This examiner occasionally receives the newsletter from a local Church of Christ congregation. In this month’s issue, there was a section titled, “God’s Plan for Saving Man”. It listed the following ten items:
1. God’s grace
2. Christ’s blood
3. The Holy Spirit’s gospel
4. Sinner’s faith
5. Sinner’s repentance
6. Sinner’s confession
7. Sinner’s baptism
8. Christian’s work
9. Christian’s hope
10. Christian’s endurance
This list highlights one of the key doctrinal differences between Presbyterians and members of the Church of Christ. Of the ten components of God’s saving plan, notice that only three of them concern things God has done or is doing on our behalf. The other seven concern our contribution. In this model, salvation is clearly understood to be a collaboration between God and people. From the Reformed perspective, our redemption is understood to be entirely one-sided with God doing everything.
Is salvation God’s work, or a combination of God’s work and our work? It is true that the Bible speaks of the necessity of repentance, faith, and confessing Christ as Lord. But these things are our response to what God has done for us. Our salvation is grounded utterly and entirely on what Christ has done for us. Yes, we repent and place our faith in him, but this is not something we do in order to get God to save us. We do this when we come to realize that God, in Christ, has in fact saved us. Not to minimize the importance of confessing with our mouth Jesus is Lord (which Paul talks about in Romans 10:9-10), but this confessing is, again, not something we do to finalize our salvation. The very act of confessing Jesus is our Lord indicates that he has saved us. In John 6, in response to the question, “What must we do to do the work God requires?” Jesus replies, “The work of God is this—to believe in the one he has sent.” In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul explains that even this act of believing, saving faith itself, is God’s gift to us.
It is important for Christians to endure to the end. This is not something we accomplish though. While acknowledging that genuine Christians may fall away from the faith, Martin Luther rejected the idea that perseverance hinges on our willing response, saying this gives vastly too much credit to human will. Consider what he said in his classic, Bondage of the Will:
“Man, before he is regenerated into the new creation of the kingdom of the Spirit, does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his new creation into that kingdom, and after he is re-created does nothing and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone effects both in us, regenerating us and preserving us when regenerated.”
We don’t save ourselves and we don’t keep ourselves saved; if we do not fall away, this is God’s work in us, not anything we can glory in. Does this mean we are utterly passive, with no active involvement in our sanctification? No, as Luther goes on to explain:
“God does not work in us without us, seeing that He has for this purpose created and preserved us, that He might operate in us, and that we might cooperate with Him.”
The New Testament has much to say about the necessity of baptism, but it’s very important to not construe baptism as something we for God, an act we perform that causes God to favor us. Christ’s death and resurrection is the beginning and end of our salvation. Baptism is not some additional component, separate and distinct from Christ’s crucifixion, that we must do in order to complete our salvation. Historic Protestant confessions that link salvation with baptism do not describe baptism as something we depend on instead of Christ’s blood, but rather as the means by which Christ’s blood is applied to the redeemed. A thirsty person who pours herself a glass of water from her sink is not having her thirst quenched by the pipes instead of the water itself. The pipes, though, are the means by which the water gets to her.
Lutheran writer Jordan Cooper clarified this point on his blog, Just and Sinner, saying, “Baptism is an act performed by Christ, through the hands of the administer of the sacrament. It is His gift of life and salvation. It is not a work we do… Yes, faith alone justifies. But God has chosen to give faith and his gospel promise through certain means, the word and sacraments. Baptism is not… something in addition to faith. It delivers and strengthens faith, and it grants the gospel promise which faith clings to.”
As Paul explains in Galatians 3:27, “ For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Because Reformed Christians regard salvation as something God does for us and in, and regard everything we bring to the table as being merely a response to what God has done for us, rather than something we are meritoriously doing for God, they draw different conclusions than the Church of Christ in a number of areas. For instance, because the Church of Christ regards a Christian’s baptism as something we must do in order to be saved, there is really no room in their theological system for a “deathbed conversion”—someone repenting of her sins and believing the gospel, but dying immediately afterwards before having a chance to be baptized.
In chapter 28, the Westminster Confession says, “Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance [of baptism], yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it.” In other words, while it would be wrong for a person to indefinitely postpone being baptized, if a person is unable to be baptized (such as in a deathbed conversion), that doesn’t mean the person cannot still experience genuine redemption.
As Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware has said, “We are bound by the sacraments. God is not bound by them.”
A Christian’s work, hope, and endurance are things that mark him or her as a believer in Christ. Our work, hope, and endurance, though, do not contribute to our salvation. As C.S. Lewis explained in Mere Christianity:
“[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.”