Will We Be Finally ‘Saved’ by Faith Alone?
Alright, Pastor John, today we address a controversy you stirred up online. Back on September 25, 2017, just as Protestants around the globe were beginning to celebrate the Reformation’s 500th birthday, you spoiled the party with an article titled “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” In the article, you answered no — we are not saved by faith alone — leaving some Protestants dumbfounded and scratching their heads. In wishing for more clarity here, podcast listener Sam wrote to us.
“Hello, Pastor John. I have read your article on justification, saying that we are justified by faith alone but we are not ultimately saved by faith alone. You argue that works must be present for final salvation (or glorification) to be completed. Two questions: (1) Can you explain this a little further to us all on air? And (2) what then is the link between justification and glorification? From what I see in Romans 8:30, glorification is secured by our justification. How would salvation and works fit between the link here in Paul’s mind?”
Well thank you, Sam. I love to talk about this issue because it is endlessly perplexing for people, and every effort we can make to clarify it, the better. Let’s start with some clarifications.
The biblical term salvation is used to cover past, present, and future dimensions of God’s work to bring us into everlasting perfection and joy. Ephesians 2:8 says, “You have been saved.” First Corinthians 1:18 says we “are being saved.” Romans 13:11 says, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Past, present process, future completion.
This is why we have to be so careful about using the term justification interchangeably with salvation. It causes so much confusion. Justification, as we ordinarily use the term (as Paul ordinarily uses the term), refers not to a process, but salvation sometimes does refer to a process.
“We have to careful about using the term ‘justification’ interchangeably with ‘salvation.’ It causes so much confusion.”
Justification is a point, like in geometry — a point where the Holy Spirit opens our blind eyes to see Christ for who he is and unites us to Christ by faith alone. In that instant, at that point, we pass from being under condemnation into God’s being one hundred percent for us. No virtue and no works in us brought about this new standing with God.
Justification is instantaneous and unchanging. On the basis of the blood and righteousness of Christ alone, we are counted instantaneously as righteous, and God is one hundred percent for us from then on. We’re connected with this new experience of acceptance with God by being one with Christ through faith alone, and that happens in an instant.
Work to Be Saved?
Now, the question rises, How do our good deeds, then, fit with justification and final salvation? My answer is — and it’s the answer of the entire mainstream of the Reformed tradition, and really not just Calvinists would talk this way; many others would as well — works play no role whatsoever in justification, but are the necessary fruit of justifying faith, which confirm our faith and our union with Christ at the last judgment. God can make a public pronouncement with a view to these works confirming the faith, which alone unites us to Christ, who is alone the foundation of our acceptance as perfect in God’s sight.
Here’s what the Westminster Confession says from 350 years ago: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification” — distinguishing instrument from basis — “yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”
Now that last line is an allusion to Galatians 5:6, where Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The faith that justifies is the sort of faith that bears the fruit of good works, love.
Faith That Produces Works
James 2:17 says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Dead faith doesn’t justify anybody; therefore, faith without works is not the kind of faith that justifies anybody. These works are — here’s where it starts to get difficult for people, but let me see if I can help — these works are necessary.
Hebrews says, “Strive for peace” — strive is the key word — “and [strive] for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). We won’t see the Lord Jesus — that is, we won’t be finally saved — without this “striving for holiness.”
“Works play no role whatsoever in justification, but are the necessary fruit of justifying faith.”
What is that? Why is that? The apostle John says, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Or he says later, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers.” That’s how we know; it’s confirmed. “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14) — in other words, you haven’t been born again, you haven’t been united to Christ, you don’t have saving faith because it’s not confirmed by love.
Obedience and love are the necessary confirmations that we are born again, truly united to Christ by faith alone. Here’s the way Paul says it: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
We are not justified through sanctification. Let me say it again: we are not justified through sanctification. But we are finally saved through sanctification — that is, through a real change in our hearts and minds and lives without which we will not see the Lord.
Two Wrong Turns
Now, people hear this, and if they haven’t been well taught on these things, here’s what people do: They hear this, and they say, “Whoa — necessary? These things are necessary for final salvation?” And they draw two inferences from that statement, and both of them are false.
1. They say, “Final salvation, then, is dependent on us — decisively on us.”
2. Here’s the next false inference: They say, “Therefore, it’s uncertain. I could fail, I could lose my salvation, and I could be justified and then not justified. A child of God might lose his justification.”
Now both those inferences are dead wrong. Both logically wrong and biblically wrong.
The second inference is wrong because the Bible says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). You won’t lose it.
Romans 8:30 says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” No dropouts. At any one of those links in the chain, there are no dropouts between justification and glorification. I’ll say it again: “Those whom he justified” — in the twinkling of an eye, by faith alone, in union with Christ, once and for all — “will be” — all of them, no exceptions — “will be glorified.”
Making It to the End
The reason no one will lose his justification is because God is the decisive worker. We work, but we’re not the decisive worker: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” By all means, strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Why? “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
God’s sovereign keeping and working is the basis — the ground — of our pursuit of holiness. I start with the fact that I am kept. I start with the fact that I am justified. I start with the fact that God is one hundred percent for me, and on the basis of that, I pursue the killing of my sin.
Here’s what Paul says in Philippians 3:12. I love this. He says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
“Obedience and love are the necessary confirmations that we are born again, truly united to Christ by faith alone.”
Oh, get that logic right. When Sam asks, as he does at the end, “How would salvation and works sit between the link in Paul’s mind — between justification and glorification, where Paul says that all those who are justified are glorified?” he’s asking, “How does salvation and works fit in there?”
The answer is this: Glorification in Paul’s thinking is a process that begins at conversion. It doesn’t begin at the last judgment. It begins at conversion and includes sanctification. It’s consummated at final salvation.
We know this because of 2 Corinthians 3:18, where we look to Jesus and are being changed from “one degree of glory to another.” That’s glorification right now as we look to Jesus. Romans 8:30, then, when it says all the justified will be glorified, includes the promise that all the justified will be sanctified, because sanctification is included in glorification.
Our assurance of final salvation — which is so precious; we don’t believe that people should walk around unsure — rests on God’s past work by Christ, and his future work by the Spirit in us. Both, one outside of us and one in us, are rooted in God’s faithfulness to his covenant people. I’ll read this as my last verse.
This is 1 Corinthians 1:7–9: “You are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”