Ask your average evangelical Protestant what it means to “be saved” and you will likely hear about an event occurring within history, usually in the legal sense of justification, though occasionally incorporating more existential terms of new birth. So something like…
- “I asked Jesus into my heart and he saved me.”
- “I believed the Gospel and ‘got’ saved.”
- “I was born again, and now I am saved.”
Emphasis here is on a once-for-all event cast either in the past tense (I was saved) or in the perfect tense (I am saved or I stand saved).
The New Testament does, of course, use the verb σῴζω (sozo) in these senses (e.g., Rom 8:24; 1 Tim 1:9; Titus 3:5), but with surprising paucity. Equally as often it uses the verb eschatologically (e.g., if x, then one will be saved in the last day—Matt 10:22; 24:12; 1 Cor 3:15; 5:5; 2 Cor 2:15; 2 Tim 4:18). Other times the Scripture-writers use the verb with a sense of continuing action (we are being saved—e.g., 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15). The largest blocks of usage, however, occur either (1) without reference to time (e.g., explaining how one “is saved”) or (2) in the indeterminate future (e.g., if x, then you will be saved—but without clearly specifying whether the immediate future or distant eschatological future is in view).
This disparity of usage means that “being saved” can be a confusing subject—and attempts to reduce “being saved” to any one of these senses can create misunderstanding. For instance, one might say, “Holiness and good works are not necessary for salvation,” and in one sense be quite correct: good works most emphatically cannot earn or hasten our justification, nor can they precipitate our regeneration. But in another sense this statement is incorrect because “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14)! At a very minimum good works are an ordained and necessary consequence of our salvation (Eph 2:9–10), and one might even rightly say that every person who is announced to be “saved” in the last day will necessarily have arrived at this point through the crucible of growth in personal holiness.
The Christian publishing market is becoming quite crowded these days with calls to make a place for good works in Christian soteriology. Some of them are troubling; others worth hearing. Approaches such as the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul, observing that the NT is concerned with salvation both as a historical moment and as an enduring, climactic journey, bifurcate justification into two aspects: (1) a provisional justification that is by faith alone and (2) a final justification that is not merely corroborated by, but also based upon good works. In these models, believers are in a real sense justified by works. Some even suggest that one may receive the “first justification” but fail to achieve the “second justification.” These approaches bear uncanny resemblance to Roman Catholicism and at best cling precariously to the outer edges of orthodoxy. They allow no one to say with Paul that “having been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1) or that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Instead, believers advance in their Christian walk through a cloud of uncertainty, anxious that what they are and have received in Christ might one day be lost. This sort of uncertainty has long been used by unscrupulous tyrants to savage and fleece their flocks rather than to shepherd them into the next life.
The kneejerk solution to these troubling approaches, however, can be as bad as the problem. Still on their long recovery from Romanism, some evangelicals, rather than finding a proper place for good works in Christian soteriology, cast blanket aspersions on the notion entirely. Zeal in the pursuit of good works (for which we have been created) is viewed critically and assumed to be “legalism” or “moralism.” The great doctrine of perseverance in holiness degrades to a divine obligation to preserve professing Christians irrespective of holiness. Sanctification reduces to reminiscing endlessly in song and sermon about what Christ has done for us to the neglect of encouraging believers to act courageously and faithfully upon what God has wrought in us. And the devastating result is an invitation not only for unbelievers to “come as you are” or “just as I am,” but for believers to do the same, and to feel comfortable staying that way.
Sadly, many assume the latter approach to be the essence of being “Gospel-Centered.” It is not. It is a distortion of the Gospel that clings precariously to the outer edges of orthodoxy.
The point here is not to suppress the legal aspects of “being saved” or to suggest that good works must be accumulated to earn God’s favor. Rather, the point is to recognize the Gospel as much more comprehensive than a forensic transaction to be rehearsed over and again. By God’s grace I have been saved; by God’s grace I am being saved; and by God’s grace I shall be saved—and the Bible spends more time talking about the latter two than it does about the first.
We need a place for good works in Christian soteriology. But we also need greater clarity (and a bit more charity) in our conversations about good works in Christian soteriology. Because engaging in good works and growing in holiness is part of what it means to “be saved.”