A missionary who believes in eternal security asked me if I could give an Arminian response to his tract “Once Saved, Always Saved.” I said sure. I will italicize statements that he makes in his tract and then give my response below.
…the matter of being absolutely sure of salvation without any works. Kay explained what she believed and her new friend corrected her and said the Bible taught that no one could have the assurance of salvation without a life of continual good works.
Martin Luther said the epistle to the Romans “is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel.” It is my view, along with Luther and John Wesley, that Romans 3-8 contains the heart of the Gospel message: justification by faith alone and progressive sanctification by gradual moral improvement, imperfect obedience to the moral law of God, and resisting temptations, empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:4: “That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” In the tract’s statement above, only the word salvation has been used so far, not the words justification or sanctification; and this is something we should be careful about, since each of these words convey different meanings in Scripture. Wesley contended, as I do, in my book The Gospel of Jesus Christ, that the word “salvation” encompassed both justification and sanctification. And within those experiences, there is also repentance, faith in the atonement of Jesus on the cross, the forgiveness of sins, and regeneration. Let’s unpack those concepts a bit.
1. Repentance – Turning away from sin. This occurs at the same time that justification occurs, but also becomes a continual repentance over the course of the Christian life. As Christians grow in their knowledge of the Bible and try to obey it more and more, the extent of their repentance will grow over time, and so will their faith.
2. Justification – Being made right with God. The first, initial stage in the salvation process. Going from being a non-Christian to becoming a Christian for the first time. It is accomplished without good works; and comes by faith alone that Jesus died on the cross, to receive the punishment for our sins upon Himself, so that we would not have to be eternally punished in Hell fire. The wrath of God is turned away from us when we put our faith in the cross like this; and we are forgiven for our sins.
3. Regeneration – New birth in the Holy Spirit or the born again experience. This is the beginning of sanctification; and happens at the same time as initial justification. It is described as a “seed” of the Holy Spirit within the heart and puts a love for God and people in there as well (1 John 3:9; Romans 5:5). It is a small level of the Holy Spirit; and always contains the bare minimum amount to save men, who have evil natures (Romans 7), to give them just enough good will to repent and believe in Christ. The witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is where our assurance of salvation comes from (Romans 8:16); by that, we know that we are children of God.
4. Sanctification – Holiness or separation from the world. This involves a number of things: heartfelt obedience to the moral law of God in the New Testament (not Jewish ceremonial laws), holding in balance with the view that loving God and people are the summary of that law (Matt. 22:37-40), and doing good works. Ephesians 2:8-10: “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” This Scripture is often misquoted. Those who adhere to easy-believism, tend to only focus on 2:9 when it says “not of works,” but they overlook 2:10: “unto good works.” What’s going on here? This is speaking of two different stages in the Christian life: “not of works” is about justification, but “unto good works” is about sanctification. No Christian can have the good works of sanctification without first laying the foundation of justification. But what are the good works that sanctify us? Good works are always defined by God’s commandments in Scripture, but Wesley broke these down into the works of piety (public prayer, family prayer, private prayer, the Lord’s Supper, Bible study, fasting) and the works of mercy (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining strangers, visiting prisoners, visiting the sick, and preaching the Gospel). As “means of grace,” doing these good works can strengthen our faith and invite more of God’s presence into our lives (Romans 8). But with the Church of England, he and I would agree that while good works are the necessary fruits of justifying faith, on their own they can’t put away our sins, nor endure the severity of God’s judgment.
5. Salvation – The saving of a soul from Hell. The Wesleyan-Arminian view of this word, as I previously mentioned, encompasses both justification and sanctification. Since sanctification is a lifelong process that ends with death and then results in glorification through a heavenly body, Wesleyans contend that there is an “initial salvation” and “final salvation” found in Scripture. The previous one assumes the Christian is still alive on earth and in the state of salvation, but that state is conditional and “probationary,” and depends on continuing in repentance, faith in the cross, and an intention to obey the Word of God. The last one, “final salvation” occurs at death and judgment, when God decides if the state of the Christian at death was one of repentant faith in the cross. If not, then it would be called apostasy; and would mean that person had lost his opportunity of salvation from Hell. He once was saved, but later on became lost again. 2 Peter 2:20: “If after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.” Repentance from sin and faith in the cross are always the conditions for salvation; and especially at death. Unlike the Baptistic view of “once saved, always saved,” which often implies that only justification needs to happen, and at that, only once in the person’s life. They usually don’t call it justification though, they call it salvation without works, which confuses the subject, I think. The Arminian view that a continuation in justifying faith, repentance, and sanctifying obedience is needed for salvation from Hell, is usually rejected by that camp. Some will even say that a “once Christian, now atheist” will go to Heaven if he dies an atheist! But that idea is totally wrong: the “unbelieving shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8). Justification is by faith alone. Without faith, there is no justification; and so, there is no salvation for dying unbelievers.
She asked the lady how she had learned to love people the way Jesus said. Her new friend stammered and said she just tried very hard.
The tract continues to point out how hard it is to keep God’s commandments perfectly. In Reformed theology, this is called the first use of the law. Romans 3:20: “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” But this is only one use of God’s law. The second and third uses for it are to show us what is sin and what is Christian duty. Perfectionism is constantly contradicted by everyday human experience. Romans 7 bears this out clearly: that there is a natural sinfulness in the members of our bodies (v. 23). And it is God’s law, for example, Jesus’ teaching to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:39), that shows us how incredibly hard and nearly impossible it is to obey God’s commandments. But that’s no excuse for not trying. Romans 8 gives us hope for help through the presence of the Holy Spirit!
Was our guest saved? I think not. Why? Because she was trusting in her good works instead of trusting in Jesus Christ for her salvation.
I don’t know enough information about this woman to make a judgment call like that, but I with Wesley would be likely to put her in the saved category (conditional, probationary), at least based on what the tract says. It says that she “tried very hard” to love her annoying neighbors. Intention of heart to obey God’s Word, is what we Arminians would consider one of the key elements of sanctification. This is repeatedly taught in John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. However, the execution of that intention is always an imperfect fight against sin, as the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith says on sanctification. That’s where I agree with the Puritans and disagree with Wesley. Sinless perfection is not possible in this life: all good works, all forms of Biblical obedience are imperfect, tempted, tested, and strained at best, because Christians still live encased in sinful human flesh.
If you’re relying on holy living, it’s not about being mostly faithful or trying your best or working harder or getting better–it’s about complete obedience all the time.
This idea assumes that lordship salvationists like myself believe that perfect obedience to God’s law is necessary for salvation, for your whole Christian life, until your dying day. This sort of sets you up for the first use of the law to be used against the second and third uses of it. The tract then has a list of difficult moral laws and shows that you can’t keep them perfectly. It gives off the view that God’s law is really only useful for one thing: to show us that we can’t perfectly obey it. Minus the perfectionist assumption, the anti-obedience theme goes against the logic of the Gospel. The message of forgiveness of sins, followed up by a life of godliness and holiness and personal moral transformation: the substance of Romans 5-8.
God has eyes that can see faith. You and I can only see works.
I agree. Good works can be outward signs of justification by faith (James 2:17-24), just as speaking in tongues, if you will allow it, can be an outward sign for the baptism in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4: 10:46; 19:6). But many people will admit that good works and speaking in tongues can be counterfeited.
Please read Romans 3:20 through chapter 4:16. Ten of these verses (out of 32) clearly say we are saved without works.
Assuming that you are using a King James Bible, I see no use of the words saved or salvation in this portion of Scripture. Instead, we have expressions like justified (3:20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5), righteousness of God (3:21, 22), His righteousness (3:25, 26), the remission of sins (3:25), the law of faith (3:27), counted for righteousness (4:3, 5, 9), God imputed righteousness without works (4:6, 8, 11), they whose iniquities are forgiven (4:7), the righteousness of faith (4:13), and it is of faith, that it might be by grace (4:16). This is because Romans 3 and 4 are only the first half of the Gospel. The message of justification by faith alone. Romans 5-8 deal with the rest of the Gospel: the message of sanctification. I think the NIV Study Bible rightly divides these sections in its outline. Wesley, along with Luther, considered the entire book of Romans to be Paul’s Gospel presentation. Not just Romans 3-4. In short, all by itself the doctrine of justification by faith alone is NOT the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It’s only half the story of salvation. But when you combine justification by faith alone with progressive sanctification, you get salvation from eternal punishment in Hell; you have the full Gospel message.
If you have ever felt you could lose your salvation, you’re probably relying on all those good works. Be assured that only trusting completely in Jesus can give assurance of eternal life.
Of course, He wants us to be good! But He doesn’t want us to trust in our works. He wants us to depend that God Himself died to pay the entire punishment for all our sin.
Stop relying on how good you have been, and just enjoy being good because He loves you! And let Him smile on your life.
…and, yes, my wife still does believe “Once Saved, Always Saved.”
Now we’re taking quite a leap from where we were before. Before we were referring to what the Bible teaches as justification by faith alone (Romans 3-4). But now we’ve changed gears and we’re talking about the possibility of losing salvation, also called apostasy. Now, if someone is relying on good works to save them from Hell, without faith in Jesus, it is not going to work. There is no such thing as justification by works alone or salvation by works alone in the New Testament. The closest thing to that would be the Sadducees, who were like liberal Christians who rejected the supernatural, but humanistically tried to do good works for God and possibly gain favor with Him that way. Catholicism has been a lot like that too, especially in Luther’s day: the idea of earning God’s salvation by doing good works. But Romans has no earning concepts in it; and neither should we. Sure, Christians will be rewarded for doing good works. 2 Corinthians 5:10: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” But anyone who truly trusts in the atonement completely will be motivated by the Holy Spirit to do good works, or try to obey the commands of the New Testament. The tract says, “Of course, He wants us to be good! But He doesn’t want us to trust in our works. He wants us to depend that God Himself died to pay the entire punishment for all our sin.” I agree! Totally agree, provided that future sins are not thought to be automatically forgiven. Baptists often like to say that their past, present, and even future sins have already been forgiven. Automatic forgiveness! But Romans 3:23 says, “For the remission of sins that are past,” implying that the atoning blood of Jesus has to be continually reached out for, and reapplied, again and again by repentance and faith. The entire book of Romans–all of it taken together–does not teach an easy-believism requiring no ongoing effort in the areas of repentance, faith, and obedience. Also, there are no Biblical grounds to think that faith can’t be lost! So many times the New Testament warns Christians against losing their faith, and by extension, losing their salvation! Wesley was apt to cite Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31 as proof for this; but there is much more Scripture about this (1 Timothy 1:18-19; Romans 11:16-22; John 15:6; 2 Peter 2:20). A look at the Wikipedia article on the “conditional preservation of the saints” will give you a full list.
Here are 4 clear verses which explain why we know salvation doesn’t require any good works, but certainly a believer should do lots of good works.
The tract goes to quote from Titus 3:5, Romans 4:5, 1 John 5:13, and Ephesians 2:8-9. Again, these verses are referring to justification by faith alone, not to the full salvation package. Perhaps the apostle Paul is partly to blame for his lack of clarity, but we can know that he tried his best. If he was more clear, then maybe Christianity wouldn’t have so many divisions; and there would be no debates between Calvinists and Arminians. But it is clear to me that Jesus and the apostles were Arminian and expected holiness out of everybody (Hebrews 12:14). God wants to have real relationships with all of us. Giving everyone a free ticket to Heaven (imputed righteousness) without any ongoing spirituality (the Christian life of sanctification) would be a pretty fake relationship. Those who wish to bank on justification alone, and purposely excuse themselves from Bible study and holiness, will one day be surprised to hear Jesus tell them, “Depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23).