Historic Christianity’s teaching that salvation is solely a gift of God’s grace stands at odds with all other religions of the world. The New Testament explicitly teaches that salvation is not earned by human moral effort but is a divinely imparted gift or endowment (χάρις [charis] is the New Testament Greek word for “grace” and means “unmerited favor”). Historic Christianity affirms that salvation comes by God’s grace alone, exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ’s unique life, death, and resurrection.
A Religion of Grace, Not Self-Help
Christianity at its heart is a religion not of self-help but of divine rescue. The apostle Paul summarizes the gracious formula of salvation in the New Testament as follows:
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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
–Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV
And here is another critical passage where the apostle Paul again explains the specific relationship between grace, faith, and good works:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
–Titus 2:11–14, NIV
Scripture therefore informs us that we are saved by grace, not by works. But that same saving grace motivates the believer to pursue godliness (good works). So here’s the biblical teaching enumerated:
- Salvation is by grace.
- It comes through faith (in Christ).
- It is not earned or merited by works.
- But saving grace motivates good works.
Thus, good works are the fruit, but not the root, of salvation. Or as the Protestant Reformers said concerning the relationship between faith and works, “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.” Martin Luther liked to say that saving faith is always pregnant with good works.
The Cognitive Dissonance over Grace
Given that God’s grace is the indispensable component in our salvation, it would seem obvious that as the recipients of God’s great generosity, we should endeavor to allow that grace to transform us. In other words, since God has been amazingly gracious toward me, how can I not at least endeavor to be gracious toward others? But that is where we encounter the cognitive dissonance (the psychological state and tension of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes). When I say that God’s graciousness toward me is the most important thing in my life but show little or no grace to others, then my actions are in conflict with my deepest beliefs.
I have known Christians who preach, teach, and even screech, “SALVATION BY GRACE ALONE!” But their lives show very little grace toward other people. In fact, this sad and deeply disconcerting cognitive dissonance is one that I personally wrestle with. For if the grace that I preach and teach about is, for all intents and purposes, absent in my treatment of others, then undoubtedly that cognitive dissonance is evident for all to see. Yet by God’s grace, I know this is a problem, and it bothers me. So I sense and feel the inner dissonance. But I have asked the triune God to transform me, at least so the dissonance is not so glaring.
Christians, as forgiven sinners who have a long way to go in the process of sanctification, will always struggle with the problem of believing one thing but acting in conflict with that belief. Hypocrisy is a challenge that all Christians face. Thus, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that we Christians are very likely more sinful than we consciously realize. But the good news is that Jesus Christ is assuredly a much greater Savior than we realize.
Endeavoring to Be a Gracious Person
It is obviously not easy to treat all people graciously and charitably. That may be especially true on social media and the web. But I believe God greatly blesses our sincere though imperfect attempts at being respectful and gracious to others. If our deepest theological beliefs affirm God’s immeasurable grace toward us, then the logical and moral extension of that belief is to endeavor to treat other people, maybe especially the people with whom we disagree, as graciously as possible.
Even in my struggle to treat others graciously, I’m grateful for God’s unmerited favor toward me.
For more about salvation by grace and the attempt to live the Christian life by grace, see chapters 9 and 10 of my book 7 Truths That Changed the World.