The Grace Challenge

Take the challenge. What did Paul mean when he wrote: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, … not as a result of works so that no one can boast” Ephesians 2:8,9?  If we assume that by faith he was referring to our faith in Christ, which of the following is most accurate?

  • Did Paul convey that salvation is a gift made available to people upon their belief in Jesus and you can not earn salvation by doing something?
  • Or did Paul communicate that salvation is a gift made available to those who rely upon Jesus and you can not earn salvation by demonstrating your own goodness?

This grace challenge focuses on identifying “what constitutes faith?” We must accurately understand faith to know who is entering into grace.  Do these two bulleted options make any difference? Yes.

For example, the first bullet point above excludes by definition the possibility of baptism being necessary for salvation. Faith is assumed to be limited to believing. Accordingly, those of this mindset will often quote Ephesians 2:8 to deny the possibility of baptism being necessary for salvation. On the other hand, the second bullet point is open to whatever ways the gospel may call us to trust in Jesus, including the possibility of being baptized.

Is it possible to accurately interpret Paul? I believe it is. However, first consider both the following matrix as well as the four subsequent suggestions.

Faith Works Matrix

Suggestion #1 – a positive presentation of Paul

For Paul, faith versus works reveals his contrast between relying upon one’s own efforts to demonstrate goodness by fulfilling the Law versus relying upon Jesus in order to be declared righteous.

Paul’s purpose in writing about justification by faith was not to inform Christians how to trust in Jesus, but to defend the principle of relying upon Jesus and not upon our own goodness.

Many texts reveal that Paul’s concept of faith did not separate belief from action. For example, he described his missionary purpose in leading people to salvation as to help them to respond with the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5). Furthermore, he described entering salvation, that is being set free from sin, as a result of “obeying from your heart that form of teaching” (Romans 6:17,18).

For Paul, both faith and works could include doing something. The difference between them is not action, but whether someone is acting in faith to rely upon Jesus or trying to demonstrate/ establish one’s own righteousness.

Suggestion #2 – problems with column 2

Whenever we assume column 2 definitions, we will discover that the New Testament begins to contradict itself. Or to put this in more sophisticated terms, difficult texts appear requiring explanation.

From the mindset of embracing column 2, all of the verses about being saved or justified by faith are interpreted to mean that by genuinely but simply believing in Jesus we can be saved. However, difficulty arises because many other verses  recount stories or descriptions of salvation and its forgiveness as well as entering into belonging to God as the result of obedient action or obeying a message. These verses include the faith response of baptism.

Suddenly the New Testament writers have become theologically schizophrenic in affirming that we are saved by just believing and not doing something, but then in the next breath they insist that doing something saves us. The problem lies with our definitions of faith and works, not their message. Their message is unified.

Suggestion #3 – the nature of faith

Whenever people say, “trust in me,” “have faith in me,” or even “believe in me,” they are calling upon us to rely upon them. By themselves, these phrases do not inform us regarding the details about how we need to respond in faith if we are going to rely upon someone in that situation.

The context may reveal that faith is to be expressed by simply believing (Abraham), or by immigrating (Abraham), or marching out and standing still (Judah), or constructing (Noah), or touching (bleeding woman), or crying out, “Son of David have mercy on me” (blind man), or opening a roof and then lowering a friend (friends of paralytic), or going to show oneself to the priest (ten lepers), or being baptized (Galatian Christians).

Each context determines, not the mere word faith, the details of how someone must express his or her confidence in someone in that situation. Accordingly, the context of the gospel includes calling those outside of Christ to begin to rely upon Jesus (begin to exhibit faith) by believing in him, confessing him and being baptized.

Suggestion #4 – the nature of baptism

With baptism, people acknowledge their utter dependence upon Christ for salvation. Baptism is an act of faith to accept salvation and Jesus’ lordship.

The Bible never degrades baptism by calling it a work, because it is not an effort to demonstrate our righteousness. While containing symbolic elements, scripture never limits baptism to merely being symbolic.

Can we know to whom God extends grace and saves? Sure. Consider everything Paul taught in Romans 10:9,10; Colossians 2:11-14 and Galatians 3:26,27 regarding how people need to respond in faith toward Christ in order to receive salvation.

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