Support for a Healthy Dose of "Works-Based" Salvation

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Let me begin by saying that no one in their right mind would believe that God’s favor can be earned. His love and forgiveness are imparted upon sinners as a result of grace, and I include myself among the millions of Christ-followers who throw themselves at His mercy every day. The yoke of Jesus is light because He lovingly bears the load.

That being said, I think the idea of salvation has been a bit misconstrued in a lot of Christian circles. Many who confidently proclaim “Jesus saves” seem a little unsure about what exactly He’s supposed to be saving us from.

“Well, our sins of course,” one might say.

But when Christians talk about getting saved from their sins, more often than not, they are referring exclusively to what they believe are the eternal ramifications of sin – damnation in hell. It is as if salvation is something that kicks in after death, like a gift that says “don’t open until eternity” on the tag.  

But as I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus, I’m beginning to realize that following these revolutionary teachings would result in a different sort of salvation – salvation from myself.  I now see that “getting saved”  isn’t  just about avoiding hell in the future, but about being liberated from the ramifications of my sin here and now. The Way of Jesus can save me from my gossip, my judgmentalism, my grudges, my worries, my greed, my hypocrisy, my self-centeredness, my hate, my misplaced loyalties, my prejudices, and my stubborn belief that enough stuff can make me happy. This is indeed good news!

Jesus told his followers, “if you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free…Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin…If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:31, 32, 36).

The life of Jesus is the perfect example of what this sort of freedom should look like. Jesus goes on to say, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. ..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.”  (John 15:7-10)

Throughout Jesus’ teachings, salvation from sin is consistently tied with obedience to His teachings. This is not to say that a person can somehow earn God’s favor by checking off a to-do list, (Jesus says “apart from Me you can do nothing”). It is to say that true liberation from sin is found in loving and following Jesus Christ, even to the point of death.

Among evangelicals, so much emphasis has been placed on the doctrine of substiutionary atonement that the focus has shifted away from FOLLOWING the life and teachings of Jesus (in order to be saved from sin) to simply BELIEVING in the death and resurrection of Jesus (in order to be saved from judgment). Faith has been redefined as intellectual ascent to a set of propositional truths, and Jesus has been re-cast as a sort of mechanism by which eternal security can be achieved .  We are told that “Jesus came to die,” as if the Sermon on the Mount is just a suggestion or an afterthought. We are told that salvation can be achieved by simply professing Jesus as the Son of God, when even the demons do the same (Matthew 8:29).

The truth is, salvation from the everyday destruction of our sin takes some work.  It’s not easy to turn the other cheek when cruelly insulted. It takes discipline to get into the habit of living more simply and refusing to serve the god of wealth. Associating with the poor and downtrodden can prove unpopular. Resisting the urge to lust or worry or judge is hard. Yet these acts of righteousness are remarkably liberating. These good works result in salvation from our destructive desires and suffocating hatred. This is the sort of fruit that Jesus says identifies us as Christians, or “little Christs,” the kind of outlandish love that is supposed to set us apart from everyone else.

It is my opinion that faith and works are so tightly intertwined that one cannot live without the other.  James’ famous declaration that “faith without works is dead” also works in reverse. Trying to impress God through our own efforts doesn’t result in liberation, but pride.

So when I say I’m ready for a healthy dose of “works-based” salvation, this is what I mean:  I’m ready to be liberated from the tyranny of my selfishness by caring for the “least of these”. I’m ready to be freed from the confines of worry by trusting in God’s provision. I’m ready to break out of the prison of isolation by loving my neighbors as myself. I’m ready to escape the relentless pursuit of hate and bitterness by praying for my enemies, blessing those who curse me, and turning the other cheek.  I’m ready to be saved, not just from some future judgment, but from the sin that ensnares me today.

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