Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the British woman whose neighbor commented on her garden, “My, what a lovely flower garden God has given you!” She replied, “I don’t mean to sound boastful, but you should have seen this flower garden when God had it all by Himself!”
That funny little story is actually an illustration of a big theological issue that challenges us all. We all know that God is working to accomplish His will, but we also know that human beings have a part to play in many outcomes both temporal and eternal. In the case of the British gardener, she knew that only God can turn a seed into a beautiful flowering plant. That being said, she also realized that, unless she strategically planted flower seeds, kept them watered, and periodically pulled weeds, the outcome would be an ugly mess. She knew what God was responsible for and what she was responsible for. In the end, both could rightfully take some credit for the outcome—although God’s contribution was certainly much more impressive than hers!
Christians often struggle trying to find the dividing line between divine and human responsibility. What is our job and what is God’s job? None of us wants to make a wrong assumption, but still, opinions vary. Although we are all reading from the same Bible, many theological debates revolve around this issue, and two words often surface within those debates. They are grace and works—two words that stand in contrast.
How do they differ?
Grace is generally associated with unmerited favor, while works are generally associated with merited favor.
Another way of comparing grace and works—from a biblical perspective—is that the former is what God does and the latter is what we do in response to what God has done.
The New Testament contrasts salvation by grace and salvation by works in three passages, all penned by Paul. Here they are:
But if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace (Rom. 11:6, emphasis added).
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9, emphasis added).
…who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity (2 Tim. 1:9, emphasis added).
In all three passages, Paul affirmed that we are saved by grace and not by works. That is not up for debate, and all true Christians agree on it.
Because salvation, however, is by grace and not as a result of works, is it safe to assume that works are of no importance to God? Surely you know the answer to that question. Anyone who reads the Old Testament, the Gospels, or the New Testament epistles knows that God deeply cares about what we do. One would have to be completely ignorant of the Bible to think that God’s grace somehow mitigates the importance of our works to God. And in fact, if we read—in their entirety—the three epistles from which I just quoted passages that so strongly advocate salvation by grace, we discover a great deal of emphasis on works.
A Brief Look at Those Three Grace/Works Passages
Let’s look at all three passages briefly to begin to sort out God’s perspective on grace and works:
(1.) Eph. 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
The very next verse in this passage says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, emphasis added). So how important to God are our works? He created us in Christ for good works. And He was planning and preparing those good works even before we were His children. Is it any wonder then that He now expects us to “walk in” those good works? According to Ephesians 2:8-10, we can safely say that God has saved us by grace, at least in part, to do good works.
(2.) 2 Tim. 1:9: “…who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.”
Did you notice that, just before Paul contrasted salvation by works and grace, he declared that God called us “with a holy calling”? That is, He called us to be holy which, for all sinners, begins with repentance and then continues with good works. The Amplified Version renders 2 Tim. 1:9: “…for He delivered us and saved us and called us with a holy calling [a calling that leads to a consecrated life—a life set apart—a life of purpose].”
Clearly, by extending grace to sinners, God is not offering them a license to continue sinning with impunity. Rather, He is offering them an opportunity to turn away from sin, be forgiven, and live a holy life from then on. That is His gracious calling.
Make no mistake: God didn’t have to call us. He could have left us alone and eventually punished us for our sins. He didn’t have to offer us the opportunity to be forgiven. But He did! And that was an expression of His amazing grace.
Paul elaborated on that same gracious calling in his letter to Titus:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Tit. 2:11-14).
There you have it. God extends His grace to make us holy.
(3.) Romans 11:6: “But if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.”
Paul clearly stated that the basis of salvation cannot be works if the basis is grace. It has to be one or the other. That being said, Paul wrote just a few chapters earlier—in the very same letter—that grace affects people’s behavior. God’s grace is the basis of a salvation that results in works:
Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?…. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?…. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:1-2, 14-16, 22-23, emphasis added).
It is beyond the scope of our discussion to consider everything Paul wrote in the 6th chapter of Romans. I only wanted you to see, once again, that God’s grace does not offer anyone a license to sin, but rather, it offers freedom from sin’s enslavement. That is part of the “salvation package” that is not earned or merited, but granted by God’s grace, and it is thus a free gift. It is not “salvation by works” but “salvation unto works.” And if you read the entire 6th chapter of Romans, it is clear that we have a part to play in our holiness. Although God has set us free from sin, we must “not let sin reign in [our] mortal body so that [we] obey its lusts” (Rom. 6:12). So God, by His grace, plays a part in our holiness, but so do we. It is important to understand that balance.
All of this is to say that, although grace and works may stand in contrast to each other like black and white, they are certainly not mutually exclusive, like wet and dry or good and evil. I hope you’ve seen from the scriptures we’ve already considered that God intends that His grace towards people will result in their holiness and obedience. That is the first biblical truth every Christian needs to grasp regarding grace and works.
If you continue reading, you will soon see that God relates to everyone on the basis of both grace and works. In some cases, His favor is unmerited, and in other cases it is merited. That is also an inescapable biblical truth. It is not up for debate. Keep reading!
The Great Rewarder
Just because God offers salvation by grace does not mean that He never offers other blessings because of works. Scripture declares that “He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Seeking God is something people do or don’t do. God rewards those who seek Him, and only those who seek Him. He rewards them, not because of His grace, but because of their works.
Here’s a specific example: Jesus told His followers, “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6, emphasis added). God’s reward is given to those who deserve it. It is merited favor. There is no reason to expect the reward for secret prayer unless you pray secretly.
The truth that God rewards good behavior, “works,” is affirmed in hundreds, if not thousands, of Old and New Testament scriptures. In the New Testament, we can start at the beginning with Matthew’s rendition of Jesus’ Beatitudes, all of which are promises of future rewards (Jesus used that very word in Matthew 5:11) for certain praiseworthy behaviors (see Matt. 5:3-11). And we can end in Revelation, where Jesus promised specific rewards to people in seven churches if they would “overcome” (see Rev. 2:7-3:21). Those are both examples of God relating to people on the basis of merit, rather than grace. No one can intelligently claim otherwise.
Of course, any and all people who receive any benefit from God on the basis of merit/works have also tasted of His marvelous grace—since we’ve all sinned. Again, God relates to people both by grace and works. More specifically, God relates to you on the basis of both, which is why it is so important to understand Scripture’s balance on the subject. We can over-emphasize grace at the expense of under-emphasizing works, and we can over-emphasize works at the expense of under-emphasizing grace. There are ditches on both sides of the road. We need to walk down the middle.
Six “Works” Scriptures
Between Romans and Revelation, there are many scriptures that affirm the fact that God does not relate to us purely through grace, but also through our works, whether we deserve reward or penalty. I’ve compiled an initial sampling of six scriptures below, all from the New Testament epistles (and not from any of the Gospels, only because some mistakenly claim that only in the epistles is new covenant grace revealed). Please read them carefully and honestly:
1.) Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:9-10).
All true Christians have an ambition to be pleasing to God. And why? One reason is because “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” What will happen there? We will be “recompensed for [our] deeds…according to what [we have] done, whether good or bad.”
We can debate if Paul was thinking of Christians or non-Christians when he mentioned that Jesus will recompense those who have done “bad” (or “evil” as some translations say). Regardless, at Christ’s judgment seat, He will relate to believers on the basis of works, not grace. So, although salvation is granted by grace, heavenly rewards are based on our works.
I cannot resist saying that, no matter how much some preachers emphasize or over-emphasize the grace of God, I have yet to hear one who denies that merit is the basis of Christ’s judgment seat. So, whether they can admit it or not, they believe that God does not relate to us purely on the basis of grace, but also on the basis of works. And although the judgment seat of Christ is a future event for us, it is based on works we’ve done all of our Christian lives. So it is foolish to claim that “God only relates to us based on our works in the future.”
Jesus certainly affirmed this same truth when He declared, “For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27). That is merit. Jesus said those words to His closest disciples (see Matt. 16:21-17:1). If they had application to Peter, James and John, it is safe to assume that they have application to you and me.
Here is more proof that God relates to us by our works, not just in the future, but right now:
2.) You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7, emphasis added).
3.) The one who desires life, to love and see good days,
Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.
He must turn away from evil and do good;
He must seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous,
And His ears attend to their prayer,
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil (1 Pet. 3:10-12, emphasis added).
4.) Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight (John 3:21-22, emphasis added).
All three of the above scriptures affirm that holiness has something to do with having our prayers answered. That is merit, not grace. Again, God is relating to us, not just through grace, but also by our works.
5.) For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor. 11:29-32, emphasis added).
Because some of the Corinthian Christians would not judge themselves “rightly,” God judged/disciplined them for their unrepentant sin, and some suffered sickness and even premature death. That is another unmistakable endorsement of the fact that God does not relate to Christians purely by grace, but in part, based on their works.
6.) But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does (Jas. 1:25, emphasis added).
If the “perfect law, the law of liberty” is the same as the “royal law” that James later identifies as God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (see Jas. 2:8-12), then James believed that God blesses those who obey the second-greatest commandment. Once again, although God saves us by His grace, He also relates to us, at least to some degree, based on merit. There are things we can do to attract or repel His blessings.
A So-Far Summary
Based on the scriptures we’ve already considered, I hope you agree with these three biblical truths:
1.) God is deeply concerned about our behavior. He wants us to obey Him in everything. He desires that His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
2.) God extends His grace to sinners with the intention that it will result in their repentance and ongoing holiness and obedience. His grace should result in works. It is not a license to continue in sin.
3.) God relates to us by both grace and works. Salvation is by grace, but temporal blessings and future rewards (as well as temporal discipline and future loss of rewards) are based on our works. Some of God’s favor towards us is unmerited, and some is merited.
With that foundation, let’s dig deeper into Scripture in our quest to arrive at a biblically-balanced understanding regarding how God relates to us both through grace and works. At the same time, let’s try to better understand what is God’s part and what is our part in our relationship with Him and in our salvation. The following diagram should help us see that there is a spectrum of belief among Christians on these issues, with extremes at both ends.
Note that on the far left is the most extreme view of grace within professing Christendom, which I have labeled “Universalism.” Universalists believe that everyone will be saved in the end, so obviously, works have zero to do with it. One’s behavior is irrelevant. It is “all grace.” Adolph Hitler, Universalists believe, will be in heaven, a forgiven, born-again believer, a trophy of God’s grace.
On the far right is the most extreme opposite view of grace within professing Christendom, which I have labeled “Legalism.” For legalists, salvation is something to be earned, so grace has nothing to do with it. It is “all works.” If Jesus has any part of it, it is only that He set an example of obedience that serves to spur us on to work our way into heaven.
So, on the far left is “hyper grace” without a speck of works mixed in and on the far right is “hyper works” without a speck of grace mixed in. The biblical balance is somewhere in the middle, as we will soon see. I suspect that most readers will not identify with either end of the spectrum, which likely puts you somewhere in between on the “Grace Spectrum.”
Let’s suppose that, although you are not a universalist, you do lean towards the left of my diagram. Since you don’t believe that everyone will ultimately be saved, you must believe that there is something, or someone, who determines who is saved in the end and who is not. You therefore believe that salvation is conditional, because not everyone will be saved, thus not everyone will meet the conditions.
Of course, all Christians would agree that the saved are characterized by faith, whereas the unsaved are characterized by unbelief. The condition of salvation is faith. But why do some have faith and others do not? Some say that people’s faith is sovereignly determined by God. He either gives you faith, or He does not. If believers bear responsibility to believe, in full or part, then no longer is salvation by grace they say, because humans play a part in their salvation, and that would be “salvation by works.”
But is that sound logic? More importantly, is it biblical?
Calvinist/Reformed Christians hold to this view. They believe that in eternity past God pre-selected who would be saved, and His selection of them was not due to any virtue He foresaw in them. It is a mystery why He chose some and not others. He could just as well have chosen a completely different set of people for salvation. Moreover, Jesus only died for the pre-selected. God also preplanned to zap the pre-selected ones with “irresistible grace” at a pre-selected time in each of their lives, which would cause them to be born again and have faith in Jesus. Those predestined, grace-zapped folks cannot not be saved. And there is no chance that any of the non-preselected might respond in a positive way if they hear the gospel, because all people are totally depraved and would reject the gospel unless they are zapped with irresistible grace. Finally, because salvation is “all grace,” those whom God chose and gave faith will continue to believe until death or Jesus’ return, and they will continue to bear the fruit of obedience (the evidence of faith). So there is no possibility that they might forfeit salvation. Any who appear to be saved but who backslide were really not saved in the first place, and it is because God didn’t select them for salvation.
Calvinist/Reformed Christians refer to their five doctrinal pillars (all mentioned in the above paragraph) as “the doctrines of grace,” because they believe that only their doctrines meet the litmus test of pure grace. Any doctrines that are contrary to theirs spill into “salvation by works.”
Take a look now at my revised diagram:
In regard to their conception of grace in salvation, Calvinist/Reformed Christians come close to the Universalist conception, because they, like Universalists, believe salvation is solely due to God’s sovereign selection. For that reason, I have located them on the far left of my diagram.
The trouble is, there are scores of clear scriptures that contradict all five of Calvinism’s cardinal doctrines. In order to preserve their view, Calvinists must redefine words, twist the plain meaning of many clear scriptures, and awkwardly interpret numerous passages.
A More Biblically-Balanced Option
If you don’t hold to the Calvinist view of faith, then you likely believe the multitude of scriptures that plainly indicate that (1) people are free moral agents who have something to do with their faith (or unbelief), and (2) people who believe have something to do with continuing to believe. Therefore, you must reconcile your view with the biblical fact that salvation is by grace. Again, you believe that people play some role in their salvation. You must therefore, of necessity, adopt some view of grace that allows for requiring a human response.
So can grace still be grace if it is conditioned upon a human response?
Yes, of course it can. The example I often use is of the speeding motorist who is pulled over by a policeman who, rather than issuing a speeding fine, issues only a warning. That is an example of “undeserved favor.” The lawbreaking motorist was “saved (from a fine) by grace.” If, however, upon being permitted to return to the highway, the motorist spins his tires and quickly accelerates to 100 miles per hour, he will soon discover that the grace he was granted was conditional. The same policeman who showed him grace minutes before will have no hesitation reversing his former grace. That is an example of conditional grace.
Here’s a biblical example of conditional grace right from the lips of Jesus:
For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, “Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.” And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, “Pay back what you owe.” So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, “Have patience with me and I will repay you.” But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, “You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart (Matt. 18:23-35).
Who would argue that the king’s forgiveness of his slave’s insurmountable debt was not an act of pure grace? It was a grant of undeserved, unmerited favor. But the king expected his forgiven slave to forgive others. And when his slave didn’t forgive a fellow slave who owed a much smaller debt, the king reversed his former act of grace and treated his slave as he deserved, according to his deeds. That slave lost the grace he’d once gained. So the king’s grace was conditional.
Does Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant have any application to us? It certainly did to Jesus’ disciples (see Matt. 18:1, 35). Recall that in the parable, the king reinstated his slave’s formerly-forgiven debt. And Jesus warned His disciples, “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” That is a clear warning of the danger of forfeiting grace. Jesus believed that His Father’s grace was conditional.
Did the behavioral requirement of the king in Jesus’ parable somehow nullify the fact that his initial forgiveness of his slave’s insurmountable debt was an act of grace? Certainly not. The king’s slave was saved from the king’s wrath by the king’s grace.
If that slave had forgiven his fellow slave of his debt, could he then have boasted that he earned the king’s forgiveness and saved himself by his works, rather than by the grace of the king? Of course not. Had he forgiven his fellow slave, that would have only made him a slave who was saved by grace and who extended a relatively small amount of grace by comparison to a fellow slave.
All of this is to say, the idea that any behavioral requirement by God somehow nullifies His grace in salvation is patently false. Even if we never sin again after God saves us (I’m still waiting to meet that Christian!), we would have no warrant to boast that we saved ourselves by our works. Sinners can only be saved through grace.
The True Grace of God in Salvation
God graciously forgives us of all our sins. Then He gives us the marvelous gift of His indwelling Holy Spirit. Then He expects better behavior from then on. If and when we fail, His grace only waits for our humble confession (see 1 John 1:9).
All of this is to say that anyone who declares or implies that conditional grace is not grace is dead wrong. “God gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). That is, God gives grace to those who meet His condition of humility.
Similarly, anyone who says that a behavioral requirement nullifies grace is also wrong. The same apostle (Paul) who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9) wrote in the very same letter to the very same Christians, “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints…. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Eph. 5:3-5, emphasis added).
Those two passages in the same letter cannot be contradictory. Together, they prove that people whom God saves by grace can disinherit themselves from His kingdom if they become immoral or covetous (the latter of which is a form of idolatry).
Of course, any Christian who disinherits himself through immorality or covetousness can be restored through confession and repentance (see 1 John 1:9). But my point is that God saves people through a conditional grace, which is why I have added “Conditional Grace” right in the middle of my diagram, as it represents the scriptural balance on the Spectrum of Grace:
The proof that God’s grace in salvation is conditional can be found in the most-often-cited passage of Scripture that is used to prove that salvation is by grace and not works, Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (emphasis added).
Paul lists two components of salvation: grace and faith. Grace is God’s part; faith is our part. Faith is God’s condition for salvation. That is why we proclaim the gospel, hoping that people will meet God’s condition by believing and be saved. So, receiving the benefit of God’s grace is conditioned upon our faith. That is indisputable, and that means God’s saving grace is conditional from the start. And the condition never expires. Believers must keep on believing, which is why there is so much encouragement to believers in the New Testament epistles to persevere in faith.
I am aware that some Christians believe that once you are saved that guarantees you will always be saved, and they often claim that to say otherwise is to advocate “salvation by works.” But that is simply not true. Think of how illogical it is. Everyone agrees that salvation is conditioned upon faith. So, if people are to be saved, they must have faith. That is something they must do. So is that “salvation by works”? If not, then how can continuing to believe be “salvation by works”?
Moreover, there are scores of scriptures that, if read honestly, make it plain that salvation is conditioned upon “continuing in faith.” Here’s one:
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard (Col. 1:21-23).
It could not be clearer.
And there is nothing about the nature of faith that makes it permanent. Recall Peter’s walk on the water. He succeeded for as long as he continued to believe. But when he doubted, he sank. His faith was temporary. Jesus said in His Parable of the Sower and the Soils that some people “believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). Was Jesus mistaken about that?
Here’s another clear scripture about the necessity of continuing in faith for salvation:
Quite right, they [unbelieving Jews] were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Rom. 11:20-22, emphasis added).
Again, how much plainer could it be?
Here’s another one, written to suffering, persecuted, Hebrew believers who were being pressured to abandon their faith in Jesus and return to Judaism:
But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
“For yet in a very little while,
He who is coming will come, and will not delay.
But my righteous one shall live by faith;
And if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.”
But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul (Heb. 10:32-39, emphasis added).
Here are three more:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain (1 Cor.15:1-2, emphasis added).
But Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end (Heb. 3:6, emphasis added).
Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end (Heb.3:12-14, emphasis added).
Continuing in Obedience
Because saving grace is conditioned upon continued faith, it is also conditioned on continued obedience, since obedience is the evidence of faith, and “faith without works” is dead, useless, and cannot save (see Jas. 2:14-17). There are scores of scriptures in the New Testament epistles that affirm this fact. Here’s one from the pen of Paul, a very strong advocate of salvation by grace:
Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren. Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:7-10, emphasis added).
Certain especially-grievous behaviors prevent people from “inheriting God’s kingdom” (a clear reference to being saved ultimately; see Matt. 25:34; 1 Cor. 15:50). One of them is “swindling,” of which some of the Corinthian believers were guilty, having defrauded their fellow believers. Paul was warning them of disinheriting themselves from God’s kingdom.
He wrote similar words to the Galatian Christians:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God…. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:19-21, 24).
According to Paul, this was not the first time he had warned the Galatian believers about the potential dire consequences of “yielding to the flesh,” something that is obviously possible for any Christian to do since we all still possess free wills. And the warning we’ve just read is found in a letter in which Paul focused primarily on defending the truth of “justification by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law” (Gal. 2:16) because false teachers were convincing the Gentile Galatian believers that they were not saved unless they were circumcised and keeping ritualistic aspects of the Mosaic Law (see Gal. 4:9-10). Obviously, in light of the passage we’ve just read, Paul believed that God’s grace is conditional, but it is not conditioned upon keeping ritualistic laws of the old covenant, but upon moral principles that are written on every human conscience and buttressed by the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer.
When I hear preachers confidently claim that the Bible teaches “once saved always saved,” I wonder if their Bibles include the New Testament. There are scores of New Testament scriptures that clearly say, or at least imply, that it is possible for genuine believers to ultimately forfeit salvation. If you want to investigate some of them for yourself, here is an incomplete list: Matt. 18:21-35; 24:4-5, 11-13, 23-26, 42-51; 25:1-30; Luke 8:11-15; 11:24-26; 12:42-46; John 8:51; 15:1-6; Acts 11:21-23; 14:21-22; Rom. 6:11-23; 8:12-14; 11:20-22; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 9:23-27; 10:1-21; 15:1-2; 2 Cor. 11:2-4; 12:21-13:5; Gal. 5:1-4, 19-21; 6:7-9; Eph. 5:3-5; Phil. 2:12-16; 3:17-4:1; Col. 1:21-23; 2:4-8, 18-19; 1 Thes. 3:1-8; 1 Tim. 1:8-20; 4:1-16; 5:5-6, 11-15, 6:9-12, 17-19, 20-21; 2 Tim. 2:11-18; Heb. 2:1-3; 3:6-19; 4:1-16; 5:8-9; 6:4-20; 10:19-39; 12:1-17, 25-29; Jas. 1:12-16; 4:4-10; 5:19-20; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; 2:1-22; 3:16-17; 1 John 2:15-2:28; 5:16; 2 John 6-9; Jude 20-21; Rev. 2:7, 10-11, 17-26; 3:4-5, 8-12, 14-22; 21:7-8; 22:18-19.
I am certainly aware of the various proof-texts that are used to defend the idea of “unconditional eternal security,” but they must be harmonized with all the scriptures I’ve just listed, because they are in the same Bible.
Perhaps the most often-cited passage used to prove unconditional eternal security is John 10:27-28:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
That is a wonderful promise. But it isn’t an unconditional promise. It’s a conditional promise. It is only for Jesus’ “sheep.” And Jesus defined who “His sheep” are in this very passage. His sheep do two things: They “hear His voice” and “they follow Him.” That means they obey. And they, and only they, never have to worry that they will perish or that anyone might snatch them away.
John 10:27-28 doesn’t support “unconditional eternal security. On the contrary, it supports “conditional eternal security.” You can’t claim the promise there just because you attend a church where the pastor says you are one of Jesus’ sheep because you once prayed a little prayer to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior.” You are only one of Jesus’ sheep if you follow Him.
Beyond their proof-texts, advocates of unconditional eternal security rely on “logic,” such as, “If we have become God’s children, how can we become not God’s children?”
That “logic” doesn’t nullify the scores of New Testament scriptures that warn believers of the potential of forfeiting their salvation. And we could just as easily use the same kind of “logic” and argue that God must have a wife, because “How can God be our spiritual Father unless we also have a spiritual mother?” “Logic” that contradicts Scripture can take you into strange doctrines.
One of the most absurd lines of “logic” is often expressed by the question, “If God has given us eternal life, it is eternal, so it can’t ever be forfeited!” Such folks are mistaking the nature of the gift with the duration of the gift. If I handed you an “eternal banana,” the fact that the banana will never rot does not mean I can’t take it back from you at any future time.
The Brutal Reality
The truth that ultimate salvation hinges on continued faith and obedience so permeates the New Testament that denying it requires either gross ignorance or a degree of dishonesty that should make those who preach “unconditional eternal security” tremble when they read God’s words in Revelation 21:8:
But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (emphasis added).
Take note that God, who saves people by grace, declared that certain sinful behaviors mark people as hell-bound, and liars are on God’s list. Do you suppose that preachers who lie about God’s grace, telling people that it guarantees their ultimate salvation no matter how they live, are exempt?
Preachers who promote “once-saved-always-saved” don’t just “muddy the waters.” They poison the drinking water. They “turn the grace of God into licentiousness,” and in so doing actually “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4, emphasis added). Yet, tragically, believing their own lies, they are confident that they are “safe in God’ grace,” and they assure their flesh-indulging congregations of the same.
If you understand the biblical truth on the matter, you may be grieved (like me) by those who proclaim a false, unbiblical grace, but you should not be surprised. Paul warned 2,000 years ago that “evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13, emphasis added). We are living in a day of gross deception in many churches.
Take a look at my further-revised diagram below, where I have added another designated spot on the Spectrum of Grace. Note that I’ve put “Once-Saved-Always-Saved” left of center, because like Universalism and Calvinism, it is also leans away from balanced, biblical grace towards license to sin. It gives God responsibility that He gives to people.
Note again that “Conditional Grace” is directly in the center, as it represents the biblically-balanced view of grace. Note also that I’ve added a scripture reference with that designation, Philippians 2:12-13, which beautifully illustrates biblically-balanced conditional grace:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Unless you believe in biblically-balanced, conditional grace, you are going to have to twist what Paul plainly said in that passage in order to make it fit your theology. And, wow, do theologians ever twist that passage, some even going so far as to claim that the word “salvation” found in it does not refer to what “salvation” means in most other New Testament passages.
But let’s read it honestly, since we are supposed to be honest as followers of Christ.
Paul starts by talking about the Philippian believers’ obedience, and he immediately connects their continued obedience to their salvation, which he tells them to “work out…with fear and trembling.” So that is something that is their responsibility. They were already saved, but they still must “work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” which makes it crystal clear that Paul did not believe that they were “unconditionally eternally secure” in their salvation. No, they should take very seriously the fact that God’s grace is conditional, and thus be “fearful and trembling” about what could potentially happen if they stop meeting His conditions. Paul believed all the things that I’ve already quoted him as saying regarding the necessity of continuing in faith and obedience. Thus the reason for his admonition to the Philippians.
However, although the Philippians had responsibility to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” they were not left to their own willpower by any stretch of the imagination. God was “at work within them” by His indwelling Holy Spirit, leading them in the paths of righteousness and empowering them to be victorious over temptation. His goal is that they would please Him by their obedience. If they stumbled, He was right there with them to pick them back up, forgive them, and restore them by His marvelous grace. They only needed to make a confession (see 1 John 1:9).
So we see in Philippians 2:12-13 an illustration of biblically-balanced, conditional grace in salvation. Philippians 2:12-13 does not advocate Universalism, Calvinism, or Unconditional Eternal Security. Both God in His grace, and human beings in their response to God’s grace, play a part in human salvation. That is inescapable in Philippians 2:12-13 and hundreds of other passages in the New Testament. Once you embrace biblically-balanced, conditional grace, many scriptures start making sense to you that were previously confusing because they didn’t fit your theology. For example, Hebrews 12:14:
Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.
The Greek word translated sanctification is “hagiasmos,” which is often translated in the New Testament as “holiness” (as it is four verses earlier in the NASB of Hebrews 12:10 in a slightly-different form—”hagiotes”). The author of Hebrews believed the Christians to whom he wrote would not see the Lord apart from the pursuit of holiness. The New Living Translation renders Hebrews 12:14: “Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord.”
Continuing to the Right…
There are, of course, other forms of false grace within the spectrum of Christendom, and I’ve added a few to the right-of-center on my diagram. Take a look:
There are those segments within Christendom that understand something about God’s conditional grace, but they’ve added conditions that aren’t found in the New Testament. Those added conditions are often emphasized so much that the gospel is completely forgotten, and all that is left is a culture of people who all outwardly conform to a set of manmade standards. Even more tragic is that, while they keep their manmade standards, they often transgress God’s standards. Case in point is the Amish young man who, after a Sunday-evening church gathering, dutifully drives his modestly-attired girlfriend home in his horse-drawn buggy (and not a “worldly” car), only to have sex with her along the way or in her parents’ home!
So-called “holiness churches” within Protestantism are sometimes full of judgmental, self-righteous people who attempt to maintain a façade of righteousness by how they dress and worship. That thin veneer may be just a cover for unregenerate hearts, and when it does, we can’t help but think of the Pharisees whom Jesus condemned, saying to them, “You are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27).
Such folks need to be truly born again and start following Jesus rather than trying to conform to manmade standards. Once they do, they will no longer be repeating the cycle of “getting saved again every Sunday,” while hoping they won’t backslide by yielding to the temptation to not wear their hair in beehive buns before next Sunday.
“Ordnung Faiths,” which I have also added right-of-center on my diagram, would include the Amish, Hutterites and Mennonites who have added hundreds of standards (the “Ordnung”) that can’t be found in the New Testament and who require 100% conformity from their members. Having some experience in ministry to them, I’ve discovered both regenerate and unregenerate people within their ranks. The regenerate ones understand that their Ordnung is not a means to salvation, but rather consider it to be an aid to keeping the Law of Christ (which is debatable in my opinion). The unregenerate among them outwardly conform to the Ordnung to maintain social acceptability, but they often secretly transgress God’s commandments. They, too, need to be genuinely born again.
Folks who do come to a genuine faith in Jesus among the “Holiness” and “Ordnung Faiths” often require significant time to renew their minds regarding God’s amazing grace since they’ve come from very legalistic cultures in which they never “measured up.” For them, having suffered for years under the load of endless striving and unbiblical guilt, a strong focus on God’s grace is healthy and transforming. For some, it takes months or even years of mediation on those parts of God’s Word that emphasize His love and grace. I encourage such folks to spend their time reading anything in the Bible that encourages them, and avoiding what might discourage them. Eventually, they are set free from their former bondage to human tradition and manmade rules, and they experience the joy of simply following Jesus.
Pointing at the Other Side
Tragically, some who are left-of-center on my diagram point to those who are right-of-center and say, “See, that is what happens to you when you cease to emphasize grace and focus on works!” And with that criticism, they justify their own unscriptural imbalance.
Similarly, some who are right-of-center on my diagram point to those who are left-of-center and say, “See, that is what happens to you when you preach a greasy grace!” And with that criticism, they justify their own unscriptural imbalance.
The truth is, Christians who avoid “cherry-picking” verses from the New Testament in order to confirm their biases, but who embrace every passage, end up being as balanced as the New Testament is. And they avoid both extremes of my diagram, ending up right in the center.
And because they follow Jesus and sincerely strive to obey His commandments, they possess a genuine assurance of salvation—in stark contrast to the false assurance possessed by those on the left and the elusive assurance sought by those on the right. Those who know that salvation is conditional because God’s grace is conditional know also that assurance of salvation is conditional. It is only for those who obey. How could anyone who is not obeying Jesus possibly possess genuine assurance of salvation after reading His words, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21, emphasis added)?
And for those who make the erroneous claim that Jesus’ words have no application to believers under the new covenant of grace, here’s a passage from the epistles that echoes the same truth:
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1 John 2:3-4).
A major theme of John’s first epistle is the assurance of salvation. John repeatedly mentions three tests whereby one can ascertain if he is truly born again. Truly born-again people believe in Jesus, they love one another sacrificially, and they obey the Lord’s commandments. Only those people can and do possess genuine assurance of salvation.
When Lefties Pull Out the “Legalist” and “Pharisee” Cards
Again, tragically, those on the left are often quick to label anyone to the right of them—including those at the center of my diagram—as “legalists. In fact, anyone who advocates holiness to any degree is at risk of being so labeled, and they might also find themselves being called a Pharisee.
Some of the nastiest professing Christians I’ve encountered regularly use those terms to label those of us who are “pursuing the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14) and “striving to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life” (Matt. 7:13-14). I’ve come to realize that many within Christendom who are left of center on my diagram, just like many who are right of center, are not really born again. In the case of so many on the left, they’ve never turned from sin and believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, they’ve been deceived by a false gospel and believe that because they’ve “accepted Jesus as Savior,” they are guaranteed eternity in heaven no matter how they live their lives, and anyone who says differently is preaching “salvation by works.”
The truth is, the Jesus in whom they allegedly believe does not exist and never has existed. They have simply carved an idol to their liking and named him “Jesus.”
And that explains how they can be so nasty towards people who love the Lord and are trying to please Him. They think they are born-again children of God, but actually they are still spiritual children of Satan. Tragically, many of the nasty people I’m describing are in “ministry.”
Legalists are those who, apart from the forgiving, transforming, empowering grace of God through the sacrificial death of Christ, are trying to merit salvation purely by their own efforts. No one who embraces biblically-balanced, conditional grace is a legalist. We are only continuing to respond in faith to the grace by which we have been saved. We are “holding fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end” (Heb. 3:6). We continue to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, so we continue to obey Him. It is that simple.
Anyone who refers to us as legalists and Pharisees not only reveals their ignorance about legalism and the Pharisees, they expose their own unregenerate spiritual state. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14).
Although a book could be written on this subject (because of all the scriptural evidence that supports it), allow me to close with a passage of scripture penned by Paul in a letter that is all about the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, his letter to the Romans:
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His [God’s] kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Rom. 2:4-11, emphasis added).
This passage in Romans begins with an emphasis on God’s grace, expressed through “His kindness and tolerance and patience.” Sinners deserve judgment, but God restrains His wrath for a time, hoping they will repent. That’s grace. That is undeserved favor.
Some of those, to whom God extends grace, repent. Those repentant ones then (of course) start doing good. And they “persevere in doing good.” Why? Because they “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” To them, God ultimately gives eternal life. Why? Because God will render to them as He does to everyone: “according to their deeds.”
So we see, once again, that according to Paul’s gospel, God’s grace (expressed through His “kindness and tolerance and patience”) leads to human repentance and works.
Contrasted with the repentant in this passage are the unrepentant, who are “storing up wrath” for themselves. That is obviously a reference to future wrath, because God is currently extending His “kindness, tolerance and patience” towards them. Yet He will also render to them “according to their deeds,” and because they persist in doing evil, their future holds “wrath and indignation… tribulation and distress.” Sounds like hell.
The foundational principle in this passage—upon which everything else is built—is that at some point in the future, God “will render to each person according to his deeds,” whether good or evil (Rom. 2:4; see also Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Matt. 16:27). Obviously, the word “deeds” in that statement could be substituted with the word “works.” In fact, the Greek word translated “deeds” (ergon) by the NASB here in Romans 2:6 is translated “works” in many other places in the New Testament, including other passages in Romans (see Rom. 3:19, 27; 4:2, 4c; 9:10, 32; 11:6). So, God is going to render to each person according to his deeds/works, which indicates that He relates to everyone, good and evil, based upon their deeds/works. That is inescapable.
Those who believe that God will render to each person according to his deeds/works repent and start striving to please Him. And if they continue in faith they will continue to strive to please God so that they will be ready to stand before Him when He renders to them according to their deeds/works.
Those who don’t believe that God will render to them according to their deeds/works don’t repent. They continue in their sin and rebellion (often including even those who “accept Jesus as Savior”). And at their judgment, God will keep His promise. He will render to them according to their deeds/works. So they will suffer “wrath and indignation… tribulation and distress.”
That was Paul’s gospel. That is my gospel. I hope it is your gospel as well.
As I previously mentioned, once you understand and embrace conditional grace, you will no longer be scratching your head on how to harmonize many Bible verses, or running to your favorite commentary to find out what certain verses “really mean.” Allow me to close with a test to show you what I mean.
Your Bible’s final chapter includes the four passages below. Can you harmonize them all with your understanding of God’s grace?
Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done (Rev. 22:12). (Hmm…does that mean we are we saved by our works?)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying (Rev. 22:14-15). (Hmm…again, does that mean we are saved by our works?)
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost (Rev. 22:17). (Hmm…that sounds like we don’t need to worry about works…the “water of life” costs us nothing!)
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book (Rev. 22:18). (Hmm…if God threatens to take away someone’s part from the tree of life and the holy city, that would seem to indicate that the people whom He is threatening currently have a part in both…)
 For example, Paul wrote: “To the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor [that is, undeserved], but as what is due [that is, deserved, or earned]” (Rom. 4:4).
 Paul also declared in this passage that God disciplined some of the Corinthian believers in order to prevent them from being “condemned along with the world.” If that means God would have had to condemn them to hell “along with the world” had He not disciplined them, then the sickness that motivated them to repent or even their premature death was certainly an expression of grace on God’s part.
 Keep in mind that my diagram has nothing to do with the percentage of all people who will be saved, but is only a representation of how grace is perceived across the spectrum of Christian belief. Although Universalists, on the extreme left of my diagram, believe that everyone will be saved in the end, Calvinists, whom I’ve also placed towards the far left, are much more inclined to believe that only a small percentage of people will be saved in the end.
 I am aware that Calvinists (and others) claim that saving faith has no human origin but that it is a gift that God sovereignly gives, but hundreds of scriptures contradict that idea. Calvinists often attempt to prove that faith is what Paul was referring to in Ephesians 2:8 when he said that it is “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” But if you read Ephesians 2:8-9, you will see that there are only three possibilities of what Paul was referring to, and they are either grace, salvation or faith. Whichever one it is, it is described by Paul as being (1) “not of yourselves,” (2) “the gift of God,” and (3) “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Logically, there was no reason why Paul would need to say that either faith or grace is “not a result of works.” So it is salvation that is “the gift of God,” not faith. Elsewhere Paul wrote, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Again, salvation is God’s gift.
 There are scores of such scriptures within the four Gospels as well, but I am not mentioning them only because of the erroneous and bizarre belief that Jesus’ words have no application to new covenant believers since He ministered to Jews under the old covenant.
 How do false-grace advocates twist this scripture to fit their doctrine? They claim that John was defining “mature Christians, those who know the Lord,” in contrast with “immature Christians who are only beginning to get acquainted with Him.” Of course, that requires more twisting when they arrive at 1 John 3:1: “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.” Clearly, John’s phrase “know Him” is synonymous with having a relationship with the Lord at any level of spiritual maturity.