John B. Hodges
September 25, 2007.
This is an open letter to all who consider themselves "saved" by faith in Jesus. Please forward this letter as you think appropriate.
I have heard a number of times, in a number of media, spoken by a number of people, the claim that they were "saved by faith, and not by works". Some said "saved by grace, and not by works". Many have said explicitly that "salvation by works" was a heresy. Their claim was that salvation was a free gift, that one need not DO anything to be saved, only to accept the gift by believing that you have received it.
Now, there are many varieties of Christianity, and many Christians regard those of other denominations as "not really Christian". Prominent figures including the Pope, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, evangelist Jimmy Swaggert, and many more have said things of this kind.
I think that the highest authority on what "real" Christianity consists of would have to be the words of Jesus, as reported in the four gospels. Regardless of what you believe about the reliability or "inspiration" of the Bible, I cannot see any other source in Christendom that could make a better claim. If Jesus says one thing, and Stephen or Paul or Pat or Jerry or Benedict say something different, I think the words of Jesus would have to take priority.
On the particular issue of how one becomes "saved", Jesus is reported to have said many things. I searched the four Gospels and collected these statements. I recommend this exercise. If you disagree with my conclusions in this letter, I urge you to do the same exercise, and see for yourself.
On how one becomes "saved", the first three Gospels report Jesus as giving many instructions about what his followers should DO. He (almost) never says "believe this and this, and this"; instead he says "do this, and this, and this."
For example, in Matthew Chapter 5 he says (all quotes are from the RSV):
16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
17 "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees were experts in the Law of Moses; here Jesus says for his followers to follow the Law even more strictly. If you don't, you will not enter Heaven.
All of Chapter 5 is filled with instructions to overfulfill the Law, to follow the spirit of the Law as well as the letter. All of Matthew has Jesus saying to do certain things, and abstain from doing other things. He says several times that you have to DO these things to enter Heaven.
In Matthew Chapter 6:
14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
In Matthew Chapter 7:
1 "Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
21 "Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'
24 "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; 25 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; 27 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it."
In Matthew 16:
27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.
Notice, "done", not "believed".
In Matthew 18:
3 and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In Matthew 19:
16 And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" 17 And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."
Notice that here Jesus is asked how to get to Heaven, and Jesus does NOT reply "Believe in Me." He says, keep the commandments, and adds "sell your possessions and distribute the money to the poor."
In Matthew 25, verses 31 to 46, there is a long passage depicting Jesus on Judgement Day, casting into eternal punishment those who did not do good works.
Finally in Chapter 28, he gives the Great Commission:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."
In the Gospel of Mark there are again many places where Jesus gives instruction to DO, or not do, certain things. One should be extremely strict about avoiding all sin. Mark 9:
43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 45 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 46 where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
In the Gospel of Luke it is the same. Luke 6:
46 "Why do you call me `Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you? 47 Every one who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation; against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great."
In Luke 8:
20 And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you." 21 But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."
In Luke 18:
17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
18 And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 19 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: `Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'" 21 And he said, "All these I have observed from my youth." 22 And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 23 But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looking at him said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Finally, what of the Gospel of John? In many places in John, Jesus is reported to say that those who believe in him will be saved. But that is not all he says. Even in John, we find that Jesus also requires- REQUIRES- people to obey his commandments.
In John 3:
36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.
In John 5:
27 Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 28 and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.
In John 8:
51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if any one keeps my word, he will never see death."
In John 14:
15 "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
21 He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."
Finally in John 15:
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.
12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
So, what can we conclude? In my humble opinion, no one is "saved" until they actually enter Heaven; no living person is "saved". No one should consider themselves LIKELY to be "saved" unless they are making strenuous effort to DO all the things that Jesus said for his followers to do. "Salvation by faith", if it is taken to mean by faith ALONE, is the heresy.
As a first step, I suggest going through the four Gospels and copying down everything Jesus said, about what we should DO. I first did this with a notebook and pen, but it is much faster to download a copy of the Bible and use a word processor. The instructions of Jesus are the "bottom line" of the entire Bible; if you don't even KNOW what he said, you haven't gotten the message.
I won't spoil the surprise, about what he says to DO.
If you don't want to make the effort to do that bit of study, I wrote up what I found here:
13 "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.