I watched. And as I watched I saw the young man sitting beneath the shade of a willow and he appeared to be in deep thought. His thoughts, whatever they were, troubled him. It was then that he opened a book that sat upon his lap. After moments of search he stood and went into town. He was searching for the old man, and at last found him sitting on a steel black chair underneath the canvass of a coffee shop.
Young Man: Greetings Old Man. I have come yet again to press upon you a matter that has troubled my soul.
Old Man: Go on…
Young Man: The question centers on the study of salvation – soteriology as the learned call it. I once thought I understood it, but now I am confused. Some say salvation is gained by the effort of a man’s will. Others respond, ‘nay, but by the grace of God’ and others still insist that by grace we are saved yet in order to maintain that experience one must work lest he is cast off.
Tell me old man, which of these is true?
Old Man: I will not tell you which is but I would be most glad to guide you that you may discover the answer there in your book.
Young Man: I have searched its pages but to no avail. At times is seems they are all correct, yet this cannot be. One cannot gain by works on the one hand and by a gift on the other. Nor does the mixture of the two seem probable for at the end of the day it is still effort that affords you entry.
Old Man: I suppose at that point a most compelling question would be, What is it that makes Christianity any different from every other religion?
Young Man: Please explain.
Old Man: Let us think through this. Those who follow the way of Islam adhere to five pillars. By obedience to these five pillars they hope to gain salvation. Then there are the Hindus. For them salvation comes when one escapes the cycle of reincarnation and his spirit becomes one with god. One can do this in three different ways. Then there are the Buddhists – a most intriguing people to say the least – for them the Eightfold path is the way to eternity. Finally there is Judaism. For them salvation is granted solely by being a descendant of Abraham. However, if one sins and therefore loses salvation, it can be regained by obedience to the five books of Moses – the Torah.
Now what of Christianity? Suppose we are saved by following the Ten Commandments and by obeying all that is written in the five books of Moses plus the other 61 books of the Bible – a total of 66. Then one could say with certainty that the most difficult religion to find salvation in is Christianity for the Muslims have five pillars, the Hindus three ways, the Buddhists eight, and the Jews the Ten Commandments plus whatever else Moses wrote in five books.
However, for the Christian it would be the Ten Commandments plus the five books of Moses and over fifty other inspired authors. It seems therefore that Christians are above all people to be most pitied, for their salvation is most difficult to attain.
Young Man: That is most troubling! Yet you did present this case as a supposition. What, I ask you, is the true position of this book?
Old Man: Why that is very simple. And you would do well to ignore those who seek to complicate the way of salvation with endless rules and norms. The way of salvation, though difficult, is nevertheless simple. In your book you will find these words, ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God not of works lest any man should boast.’[i] And here is the foundation of Christianity. Again I warn you, let no man deter you from this foundation, for the promise of God is that salvation is not determined by our performance but by His grace – that is His free gift to us.
Young Man: Then it is as I had thought. Salvation is not of works but is a free gift.
Old Man: Precisely. Jesus the perfect one gave His life for the imperfect ones. He took your place and offers you His place. If you accept the offer you are saved, if you reject it you are lost. Such a free gift seems almost beyond understanding in a society such as ours.
Young Man: Indeed. There is nothing here to be gotten if not by the force of the will. If one does not strive, one does not attain.
Old Man: And yet salvation is not about our striving, but His striving. It is not about our searching, but His searching. It is not about our goodness, but His goodness. If this were not so, then Christianity would be no different than Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. However, Christianity is not about you, it’s all about Him. Every religion in the world can be explained in the simple verb “do”. Christianity on the other hand can only be explained with the verb “done.”
Young Man: This is most fascinating indeed and difficult to embrace, for every fiber of my being begs to have a part in my salvation. I do not want to accept that it is God’s work. Nay! I want to be a part of that work that I too may boast when I enter heaven, and yet this cannot be.
Old Man: You speak well when you say, ‘this cannot be.’ Christianity places the pride and self-sufficiency of man in the dust and confronts them with their own reality. They are lost and helplessly so. Unless an outside force intervenes to provide escape, there can be no escape. That outside force is Christ, though He is not a force in any measure, but a person – God made man.
Young Man: Then I must press the matter one step further. If the only way to heaven is Christ and my work avails to nothing in this matter by neither gaining me salvation nor making me acceptable, then what purpose is there for good works? For as it is written, ‘faith without works is dead.’[ii]
Old Man: And it is here that we come to a most important matter. Some say that we are saved by works. We have seen that this is not so. Therefore, does this mean that we are saved from works? That a saved man has no responsibility or need to work for God? In other words, can a saved man go back to the mire of sin and expect to be remain saved?
Young Man: Precisely! For if his good works are of no avail, then why work at all?
Old Man: Look there in your book, and read the words that follow those I spoke.
Young Man: It says, ‘for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.’[iii]
Old Man: Unto.
Young Man: I don’t understand what you mean.
Old Man: Not by. Not from. Unto.
Young Man: …
Old Man: Allow me to elaborate.
Young Man: Please do.
Old Man: We cannot be saved by good deeds for we have a record of evil deeds that we can never erase.[iv] Therefore, to attempt to earn salvation would be like an Ethiopian trying to change the color of his skin, or a leopard trying to remove the spots from his fur.[v] However, Christ offers us forgiveness through His death.[vi] Because of this we can receive salvation as a free gift because the record of our evil deeds is erased.[vii] Now some suppose that they can accept the forgiveness and live as devils while others suppose that while the forgiveness is free they must from that moment on be perfect. Neither of these is correct. A saved man neither lives as a devil nor does he think to add to that which Christ has done. Salvation is not what Christ did plus what I do but what Christ did and continues to do alone.
Now that sounds like a lot but it is actually quite simple. The entire question can be answered in one word: Unto.
You see. When a man is saved he is not only saved from death but from sin.[viii] Sin the Bible says is the transgression of the law or lawlessness.[ix] Therefore, when we are saved we are saved from lawlessness. How can we who have been saved from lawlessness continue to be lawless?[x] It is an impossibility! A man is saved from death and sin and what emerges is not only a forgiven man but a transformed man as well. Therefore, we are not saved by our good works, but neither are we saved from them. We are saved unto good works.
Young Man: Aha! I think I see it now! Good works does not earn salvation, neither does it keep salvation, but it is the result of salvation. Therefore, every good work a saved man does is not to earn or to keep salvation but it is the result of being saved!
Old Man: Yes! You have said it well. And it is because of this that the saved love to keep Gods law, because they are no longer lawless in heart. They have been changed and have received a new heart and they yearn with every fiber of their being to do the will of God.[xi]
Young Man: How miraculous that God could take a sinner just as I and make me a righteous man just as He!
Old Man: Miraculous indeed.
[i] Ephesians 2:8-9, KJV Bible.
[ii] James 2:26
[iii] Ephesians 2:10
[iv] Romans 3:23
[v] Jeremiah 13:23. Paraphrase.
[vi] John 3:16
[vii] Romans 3:24-25
[viii] Matthew 1:21
[ix] 1 John 3:4
[x] Romans 6:1-2
[xi] Ezekiel 36:26-27