This is an edited and expanded response to a reader who recently wrote in:
Dear (name withheld),
You asked, “Are the (following) verses implying that one must obey the word of God in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, and that even if we believe but do not follow we are damned?”
No, the Scriptures you cited (see below) are not saying that there are some works that we must do in order to be saved or that there is some mistake that we can make where we could lose our salvation (or that the presence of sin means that someone claiming to be a Christian is not saved to begin with). No, this is simply not true. The old saying is “By faith alone in Christ alone.” And this is just as true today as back then, and it will always be just as true.
Overall, what you are seeing as you read the Bible and pick out verses of concern can be likened to isolated "camera views" floating on their own. This is can be an area of great difficulty for many Christians. But when properly taken in context with the whole Bible, all these verses make perfect sense and then we see clearly that we are truly saved by grace through faith and not by works.
8For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9Not of works, lest any man should boast. Eph 2:8-9
In order to be saved, one must obey the Word of God only in the area of believing the Gospel message: which is that we are all sinners and we cannot save ourselves, that Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for our sins and obtained eternal life for us through His death on the cross and resurrection. (Of course we should obey God in other areas. This is certainly necessary to live a proper Christian life that is pleasing to God, but obedience in believing the Gospel is all that is required for salvation.)
9That if you shall confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. 10For with the heart man believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11For the scripture says, Whosoever believes on him shall not be ashamed. 12For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. 13For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Rom 10:9-13
The confession of Christ mentioned here can relate to expressing faith in Christ to God, or can relate to calling upon the name of the Lord. For many believers this happens somewhat automatically when they first believe and call upon the Lord to save them, when they repent (change their view of God) and perhaps pray and are sorry for how they lived in blatant sin prior to believing in Christ.
For those of us who are faithful to share Christ with others, our on-going profession of Christ is a sign that we have already confessed the Lord Jesus and called upon His Name in some way. Of course witnessing to others is not required for salvation, but it is important to our Christian walk and can surely be a sign that someone is saved as long as they preach the genuine free grace Gospel and not works heresy.
Regardless, confession of Christ unto salvation is not a work, but rather is just an inseparable part of salvation. There is no hard and fast rule here. There are many different ways that someone might confess Christ.
These verses and the ones you cited (see commentaries below) as well as other verses all tie together. They do not conflict. The Bible does not conflict with itself in any way.
The key is we need to look at all of these verse together in context. For example, if someone isolates verse 13 above (For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.) out of context, they might try to argue that one does not need to believe, but only need to call on the Lord verbally in some empty way and they can be saved. Not true. Other verses show us that belief is integral to salvation. And belief from the heart is what drives a genuine confession of Christ. For one would not confess Christ or truly call upon His name if they didn’t really believe.
Certainly those who fail to obey the Bible in other areas outside of salvation add great difficulties to their earthly lives and risk loosing additional heavenly rewards. But regardless, if they are Christians, they are Christians and their salvation is secure.
Here are the verses you cited and my comments:
Regarding Rom 6:17-18, we need to look at the whole chapter of Romans 6 (too lengthy to quote here in full) in order to get a clearer picture of what it being said. Overall, this chapter shows that upon salvation we are dead to sin, meaning dead to the power and dominion of sin reigning over us uncontrollably, in that as believers we now have God’s grace and the written Word to make overcoming possible. We also have the Holy Spirit to bring us the proper understanding of Scripture. These are critical attributes that we did not have as unbelievers. But this overcoming is not automatic. This still requires study and a freewill decision and effort on our part.
12Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in the lusts thereof. 13Neither yield you your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. 14For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace. Rom 6:12-14
This passage clearly shows that compliance is a choice and it is our responsibility to choose not to sin. As Christians we are free from the power of sin in that we no longer serve sin as slaves to sin. This does not mean Christians never sin. Christians have access to the means not to sin if they so choose. Big difference.
Rom 6:17-20 says:
17But God be thanked, that you were the servants of sin, but you have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. 18Being then made free from sin, you became the servants of righteousness. 19I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as you have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. 20For when you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness. Rom 6:17-20
So, prior as unbelievers, while we were slaves to sin without the means to truly avoid sin, we were free from righteousness. Many unbelievers maintain a certain level of basic morality and ethics and hence they stay out of trouble and do not end up in jail. They may even do some legitimately good works, but without Christ they have no righteousness, no right standing with God and generally no desire to even acknowledge and avoid evil from the perspective of what it and is not sin, let alone for the right reason of not wanting to displease God. Hence when we were slaves to sin we were free from righteousness. As Christians we are the exact opposite. We are free from sin (from the power and dominion of sin) and instead we are servants to righteousness if we choose to yield unto holiness. Holiness is a choice. It is not automatic.
If we are maturing in Christ we are no longer moving in the direction of sin and no longer have the intention to keep sinning habitually or by lifestyle. Other passages show that even as Christians, we are not delivered from the sin nature and so all Christians still sin (offend, transgress, miss the mark) in thoughts, words and deeds every day at least in minor ways. If this were not the case then the Bible would not command Christians not to sin for it would be impossible for them to sin! The Scriptures go into great depth teaching us how to live as Christians, how to think, how to speak and how to behave. This would not be necessary if it were impossible for Christians to make such mistakes. The fact that the Bible is not silent on these issues speaks volumes.
You asked about the judgment mentioned in Matt 7:2 (see Matt 7:1-5 for fuller context).
For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you again. Matt 7:2
This has nothing to so with supporting some unbiblical idea that works are required for salvation. This passage is basically Jesus’ command to us not to judge hypocritically, but to first remove the beam form our own eye so that we can see clearly enough to remove the speck out of our brother’s eye (see v. 2-5).
This does not mean that even if we judge someone harshly or even hypocritically that somehow God will judge us harshly regarding salvation. No. That is not what this is saying at all, and further, once salvation is obtained it is secure and cannot be lost due to any failure of ours. Salvation would not be salvation if it could be lost. And eternal life would not be eternal if we could lose it. But we can lose additional rewards and that is all this verse is affirming.
If we are unrepentantly and habitually unmerciful and/or hypocritical towards others and judge them unfairly, then we can expect God to be harsh towards us in withholding certain additional rewards. Other verses show that God expects us to properly judge people’s doctrines and behavior according to Scripture. Such is expected of us and this verse is not saying that we should not judge those things.
Let’s also consider the other side. Verse 2 can also be misinterpreted as saying that someone can gain salvation through proper judgment towards others. And of course that is not only pure nonsense, it is also a heresy against the Gospel.
Many Christians misinterpret passages that pertain to Christian living (walking properly with the Lord) as if these passages pertain to salvation. We must maintain the proper distinction between verses on discipleship and verse on salvation or we will become very confused in our theology and risk becoming prey to every legalistic predator. There is no shortage of men today who parlay the unfounded fears of Christians (e.g. the fear of losing their salvation) into massive power and control over their lives.
You also asked if James 2:19 is implying that just because we believe somehow does not necessarily guarantee our salvation in that the demons believe (in God) but are not saved. Allow me to answer:
19You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble. James 2:19
Demons believe in God and they know who Jesus is. But they do not have saving faith for a number of reasons including the fact that they know that they cannot be saved. The possibility of salvation does not exist for them and they are very well aware of that. Demons acknowledge the existence of Christ, but in head knowledge only. There are all kinds of people who believe in a historical Jesus, no different than they believe in Abraham Lincoln. This is only an intellectual recognition that does not save. Even if a demon longed to be saved as we humans can be saved, that would not matter. Their belief cannot be from the heart because they know they are doomed with no hope of rescue.
A far greater issue is the common misinterpretation of James 2:17-26 overall, where legalists totally botch the interpretation and argue that this chapter proves that works are required for salvation. Not so and I plan to address this more in a future article.
People whose faith is in themselves and in their works or good behavior (as assisting in their salvation) have not yet put full faith and trust in Jesus Christ and so they are in a very dangerous place. Again, the truth is and always will be that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone.
There is nothing wrong with you asking these questions and looking for biblical assurance as you are. That does not mean that you are not saved.