Christians feel strangely compelled to make salvation a matter of our works instead of God's Grace. No matter how clear the Bible is on the subject, folks will often pluck out a verse here or there and build a works-salvation doctrine around it.
This is not a particularly modernist doctrine, but one which has often reared its head in churches for about 2,000 years, despite the clear position that the apostles took against it.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” [Ephesians 2:8-9]
The Apostle Paul could not have made it any clearer. Our salvation has nothing to do with us – it's all through God. He saved us, and He keeps us.
II Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 4:30, and Ephesians 1:13 all speak of us being sealed by the Holy Spirit – not preserved by our works, including our ability to “endure.” Psalm 121 tells us about how the Lord preserves us. We have nothing to do with the preservation of our soul.
The Bible tells us to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth“ [II Timothy 2:15]. We must study out the whole counsel of the Word in order to fully grasp His doctrine. We cannot pull out a verse here or there and build a theology around it that is contradictory to the rest of the Bible.
We have all seen people pick out verses like Revelation 2:7 and build a works-salvation message around it.
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” [Revelation 2:7]
A cursory reading of a verse like this makes a pretty convincing argument for the idea that we must work (“overcome”) to earn or to keep our salvation.
Yet, when we study the Scriptures and consider the whole counsel of God, rather than waving one verse in the air, we find a very different doctrine being taught in the Bible.
The same Apostle John whom God used to write The Revelation also wrote the book of I John. There, he defines precisely what he means by “overcometh.”
“For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” [I John 5:4-5]
By studying and comparing Scripture to Scripture, we discover that John's use of the word “overcometh” has nothing to do with works, but is simply a reference to a person being saved by God's grace through faith. It's that simple.
We are not, and cannot be, good enough to save ourselves, and by the same token we are certainly not good enough, smart enough, clever enough, or strong enough to preserve ourselves after we are saved. The whole thing is up to God.
Another verse that the works-salvationists fixate on is Matthew 24:13.
“But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved.” [Matthew 24:13]
A superficial reading of a verse like this makes a pretty convincing argument for works salvation. We MUST endure to the end in order to be saved – it's quite clear, right?
Firstly, if it did mean that we had to work to keep ourselves saved, then it would be contradictory to a vast amount of other very clear Scripture. That should be our first clue that we need to “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
When we study out this verse, we discover that Jesus was not speaking of spiritual salvation at all. He was talking about saving the flesh. How do we know this?
“And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.” [Matthew 24:22]
This verse is less than 10 verses from the Matthew 24:13, yet it is missed by most people who stumble over that verse. Matthew 24:22 is a monument to the shallowness with which most Christians approach the Bible today.
Let Scripture interpret Scripture. Matthew 24:22 tells us that if the difficulties of those days were not shortened, “there should no flesh be saved.” In other words, everybody would die (physically). This is clearly not a reference to spiritual salvation, and it is in the same context as Matthew 24:13, “But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved.”
To clarify what He is speaking of here, think of the Holocaust during World War II. It was a horrible time for the Jews. Some were killed outright. Some died in the concentration camps. Others endured to the end and were saved when the Allied armies liberated them. If the Allies had not come, they all would likely have died.
This is exactly what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 24. Some will be killed outright during the torment of those Last Days. Others will die during the time of persecution. But others will endure to the end and be saved alive by our Lord.
The Bible does a great job of interpreting itself, if we give it the opportunity. The common stumbling blocks for works-salvationists are no exception. When we study them out, they cease to be stumbling blocks and tend, in fact, to reinforce the doctrine of salvation by grace rather than to detract from it.
The apostles taught clearly and unequivocally that our salvation is entirely a work of God's Grace and nothing of ourselves. Because we persist in the apostles' doctrine and seek the old paths, we hold to the same doctrine.
God is so good to show us such grace and mercy, that we can be saved and kept by Him despite our works and weakness!