A Fresh Look At Salvation: By Faith Alone or By Participating In Grace Through Faith?

Keith KettenringChristian Living, The Uncommon Journey

Vicky claimed to be a Christian having “accepted Christ” as a young girl while attending DVBS at Broad Street Church. There, she was given a good dose of Reformed teaching without realizing anything different. When she and her young family reluctantly left Broad Street over a leadership dispute, she landed at my church. Sad over the Broad Street situation, I was happy to welcome good, solid people into our congregation. However, over the next few years, I became frustrated with Vicky because she claimed to be knowledgeable about God yet there was little effort to know God more deeply.  After several conversations with her, I realized she was paralyzed by a core belief that any efforts on her part to know God were classified as “works.” She thought that since righteousness was by faith alone, not brought about by works, then any efforts were unnecessary. She would automatically know God more and more since she was already in the faith. I didn’t know what to say to her back then. Today, I might have given her better guidance. 

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For Martin Luther, justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls.

This is ironic since, for over 1500 years, the Church never taught “faith alone.” This is a bold (and faulty) belief constructed by one man, Martin Luther. The Church always taught that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but not through faith alone. Certain ancient theologians like Augustine hinted at faith alone. Thomas Aquinas (13th c.) on one occasion uses the phrase “faith alone.” But these writers were most likely contrasting faith with attempts to keep the moral and ceremonial requirements of the law in order to merit salvation. Besides, they were not necessarily representative of the Church as a whole. 

My point is not to determine once and for all the right view of faith and works. I’m not totally insane or foolish. I just want to banish the idea that effort is not necessary in one’s “work of salvation.”  

In some manner, the human will and God’s will must join together for salvation to ignite and operate.

Think about both of these two statements that are absolutely true: 

  1. You cannot save yourself by willing it. 
  2. God does not force salvation on you against your will. 

Yet, somehow, your will and His must be joined together so salvation can take place and continue to take place. Words fail as we stand on the precipice of this mystery. While His grace works in you, you respond in faith to His offer of salvation (deliverance from sin and life in Christ). God and you, through Jesus Christ, become united by grace in faith. 

This is also true for the totality of the Christian life. To live the Christian life as designed by God, your will and His must be joined in a participatory manner (synergism) borne along by grace. Only in union with the Triune God through Christ can salvation be experienced. Only in union with the Triune God through Christ can you “work out your salvation” (Philippians 2.12-13).  

Since the human will has been impaired by sin, grace is essential. And in grace, efforts of faith can be made so that the will can be more and more fully joined to God’s will. Unless you are currently in complete and absolute synergy with God’s will (and you are not), you have a lot of work to do. 

Of course, this work is only accomplished by grace through faith. Any work that brings you more in sync with God is infused with God’s grace. How could it be any other way?

You can’t, apart from God, make yourself a partner of God.

However, you can, in sync with God, become a participant with God, which is salvation. 

This participation is never by faith alone. 

I’ll look at examples of this participatory-kind of faith in posts to come. 

How are you doing with these reflections? Curious? Denial? Questions? Confusion? 

Dr. K