Salvation does not depend on human belief in the gospel

The true gospel of grace is often nullified by a human-centered conception of faith.

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Now that I have your attention with a striking title like that, let us talk about salvation in the gospel. The key words in that title are “depend” and “human belief.” Many Protestants, whether of the classical or the Baptist persuasion, hold to a double-standard regarding salvation, especially when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, or even Christians like the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had a faulty understanding of the Lord’s resurrection. The first question, though, “Are Faithful Roman Catholics Saved,” depends on what one means by the adjective “faithful.” If a Roman Catholic is faithful in the sense of having read the Council of Trent and fully understands and trusts in Catholic doctrine for salvation, then no, such a person is not saved. That is a synergistic view of salvation, the human will working with God through doctrinal belief, sacraments, etc., for salvation.

Yet, there are a good number of Roman Catholics that God has saved and who worship the same God that I do, though certainly having various inconsistencies in their practices. It is fortunate that the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone is correct because it means that a Roman Catholic can be saved. Otherwise, all the idolatry and Mariolatry would be a big problem in the way of salvation.

The church at Corinth in Scripture, however, suffered from more problems than perhaps any other church. The problems ranged from sectarianism to litigation to divisions at the communal meal to even moral issues not even heard among the Gentiles such as a man sleeping with his step-mother. They even had some who doubted the bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12). Yet, for all these serious problems, the apostle begins his first letter saying, “I always thank my God for you…” (1 Corinthians 1:4). Wait, Paul holds up this church as a reason to thank God? Yes, and he continues in verse 4 with the reason, “because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” The many faults of the church at Corinth only exalted God’s grace all the more. They were a living illustration of the apostle’s words to the church at Rome, “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20).

First Corinthians chapter 15 is perhaps the clearest passage in Scripture regarding the gospel. Yet, many take Paul’s statements about the gospel and turn the gospel into law, that in order for a person to be saved they must be crystal clear on all aspects of gospel doctrine. Yet, to say such a thing nullifies grace and turns belief in the gospel into a work. Paul does not say even once in the chapter that we are saved by coming to a right understanding of every aspect of the gospel. Rather, he simply says that it is the gospel on which you stand and “By this gospel you are saved…” (1 Cor. 15:1-2), using a passive verb. Specifically, Paul says that the gospel is “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3b-4), and he is speaking to a church in which some do not believe in a physical resurrection (V. 12).

The apostle then presents the church with a hypothetical scenario, saying that if what they believe is true, “if Christ has not been raised, [then] our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (V. 14). He also says in verse 17, “And if Christ has not been raised, [then] your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” The apostle does not say that God’s grace is useless or that God’s grace is futile; he says their faith is useless and futile. That is, they have an inconsistency in their doctrinal belief that robs them of an assurance of the body’s final glorification, but the apostle never says they are not saved. If a Christian believes that Jesus’s sacrificial, atoning death paid the full price for his or her sin, then that Christian is saved even if they cannot comprehend a bodily resurrection. His substitutionary death is what is essential.

Now, such a believer will not have as great of an assurance of their final bodily glorification because of such a faulty belief, but we are not saved by “having faith” or how close we can get to right doctrine; if we were, none would be saved because we all have certain doctrinal inconsistencies. We are saved by the gospel of grace alone, Sola Gratia. As a child growing up in a Christian home that was my biggest fear regarding death. On the one hand, I believed that if I died in my sleep I would be in heaven with Jesus, but on the other hand, the apparent etherealness of heaven based on what I had been taught in church terrified me. It scared me so much that sometimes, while under my covers before I drifted off to sleep at night, I would pray that God would become me and I would become God just so I would not have to experience an apparent ethereal existence.

When Jesus said from the Cross, Tetelestai, “It is Finished,” “Paid in Full,” all that was necessary for the salvation of his sheep was completed. His resurrection, however, provides us with an historical anchor of assurance that what we owe really has been paid in full. For one to deny Jesus’s resurrection is to deny an historical fact; of course, that is nothing new as there are countless people who deny that the United States went to the moon in 1969, but denying history does not change history. In First Corinthians 15, after Paul explains the gospel, he goes on to lay out the historical evidences for the resurrection. He says that after Jesus was raised, he appeared to Peter and the Twelve, and even to 500 brothers and sisters who were gathered together, many of whom were still living as Paul was writing, as well as to James and the rest of the apostles, and lastly to himself “as to one abnormally born” (Vv. 5-8).

Our nation recently celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past Monday. Dr. King was a great Baptist minister whose writings make it abundantly plain that he was a man of the Word, especially his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is not my intention to defend every one of his means or his moral failings. Some things are simply inexcusable; yet, like most of the great men of God in Scripture, he was used mightily by God in spite of his failings, both morally and doctrinally. One of his doctrinal failings which became big in Christian circles beginning in the 1950s was that he held a liberal view of Christ’s resurrection, that it was spiritual but not physical. Now, that is wrong and is a serious error, and there may be situations in which someone who holds such a view is lost, but I do not believe it is in itself a barrier to God’s grace and I fully expect to see Dr. King in heaven one day. A church can have serious errors while still serving the Lord faithfully; we read that not only in First Corinthians but also in the Lord’s letter to Thyatira during Nero’s reign, “I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first” (Rev. 2:19).

There are a lot of preachers out in the world who claim to preach a gospel of grace, but what they really preach is a synergistic gospel of faith. One such preacher of whom I have written a lengthy article about in the past is the Singapore preacher Joseph Prince. He will mix in all the right vocabulary, but if you take the time to break down what he says, the salvation that he preaches begins with human faith, not with God’s grace. His answer to everything is that you have to have faith; you have to do something; you have to get yourself in a certain spiritual state of mind. This is the same basic synergistic foundation of the Roman Catholic Church, Prince simply replacing the sacraments with a human-centered conception of faith. Yet, to the church at Ephesus, Paul says (Ephesians 2:8-9):

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.

The subject of this sentence, or nominative in Greek, is “gift” (δωρον, dõron) which is modified by the other two nouns “grace” (χάριτί, chárití) and “faith” (πίστεως, písteos). That is, God’s “gift” is that by his grace we have received faith, resulting in the passive verb “saved” (σεσωσμένοι, sesosménoi). The Greek text is emphatic on that and cannot be taken any other way. Salvation is entirely God’s work from beginning to end, monergistic, and he promises to carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6) and “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). I draw my line in the sand against anyone who makes the gospel based on human belief or performance. Salvation depends on God’s grace alone in the gospel.

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