Excerpted from chapters 9 and 10 of my new book, 7 Truths That Changed the World, now available at shop.reasons.org.
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“God knows I’m only human.”
“I’m trying my best; God will understand.”
The typical person on the street apparently thinks that while most people are not as kind and compassionate as Mother Teresa, they clearly are not as evil as Saddam Hussein. Therefore, the vast majority of people in the moral middle will get a passing score on God’s graded curve. So whether as the tenet of a formal, non-Christian religion or a facet of personal spirituality, people commonly view heaven as a reward for being a fairly decent person and hell as a punishment for being a truly terrible human being.
Against the backdrop of a near-global consensus that God sees humankind as being basically good and, therefore, worthy of heaven stands historic Christianity’s fifth dangerous idea—a revolutionary notion that brings with it both profoundly bad news and profoundly good news for humanity. According to historic Christianity, in the eyes of God no one is or becomes morally acceptable by his or her own merit. In fact, it is fair to say that sin (moral transgression) is a much bigger problem than most people (including many Christians) realize. But the good news (Gospel) is that God’s grace is deeper and Jesus Christ is a much greater Savior than most people (including Christians) realize….
Salvation by Grace
Christianity’s distinctively dangerous idea stands at odds with all other religions of the world and with the so-called spiritual consensus of humanity. The New Testament explicitly teaches that salvation is not earned by human moral effort but is a divinely imparted gift or endowment. Though the three major branches of Christendom [Eastern Orthodox, Catholicism, and Protestantism] have hotly debated the exact meaning of “salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ” over several centuries, there remains powerful agreement. Historic Christianity affirms that salvation comes by God’s grace alone, solely through faith in Jesus Christ’s unique life, death, and resurrection.2
The apostle Paul summarizes the gracious formula of salvation:
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. (Eph. 2:8–10 NIV 1984)
This short soteriological passage is so treasure-laden that it is worthy of further exploration.
2. See Thomas C. Oden, The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). Oden’s thesis is that the vast majority of Christianity’s greatest teachers through the centuries (including the early church fathers) have affirmed the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
For more on this unique Christian doctrine, listen to these episodes from my podcast, Straight Thinking.
- “Salvation by Grace”
- “Salvation: Is It Graspable in Sin and Resistible in Grace”
- “Living by Grace”
- “Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude”