The word “gospel” literally means “good news”. The Apostle Paul tells us in his epistle to the Roman Christians what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about:
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” – Romans 10:9-10 (KJV)
Paul talks about the Gospel again in his first epistle to the Corinthian Church:
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:” – I Corinthians 15:1-4 (KJV)
Paul told Timothy about God’s grace and his purpose in salvation:
“8 Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God;
9 Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began,
10 But is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” – II Timothy 1:8-11 (KJV)
These passages reveal to us two important things about salvation.
God did not have to save us yet he chose to and that is what grace is. The only way God could save us that would satisfy his own justice was for his Son to die for the sins of mankind.
“15 But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.
16 And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification.
17 For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.)
18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” – Romans 5:15-18 (KJV)
But this gracious act, this gift of God can only be applied to us by faith.
“8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.” – Ephesians 2:8-9 (KJV)
So what must a person believe to be saved?
- We must confess that we have sinned against God.(I John 1:9)
- We must believe that Christ died and rose again to pay the penalty for our sins. (Romans 10:9 -10)
- We must believe that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, the sinless and spotless Son of God. (Philippians 2:5-8)
So we must believe that we are sinners in need of God’s salvation. Then we must believe in the gracious way that God paid for our sins through the shed blood of Christ. Finally we must accept that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh, the perfect and sinless lamb of God. Any other man dying in our place could not have paid for the sins of the entire world.
But can faith alone save us?
This has been the great debate in Christianity for almost 2000 years. Not long after the Apostles died many false doctrines were introduced by some of the early Church fathers who strayed from the Apostles doctrines and teachings.
One of the early heresies introduced was the idea that faith in Christ alone was not enough to save. Faith in Christ alone was seen only as the beginning of the salvation process. Some believed that while our works could never “merit” our salvation that works were in fact required to “secure” our salvation after belief.
To be clear many of these men that introduced the false teaching that works are required in addition to faith for salvation had noble intentions. They wanted to guard against Christians who would abuse the grace of God by continuing in sin habits after salvation. They also felt that giving Christians a healthy dose of fear of losing their salvation would keep them on the straight and narrow.
They also wanted to scare people into not questioning any doctrine they taught. To disagree with some leader’s doctrines was to risk eternal damnation. Think about it? If you believed that if you were wrong on any doctrine or teaching you would go to hell wouldn’t that make you afraid to question the Christian leaders around you?
However, there were some priests and other missionaries throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East that rediscovered the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. But for the most part the doctrine of salvation in Christ alone stayed locked away in the Latin Scriptures in most parts of the world until a little known German Priest named Martin Luther preached Romans 1:17 throughout Germany:
“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:17 (KJV)
Almost immediately his adversaries in the Catholic Church ran to the Epistle of James to combat this reckless idea that salvation was by faith alone in Christ alone:
“14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” – James 2:14-18 (KJV)
Luther overreacted to those who used James’s Epistle to dispute his belief in the New Testament’s teaching of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. He said “St. James’ Epistle is a perfect straw-epistle compared with them” when speaking of the value of the Gospels and Pauline Epistles.
But while Luther did overreact he was on to something whether he realized it at the time or not. Those who attempt to use James’s words on faith and works are the ones who in fact build a strawman argument against salvation by faith alone. James knew full well the words of Jesus Christ when he wrote about faith and works so we must understand his words in light of those Christ spoke while he walked the earth:
“28 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?
29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” – John 6:28-29 (KJV)
Jesus could have told them to believe on him and also do good works to secure their salvation. But that is not what Christ said. He said that works that God requires for salvation are one and one only – to believe on his one and only son. Christ stated the purity of salvation by faith in him alone again in the Gospel of John:
“16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. “ – John 3:16-18 (KJV)
Christ is clear that those who believe on him will not perish and will not be condemned. If belief was not the only thing required for salvation, but works were required in addition to secure it then Christ would have said this. Paul would have said this. The other Apostles would have said this.
So how are we to understand James’s words that a faith “if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”?
The answer is actually very simple. True faith will generate works even though works have no part in securing our salvation. Paul says this about those who are true believers:
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” – II Corinthians 5:17 (KJV)
So if there is no new creature, then there is no true belief. Being a new creature will result in some change in a person’s life and their actions. So what James was saying is if you say you believe but there is no change and no works that accompany this professed changed then you have proven you were never truly a believer.
But even for those who understand change and works will accompany a person’s true conversion then we must ask the next important questions.
For a fuller discussion on the Epistle of James and the relationship of our works to our salvation see my article “What is the relationship between Faith and Works”
How much will a person change and how fast will they change after becoming a true believer?
This is where there is a lot of difference between believers. Some believer’s progress slowly after truly trusting in Christ as Paul shows us:
“1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” – I Corinthians 3:1-3 (KJV)
There is no question that God wants us to continue growing in our faith and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we all grow at different rates and unfortunately some believers only grow to a certain point where they stop growing. But our salvation is not based upon how much we grow in Christ and what we do for Christ after we have placed our faith in Christ but our salvation remains complete and secure in Christ.
Can a true believer lose their salvation for any sin?
Some believers today still embrace the false teachings of those early church fathers who strayed from the Apostle’s teachings on salvation by faith alone.
The Bible teaches us in multiple passages that a true believer can never be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Those who trust him will never be condemned.
“38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-30 (KJV)
“5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
6 Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
7 Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.
8 Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” – Romans 4:5-8 (KJV)
For a person to lose their salvation because of some sin that they committed after salvation would make Christ’s imputed righteousness to us of no effect in our salvation.
God will not impute sin to those who have the imputed righteousness of his son therefore we can NEVER lose our salvation.
The doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone frees us not to sin but to serve God. It also frees us to question those Christian teachers around us. It is no coincidence that once Christians like Martin Luther and thousands of others throughout Europe and other places in the world understood that they were saved by faith and not by all the other doctrines of the Catholic Church that they felt free to question all other doctrines they had been taught.
Paul even encouraged believers to question whatever they are taught by the Scriptures:
“10 And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.
11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
We are not saved by our faith in Christ and being right on every other doctrine of Scripture. There is only one doctrine that we must believe in order to inherit eternal life. It is the doctrine that the one true God sent his Son, Jesus Christ and God in the flesh to die for our sins and that he rose again the third day. We may be wrong on issues concerning creation, marriage, gender roles, the church, prophesy or many other applications of the Scriptures – but being wrong on those other doctrines will not damn us to hell. Only our rejection of Jesus Christ will condemn us to hell and that alone.
But what about sin in the life of a believer?
But don’t believers sin after salvation? Of course they do. Much of the New Testament is admonitions by the Apostles for Christians not to sin.
So how can we sin if we have the righteousness of Christ imputed to us? Paul tells us about this struggle in Romans 7:
“22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” – Romans 7:22-25 (KJV)
Romans 7 is to those who believe we can lose our salvation what James 2 is to those who believe we cannot lose salvation. Many have attempted to say that Paul was describing his life before Christ but Paul is clearly speaking in the present tense of a war between the flesh and spirit in him.
Paul tells us in Romans 6:20 “For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.” What he was saying is that we were not able to serve righteousness and there was no conflict in us before we were saved because we were slaves to our sinful nature. But from the moment we are truly saved a war begins inside us. It is a war between our “new man and our old man”.
“22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;
24 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” – Ephesians 4:22-24 (KJV)
So just as the Apostle Paul did, each us as believers must war with our old man (our sinful fleshly nature) and put on the new man (follow after the spirit of God).
Paul warns us that God will discipline us if we continue as believers willfully sinning against him. Sometimes he may even take us home early as he did some Corinthian believers who abused the communion table:
“29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.”- I Corinthians 11:29-31 (KJV)
But notice the Corinthian believers who died in unrepentant sin did NOT lose their salvation. They are referred to as sleeping which is always a reference to believers who sleep awaiting the coming of Christ.
Sin after we are saved will not cost our salvation but it will cost us our reward
Paul shows us that while sin will not cost us our salvation once we place our faith in Christ sin could cost us our reward.
“11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.
14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” – I Corinthians 3:11-15 (KJV)
Paul made told the Corinthian believers that the only foundation for our salvation is our faith in Jesus Christ. Now we can and should build on that foundation by following God and serving him with our lives. But the loss we will suffer for not fully living for Christ and not fully living up to Christ’s example is the loss of our REWARD, not the loss of our SALVATION. Salvation is the gift of God and cannot be earned. But our rewards in heaven for the race we run in this life can and must be earned.
Martin Luther was an imperfect man just as many other great theologians throughout the centuries have been. But Martin Luther was absolutely right that salvation was by grace through faith alone and is not dependent on our works but instead it is the gift of God to those believe on his Son.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” – Ephesians 2:8 (KJV)