Does The Bible Teach Salvation “By Grace Through Faith” Or “By Law Through Works”?

Law and Grace

In Romans 1:16 and 17, the apostle Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” He concluded with, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”

When Paul mentions the gospel in the book of Romans, his main concern is not the difference between sin and salvation. Instead, his primary purpose is to contrast the two possible ways of salvation: either by grace through faith, or by law through works. Thus, in theory, at least, there are two roads to God. Even so, Paul’s point is that one of these roads (viz., works of law) has been thoroughly and permanently blocked by our sin. Try as we might, we can never get right with God by personal righteousness and law-keeping, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Consequently, all of us have failed to keep God’s law perfectly. But praise be to God, He has not left us to perish. Instead, He has graciously provided an alternative route, which is FAITH—the only genuine road to God, and the only way to salvation for sinners. So, to understand just what it means to be “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8) and to be “heirs of grace” (1 Peter 3:7; Titus 3:7), one must understand the difference between law and grace.

Law vs. Grace

The Bible places the two systems of law and grace in sharp contrast to each other. As was previously noted, John says:

And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:16-17).

In complete agreement with John, Paul warns, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4). He says of Christians that we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). “Under law” is a phrase that describes the state of every person at the beginning of his life. God is the God of “law and order.” He created the universe to operate according to natural law, and for his human creatures to live according to moral law. When a person’s moral consciousness develops, he is confronted with God’s moral law, either by general revelation (viz., nature, cf. Romans 1:18-32; 2:14-15) or special revelation (i.e., the Bible). If one remains within a system or framework of law, then on judgment day he will be judged according to the rules or terms of law. These rules may be stated quite succinctly:

  • If we keep the law, we will escape the penalty.
  • If we break the law, we will suffer the penalty.

In Deuteronomy 30:19, Moses said:

I call heaven and earth as witness today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.

This is the way law operates. As long as we are under law as a system of justification we must realize that these are the rules that apply to us. If we keep God’s law, we escape the penalty of Hell. Thus, it is possible, at least theoretically, to be justified by our perfect works in obedience to God’s commandments. However, the problem with this system is that just one sin makes us a lawbreaker and subjects us to the penalty. As James says, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Paul makes this same point when he says, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’” (Galatians 3:10).

Thus, to be saved under law (which is where we all begin), one must live an absolutely perfect life. But the terrifying reality is that “There are none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This means that as long as we remain under law, we are bound to be lost, and it is just here that the gospel is most appealing. God has provided an alternative to law—another way to be saved. It is the way of grace. It is a totally different system, and it operates according to a completely different set of ground rules.

Under grace, one approaches God for salvation on the following simple terms:

  • If we keep the law, we will suffer the penalty.
  • If we break the law, we will escape the penalty.

Thank God, then, for grace, for under such a system a lawbreaker (a sinner like you and me) may escape the penalty of eternal damnation. Therefore, “If we break the law, we will escape the penalty” is good news indeed. For in our present condition, and without God’s magnificent and merciful grace, we don’t stand a chance of ever making it to Heaven.

But wait a minute, one might say, isn’t there something wrong with these terms? After all, why should one who keeps the law suffer the penalty, while the one who breaks the law escapes the penalty? This doesn’t seem fair!, you might think, and you are right. It isn’t fair, and it is not supposed to be. For if it were, it could not be grace. Law, you see, is fair. But Grace, praise be to God, is much more than fair, and I’ll expand on this in just a moment.

Okay, but just one more thing, you say. You can accept, even embrace with open arms, the second part of the system, that is, “If we break the law, we will escape the penalty.” That’s great because that’s our only hope, you say. But what about that first rule: “If we keep the law, we will suffer the penalty”? Surely this is going much too far! How can that be grace, you are thinking, and who would ever agree to such a thing?

Grace, Praise Be To God, Isn’t Fair!

It is just here that we must understand that grace is different from our ordinary way of thinking, for it does not fit within the framework of law and justice, or even our sense of fairness. This is especially true of the statement, “If we keep the law, we will suffer the penalty.” Nevertheless, this is the very element of grace that makes it grace. For without this provision, the other one—the one that says, “If we break the law, we will escape the penalty,” would not be possible. After all, to whom does the first provision apply? In other words, who has kept the law perfectly? Only one person: Christ, the sinless Jesus of Nazareth. But even though He kept the law perfectly, He suffered the penalty. And why? Because, only the demands of grace could nail our spotless Lord to the cruel cross of Calvary, for in His sinless death He suffered the full penalty of the law in our place, and thus made it possible for us, as actual lawbreakers, to escape the penalty. Again, praise God for His magnificent grace and mercy!

This system of grace is summed up perfectly in 2 Corinthians 5:21, which says, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In other words, Jesus took our sins upon Him and paid the price so that we could receive an imputed righteousness (i.e., a righteousness graciously put to our account by a God who loved us in spite of our sins), “even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22a). And as Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Here, then, is the choice: We can remain under law, to our certain condemnation; or we can accept the free gift of grace and become “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Of course, choice is not something Calvinists think we human beings actually have. But if we do have free-will choices to make, and the Bible says we do, then the false system of Calvinism is defeated. This is why Calvinists do everything in their power to try and explain away the clear teachings of Scripture.

But one thing must be clear. In distinguishing between law and grace, I amnot talking about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. What I’ve said here about law applies to any form of God’s law in any age. No one was ever saved by perfectly keeping the Old Testament, or law of Moses. And by the same token, no one is saved by perfectly keeping the New Testament commandments either. Why? Because once a person has sinned, law, in any form, is unable to save him. Remember, the law says, “If we break the law, we will suffer the penalty.” What, then, was the purpose of the Old Testament law? Paul says it was given “because of transgressions” until the “Seed” (viz., Jesus Christ) should come (cf. Galatians 3:19). This tells us that Moses’ law was given to help control man’s sinful tendencies, and to make it clear, ultimately, that every man is a sinner and thus cannot be saved by perfect law-keeping. Paul says, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Thus, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). In other words, as our schoolmaster, the law taught us that Christ, as the manifestation of God’s grace, was the only source of salvation. This means that the law itself was never intended to be the instrument of salvation.

In Galatians 3:21-25, Paul wrote:

Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

This means that Old Testament saints who were saved were saved by grace just like we are today. The New Testament’s favorite example of this truth is Abraham. In fact, Paul uses Abraham to prove his main point, which is that “a man is justified by faith apart from the law” (Romans 3:28). The full blessings of salvation and eternal life were offered to Abraham and his family, and through him to all peoples of the earth: “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); “And the Scriptures, foreseeing that God would justify the nations by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham” (Galatians 3:8-9); “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs, according to the promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

Now, how did Abraham receive his glorious inheritance? How did anyone else in the Old Testament era receive it? How does anyone receive it in the New Testament age? Paul says the inheritance does not depend on perfect law-keeping, but on God’s promise: “For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Galatians 3:18). Thus, Abraham received the blessing through faith in God’s promise: “For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13); “And [Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, quoted in Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; and also mentioned in James 2:23).

The apostle Paul makes it clear that the inheritance of grace is shared by all in the family of Abraham. Who is it, then, who belongs to Abraham’s family? Those who, like Abraham, believe in (that is, they trust in) the promise of God—that is, Abraham is “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:16). As Paul said in Galatians 3:26-29:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Saved By Grace Through Faith

In Ephesians 2:8-9, the Scriptures say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Therefore, how sad it is to see Christians who continue to think like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed with himself, “God I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

On Judgment Day, I am afraid some, like the Pharisee, will appeal to keeping the commandments for entry into heaven. On the other hand, the true child of God will appeal to his trust (I’m talking “faith” here) in God’s promise of salvation through the grace manifested in connection with the precious blood of the Savior, Jesus Christ. Therefore, and contrary to what Calvinists think, I realize, and am thankful, that our salvation depends not on our weaknesses, but on God’s strength instead. In other words, our salvation does not depend upon our ability to keep law perfectly, but on God’s ability to save us by faith as He promised. When we realize this, we can truly begin to live under grace as our most loving Heavenly Father surely intended:

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1).

But Not By “Faith Alone”

Notice that neither the salvation of Ephesians 2:8, nor the justification of Romans 5:1, are through or by “faith alone,” as Calvinists assert. Luther, Calvin et al. were wrong when they argued that “faith alone” is what these passages were really saying. In other words, these were never more than bold assertions by these men, which means that all such thinking must be categorized with the “doctrines of men” so clearly condemned in the Bible (cf. Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:7; and Colossians 2:22). In point of fact, the Bible makes it quite clear that we are not saved by faith alone: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14); “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17); “But do you not know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20); “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:22); “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24); “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).

Saving Faith

This is why Martin Luther thought the book of James to be “a right strawy epistle,” questioning whether a book of such inferior worth even belonged in the New Testament. That is, if you don’t like it, get rid of it. Yes, I know he thought the epistle of James contradicted what he believed Paul to have taught in his epistles— namely, that one is saved or justified by “faith alone,” but as we’ve seen in this study, Paul never taught any such thing. And if Luther had been willing to honestly consider what James wrote by inspiration, he could have come to the correct understanding that Paul and James were not contradicting one another at all. Salvation is not by “faith alone,” and the Bible clearly says so (cf. James 2:24). Therefore, the doctrine of “faith only” was the figment of Luther’s very fertile imagination, and the same holds true for Calvin and many others in Protestantism’s cohort. Again, neither Paul nor any of the New Testament writers ever taught salvation by faith alone, and I challenge anyone to prove conclusively from the Scriptures that they did.

Actually, Paul And James Are Very Much In Harmony

The fact is, and this is going to surprise many who hold to the Calvinist doctrine, the Faith Only doctrine is just as dead in the book of Romans as it is in the epistle of James. In Romans 1:5 (and the emphases in these following verses is mine—AT), Paul wrote, “through whom [speaking of Jesus Christ] we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name.” In Romans 16:25-27, he wrote:

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret since the world began but now has been made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures has been made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith—to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.

The faith under discussion here, in my opinion, is objective faith, that is to say, “the objective standard”—namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Jude 3). Therefore, the obedience spoken of here is the obedience from the heart (cf. Romans 6:17), and obedience that is always the demonstration of biblical faith (viz., the “saving faith” that is depicted so many places in God’s Word).

Saving Faith Is A Faith That Works

But what, someone might ask, is saving faith? Well, it is certainly more than mental assent, for we are told that some of the Jewish leaders “believed in” Jesus, but would not, when all was said and done, confess Him “lest they be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42). Consider, then, that in Romans 10:10, Paul said, “For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.” Again, in Hebrews 11:6, it is said, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for all who come to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” In other words, saving faith does not just give mental assent to God’s existence, but it further involves the disposition or willingness to both trust in and rely upon the object of one’s belief. Thus, saving faith is not just knowing there is a God who loves us and has sent His only begotten Son into this world to die for us—although it certainly includes all this; but more than this, what makes it truly saving faith is a trust in and reliance upon Jesus Christ as Lord of one’s life. What this means is that without the faith that makes Jesus Lord, and this is a faith that is willing to obey, there can be no real salvation.

The Importance Of Obedience

Speaking of Jesus Christ, Hebrews 5:9 says: “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” Then in Romans 6:17-18: “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” In 1 Peter 1:22a, the Bible says, “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit.” Then in 2 Thessalonians 1:7b-8, it says, “…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But Where Does Such Saving Faith Come From?

In answering this question, Calvinists, who believe that unregenerated man is totally depraved and completely unable to respond positively to the gospel by faith, believe faith is given directly by God in some “better felt than told experience.” On the other hand, the Bible, in Romans 10:14-17, says:

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: “Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”

Unregenerated man, although he is certainly sin-sick and morally depraved, is not totally depraved and, therefore, unable to respond to the gospel invitation, as Calvinists think. Consequently, the Bible, over and over, calls upon man to obey the gospel and, by so doing, “save [himself] from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40, KJV). But Calvinists cannot allow such a thing, for they believe that if unregenerated man can respond in such a fashion, this would have man working out his own salvation (cf. Philippians 2:12), which would somehow denigrate the sovereignty of God. This, Calvinists claim, would be to admit that man could somehow earn salvation. No, no, no! Man, who is a sinner, cannot do anything to earn salvation. But he can, and must, the Bible teaches, render obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to be saved.

In contrast with Calvinism, the Bible teaches that sin-sick man is not totally depraved and, therefore, absolutely unable to obey the gospel. Instead, the gospel is to be preached to all men and women everywhere—men and women who the Bible describes as being dead in sin (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:1; Ephesians 2:5). This means that although their thinking is distorted and depraved, it is not totally distorted nor depraved, as Calvinists teach. On the contrary, those who are dead in their sins can, upon hearing the gospel, render obedience to it in faith and repentance, both of which clearly require free moral agency.

For example, in Colossians 2:11-14, Paul said:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to His cross.

Notice that this passage flies in the face of Calvinistic dogma. The individuals in this passage had heard the gospel and had obeyed it, thus they were raised up to walk in “newness of life,” as Romans 6:4b calls it, or “alive,” as it is referred to here. Before being “raised,” these had been “dead in [their] trespasses.” This is to say that before being raised and made alive, they were exercising themselves positively toward the gospel, and this while being dead in their sins, which is completely at odds with the think-sos of Calvinists.

Calvinists would have those mentioned above already raised and made alive when the inspired apostle says they were still dead in their trespasses. Notice that in obeying the gospel these sinners had been able to put off the “body of the sins of the flesh” by the circumcision of Christ which, in the immediate context, is described as being “buried with Him in baptism, in which [they] were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God.” Thus, if this were the only passage in the Bible that refutes Calvinism, and it isn’t, then it would be sufficient to show that Calvinism’s teachings on this are contrary to the truths taught in God’s word.

1 Comment

  1. This is a nicely laid out argument. Thanks. I was not drawn here looking to refute Calvinism (though I have always been frustrated by it), but rather to understand how obedience and grace work together in the life of the believer. I fear that many are being lead astray by pastors who teach that we are saved by “grace alone” neglecting that it is grace “through faith” which implies trust – leading to obedience. That along with the fact that it is impossible to love and worship God without a heart that desires to be obedient. Anyway, thanks for this – I have book marked it and will re-read it a few more times. Peace.

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