One of the most difficult, controversial, and often heatedly debated theological question among Christians is: Do I have to do something to be saved? The Bible sometimes seems to say that there is nothing we have or can do in order to be saved, but rather that salvation is a gift for which we cannot attribute any merit to ourselves (Rom. 3:24; 9:16; Eph. 2:5-9; Titus 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:9; etc.). In other places the Bible states we have to do something in order to be saved, even at the cost of great sacrifices (Lev. 18:4, 5; Joshua 23:6; Matt. 7:13, 14; Phil. 2:12; James 2:14-26; etc.).
The short and simple answer is usually that salvation is a gift that we cannot earn by works, but that we accept by faith. The problem with this answer is that faith is also a work, and therefore could lead to boasting.
Some try to get out of this dilemma by saying that faith is also a gift. Although it is true that God is the one who sustains our faith, the only thing that this answer does is to shift the problem elsewhere. If we want to know what we must do to be saved, we have to know how we can accept the gift of faith, so the problem still remains.
Another common response is that what we have to contribute to our salvation is so small or insignificant that it would be ridiculous to consider it meritorious. Compared to the sacrifice of Christ, this is undoubtedly true. But the problem with this answer is that, in addition to being somewhat subjective, it minimizes the intense effort and sacrifice that the Word of God encourages us to make, not only as a result of our salvation, but also as a means to obtain it (1 Peter 1:9; Phil 2:12).
Throughout history many answered the question “Do I have to do something to be saved?” with an emphatic negative response, and in consequence, embraced the doctrine of predestination. Others, who responded positively to this question, have frequently fallen into the theological trap of salvation by works. The first group, in trying to protect the grace of God and the absence of human merit, undermines humanity’s free choice; the second group, in seeking to save the free choice, compromises the grace of God and the absence of human merit. A third major group does not answer the question categorically with a yes or a no, but rather provides explanations that often contradict themselves or lead to a dead end, as described in the previous paragraph.
Paying Close Attention
How, then, can these two answers be reconciled? The key lies in the object of our faith. If those who contemplate Christ as Savior begin to think that “I am being saved by trusting in Christ,” their faith would no longer be in Christ but in their own faith.
Passengers on a plane in midair may feel that they are standing still. Only those who watch the aircraft from the outside can perceive the great speed at which it moves. Something similar happens with faith. An external observer could infer that believers are being saved by exercising faith, but the believers could never think that because at that very moment Christ would no longer be the object of their faith. It would be like trying to see our reflection in a mirror with our eyes closed: if we see ourselves, our eyes are open; and if we close our eyes, we don’t see ourselves. This does not mean, however, that we should not close our eyes, or that in doing so the mirror does not project our reflection anymore. In the same way, trusting in Jesus as our Saviour does not mean that He is not really our Savior, or that we should not do anything.
English author C. S. Lewis attempts a helpful explanation: “You cannot study pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyze the nature of humor while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things? ‘If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about pain.’ But once it stops, what do I know about pain?”¹
By means of an unnecessarily complicated philosophical approach, the simple meaning of faith has been obscured. As long as we look to Christ and trust in Him, we are safe. Stopping to look at Christ in order to scrutinize the experience of faith does not make any sense.
This explanation of justification by faith does not make God’s grace and our free will and effort mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it allows us to understand all of them to their fullest extent. It is not a cunning ploy that has been conveniently devised,but it is consistent with the Word of God.² If we are “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), there is no room for boasting. Like Peter, while we are looking at Jesus, we will be safe even while walking on water. Christians “should turn the mind from self, to dwell upon the mercy and goodness of God and to recount His promises, and then simply believe that He will fulfill His word. We are not to trust in our faith, but in the promises of God.”³
¹ Clive Staples Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 57.
² See also Ezekiel 33:13; John 3:14,15; and Ephesians 2:8.
³ Ellen G. White, The Sanctified Life (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1937), p. 89. To quote her more fully: “Many who are sincerely seeking for holiness of heart and purity of life seem perplexed and discouraged. They are constantly looking to themselves, and lamenting their lack of faith; and because they have no faith, they feel that they cannot claim the blessing of God. These persons mistake feeling for faith. They look above the simplicity of true faith, and thus bring great darkness upon their souls. They should turn the mind from self, to dwell upon the mercy and goodness of God and to recount His promises, and then simply believe that He will fulfill His word. We are not to trust in our faith, but in the promises of God. When we repent of our past transgressions of His law, and resolve to render obedience in the future, we should believe that God for Christ’s sake accepts us, and forgives our sins.”