"Saved by grace." It's a phrase we Christians hear and say all the time. So--especially for my friends who are new Christians---I thought maybe I'd take a moment to unpack what it really means.
Saved by grace are the classic three words that Protestant Christians use to encapsulate the truth that there are no actions they or any person can take such that, by virtue of those actions, they can earn their way into heaven or God’s grace. That we are saved not by works, but by grace alone -- that is, by the grace that comes from having unshakeable faith in Jesus Christ -- was central to the doctrine with which the German monk and theologian Martin Luther lit afire the profound challenges to the Catholic Church that conflagrated into the Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s.
Read the following carefully. It was written in 1537 by Martin “The Great Reformer” Luther, and it’s something all Protestant Christians believe.
"All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood’ (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us ….”
It’s easy for us to think that we can earn our way into God’s graces -- that if we do enough good things, if we behave in righteous enough ways, if we sacrifice enough for others, if we give enough money to our church, and on and on and on -- then God will smile down upon us, fill us with his Holy Spirit, and save a place for us in his holy heaven.
What makes it so natural for us to think about our relationship to God in these kinds of simple, cause-and-affect terms is that down here in our earthly life, reward generally is tied to our Actual Performance. If as a student or employee we work extra hard, we do get rewarded for doing so: We get the “A,” the promotion, the accolades. In our everyday life, good works work: they get tangible, predictable, desirable results.
But God’s grace works in an entirely different manner than the world's. We’re not going to impress God by anything that we do, no matter how selflessly or nobly we do it. It’s not like we’re ever going to do anything so great that it will cause God to forget the same truths about us that each one of us secretly knows about ourselves: that we are forever being selfish, and greedy, and lazy, and opportunistic, and mean-spirited, and … well, sinful. We know it about ourselves; God knows it about us; there’s no use pretending either of us is capable of not knowing it it.
A Christian does good works because loving God inspires him or her to do good works, not because he or she hopes it will inspire God to love them. Besides, how would our earning our way into God’s good will actually work? How could it work? What are we going to bring to God? How is anything that we could ever do going to enhance, or benefit, the reality of God, in whom everything already exists?
Trying to get God to think we're special because of the special things we do is like trying to raise the water level in the ocean by pouring into it cups of water from your house. It's just not going to work.
God wants one thing, and only one thing from us. He wants us to believe in him. He wants us to believe that out of love, through his bodily sacrifice, he paid the eternal price for the sins of each and every one of us. Believing that is what gets us saved; that is what triggers to life the life of Christ within us.
In short: If you want God to believe in you, believe in him.
All that said, though, let us never forget or in any way minimize the truth that once one is saved, one is naturally and irresistibly compelled to then serve his fellow man -- to, in other words, do good works. A man who claims that he is saved, but who then never works for the betterment of others, is deluding himself: the Holy Spirit is not in him. In his Great Commandment, Christ directed us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves -- and so we must take time to actually, physically, and in real time do nothing less than that very thing.
With faith comes grace; with grace comes love; with love comes action.
But always -- necessarily -- faith first.
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.
but, James 2: 26
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
And the Bible’s ultimate grace/works Combo Quote, Ephesians 2:8-10:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this 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.