In this post, I will present an Anabaptist view of salvation and contrast it with the Protestant view of salvation.
What Is Salvation?
The central thing that God wants is that we love him and each other, as this story from Jesus’ ministry shows:
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25–28 ESV)
If, then, we know and love God and our neighbor, we will have life. However, we have not always known and loved God—before our salvation, we were estranged from him, enslaved to sin, and we were going to die with no hope of eternal life.
Yet even though we did not know or love God, he still loved us and wanted to be our Father. He offered to save us by adopting us as his children.1Rom 5:8, Rom 8:14–17, Gal 4:1–7, Eph 1:4–5, 1 John 3:1–3
So how does God go about adopting his children? He ransoms them through Jesus’ death and transfers them into his Kingdom.2Mark 10:45, 1 Cor 6:19–20, 1 Pet 1:14–19, Phil 3:20, Col 1:13, Rev 1:5–6 He frees them from their sins and from the power of Satan, forgiving their sins and making them holy.3Acts 26:18, Rom 7:4–6, 1 Cor 1:2 In doing so, he reconciles them back to him from their former estrangement and bondage. In fact, he gives them his very presence by filling his children with his Holy Spirit.4Rom 5:3–5, 5:9–11, 2 Cor 1:21–22, 5:18–21
Yet the richness of God’s salvation doesn’t end there. To those who love him, he offers a new life that is indestructible, so that our lives can be enriched in this world, and so that, when we die, we can have the assurance that we will be raised again, never to know death anymore.5John 11:25–26, Rom 5:21, Rom 8:1–11, Rom 14:8–9, 1 Thes 5:9–10, 1 Pet 1:22–23 And because we are freed from our bondage, no power can separate us from Jesus, and he gives us grace to do good works and remain faithful to God.6 John 10:27–29, Rom 8:34, 1 Cor 1:8–9, 1 Cor 10:13 We do not need to fear that we lose these blessings except through our own choice.
How Do We Obtain Salvation?
How, then, do Christians obtain salvation? In one well-known parable, Jesus describes a sower who went out to spread the word about salvation through God’s Kingdom. Jesus explains his parable by saying
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. (Matt 13:19–23 ESV)
This example describes people who hear the word, some of whom do not respond in acceptance of the word, and some of whom do. Of these, some of them just endure for a while, but some of them endure to the end and produce good fruit. This picture of salvation will help understand the way Scripture speaks about how we obtain salvation.
In Acts, when the apostle Peter sowed the seed of the Kingdom in his first sermon, many of his hearers responded in acceptance, asking, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter responded by telling them how to come to salvation: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37–38).
God’s requirement for being transferred into his Kingdom and brought back into relationship with him is, then, that we repent and be baptized. Also included in this step is to “believe” (Acts 16:31), which can also be translated “have faith.” The apostles did not list any other stipulations for those who sought salvation, other than to call on God in repentance and faith, and to be baptized.7Mark 1:15, Mark 16:15–16, Luke 13:5, Luke 24:47, John 3:3–6, John 5:24, Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19, Acts 16:31, Acts 22:16, Rom 3:22, Rom 3:30, Rom 5:1–2, Rom 10:9–13
What Is Faith?
What did the apostles mean by repenting and having faith? The Greek word translated “faith” in the New Testament is a word that often means “belief,” but, depending on context, can also mean “trust,” “loyalty,” or “faithfulness.” The entirety of the New Testament shows that God does not merely desire us to believe something, but he also desires that our faith would include these virtues as well.8In specific contexts, pistis and its related verb form can legitimately be translated with different English words, since the Greek word carries different meanings in different contexts. A good example of this is Romans 3 to 4, where forms of the word can be translated diversely as “faithfulness,” “faith,” and “believed” or “trusted.” However, note that pistis is the key word throughout these chapters, and that Paul’s entire argument concludes that we are saved by pistis. Since he makes no differentiation between the different senses of the word that he uses throughout his argument, it is reasonable to assume that he believes all the senses that he brought out in his argument to be included in the faith that he concludes saves us. James 2, which even employs the same Old Testament example that Paul does, can also help us flesh out what the apostles meant by a saving faith. James concludes that “faith apart from works is dead.”
I should note that, though my position was not derived from his, this position is very similar to that of Matthew W. Bates, as presented in Salvation by Allegiance Alone. He advocates for the use of the word “allegiance” in place of “faith,” but notes:
“This, of course, is not to say that the best way to translate every occurrence of pistis (and related terms) is always or even usually ‘allegiance.’ Rather it is to say that allegiance is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation. It is the best term because it avoids unhelpful English-language associations that have become attached to ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ as well as limitations in the ‘trust’ idea, and at the same time it captures what is most vital for salvation—mental assent, sworn fidelity, and embodied loyalty. [In a footnote, he notes, in the context of classic studies, that “the ‘trust’ idea captures much of the truth but is too limited in light of the evidence.”] But we do not need to avoid the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ entirely. For example, they do carry the proper meaning in English for pistis with regard to confidence in Jesus’s healing power and control over nature; moreover, these terms are suitable when pistis is directed primarily toward facts that we are called mentally to affirm. Our Christian discourse need not shift in these contexts abut only with regard to eternal salvation.” Though faith may start with believing, it doesn’t end there. Nor is “trust” a sufficient definition for pistis.9It doesn’t work as a translation for Matt 23:23. What Jesus cares most about is faithfulness, not necessarily trust.
This means that to have faith, as the apostles speak of it, is not just to mentally assent to something; it also implies action.10Two of the clearest examples of this are Rom 1:5 and James 2:14–26. But the New Testament is full of examples where believers are expected to do good works, as my next section shows. When we truly love God and our neighbor, as God asks us to do, our faithfulness to them will work out in good deeds done on their behalf. Faith describes the familial relationship that God, as our Father, wants to have with us. It also describes the loyal relationship that we should have with Jesus as our King.11Even the English word “faith” can also denote a virtue that works itself out in action, as you can see in these sentences: “The general kept faith with his soldiers.” “The general was faithful to his commander.” “The general faithfully repeated his commander’s words.” “The general’s faithfulness gained the people’s admiration.” In each case, the general had to do something, not just believe or trust something!
How Do We Remain Saved?
Because God asks for our love and faith, salvation is a two-way relationship that requires action on our part. When God adopts us as his children, he wants us to “be imitators of God as beloved children” and to “[w]alk as children of light” who seek what pleases him (Eph 5:1–10). He wants us to live according to the new life to which we have been raised, not according to our old earthly ways (Col 3:1–3). Those who live according to those old ways, continuing to sin, “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Gal 5:16–26). However, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Furthermore, as I hinted earlier, faithfulness is inseparable from action. If a man is unfaithful to his wife, it’s not because he disbelieved something, but because he acted a certain way. James pointed out how closely connected the concepts of faith and works are when he wrote that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–17).
This means that, in order to continue in salvation, we need to live according to God’s commands. Jesus and the apostles are clear that the whole point of our salvation is to be a relationship of obedience.12Matt 20:28, Rom 6:16–18, Eph 2:10, Titus 2:11–14 Just like good children do what pleases their parents, and just like good citizens obey their government, our relationship of love and faithfulness to God includes doing good works and abstaining from evil works. But what role does this obedience play in our salvation?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus described people who would hear and accept the word, but who would not be faithful until the end. Throughout the New Testament, he and the apostles warned us not to be such people, because there will be a final judgment where Jesus “will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt 16:27). On that day, Paul says,
He will render to each one according to his works: . . . There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good (Rom 2:6–10)
Therefore, to be saved in that judgment, we do not merely need to have responded to the word with acceptance—it is also necessary that we have remained faithful to Jesus’ commands. You can find more Scriptures demonstrating that here.13Matt 7:21–27, Matt 12:36–37, Matt 13:40–43, Matt 16:27, Matt 18:34–35, Matt 25:34–46, John 5:28–30, Rom 2:6–11, 2 Cor 5:10, 2 Cor 11:15, Gal 6:7–9, Rev 20:12–13, Rev 22:12 There are also plenty of other Scriptures not explicitly about the final judgment, where the apostles write that our salvation is contingent on our works.14Matt 6:14–15, Matt 10:22, Matt 19:16–21, John 3:36, John 15:1–11, Acts 10:34–35, 1 Cor 6:9–11, Eph 5:5–6, Heb 5:9, James 2:14–17, James 2:21–26, 1 Pet 3:10–12, 1 John 3:24
So when we repent and are faithful to God, he forgives our past evil works. In turn, we must live in faithfulness and good works, obeying New Testament commands. What are some of these commands? When Jesus told the apostles to teach their disciples “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20), that included the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), where Jesus teaches against anger, lust, violence, and evil speaking, and where he tells us to love our enemies. Other commands are found throughout the New Testament. Later I will examine one command in particular.
But we don’t need to fear judgment for our every little mistake—God loves us as a Father, and he is abundantly merciful. Though our salvation depends on our obedience, God knows our limits; he doesn’t require perfect obedience.
Instead, like an earthly father who rewards his faithful but imperfect son, but punishes his willfully disobedient son; our heavenly Father forgives those who are truly repentant and who faithfully serve him despite their imperfection. And if a person repents immediately before death, like the thief on the cross who had no opportunity to change his ways, our Father gladly accepts even that repentance.
Furthermore, we are not working out our Christian life alone—Jesus gives us the strength to obey and to endure to the end. Even if we sin, we should not despair, because Jesus will advocate for us (1 John 2:1). But we do need to do our part and use the strength we were given to obey God’s commands.
Why Are Works Important?
Are the commands of our Father God and our King Jesus arbitrary? Why is it important what we do with our bodies? Can’t God just forgive us?
God certainly does forgive those who sin, if they repent. But the commands in the New Testament are not arbitrary. We are saved into the Kingdom of Heaven, so we must live according to the values of heaven rather than the values of earth.
Instead of being grieved that we need to obey commands, we should rejoice that we get an insight into God’s eternal values. By following these commands, we get to live the life of heaven. Why would Jesus let someone into the next life who is disloyal to him or isn’t interested in living the life of heaven? And even if you could get away with it, why would you want to live an early life when you could live a heavenly one?
God wants the best for us, so these laws are for our good. But he also has a plan he is accomplishing. He wants to create a new humanity that can have a relationship with him like he intended in the beginning. Many of these commands help us love God and our neighbor better. Many commands help spread the Kingdom of God and its peaceful values. These works are calculated to bring heaven to earth and to heal us spiritually. It may not always make perfect sense as to why our Father requires some of these rules, but as we contemplate them while living in obedience, we’ll come to understand them better.
Works? For Salvation?
In the last section, I showed that Scripture clearly teaches the important role of good works in the final judgment. However, many Protestants believe that works play no role in our salvation. Many others hold that works are important merely as a sign of faith, which actually justifies us.15It is worth noting that some Protestants agree with the reading of Scripture that I presented above—I appreciate their acknowledgement of the necessity of works for final salvation. Unfortunately, though, some of these also hold to the Calvinistic doctrines of grace, which claim that both the faith and the works of any individual are determined by God rather than by the free choice of the individual. To me, that undermines their case for works—but that’s a subject too nuanced to approach in this essay. In Paul’s letters, there are a few passages that, they maintain, indicate that faith determines our salvation, and that our works have only secondary importance or no importance at all. However, the following two points should clarify the issue.
First, it is important to note that the apostles spoke of initial salvation (joining the Kingdom of God) differently from the way they spoke of final salvation (the final judgment). Earlier, I said that the apostles commanded nothing but repentance, faith, and baptism for those who wanted to be saved initially. Many of the verses frequently cited merely show that good works aren’t required before we can obtain salvation; God grants salvation because of his mercy. You can find those verses at this footnote.16Rom 9:15–18, 11:5–6, Eph 2:8–9, 2 Tim 1:9, Titus 3:5
Jesus and the apostles were not contradicting themselves when they taught that we must continue faithfully if we want to remain saved; when Paul argues that salvation doesn’t depend on our actions, he is speaking of initial salvation.
Second, most of the passages cited to support the Protestant view were written about the Jew–Gentile controversy, not about works in general. In Paul’s day, many Jews said that salvation required us to follow the Law of Moses, even though Jesus and the apostles taught that the Law was not necessary.
In these passages Paul is clear that “works of the Law” (i.e., the Law of Moses) are not required for either our initial or our final salvation. You can find those passages at this footnote.17Rom 3:28, Rom 4:3–24, Rom 9:11, 30–32, Gal 2:16, 11–12, 3:2–9, 5:4–6, Phil 3:8–9 Obedience to Jesus is necessary for our final salvation; but certainly not works of the Law.
Why should we think of salvation in stages?
To some, speaking of initial and final salvation seems problematic. If even after your initial salvation you still need final salvation, are you really saved? What’s the good of initial salvation if we need to be saved again?
This misunderstands what salvation is about. Our salvation, as I’ve shown, is about being adopted by God and brought into his Kingdom. If a person joins a new family, you would say that they are really part of that family, even if they can later reject that family. If a person joins a nation, you would say that they are really a citizen of that nation, even if they can withdraw their citizenship later.
And even though we can lose our salvation, to be saved is well worth it. After all, in the first stage of salvation, we are brought into the Kingdom of God on this earth. That means that we are forgiven for our sins and given strength not to continue sinning, we are given the Holy Spirit and are able to commune with God, we are allowed into the church and are able to fellowship with others who love God, and we are assigned to bring light to the world around us, bringing other people into the kingdom and helping the needy.
In all these and more, we get a taste of what heaven is like. Then, through God’s strength, we can then endure to the end and be safe in the final judgment, where Jesus will make everything right. But just because we could choose to forsake God doesn’t mean that there’s no good in seeking him!
But still, you might ask, why do we need to posit different stages of salvation in order to account for what the Bible says? Why can’t we just say that we’re saved by faith alone, without works?
I’m sympathetic to this question. However, some Scriptures I’ve cited are very clear that we can enter the state of salvation simply by repentance, faith, and baptism. Other Scriptures I’ve cited are very clear that there is a final judgment. And other Scriptures show that we can lose our salvation after having been saved for a time.18Matthew 13:20-21, Matthew 24:10-11, John 15:1-6, Romans 11:17-22, 1 Cor 10:8-12, Col 1:21-23, 1 Tim 4:1, Heb 3:12, Heb 6:4-6, Heb 10:26-29, James 5:19-20, 2 Pet 2:20-21, Rev 2:5, Rev 3:3 And the Scriptures I’ve cited are just so clear that our works play a role in our salvation. So it’s not like this understanding of salvation is adding to Scripture. Instead, the typical Protestant view is a misunderstanding of Scripture.
Isn’t the judgment of works for reward, not for salvation?
Some have suggested that when the New Testament speaks of judging us based on our works, the writers aren’t referring to the judgment where Jesus determines our final destiny; but instead a judgment where Jesus determines the extent of our reward within that destiny. Might this be a way of saving the idea that works don’t have anything to do with our salvation?
Unfortunately, many of the passages I cited above are very clear: our works are taken into account in determining our salvation, not just our rewards. You can find some of the clearest ones at this footnote.19Matt 7:21-27, Matt 13:40-43, Matt 25:34-46, John 5:28-30, Rom 2:6-11, Gal 6:7-9
Clearing Up Some Confusion
It would be nice if I could stop there. I think Scripture is quite clear on what the true relationship of faith and works is. However, centuries of Christian thought since the Reformation has served to cloud this issue. When we read Scripture, we might be tempted to think, “Obviously, this doesn’t mean exactly what it sounds like it means. After all, [insert favorite saying here].”
So in this section, I’ll address some Protestant thinking patterns that can make it so that we don’t hear the clear voice of Scripture whenever we read it. Notice that these objections are logical ones, not textual ones. They don’t come from Scripture, but instead they come from human reasoning. Of course, it is perfectly all right to use our God-given reasoning faculties to try to understand the mysteries of salvation, but we do need to remember that we might be reasoning wrongly. I’ll show where some such mistakes in reasoning appear.
Our Works Do Not Earn Our Salvation
But, some have objected, our works do not earn our salvation; thus, works aren’t a precondition for salvation. I agree that works don’t earn our salvation, because Scripture indicates this in a few ways. For example, Paul calls salvation a “gift.”20Rom 3:23–24, 5:15, 6:23 Besides, we receive our salvation, not because we have not sinned, but because of God’s mercy. However, even though our works do not earn our salvation, our final salvation is dependent on our actions.
But does this mean that works can’t be a precondition for salvation? No. Is it a contradiction to say that our actions are necessary for salvation, yet not to earn salvation? Not at all; to argue for a contradiction is to confuse what is necessary with what is sufficient. See the following example:
Suppose I’d take my four-year-old child (if I had one) to Burger King as a reward for a week of helping me wash the dishes. She was so slow that she only dried a few dishes, and she even broke a $20 dish by accident. Did she earn the $10 Burger King meal that I’m giving her? Certainly not—her family is $30 poorer than before she worked! Her works are not sufficient to get the meal. I gave it to her as a gift.
However, her works are necessary. If she had instead told me, “Daddy, I believe in you and accept you as my Father, but I won’t dry the dishes,” she would probably find herself eating mashed potatoes and green beans for supper. So, just because washing dishes was necessary for my daughter to gain her reward doesn’t mean that it was sufficient.
In the same way, our works are necessary for our salvation, but they are not sufficient; they do not earn it. God knows that we aren’t perfect, and he doesn’t demand perfection of us. He works with us just like a father works with his child.
We Are Saved 100% Through Christ
Some have argued that works can’t be a condition for our salvation, because our salvation comes wholly from Christ; we cannot save ourselves. They have pointed out that we are saved 100% through Christ, and they assert that this means that we are saved 0% through our own works.
However, if this argument is correct, it can be levelled at our faith just as easily as at our works. If we are saved 100% through Christ, then 0% of it can be from our faith, right? But I thought Scripture clearly taught that we are saved by faith.
The problem here is that we are setting up a false dichotomy. This argument makes it sound like either we are saved only because of things Jesus did or Jesus can’t be given the entire credit for saving us. It sounds like absolutely nothing we do can have made a difference in our salvation, or else Jesus didn’t save us himself and isn’t our real Savior. Is there another option? Yes, there is!
Suppose I fell into the water and couldn’t swim. A lifeguard throws me a rope, and I grab onto it. The lifeguard pulls me to safety. He is a hero!
But wait. If I hadn’t grabbed onto the rope, I wouldn’t have been saved. So grabbing the rope was a condition for my salvation. In fact, I had to continue to hold onto the rope in order to be saved. So that was also a condition for my salvation.
But . . . did I save myself? Certainly not! The lifeguard saved me. The lifeguard can take the entire credit for my salvation. He’s the true hero. Nobody would call me a hero for grabbing the rope or holding onto it.
We don’t need to create this false dichotomy. We don’t need to say that either it’s 100% the lifeguard’s salvation or I was earning my own salvation. Similarly, Jesus is the one who saved us. There’s no way we could have been saved without him. But we do need to grab onto the rope by having faith. We also need to continue to hold onto the rope, by continuing in faith and works. Yet Jesus takes the full credit for our salvation. Nobody would praise us for having faith and works.
Completing Jesus’ Finished Work? (Condition vs. Means)
Typically, when Protestants hear us saying that works are necessary for final salvation, they hear us saying that our works somehow accomplish our salvation. But, they object, Jesus is the one who saves us. We can’t save ourselves.
But that misses the point. Anabaptists do not believe that we can save ourselves. We don’t believe that works are a means of salvation. We merely believe that they are a condition of salvation. Holding onto a rope is not a means of being saved from drowning; a lifeguard hauling you in is a means of being saved from drowning. But holding onto that rope is definitely a condition of salvation. If you don’t do it, you will die. Yet if you do it, it is someone else who saves you.
Look at it this way: Jesus is the one who saves us. We could have faith all day long, and that wouldn’t get us anywhere. Our faith saves us because Jesus chooses to save those who have faith. We also believe that he chooses to save those who continue in good works.
You see, when Protestants hear “saved by faith,” they understand perfectly well that Jesus saves us, but he chooses those who have faith. Yet when they hear “saved by works,” they don’t hear us saying that Jesus saves us, but he chooses those who have works. Instead, they hear “We are saving ourselves,” even though, in either case, it is Jesus who saves us.
In this article, I’ve been arguing that our works are a condition of salvation. They don’t merit our salvation, nor are they a means of salvation. It’s up to God to save us; it’s just that he has chosen to save those who obey him. If God chose to save all those who wear red hats, would that mean that everyone who wore a red hat would merit salvation?
“Grace” Just Means “No Works”
Some have said that when Scripture speaks of “grace,” it by definition excludes the necessity of works. Many define “grace” as “unmerited favor.” Two passages typically referred to are the following:
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, (Rom 11:5-7)
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. (Eph 2:8-9)
These passages are speaking of people who have already joined the Kingdom of God; in other words, they have been saved through initial salvation, which I’ve said is by faith without works. So the main meanings of these passages supports the view I’ve proposed.
However, might these passages still pose a problem to my view? It seems that they define “grace” as not having anything to do with works. In Romans, Paul says that if the remnant were chosen by works, “grace would no longer be grace.” In Ephesians, he says that salvation by grace is “the gift of God, not a result of works.” It seems that Paul is articulating a principle: anything that is by grace is not by works.
And if that’s the case, it would seem like our works don’t have anything to do with our salvation. But we know, based on many Scriptures cited above, that our works are necessary for our final salvation. We can’t throw out those many verses based on two verses that are primarily talking about initial salvation.
So how can we reconcile these quotes? Well, remember that nothing we do can earn our salvation. It is God who saves us by his grace. However, our faith is a condition of initial salvation. And faith and works are conditions of our ongoing and final salvation.
“But,” you may ask, “is our ongoing salvation no longer because of grace? After all, grace means no works.” I think we are misunderstanding Paul’s meaning, if we conclude that. If Paul meant to be speaking with legal precision, then there would be a contradiction between grace and works. However, Paul is writing a letter, not a legal document.
So what does Paul mean instead? To understand the role that grace plays, we need to know what God’s grace is.
What Is Grace?
To us, the word “grace” is one that we rarely use in normal speech, so when we think of “grace,” we immediately think of the theological concepts that Protestants have ascribed to it. But in the first century, the Greek word for grace was not an uncommon word. It could mean different things in different contexts. In the context of God’s grace for our salvation, another way of translating that word is “favor,” such as a ruler would have for someone toward whom he has goodwill.
Imagine that you are the subject of King Harold. However, King William is conquering England, and he has issued a proclamation that any subject of Harold who comes to William and declares loyalty to him will receive William’s favor (or grace). You want to be in William’s good graces, so you go to him and profess your allegiance to him. Pleased with your loyalty, William gives you a new standing as a citizen in his kingdom and a soldier in his army. You are now in William’s favor—you have received your standing through his grace.
Have you earned William’s favor? Certainly not! In fact, you deserve his disfavor, since you were a subject of Harold, but William gave you his favor anyway. Besides (and this is the point Paul is making), William’s favor cannot be earned, or it wouldn’t be favor. William has servants who are obedient, but not loyal. They do his every bidding, but they have never shown special faith to him. They are not in his favor—they receive wages, but favor is beyond wages.
But now, because of his grace, William has made it possible for his enemies to be reconciled to him and to be in good standing before him. Those who show faith in him are saved from his wrath when he conquers England, and they will receive a reward for their service. But those who stayed loyal to Harold are not saved and will risk death.
But are you eternally in William’s favor? Certainly not! You are now William’s citizen and soldier. If you obey his laws, and if you are a good soldier, you’ll remain in William’s favor. You still won’t have earned his favor anymore than his obedient servants earn it. You will simply remain in the grace that William gives you. In fact, if you try to act like a servant and think you can make him happy merely by doing everything right according to the servants’ codes, rather than living obediently as a free subject and a soldier, you will soon fall out of favor (Gal 5:4).
And it’s okay if you disobeyed William’s laws back when you were Harold’s subject—you weren’t one of William’s subjects, and he forgives you for your past sins because of your faith. But if you disobey William’s laws now, you won’t get off so easily. If you don’t follow the rules of his army, you will be court-martialed.
Of course, if you do disobey William, all is not lost. If you are well-meaning, and if you repent of your sin, he’ll forgive you. But you will quickly fall out of his grace if you are disloyal to him, breaking faith with him, or if you remorselessly disregard his laws or the military codes. You will lose your status and you will be out of favor until you repent and show faith and obedience once more.
In this illustration, King Harold is like the powers of darkness, King William is like God, William’s servants are like those who obey the Law of Moses but don’t have loyalty, William’s loyal subjects are like Christians, and William’s army is like the church. This kind of grace is the grace by which we are saved into God’s kingdom.
So you can see that there is no contradiction between grace and works. We remain in good standing through God’s favor, not through works, but we may quite easily lose his favor if we refuse to obey him.
Grace Does Not Mean “No Works”
So even if grace means “unmerited favor,” it doesn’t mean that works are not a condition for final salvation. However, the Greek word for grace, charis, does not demand the idea of “unmerited.” In fact, it can be translated “thanks” or “reward” for good actions on the part of the one receiving it (Luke 6:32-34). Paul uses it when he says “Thanks [charis] be to God” (Rom 6:17, 7:25, 1 Cor 15:57, 2 Cor 2:14, 8:16, 9:15, 1 Tim 1:12). We know it can’t mean “unmerited favor” when referring to God!
There are also other places in the New Testament where the word charis (or a form of it) is used when someone has done something to receive it. For example, Festus wanted the grace or favor of the Jewish leaders in Acts 25:9, so he didn’t deal fairly with Paul, as they wished.
This should show that charis doesn’t smuggle in the idea of “unmerited” with it. However, there are even places where God’s grace is also spoken of as a response to people’s actions. Luke writes in Acts that Paul and Barnabas “had been commended to the grace ****of God for the work that they had fulfilled” (Acts 14:26). And Peter says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
Thus, we can conclude that neither the word “grace” nor the grace of God are opposed to our good works. It’s just that we can’t earn God’s grace.
“Justification by Faith Alone”
I have met many Christians who believe that good works are important, but who also say that we are “justified by faith alone.” However, I don’t use that term to describe my beliefs, for several reasons.
First, that phrase doesn’t represent the most important aspect of salvation, which is to be a faithful child of God and citizen of his Kingdom. “Justification by faith alone” is a more useful term for those who see their salvation as a legal transaction rather than as a living relationship. Second, the term’s widespread use has misled many Protestants into thinking that our actions play no role in our salvation.
Thirdly, though you could, I am sure, find definitions for “justification,” “faith,” and “alone” that fit the apostolic faith, I’m not sure why you would want to. You could define “justification is by faith alone,” to mean, “We are initially saved by loyalty to God, and not by the Law of Moses”—and the apostles would agree with you. But that’s not what most people mean when they speak of “justification by faith alone.”
Fourthly, I would especially hesitate to use the term “justification by faith alone,” since the only Scripture passage where the term “faith alone” appears is where James says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). I prefer to use the language of Scripture to describe Christian doctrines rather than to define doctrines using terminology that Scripture does not use.
I conclude that we are saved through being faithful and obedient children of God, citizens of his Kingdom. God does not want children who only believe, but children who love and obey him. Therefore, in the final judgment, he will take our works into account. This emphasis on a loving and obedient relationship with God, including obedience to the Sermon on the Mount, is the very core of Anabaptism.
- 1Rom 5:8, Rom 8:14–17, Gal 4:1–7, Eph 1:4–5, 1 John 3:1–3
- 2Mark 10:45, 1 Cor 6:19–20, 1 Pet 1:14–19, Phil 3:20, Col 1:13, Rev 1:5–6
- 3Acts 26:18, Rom 7:4–6, 1 Cor 1:2
- 4Rom 5:3–5, 5:9–11, 2 Cor 1:21–22, 5:18–21
- 5John 11:25–26, Rom 5:21, Rom 8:1–11, Rom 14:8–9, 1 Thes 5:9–10, 1 Pet 1:22–23
- 6John 10:27–29, Rom 8:34, 1 Cor 1:8–9, 1 Cor 10:13
- 7Mark 1:15, Mark 16:15–16, Luke 13:5, Luke 24:47, John 3:3–6, John 5:24, Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19, Acts 16:31, Acts 22:16, Rom 3:22, Rom 3:30, Rom 5:1–2, Rom 10:9–13
- 8In specific contexts, pistis and its related verb form can legitimately be translated with different English words, since the Greek word carries different meanings in different contexts. A good example of this is Romans 3 to 4, where forms of the word can be translated diversely as “faithfulness,” “faith,” and “believed” or “trusted.” However, note that pistis is the key word throughout these chapters, and that Paul’s entire argument concludes that we are saved by pistis. Since he makes no differentiation between the different senses of the word that he uses throughout his argument, it is reasonable to assume that he believes all the senses that he brought out in his argument to be included in the faith that he concludes saves us. James 2, which even employs the same Old Testament example that Paul does, can also help us flesh out what the apostles meant by a saving faith. James concludes that “faith apart from works is dead.”
I should note that, though my position was not derived from his, this position is very similar to that of Matthew W. Bates, as presented in Salvation by Allegiance Alone. He advocates for the use of the word “allegiance” in place of “faith,” but notes:
“This, of course, is not to say that the best way to translate every occurrence of pistis (and related terms) is always or even usually ‘allegiance.’ Rather it is to say that allegiance is the best macro-term available to us that can describe what God requires from us for eternal salvation. It is the best term because it avoids unhelpful English-language associations that have become attached to ‘faith’ and ‘belief,’ as well as limitations in the ‘trust’ idea, and at the same time it captures what is most vital for salvation—mental assent, sworn fidelity, and embodied loyalty. [In a footnote, he notes, in the context of classic studies, that “the ‘trust’ idea captures much of the truth but is too limited in light of the evidence.”] But we do not need to avoid the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ entirely. For example, they do carry the proper meaning in English for pistis with regard to confidence in Jesus’s healing power and control over nature; moreover, these terms are suitable when pistis is directed primarily toward facts that we are called mentally to affirm. Our Christian discourse need not shift in these contexts abut only with regard to eternal salvation.”
- 9It doesn’t work as a translation for Matt 23:23. What Jesus cares most about is faithfulness, not necessarily trust.
- 10Two of the clearest examples of this are Rom 1:5 and James 2:14–26. But the New Testament is full of examples where believers are expected to do good works, as my next section shows.
- 11Even the English word “faith” can also denote a virtue that works itself out in action, as you can see in these sentences: “The general kept faith with his soldiers.” “The general was faithful to his commander.” “The general faithfully repeated his commander’s words.” “The general’s faithfulness gained the people’s admiration.” In each case, the general had to do something, not just believe or trust something!
- 12Matt 20:28, Rom 6:16–18, Eph 2:10, Titus 2:11–14
- 13Matt 7:21–27, Matt 12:36–37, Matt 13:40–43, Matt 16:27, Matt 18:34–35, Matt 25:34–46, John 5:28–30, Rom 2:6–11, 2 Cor 5:10, 2 Cor 11:15, Gal 6:7–9, Rev 20:12–13, Rev 22:12
- 14Matt 6:14–15, Matt 10:22, Matt 19:16–21, John 3:36, John 15:1–11, Acts 10:34–35, 1 Cor 6:9–11, Eph 5:5–6, Heb 5:9, James 2:14–17, James 2:21–26, 1 Pet 3:10–12, 1 John 3:24
- 15It is worth noting that some Protestants agree with the reading of Scripture that I presented above—I appreciate their acknowledgement of the necessity of works for final salvation. Unfortunately, though, some of these also hold to the Calvinistic doctrines of grace, which claim that both the faith and the works of any individual are determined by God rather than by the free choice of the individual. To me, that undermines their case for works—but that’s a subject too nuanced to approach in this essay.
- 16Rom 9:15–18, 11:5–6, Eph 2:8–9, 2 Tim 1:9, Titus 3:5
- 17Rom 3:28, Rom 4:3–24, Rom 9:11, 30–32, Gal 2:16, 11–12, 3:2–9, 5:4–6, Phil 3:8–9
- 18Matthew 13:20-21, Matthew 24:10-11, John 15:1-6, Romans 11:17-22, 1 Cor 10:8-12, Col 1:21-23, 1 Tim 4:1, Heb 3:12, Heb 6:4-6, Heb 10:26-29, James 5:19-20, 2 Pet 2:20-21, Rev 2:5, Rev 3:3
- 19Matt 7:21-27, Matt 13:40-43, Matt 25:34-46, John 5:28-30, Rom 2:6-11, Gal 6:7-9
- 20Rom 3:23–24, 5:15, 6:23