Do I Believe in Work-Based Salvation?

Though the Greek text doesn’t demand it, in Romans 5:15-16 many English translations add the word “free” to the word gift that describes the salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ. It’s redundant of course; gifts are free by definition. Evidently translators wanted to make sure that readers understood that extending salvation to man was entirely God’s gracious prerogative and that nothing man could do could earn, merit, or achieve it. This truth is further established by Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  

The Bible explicitly denies that we are saved by works, and most people in the world that identify as Christians do too. You’ll rarely if ever encounter people who would describe their salvation as being about the good they’ve done and the sin they’ve avoided. However, if you pause and examine what many people believe, you’ll discover that they do in fact believe in work-based salvation – and that you might too.  

Take for example how people answer the question, “Who is going to hell?” Assuming they actually believe in hell, the tendency of most people who identify as Christians is to mentally populate hell with the fewest number of people possible. They ask, “Has a person ever expressed any kind of belief at all in God or in Jesus? Is he or she basically a good person?” If so, in their minds, that person is headed to heaven. This view of heaven and hell removes God from His judgment seat, denies God’s stated standard of judgment, the Bible (John 12:48), and also denies what the Bible says about few finding eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14). It represents a work-based view of salvation.

Some of the more vocal opponents of the concept of work-based salvation arise from those who further identify themselves as Protestants. Many Protestant movements trace back to a time when the Roman Catholic Church was getting people to pay for their salvation by selling them something they called indulgences. Seeing the obvious error in that practice and ones like it, Protestant movements began to emphasize the words “through faith… not of works” in Ephesians 2:8-9. To them, affirming that baptism or even a godly Christian life are prerequisites for salvation amounts to an affirmation of salvation by works. Unfortunately, their view of salvation typically boils saving faith down to mere belief, something that the Bible explicitly says does not bring salvation (James 2:17-26). Further, over emphasizing “through faith” deemphasizes the “not of yourselves” part of Ephesians 2:8, as salvation once again becomes more about what a person has done rather than about what God has done. And, since the Bible describes belief as a work (John 6:28-29), it represents another work-based view of salvation.

Those in the Lord’s church are not immune to embracing work-based salvation. Christians who pattern themselves after the teachings of the New Testament understand that God extends His gracious gift conditionally. They know that faith is not a dead belief but instead an assured conviction that leads one to follow God unconditionally (Hebrews 11:1) by obeying His commands to repent, confess Jesus before men, be baptized, and live a new life (Luke 13:3, 5; Matthew 10:32-33; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 9:23; et al). However, knowing that baptism represents a line in the sand between the saved and the lost, they can place too much faith in it and fall prey not just to a belief in work-based salvation but to a particular understanding of work-based salvation called “baptismal regeneration.” Baptismal regeneration is the belief that baptism alone brings about a spiritual transformation.

What does a belief in baptismal regeneration look like? Sometimes it takes the shape of a Christian who so emphasizes baptism that to him or her it’s all that matters. In the early days of my ministry, I remember a man who never came to church deciding to come on the Sunday his son and nephew decided to be baptized. He was beaming, and even said to me, “I quizzed those boys on baptism.” Clearly baptism was important to him, but it was also clear that nothing else really was. To him, baptism alone was a work that merited heaven.  

More recently, I’ve seen a belief in baptismal regeneration play out on social media surrounding baptism announcements. Given that so many reject the importance of baptism, it’s great to see people deciding to be baptized! However, sometimes Christians ignore the obvious realities surrounding some of these announcements: the denominational contexts in which they occur and/or the lack of any evidence of repentance on the part of those being baptized. Instead of considering this and seeking more evidence, they share the story and publicly declare that the person is saved based on their baptism alone. 

It wasn’t wrong for John to look for “fruits worthy of repentance” among those desiring to be baptized (Luke 3:8), and it isn’t wrong for us to consider the fruit of a situation as we “test all things” and “test the spirits, whether they are of God” (Matthew 7:16-20; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1). The sad fact is that many people are baptized without faith “in the working of God” in baptism (Colossians 2:12), seeing baptism merely as a public declaration of something that they believe has already happened. Further, many in denominational contexts have been taught to lay "aside the commandment of God" and to "hold the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8). When we believe that someone’s baptism alone saves him or her even as that person denies it's connection with salvation or other teachings of the Gospel, we really just believe in work-based salvation.  

To return to Romans 5:15-16 and Ephesians 2:8, salvation is not “of works” because it is “by grace.” Believing in salvation by grace isn't about arguing for the lowest common denominator possible for that grace to be extended. It's about recognizing that salvation is entirely God's; that it His to extend on any basis He sees fit. Ignoring the conditions upon which God extends salvation is not glorifying His grace; it’s taking that grace for granted and often, unfortunately, leads one to continue in sin (Romans 6:1-2). Let’s glorify the grace of God by embracing Biblical faith: trusting, obeying, and teaching God’s word no matter what.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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