Salvation is the term used to summarize God’s work in rescuing a sinner from the guilt and pollution of sin, restoring a sinner to a right relationship with Him, and making the sinner an adopted heir of the new heavens and the new earth. Scripture uses the term salvation in two major ways. First, salvation refers to our conversion to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, involving several benefits of God’s grace. This is the most common use of the term salvation in Scripture. The Bible also uses the term salvation to describe the entirety of the Christian life up to and including the believer’s resurrection from the dead and dwelling in the new heavens and the new earth. To avoid confusion, we must keep these two uses of salvation distinct, especially when discussing the good works of a believer in reference to salvation.
Perhaps the clearest instance of the more common use of the term is the question the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31). Faith is clearly necessary for salvation in this sense, functioning as the instrument of salvation. It is the instrument or means through which we lay hold of Christ and His work on our behalf. As Paul says in Ephesians 2, this faith is a gift from God. It is not itself a work, and it does not take the place of law keeping. Faith does not function as our obedience. Rather, faith is our connection to God, specifically to the righteousness of Jesus Christ, especially concerning our justification. It is always faith in someone; in the case of salvation, the triune God is the object of the Christian’s faith.
For faith to be present, however, God must do the work of regeneration in us beforehand. Jesus refers to this action of the Holy Spirit in His discussion with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus uses the metaphor of being born again. This cannot be anything the believer does, any more than the first birth is something that the baby does. In natural birth, the mother surely does the work. Likewise, in the second birth, the Holy Spirit alone changes our nature from dead in sin to alive in Jesus. In doing so, the Holy Spirit places us into Jesus Christ, into a holy union with Him, which is expressed on our side by faith.
Justification, God’s declaration that we are righteous in His sight, happens at the moment we trust in Christ alone for salvation. In one sense, justification is the judicial basis of the believer’s union with Christ. In another sense, justification cannot happen without union. Theologians sometimes differ in terms of how they express the exact relationship of these saving benefits to each other. The benefits themselves are distinct yet inseparable.
The second way that Scripture uses the term salvation is to summarize everything God does to save His people, right up through the new heavens and the new earth. This use of the term salvation has a future aspect, as Romans 13:11 says: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” It can be easy to forget about the future aspects of salvation. The salvation of the soul is crucially important. However, the salvation of the body is just as important. Perhaps the reason the salvation of the body gets less attention is that the salvation of the soul guarantees the salvation of the body.
Importantly, our good works do not procure, keep, cause, or consummate salvation in either the narrower or the broader sense. They are, however, inevitably caused by God’s prior actions to save us (Eph. 2:10). God’s saving acts not only precede our good works, but they also cause our good works. If one professes Christ but has no good works, it can legitimately be doubted that God’s grace has been at work in his soul. True good works always, in due time, flow from true faith. We are not saved by the good works that we do—we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Good works result from, but do not cause, our salvation.
We urgently need to hear solus Christus in our day of pluralistic theology. Many people today question the belief that salvation is only by faith in Christ. As Carl Braaten says, they ‘are returning to a form of the old bankrupt nineteenth-century Christological approach of Protestant liberalism and calling it “new,” when it is actually scarcely more than a shallow Jesusology.’ The end result is that today, many people—as H.R. Niebuhr famously said of liberalism—proclaim and worship ‘a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.’
True faith always reflects itself in our speech and actions, albeit imperfectly. If our faith never manifests itself in our speech and life, then it is not a real faith. It is not a believing in the heart. This means that genuine faith will gladly submit to the lordship of Jesus. It will trust Him and entrust itself to His Word. It also means that faith will necessarily be repentant. It will not persist in an attitude of defiance and rebellion against the Lord but will acknowledge Him to be Lord in every area of life. And it will bear the fruit of love for Christ and His people.
People ask me, ‘Why is God so narrow that He provided only one Savior?’ I do not think that is the question we ought to ask. Instead, we should ask, ‘Why did God give us any way at all to be saved?’ In other words, why did He not just condemn us all? Why did God, in His grace, give to us a Mediator to stand in our place, to receive the judgment we deserve, and to give to us the righteousness we desperately need? The astonishing thing is not that He did not do it in multiple ways, but that He did it in even one way.