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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Salvation is by Works Alone

April 11, 2014 •

Many treat gospel grace with frightful flippancy, and much of this abuse spawns from a misunderstanding of how grace works. In the next few SQN columns, we will work through the all-important theme of biblical grace and its essential relationship to works.

Let me put the first premise starkly: salvation is by works alone.

It might seem jarring to hear, but that very jolt itself may well disclose a colossal and common misunderstanding of the gospel. Without vacillation, the Bible speaks with one voice about the task, the accomplishment, and indeed the necessary work of salvation. To view biblical salvation coming in any other way is a pure distortion. A costless grace is not gospel grace, but a dangerous impostor.

For those somewhat familiar with the five solas of the Reformation and with “salvation by grace alone through faith alone,” such insistence on works-based salvation may seem entirely inconceivable. It may even appear heretical. But those who so react have misunderstood the Reformers. They have misunderstood the apostles and prophets. They have misunderstood biblical grace.

Common misconceptions of the gospel (and/or of the Reformation) can come by consuming evangelical soft-drink theology. Epithet-driven, self-absorbed, and emotively drenched, this soda-fountain “gospel” syrup offers high fructose spirituality – addicting and compelling, but ultimately devastating and destructive for heart health. A flip “Bible promise” calendar or a daily devotional pick-me-up supplies my spiritual sustenance, a soda for the day that keeps the devil (of my troubled conscience) away. Such tonic may be “just what the doctor ordered,” but it is not the provision from the Great Physician.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Oh, what sweet truth that is! But how glibly we can claim it without contemplating it, assert it without appreciating it, and accept it without acknowledging the cost associated with its astounding promise. Romans 8 has a theological, historical and personal context which secures this gracious promise. When we yearn for the pacifying pleasures of dwelling happily with a happy God, we far too easily ignore the context – the costly work which secured God’s love for us.

The gift of salvation is a gift earned… by Christ. The penetrating bitterness and anguishing labor of Christ have delivered real grace. Grace is no empty package of neat ribbons and bows; it is a gift of actual substance, historical and redemptive work accomplished. Christ’s redemptive ministry renders “such a great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3)!

And his work of salvation was just that: it was a grueling work, an incomparable exertion of human effort. To be sure, the gospel is a divine gift and divine accomplishment. But it attains redemptive traction by the historic work of the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5, emphasis added).

It was not uncommon in my early years of Christian faith to hear the gospel described as “fire insurance.” The catchy label hides a sinister underbelly. It goes something like this: God is kind and loving. He simply turns his head away from my sin. By a generous overlooking of my perversion, God lets me off scot-free. Though I am guilty, God behaves as if I’m not. Amazing… and empty. Redemption gets reduced to platitude, and rhetoric replaces reality.

Despite any ostensible affinity to its biblical counterpart, such thinking is not God’s grace. In truth, this is a great distortion of the good news. God does not overlook my sin. Instead, he oversees my salvation by looking at me through Christ Jesus’ full and adequate redemptive work. “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).

Let us not treat the cross as a sweet, golden trinket around the neck, but as it is – the focus of divine cursing and human death. The cross is the emphatic emblem of horrific work concerning our dreadful sin. There is no grace without grit. In “the man Christ Jesus”, God personally meets, combats, and conquers our personal sin. Divine grace reckons with my guilt, corruption, and alienation. It shines with no veneer of divine ambivalence, but with the authentic quality of Christ’s brilliant work.

Grace delivers because Christ worked. Salvation is by works alone – the works of Jesus Christ.

This article is the first part of an on-going series. The second part is called "God Works Grace," the third is titled "God's Work in Jesus," the fourth is "Sympathy Made Perfect," and the fifth is "Only Jesus' Grace Works."

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