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Saved by Grace Alone?


In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the biblical doctrine of grace. But this interest has largely had a polemical tone. On one side are those who stress salvation as a divine work on our behalf and appear to some to minimize the role of human responsibility. They cry that no one can effect their own justification, do anything to save themselves or contribute to their salvation. God's grace is the sole salvific power in conversion. God saves us despite ourselves rather than because of ourselves. On the other side are those who stress human responsibility and appear to some to minimize the divine work of salvation. They insist that there is something humans must do to effect their justification or contribute to their salvation. We are saved, they claim, when we act in response to the gospel; when we do something. We are saved because we do something.

This polarization has become acute in the past few years. It has become part of the fabric of the discussion of the "new hermeneutic." Those who advocate or practice a "new hermeneutic" tend to stress grace and claim a new perspective which had not been previously known or was at least relatively rare among churches of Christ. Those who oppose the "new hermeneutic" tend to stress human responsibility and claim that churches of Christ have always understood and preached grace.[1] As a result, the discussion of grace has become intertwined, to some degree, with the discussion of the "new hermeneutic."

This is unfortunate because the problem is not a hermeneutical one, but is a matter of theological precision and understanding. The polarization of positions on grace, particularly as focused in the question "Who is a Christian?," is more a matter of semantic confusion than it is a real theological difference. In the context of Ephesians 2:8-10, I hope to mediate this growing polarization. Yet, before mediation, we must understand something of the polarization as it now exists.

The Polization with Churches of Christ

In 1990, Rubel Shelly penned a bulletin article entitled "Arbeit Macht Frei"[2] where he addressed a kind of "spiritual neuroticism" which affirms that only through "doing enough" can one feel secure in his salvation.[3] His article contained these two sentences which have inflamed much of the contemporary controversy over grace: "It is a scandalous and outrageous lie to teach that salvation arises from human activity. We do not contribute one whit to our salvation." Thomas Warren responded that "our brother eliminates all human activity from salvation. If he were right, then every human being will be saved, because God's grace is offered to all men."[4] Garland Elkins, under the sponsorship of the Knight Arnold Church of Christ in Memphis, Tennessee, challenged Shelly to debate the relationship of divine grace and human obedience.[5] Shelly declined, but he did participate in the 1992 Annual Preacher's Forum at Harding University Graduate School of Religion which attempted to mediate between Shelly and his critics. But the polarization had already set in: it was a difference between those who said that we do not contribute to our salvation and those who say we do.

Wineskins produced a special issue on grace in June, 1993. One article in particular has drawn fire for its statements. Roy Osborne, in an article entitled, "Dead Men Don't Climb Ladders!," wrote: "We seem unable to give up the idea that we must DO SOMETHING to effect our justification. Some of the most prominent preachers, in and out of the Church of Christ, teach justification as a cooperative effort on the part of God and man. . . . Those who are dead cannot contribute anything to the process."[6] Wayne Jackson has written a response to Osborne's article in which he characterizes his teaching as "a shocking example of the type of neo-denominational thinking that has contaminated our brotherhood in recent years."[7] In response to Osborne's fundamental thesis, Jackson asks: "But is there not a sense in which man is seriously involved in his own salvation?"[8] The polarization appears once again: it is a difference between those who say we do nothing to effect our justification and those who say we must do something to effect our justification.

This polarization is not new. It has generated conflicts about the doctrine of grace for generations within churches of Christ. While there are several historical examples of this conflict, one of the best is the publication of K. C. Moser's The Way of Salvation in 1932.[9] The significance of the book may be judged by the difference it highlighted between two influential contemporaries, G. C. Brewer and Foy E. Wallace, Jr. When the book appeared, Wallace, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, noticed it an editorial. His tone is noticeably negative though tempered by his brother Cled's preface to the book. "We do not think," he wrote, "that [Moser's] 'approach' to these subjects is more effective than the plain preaching of faith, repentance, confession, and baptism as 'conditions' of salvation, like all faithful gospel preachers have always preached. . . . Such preaching is not to be criticized."[10] Towards the end of his life, Wallace regretted "having contributed to its circulation" and noted that his brother Cled regretted having written the preface. Wallace blamed Moser for "indoctrinating young preachers with denominational error on the plan of salvation." Moser's "'salvation by faith' hobby" is contrary to the "gospel plan of salvation" and is "no more nor less than denominational doctrine."[11]

G. C. Brewer, on the other hand, had almost nothing but praise for the book. One year after it was published Brewer specifically commended it and suggested that it be read "two or three times".[12] It is "one of the best little books that came from any press in 1932," according to Brewer. Further, he commended Moser for going to Scripture first instead of first searching for what is taught among churches of Christ and then going about to establish it by Scripture. Brewer wrote: "The author's independence of all denominational views or brotherhood ideas, or of what the 'fathers' taught, or of what has been 'our doctrine' is the most encouraging thing I have seen in print among the disciples of Christ in this decade."

It is clear that Wallace and Brewer had two entirely different views of this book. Wallace believed that it was too critical of brotherhood preaching and offered denominational doctrine in the place of biblical preaching on the plan of salvation. Indeed, he noted that the renowned Baptist debater Ben Bogard used to flaunt Moser's book in his debates with gospel preachers.[13] Brewer, on the other hand, welcomed the critique of legalism among the churches of Christ. In his review, Brewer noted that "some of us have run to the extreme of making salvation depend on works."[14] It is apparent that either Brewer or Wallace were misreading Moser, or that neither was understanding the other, or that there was a clear theological difference concerning the biblical doctrine of grace between these two pillars of the churches of Christ in the 1930s.[15] There was polarization among churches of Christ on the doctrine of grace in the 1930s as well as in the 1990s.

Ephesians 2:8-10

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The Text

One of the clearest, yet most disputed, texts on the doctrine of grace in the New Testament is Ephesians 2:1-10. It is clear because it is a declarative statement from which we gain the phrase "grace through faith." It is disputed because it demands interpretation. It is rarely sufficient to quote the text of Ephesians 2:8-9. Everyone wants to know what you mean when you quote it.[16] I propose to provide a meaning which unites the polarized groups among us.

Ephesians 2:1-7 is a single sentence in the Greek text. It describes our sinful condition before God, God's act in Christ to save us according to his mercy and grace, and his goal of glorifying us along with his Son. We were dead in sin, so God raised us up with Christ so that he might pour out his riches upon us. This is a statement of grace--God acts on our behalf. It is God's act in Christ where he made us alive with him, raised up with him and sat us in heavenly places with him. This single sentence sets the motive and nature of God's actions in the context of God's mercy, kindness and grace. Our actions did not move God to grace, but God's grace moved him to act on our behalf. His work is a gracious work for sinners who did not deserve it.

Ephesians 2:1-7 is grounded in the principle of Ephesians 2:8: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith." The term "for" has explanatory force. The princple of verse 8 explains in summary fashion what he has just described in verses 1-7. In fact, the whole of verses 8-10 have a summary character to them. Paul is summarizing the nature of salvation in Christ. I think his summary can be unpacked in three points.

First, grace is the ground of our salvation. Salvation is God's work, not ours. This is the plain meaning of the word "grace"--it is unmerited favor; it is God's disposition of saving love toward undeserving sinners. Wrath is what is owed, but grace is bestowed. The central assertion of the doctrine of grace is that salvation is God's work. It is God who saves.

God is the subject of the verbs relating to salvation in verses 1-7. He is the active worker here. Further, Paul explicitly clarifies this point by excluding works from the ground of salvation. Salvation is "not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." Salvation does not arise out of our own goodness, our own worthiness. Salvation is arises out of God's gracious heart who gives us salvation. We are not saved from within, but from without. We do not save ourselves, but God saves us.

Paul underlines this point by offering a further contrast. Not only is salvation "not from yourselves," it is also "not by [literally, out of] works." Salvation does not arise from the works that we do. Our works do not contribute to our salvation--they are not the source of our salvation. Salvation does not arise out of the quality and character of our works. Salvation is fundamentally a gift of God and anything that undermines that principle is legalism and denies the gospel. In this sense, there is nothing we can do to effect our justification and there is nothing we can do to contribute to our salvation.

It is important to note that Paul does not qualify the kind of works he is talking about here. He does not say "works of merit" or "works of the law of Moses." Rather, he simply says "works." It does, however, provide a motive for why works are excluded as the source of salvation: "so that no one can boast." Paul excludes all boasting from salvation except the boasting that is in Christ. No one can boast about his works in relation to salvation. If we boast in any work, human effort, or obedience to law, then we exclude Christ. God's grace means that we do not boast in our works, but in his work in Christ. It is God who saves. We do not save ourselves. Salvation does not arise out of our works.

Second, salvation is by faith. We are saved through the instrumentality of faith. Faith is the means by which we receive God's grace. Through faith we have access to God's grace, and by faith we continue to stand in his grace (Rom. 5:1-2). Faith is the human response to God's gracious offer of salvation. Faith receives what God is willing to give. God saves by grace, but through faith.

Human response is required for salvation. No is saved without faith. Faith is the condition of salvation, and faith is a human response to God's gracious offer. God's grace is offered to everyone, but is only applied to those who receive it through faith. Consequently, there is a sense in which we must do something to receive salvation--we must "do faith" or we must believe in Jesus Christ and trust him as our Savior.

What about baptism? If all works are excluded, does this mean that it is faith alone which saves without baptism? We must remember that in verse 8 Paul is summarizing verses 1-7. We are saved by God's act, not ours. But what was God's act which saved us? When we were dead, God made us alive with Christ, raised us up with Christ and sat us in the heavenly places with him. God raised us from the spiritual grave and made us alive through his work in Christ. We who were dead in sin are now alive in Christ through our death and resurrection with him. If Colossians is any indication (as well as Rom. 6), Paul is alluding to baptism in these phrases. God circumcised our hearts, made us alive with Christ and forgave us our sins when we were "buried with him in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:12). When Paul says that God "raised us up with Christ" (Eph. 2:6), the total context of his thought and the parallel with Colossians implies a baptismal context.

Baptism saves, not as a work, but as an expression of faith in the work of God. Baptism is fundamentally God's work--he forgives, he raises up, he makes alive. We simply entrust ourselves through faith in his power. In baptism, we do not do anything, but receive everything. Salvation does not arise out of baptism, it arises out of God's grace. But we receive salvation through faith as we submit to God's requirement to express our faith in the context of immersion. Baptism does not belong in the category of "work" but in the category of "faith." It is a human response which arises out of faith, expresses faith and receives God's gracious salvation as a gift.

Third, good works are the result of salvation; they are not the basis or ground of salvation. We are not saved because we work, but we work because we are already saved. Ephesians 2:10 is a comment on the relationship between works and salvation, as if Paul wishes to clarify or head off misunderstandings of his point in verses 8-9. We are saved by grace through faith--not of ourselves or our works, but as a divine gift so that no one can boast. This is true because, as verse 10 says, we are created for good works, and not because we do good works. Rather, we are God's work--we are God's doing, his creation. We work the works of God because we are God's work of salvation--new creatures in Christ.

As one looks at the structure of the text, "works" follow salvation. God saves us by grace, not works. But he saves us so that we can do good works. Works are the result of salvation. We are his creation for good works. Paul's order is clear: Grace, faith, salvation, works. It is not: grace, faith, works and then salvation. Works are not a means to salvation, they are the evidence of salvation already received. Works are evidence of God's work of creating us. They testify that we are God's new creation; they testify to our salvation--they do not create the salvation.

Salvation, then, is by grace through faith unto good works. Salvation arises out of God's grace, and we do not save ourselves. Rather, God creates us through faith--we are his work; his doing. He raises us up with Christ and makes us alive through faith in his power which occurs when we are buried with Christ and rise with him in baptism. God saves us through faith at baptism--we do not contribute to the act of God's saving. Rather, through a human response we receive God's gift. As a result, we are God's workmanship who are dedicated to good works, holiness, and discipleship. It is because we are saved that we seek to please God in every respect. Salvation, in summary, is by grace through faith at baptism unto good works.[17]

The Point

I believe the semantic confusion which lies behind the current polarization among churches of Christ on the doctrine of grace is the failure to distinguish between the ground of salvation and the means of salvation. This distinction is recognized by both groups, but they do not recognize it in each other.

There is a distinction between the ground of our salvation and the means by which we appropriate it. The ground of our salvation is the merit by which we stand before God. It is that which earns our righteous standing (salvation) before God. The means by which we are saved is the method of appropriation. It is the way in which we receive our righteous standing (salvation) before God.

The ground of our salvation is wholly outside of ourselves. It is external to us; it comes from outside of us. Titus 3:5 explicitly denies that we are saved by "works of righteousness," that is, works which earn righteousness. We are not saved on the basis of the merit of our obedience or works. We are not saved on the ground that we are good enough. Rather, we are saved by the merits of Christ's work and not our own. It is the righteousness of God which is imputed to us as a gift which saves us (Rom. 1:16-17; 4:1-8). The righteousness by which we are saved is not earned or churned up by our own moral and positive obedience. Our obedience, no matter how blameless it may be, will never be sufficient to earn us a righteous, perfect standing before God.

It is in this sense that we can say salvation is wholly of God, that is, the merit or righteousness by which we are justified in the sight of God is not our own; it is the gift of God. The ground of our salvation, then, is the grace of God alone as it is offered to us in Christ Jesus. We are justified on the merits of what Christ has done, not on the merits which we have earned. He imputes to us a righteousness which is not our own.

Salvation, however, does not come to everyone. This gift of righteousness is not universally distributed. Rather it is given to believers. Without faith no one can please God or enter into his presence since it is through faith that God gives his gift of righteousness. Faith is the means by which we receive the righteousness that comes from God. As a means, it does not contribute to the merit of our righteous standing, but it is the instrument by which the righteousness from God is received. The gift is the righteousness; faith is the open hand that receives the gift. Faith is a human act which responds to God's gracious offer of the gift of righteousness by accepting it. Faith, then, as a human act, is the means or instrument by which we appropriate salvation.

The Common Ground

When people speak two different languages they cannot understand each other. When they use the same words for two different things they cannot connect. Theology is, at one level, a language problem--semantics. Theologies speak different languages, and part of the goal of theological reflection is to try to understand them so that differences and similarities might be clarified.

While there are some real differences between Wallace and Brewer, between Elkins and Shelly, and between Jackson and Osborne, there is some substantial common ground which is not undermined by their differences. It is this common ground which I wish to pursue here. While I do not intend to minimize the differences, I do hope to mediate the polarization which is semantic in character.[18]

Whereas Brewer, Shelly and Osborne speak specifically about the ground or source of salvation, Wallace, Elkins and Jackson speak about the means of salvation. Thus, when Brewer, Shelly and Osborne say no one can contribute to their salvation or do anything to effect their justification, they are talking about the source of our merit before God. Grace alone provides the ground of our salvation. However, when Wallace, Elkins and Jackson stress human responsibility and argue that we must do something to receive salvation, they are talking about the means of salvation. Obedient faith, as a submissive human act, is a necessary response to God's grace. If each would understand the context of the other's statements, then the semantic problem could disappear. For example, Rick Atchley strikes this balance on the word "do": "We must do something to receive God's gracious offer of salvation, but whatever we do must in no way be seen as earning [or "doing", JMH] our salvation."[19]

Despite the fact that these two groups are caught in a polemical exchange, they do appear to have some real formal similarities. These similarities are admitted on both sides though the similarity may be purely formal rather than material. Nevertheless, four formal similarities emerge within the polemical context. These may be seen by a careful reading of the 1992 Annual Preacher's Forum at Harding University Graduate School of Religion.

First, both agree that the sole ground of salvation is the atonement of Christ. The only saving power is the blood of Jesus. "What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!" Grace, then, is the only ground of salvation. Grace alone provides the ground of our salvation. He alone is the source of salvation. This is God's part in the scheme of redemption.

Second, both agree that this grace is appropriated through faith. The salvation that God offers through his grace is conditioned on faith. The human response of faith is the means by which we accept the grace that God offers in his Son. All works must flow from faith or they are without value. All works must be works of faith. Faith, then, as a principle, is the only means of salvation since even works must be expressions of the principle of faith itself. Faith is both foundational and instrumental in all other responses to God's grace. It is the principle of faith which excludes all works of merit.

Third, both agree that gospel obedience includes submission to Christ through baptism as an expression of faith. Baptism without faith is ineffectual and faith without baptism does not comply with what God requires. Baptism, then, is the particular embodiment of faith which God requires for the remission of sins. Through baptism, we express our trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Baptism is an act of faith. It is not a work of human merit.

Fourth, both agree that Christians are called to holiness and that those who rebel and reject that call are unbelievers. God has created his people for holiness and good works. Genuine believers will pursue that holiness under the Lordship of Christ and seek to conform to the will of God in every aspect of their lives. When believers rebel or reject God's commands and insist upon their own selfish ways, then their hearts have turned to unbelief. Consequently, they have fallen from grace. Neither group believes that once one is saved, one is always saved. Rather, we fall from grace when we cease to pursue holiness in Christ by faith. Grace continues to save us--we need God's constant forgiveness and patience--but only as we continue to trust in him and are committed to his cause.

This is the common ground. It is the essence of our theological heritage on the doctrine of grace as we answer the question, "Who is a Christian?" There is no need for a perfect understanding of the theology of grace, nor of the doctrine of the atonement. Neither is it necessary to have an impeccable and indubitable faith, but simply a faith that trusts in Jesus for salvation and acts on God's promises. Further, it is not necessary to have a perfect conception of baptismal theology. In addition, while no one's sanctification is perfect, the heart that seeks God and obeys him "as best he can" within his covenant of grace will find mercy.[20] However these four points might be applied, their substance is universally present. They evidence a theological unity which binds us together as a people. This has always been our historic position, and, I think, it ought to remain so. It is my hope that both will recognize this common ground with each other and that the polarization can be overcome. I think both groups can recognize the substantial truth that is embodied in this statement by David Lipscomb:[21]

"Even when a man's heart is purified by faith, and his affections all reach out towards God and seek conformity to the life of God it is imperfect. His practice of the righteousness of God falls far short of the divine standard. The flesh is weak, and the law of sin reigns in our members; so that we fall short of the perfect standard of righteousness; but if we trust God implicitly and faithfully endeavor to do his will, he knows our frame, knows our weaknesses, and as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities our infirmities and weaknesses, and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. So Jesus stands as our justification and our righteousness, and our life is hid with Christ in God."


[1] This tension is reflected in many publications. A good example is the contrast between James S. Woodroof, The Church in Transition (Searcy, Ark: The Bible House, Inc., 1990), 19 and James D. Bales, "The Church in Transition" to What? (Searcy, Ark: James D. Bales, Publisher, 1992), 37-57.

[2] Rubel Shelly, "Arbeit Macht Frei," in The Love Lines, Bulletin of the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, 16.45 (October 31, 1990), 3. The title, which was posted over the entrance of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, means "work will set you free." It was a false hope for those who entered the camp, and, according to Shelly, it presents a false hope for Christians today.

[3]Rubel Shelly, "Question-Answer Session," in Grace, Faith, Works: How Do They Relate?, ed. by C. Philip Slate (Huntsville, AL: Publishing Designs, Inc., 1992), 123.

[4] Thomas B. Warren, "Salvation is by Grace but not by Grace Only," Firm Foundation 106.5 (May 1991), 129.

[5] Yokefellow 18.4 (April 15, 1991). The proposed propositions were: "The Bible teaches that salvation from sin results from the grace of God alone, totally and completely apart from any human activity" (Shelly affirms, Elkins denies), and "The Bible teaches that salvation depends upon both (1) the grace of God and (2) the faithful, loving obedience of the individual human being" (Elkins affirms, Shelly denies). Shelly refused to debate. See also Goebel Music, Behold the Pattern! (Colleyville, TX: Goebel Music Publications, 1991), 325-26, 335-8.

[6] Roy Osborne, "Dead Men Don't Climb Ladders!," Wineskins 2.2 (June 1993): 17. He also quotes K. C. Moser ("a giant in biblical understanding"): "One of the most difficult truths for man to accept is that he has a real Savior. He desires that Jesus tell him what to do to save himself!" (p. 17).

[7] Wayne Jackson, "Concerning Dead Men and Ladders," Spiritual Sword 25.3 (April 1994): 12.

[8] Ibid., 14, citing Acts 2:40 and Phil. 2:13.

[9] K. C. Moser, The Way of Salvation (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1932).

[10] Foy E. Wallace, Jr., "'The Way of Salvation'," Gospel Advocate 74 (21 April 1932): 494.

[11] Foy E. Wallace, Jr., The Present Truth (Fort Worth: Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Publications, 1977), 1036.

[12] G. C. Brewer, "Read this Book," Gospel Advocate 75 (11 May 1933): 434.

[13] Wallace, The Present Truth, 1036. G. H. P. Showalter records an incident where Ben Bogard asked him: "What are you folks going to do with Moser?" Cf. "The 'Faith Alone' Idea," Firm Foundation 51 (3 April 1934): 4.

[14] Brewer, "Read," 434.

[15] On the importance of Brewer and Wallace among churches of Christ in the 1930s, see Robert E. Hooper, A Distinct People: A History of the Churches of Christ in the 20th Century (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co., 1993), 131-64.

[16] The Woodland Hills elders quoted this text in responded to the challenge for debate by the Knight Arnold Church of Christ. Clearly, this quotation was not sufficient to settle the question. It is a statement that must be interpreted.

[17] This same structure can be seen in 2 Tim. 1:8b-11a and Titus 3:3-8. The language of this sentence is dependent upon Jack Cottrell who has used this summary in many different places in his writings. See his Being Good Isn't Good Enough (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1973) and his recent Baptism: A Biblical Study (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1989).

[18] There are real differences of a paradigmatic nature which influence the interpretation of words and create some of the semantical problems. However, I do not wish to pursue these differences here. My interpretation of these differences can be found in my "The Man or the Plan? K. C. Moser and the Theology of Grace Among Mid-Twentieth Century Churches of Christ" for the 18th Annual W. B. West, Jr. Lectures for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship delivered at Harding University Graduate School of Religion. A copy of the lecture is in the library at HUGSR as well as available on this website under "Academic Articles".

[19] Rick Atchley, "Baptism: A Grave Response to Grace," Wineskins 2.2 (June 1993): 15.

[20] The phrase "as best he can" is a reoccurring phrase in the discussion of grace for the Christian life. Representatives of both traditions use it. G. C. Brewer, "Grace and Law (No. 8)," Gospel Advocate 97 (21 July 1955): 633: "Being thus committed to Christ, he continues to obey him as best he can . . . Failure to reach perfection will not mean a failure to reach heaven." Also Jerry Moffitt, "Grace and Law," "The Firm Foundation of God Standeth", edited by William S. Cline and John G. Priola (Pensacola, FL: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1984): 262, ". . . so we must walk in the light, following the law of Christ as best we can that we remain in that saving grace which we entered by obedience." Also Roy H. Lanier, "Walking By Faith," Gospel Advocate 96 (23 December 1954): 1009, "Faith working through love is nothing more than faith obeying the commandments of God as best we can because we love God . . . But faith obeying the commandments of God does not demand even perfect obedience to every commandments and permits, the mercy and grace of God in our salvation." But Harding, "Three Lessons From the Book of Romans," in Biographies and Sermons, ed. by F. D. Srygley (Nashville: F. D. Srygley, 1898), 247, questioned whether anyone ever really does the "best he can." Only Jesus did the best he could. As a result, "it is foolish for a man to talk about being saved by doing the best he knows how, when he has already failed thousands--perhaps millions--of times to do it."

[21] David Lipscomb, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, Vol 4 A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, ed. with additional notes by J. W. Shepherd (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, reprint 1957), 205-206.

This lecture was originally given at Harding Unversity and appeared in published form as "Saved by Grace," Ephesians, Harding University Lectureship Book (1994).


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