Salvation by “faith alone”
Throughout my life I have constantly heard “faith alone” being preached by so many in Christianity as the way to salvation from sin and hell; that is the idea that simply “believing” in Jesus and his sacrificial death on the cross is enough to stay saved. It’s true that a person can INITIALLY be saved with this faith, however this faith will not KEEP a person saved longer-term.
Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
So how did we come up with faith-alone? It was a response to the excesses of the Roman Catholic tradition, where they kept inventing and adding extra works and man-made traditions, creating a religion of fear. The reformer Martin Luther understood that something was gravely wrong with the church system of his time. Where he, and many since, went wrong however was in selectively cherrypicking through Paul’s letters and the gospel of John, while pretending the other three gospels and rest of the New Testament (especially James) simply did not exist. Paul’s writings are important but it should be obvious that God intended us to found the doctrine of salvation based on JESUS teaching. God did not sent Jesus to confuse everyone, only to be later corrected by Paul. No, Jesus already taught the true path to salvation. Jesus’s words must be read together with Paul, not ignored and replaced by Paul. Jesus and Paul are not actually in conflict, it only appears this way due to their different audiences and emphasis. Paul only seems to be teaching faith-only salvation because he was disputing mainly with legalists and Judaizers who believed that salvation came from following the letter of the law to perfection, without having to rely on God’s mercy and Christ’s sacrifice. Try reading Matthew, Mark, or Luke and tell me is there even any hint of a teaching on “faith alone” salvation? We are guilty of ignoring and hiding from basic foundational scripture in order to create a doctrine which allows us to follow God leisurely without any fear, seeing salvation as an entitlement and not a covenant that requires mutual participation
Matthew 7:13, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.”
What is the narrow way? It is the biblical path of a truly repentant heart with humility and a changed lifestyle. What is the “wide way that leads to destruction”? That is the current mainstream false teaching that salvation is by faith alone and that repentance from sin is optional and at your own leisurely pace. If salvation were truly by faith alone, then Christ would have said the wide way is the one that leads to life and not the narrow difficult path. Sometimes I hear people say that “faith alone” really means more than an intellectual assent and that “saving faith” means being on fire for God. This only causes confusion to unbelievers when we start playing around with and stretching the word “faith” into performing all sorts of acrobatics, trying to make this word do multiple jobs. Faith is only one part of salvation. REPENTANCE is the key ingredient which has to go side-by-side with faith. Revivals begin when repentance and holiness are preached instead of the Laodicean doctrine of faith alone. The Pentecostal movement with the Holy Spirit presence came directly out of the Holiness movement which preceded it.
Hebrews 12:14-15, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God,…”
Now don’t get me wrong, God is very patient for a brand-new Christian beginning the journey as long as their heart is right. He gives them time to wrestle against the strongholds of the old life. Each person is expected to be making the journey however, not just standing still thinking they are saved without having to live a changed life.
Here is a commonly cherrypicked Bible verse:
Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast”
Paul here is really just saying that salvation is the gift of Christ and can never be “earned,” no matter how much good behaviour a person does (repentance and good works help “maintain” one’s relationship with Christ, they do not “earn” salvation; Christ’s sacrifice alone paid that price). Paul had to counter the Pharisee/Judaizer mindset which taught that a person could “earn” their salvation by a righteous lifestyle and by strictly obeying the Torah laws. Even the most righteous saint still has to depend totally on God’s mercy and grace in order to inherit salvation. There is a basic level of right living, heart attitude, and repentance that is necessary to stay saved however.
The Bible does not teach exactly where the “line” is that will cause a person to walk outside salvation. This is because we are not meant to be seeking the minimum requirements to stay saved, but rather to be pressing into the center; this is the focus of scripture. We know God is merciful to all who seek him with sincere hearts however. True faith is not a belief, but an orientation of the heart. We spend so much time trying to separate, isolate, and dissect faith from works like scientists in a lab, however the book of James clearly teaches that it is not possible to separate faith from works. The only difference is that one is the internal and the other the external.
The importance of repentance and works in maintaining salvation is taught so consistently throughout scripture that I am not even going to list the verses here; My other article on this subject lists more of them. Try just reading through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke however and take note of how much emphasis Jesus puts on correcting a person’s way of living as part of salvation, versus on just “believing.” Look at the rest of the New Testament as well and try to read it without pre-set theological lenses, just letting it speak. You will notice there is a major focus on actual practice versus belief. The doctrine of salvation by “faith alone” can only be invented when certain isolated passages are cherrypicked against the major backdrop of scripture. This teaching is one of the foremost causes of the current lukewarmness of the western church. We must take back the teaching of repentance. Repentance is 100% necessary and a foundational part of salvation; it is not some kind of optional feature you can choose or discard. Restoring the focus on holiness and repentance will prepare us for meeting Christ, whether it be at his return or upon death.
A focus on evangelism is a great thing. What has happened instead is a slightly different emphasis on “church growth.” These are similar but are not the same thing. Instead of concern for the “unsaved” the focus is now on the “unchurched.” Christ taught of the folly of the man who would tear down his barns and built greater. Church leaders would do well to pay attention when draining every resource from the budget just to build a massive grandiose facility, using the excuse that it is by “faith.”
1 Cor 3:12-13 “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is.”
What is the wood, hay, and stubble? It is the EARTHLY CHURCH BUILDING! Gold, silver and precious gems are the spiritual building, THE PEOPLE, who should be built up! When the church tries to change its messaging to be comforting and attractive to the world, you may end up attracting many more people to be “churched,” but too few of them will ever make a true commitment to Christ past just believing. Like the parable of the sower, these converts attracted to comfort have no root and in time of hardship and persecution they wither away.
The seeker-sensitive model is all about trying to please the world rather than please God. Worship is turned into a concert of sorts with all sorts of distracting colorful overhead lights, making it impossible to enter a flow of true worship. Some youth-focused groups have even gone so far as to include smoke machines in the sanctuary, as if things were not already becoming enough of a circus. When Israel’s king Jeroboam rebelled against God and God’s glory departed, the Jerusalem temple was pillaged by an Egyptian king, who removed all the vessels of gold. Rather than leading his nation in repentance, correcting their ways, and begging for God to return, Jeroboam instead made copycat vessels of bronze to replace the lost gold ones. Everyone knew these bronze vessels were only cheap imitations of the lost gold, but it allowed them to pretend that everything was normal and carry on business as usual without having to go through the pain of repentance and correction. Likewise in our churches, seeing the lack of revival and the gold of God’s glory that for many has departed, we would rather invent our own counterfeit human glory to replace the presence of God. The large buildings, the light show, Hillsongs United music, and the comforting self-help sermons (kept as short as possible). Some of their youth groups do not even teach a Bible message or speak about God, but spend all evening playing games. It’s definitely more attractive to the flesh than the preaching of change and repentance which would bring real power into the church. It allows an unsaved person to join the church without making a real commitment to Christ, except in “believing.” The numbers may naturally increase, but how much of this will be burned up at the last day?
Of course there is always the desire to keep up with the Joneses at the pastors conference when conversations become a boast as to the size of each congregation and the ones with the larger flock are seen as being under God’s favour, while the more modest ones “must be out of God’s order.” Let’s not forget the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. When Christ found that many were following him for the loaves of bread and healings, he began teaching more hard sayings until many turned away. Christ had a great heart for the lost, but he was definitely not seeker-sensitive. He only valued followers who truly bought into his purpose and mission and who understood the necessity of bearing their cross daily. Church growth is only good when it is driven by the Holy Spirit as in the book of Acts. When growth comes from diluting the gospel, it results in the number of “churched” growing, but the number of “saved” decreases. Many are given false assurances of salvation and comfort rather than conviction. We need to restore the fire of the Kingdom, not the lukewarm water of Laodicea.
Revelation 3:15-16, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.”