(Note: Admittedly, this topic could go on for many pages and multiple chapters, but here’s a compressed blog-friendly version of my views.)
Easter is upon us, so I thought I’d lay my soteriological cards on the proverbial table, as we approach the high point of the church calendar. And I’ll begin by asserting something that Protestant evangelicals think is anathema. Reformers in the 16th century protested “salvation by works” and rightly so, but that language can be salvaged when rightly defined and correctly understood.
“Salvation (or justification) by faith alone” is the expanded meaning of sola fide (faith alone), which is a two-word Reformation-era mantra meant to permanently and totally end any reliance upon works of the flesh or works of the law, as the basis for salvation.
Faith alone = It’s not works that save. Faith + nothing = salvation.
Faith. Alone. Saves. Period.
For clarity and transparency I’d like to note that I both teach and subscribe to the doctrine of salvation by faith. It’s taught in scripture (for various aspects, see: Romans 1.16-17; 4.3; 5.1-2; 9.30-32; 10.4; Galatians 3.11; Ephesians 2.8-9; Hebrews 10.38). It’s fundamental to understanding the gospel message. But, as it stands it’s in danger of being misleading, and it is certainly a vast oversimplification of a very deep theological teaching.
I’m convinced that when we fully consider it, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is only correct to the extent that we acknowledge that fundamentally salvation is by works. I am saved by works. If you’re a Christian, then you are too.
This is not a riddle; it’s the truest expression of salvation by faith.
Here’s why: Specifically, salvation comes through faith, but not by my works of the law. But, specifically and systematically, the only way this phrase makes sense is to broaden the assertion for clarity:
Justification is by faith in Jesus Christ whose faithful work accomplished and fulfilled the law. Jesus saves, because he perfectly fulfilled the law. His work saves. In Jesus’ work the law finds its truest “end” since he completes it. This is the only way that the New Testament makes sense, in light of the Old Testament demands of obedience of the law.
Let’s back up to the historical apex of the gospels. John’s gospel records Jesus’ final words: “It is finished” (John 19.30). Certainly this phrase (which translates one Greek word, tetelestai) could be explored into a much wider and deeper meaning, but it certainly means that Jesus’ work and mission were complete in so far as he has completed the work he set out to do. His work was over, complete, finished, at its end.
What was Jesus’ work? At the very least it must include Jesus’ comments regarding the law in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill (plerosai) them” (Matt 5.17). Jesus comes to fulfill – in the sense of bringing to completion – the law.
This is why Paul is able to bring together the works of the law and salvation by faith. In Romans 10.4 Paul claims: “Christ is the culmination (telos) of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Note: The Greek word translated culmination is the same stem for tetelestai in John 19.30.)
In Jesus, the law is finished. For those who believe in Jesus work, Jesus’ work brings obligation to the law to an end.
The cross is too often reduced to: “Jesus came to die for the sins of his people” (see John 1.29)
And salvation is often reduced to: “Believe in Jesus” (see John 3.16)
While these two statements are true, they are open to misunderstanding and a minimizing of Jesus’ atoning death for sin. Someone’s belief in Jesus makes sense only when put into the wider framework of Jesus’ life and ministry, making him the perfect substitutionary, sacrificial lamb for the sins of the people. Jesus’ death is in accordance and obedience to the law. Putting one’s trust in Jesus’ work and faithfulness to the law is the basis for salvation.
He is able to die for the sins of his people precisely because of his fulfillment of the law. To sever these two aspects is to theologically hazardous, and ministerially misleading.
So, as long as “salvation by faith” means something like: “Salvation by faith, not works, because Jesus has completed all the work on my behalf” then it’s clear. But, too often it’s asserted without any reference to the works of the law that Jesus fulfilled. Instead, consider loudly proclaiming that you believe in salvation by faith alone, precisely because you believe in salvation by the works of the law that Jesus fulfilled.
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.