article: its propositional content, which makes up Christian doctrine.

Continued in part 3 »

1 comment

  1. Bob

    This is a very good series you’ve started. I look forward to future installments.

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