Query from a Reader
We recently received the following e-mail from a reader of the Apologetics Press Web site who lives in California:
I came upon your website due to the referral of a Christian brother who provided me a link to your article on John Quincy Adams’ views on Islam. Loved the article and will share it with others.... When checking into your beliefs I noted the following at this link under “What We Believe:” “Salvation is by means of obedience to the Gospel system, involving faith in God and Christ, repentance from sin, confession of faith, and immersion in water for remission of past sins, coupled with a life of growing consecration and dedication.”
In all honesty, when I read Scripture I do not get that “salvation” has anything whatsoever to do with a “Gospel system” or “obedience” thereof. Surely you cannot mean that our deeds and works can make us righteous or clean in the eyes of a perfect and entirely Holy God? Moreover, we cannot follow any kind of a “system” or formula, regardless of how good it may be. Only Christ and His completed sacrifice, once for all, can save those who believe in Him, His Word and His Resurrection. I think the most simple and direct quotes on how Salvation is “achieved” (really awarded is the better and most accurate word) is from Romans 10:17 and Acts 10:34-46….
In light of these verses, why would you take the stance you do in the above noted quote from your website? Put another way, why do you believe salvation is had by any other way than as noted in the above quoted sections of Romans, Acts and any number of other examples, throughout Scripture, of persons being saved?
P.L., Palm Desert, CA
Thank you for your interest in our work, and your willingness to study God’s Word, and write us. You are to be commended for your desire to think through what the Bible teaches on the extremely important matter of salvation. Here are some thoughts for you to consider:
It is true that the New Testament does not use the phrase “Gospel system,” but the concept is certainly biblical, even as we speak of the “Christian system” or the “Christian religion.” In Romans, the Gospel/Grace system is contrasted with a strictly legal/law system. The point of Romans is that the Jews could not depend on their ethnic heritage (their genetic connection to Abraham with the covenant symbol of circumcision) or the Law of Moses to save them—because (1) genetic connection is fleshly and avails nothing, and (2) they did not keep the Law of Moses given to them. No one can be saved by law alone, since everyone has violated God’s law and therefore stands condemned. We needed a different approach to the sin problem, specifically, the Gospel (the good news that God inhabited human flesh in the person of His Son to atone for sin). The Gospel has law that we must obey, just like the Law of Moses, but it also has the means of ultimate atonement which the Law of Moses did not technically have (cf. Hebrews 10:4). Yes, the orchestration of that means of forgiveness is wholly God’s doing which we do not deserve. There is absolutely nothing we can do to atone for our own sin.
However, it by no means follows that there is nothing that God requires of us before He will freely cleanse us. You, yourself, agree that a person must believe. So there is something that humans must do to be saved—without assuming they earn or deserve their salvation. They must believe—an act of human effort, called a “work” in John 6:29, i.e., a work that God requires humans to perform (see Methodist lexicographer Joseph Thayer who defines “works” in John 6 as “the works required and approved by God” [1901, p. 248]). But what does it mean to believe? It is not merely a mental act of accepting Jesus (as much of Christendom incessantly maintains), since Paul defined the “faith” of Romans as an “obedient faith” (hupakoain pisteos) in 1:5 and 16:26. Romans uses forms of the word “obey” and “obedience” 10 times, and forthrightly declares that a person will be judged “according to his deeds” (2:6), and that “eternal life” will be given to “those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality,” while those who “do not obey the truth” will receive “indignation and wrath” (2:7-8). Romans 6:16 indicates that obedience precedes righteousness.
So, yes, humans must perform deeds to be pleasing to God. The point that the Bible makes regarding those deeds is that they do not earn salvation for the individual—they do not wash away sin—since only the blood of Christ can do that. Christ’s blood is the cleansing agent. But when does God apply Christ’s blood to our sin-stained spirits? Answer: when a person “obey[s] the Gospel” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). How does one obey the Gospel? Acts is the “book of conversions” that gives example after example of instances wherein people obeyed the Gospel to become Christians. Please access the free pdf book at http://www.apologeticspress.org/pdfs/e-books_pdf/wtbsatcoc.pdf and scroll to page 21 where you will see a chart that records only the explicitly stated actions that occurred in 10 cases of conversion to Christianity in the book of Acts—actions that preceded salvation.
Romans was not actually intended to detail the conditions of salvation; rather, Romans explains the grounds or basis of salvation—the blood of Christ. Nevertheless, in passing, Romans happens to mention every single one of the prerequisite conditions of salvation with which humans must comply before God will grant forgiveness as a free, undeserved gift. Romans 10:17, as you note, indicates that a person must first hear the Gospel/Word of God, which is designed to create faith within. But Romans 10:9-10 makes clear that faith is not the only prerequisite to forgiveness. Oral confession with the mouth is also enjoined. Romans 2:4 indicates that repentance is necessary before God will forgive. And Romans 6:1-4 indicates that water immersion precedes salvation, since it is the contact point for the blood of Christ which was shed in His death. We must be baptized “into His death” to contact that blood. That is the point at which sin is washed away by the blood of Christ. No wonder, then, that Ananias told Saul/Paul to “arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). When does a person achieve “calling on the Lord”? When the believing, repenting, confessing person submits to water immersion (Acts 22:16). That explains why Peter declared that baptism “now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21)—in the sense that Christ’s blood saves us at the point of our baptism; and that is why that same Peter impressed upon those present in Acts 10 that the reception of Holy Spirit baptism directly from God upon the Gentiles was proof positive that Gentiles had the right to become Christians just as much as the Jews. Once their eligibility for conversion was demonstrated by that miraculous act direct from God, Peter then pressed for their obedience in the words, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized...?” (Acts 10:47). Why even bring up water at that moment if water immersion was not prerequisite to their forgiveness?
So faith, repentance, confession, and baptism are all indicated to precede remission of sin. We must obey these acts—not to atone for our sin, for only Jesus can do that—but to comply with God’s stated conditions. Those pre-conditions to salvation were authored by Him (not us), and He enjoined them upon all who wish to be saved. That is why the Hebrews writer stated forthrightly that Jesus is “the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9, emp. added). It is interesting that you quote Acts 10:34-35 which indicates that before a person is acceptable to Christ, that person must “fear Him and work righteousness” (vs. 35). In other words, believe and obey—actions that humans must perform in order to receive the free gift of salvation available only in Christ.
Denominationalism manifests a persistent inability and/or unwillingness to distinguish between the grounds of salvation and the conditions of salvation—the difference between Christ’s atonement and man’s obedience. Yet, the Bible from beginning to end demonstrates this distinction. Indeed, Jesus Himself said: “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” (Matthew 7:21). “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Or as Paul expressed to the Galatians: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27). The Galatians had become sons of God through faith when they were baptized in water.
Thayer, J.H. (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint).