If we blindly emphasize a “simple Gospel” without giving heed to the whole counsel of God on the matter of salvation, we may fail to look beyond the basic truth to attain a deeper and more complete one.
First of all, we must take it as an unshakable foundation that salvation is all grace and all by faith, not our own deeds and own righteousness, even when it comes to sanctification. It is the first step of the salvation to realize that it is all based on God’s grace that we are saved.
Then a Christian must come to the second step to realize that God has work to do in us after we are saved.
And soon, a Christian realizes that when it comes to growth, God doesn’t do anything until the Christian takes action first.
The Christian decides to obey, starts to grow and enjoys peace. But soon the Christian finds that the thrill of growth disappears. Not only can’t he do anything in order to make himself grow, but also he is often the very obstacle to God’s plan in his growth. That is when the Christian starts to experience the Cross deeper and starts to recognize that like his rebirth, growth too is all by faith according to God’s grace.
The above is how we grow. But being curious as we are, we secretly ask the next question: if it’s all by faith, why do I need to struggle to grow at all?
We tend to think that when we ask a question like that, we mostly ask as a matter of intellectual curiosity, rather than out of spiritual disobedience. But by the grace of God we will see that the reality is the opposite at a deeper level.
On one hand, the above “why?” is of such a nature that a serious Christian tends to consider it improper to even ask. In fact, under a religious veil, few Christians explicitly ask such a question.
On the other hand, many of us harbor that question in our heart. The confusion over Bible verses that teach “salvation by grace” in contrast with other verses that teach, or indeed command, righteous deeds, is evidence.
I’ve even read theological writings on this subject that simply demonstrate the writer’s confusion. In fact I believe that the modern Christian language itself reflects that deep confusion. The term “salvation” in nearly all modern contexts is used to refer to the initial acceptance of Christ, in contrast to “sanctification” and “glorification.” Such a differentiation has helped God’s people to escape from legalism such as that in the dark ages, but didn’t help God’s children grasp the more complete truth.
From God’s own Word, a Christian life is better described by “justification”, “sanctification”, and “glorification”, and all these three together constitute our complete “salvation,” instead of first “salvation” and then followed by “sanctification” and “glorification.”
If you allow me to use a formula, we should have: salvation = justification + sanctification + glorification; rather than: salvation = justification, but optionally decorated by sanctification, even glorification.
In numerous places in God’s Word, Christians (by definition those who have already been justified and born again into a new life) are called to work out our salvation. If one is supposed to have obtained the compete salvation when justified and born again, how is that he is still asked to reach to his salvation?
There is of course no contradiction in Bible. When the Holy Spirit speaks to us who are already reborn (that is, already received justification), He naturally speaks about a deeper part of our salvation. The plain truth is, because Christ finished the complete and objective salvation for the mankind on the Cross, the salvation He prepared for a Christian to subjectively experience is also a compete one, which is much richer than a mere rebirth, but rather to attain a mature Christ-like life.
You may say, doesn’t everyone agree with that point? Thank Lord if everyone does. But I am trying to expose here a hidden “religion” on this point which prevents God’s children from meeting the Lord’s eyes directly. Many of us, despite acknowledging the above truth in principle, secretly believe that as far as salvation itself is concerned, God’s work is completely done when a person is justified. The rest (growth) is our gratuitous response to God. Many even base a Christian’s freedom on that notion.
But the above understanding is a false religion built on false “freedom”. It misguides us, and make us forget that a Christian must subjectively experience all that Christ has objectively accomplished for him on the Cross in order to attain his complete salvation, which includes not just justification, but more importantly attaining a mature Christ-like life.
In other words, a Christian’s sanctification and glorification is necessary, rather than optional, for his complete salvation. God showed this principle clearly in His dealings with His people at the Old Testament time. Israelites were justified on the Passover night by the blood of Lamb spread on the door, but can you even imagine that the next morning an Israelite decides that he’d rather stay in Egypt (that is, remain unseparated from the world)?
We must not stumble on this. I know that some brothers and sisters resist the above fundamental truth in various ways. But I found that in every case the reason behind the resistance is not because we cannot agree with each other upon the truth but always because there is a misunderstanding of what is actually meant by the truth.
Out of our defensive human nature, many often have an automatic response upon hearing “complete salvation by not only accepting Christ but also by being Christ-like.” Specifically, some automatically assume that the above statement means a forfeiture of what a Christian is commonly believed to have already received from God by the initial believing.
But the truth is the opposite. The revelation of the “complete salvation” is not a denial of our common belief in new life upon receiving Christ, but only an enrichment added to our former narrow understanding. It is to reveal that God has prepared much more beyond what we think we have obtained.
“I have come that they may have life, and they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10. We all have life because of our receiving the Lord, but are we receiving the “more abundant” life and becoming Christ-like?
Note that the “more abundant” life is Christ-like life, rather than a result of “trying to be Christ-like in order to receive the more abundant life.”
Since sanctification is part of our salvation, when Bible calls a child of God to be sanctified (i.e., separated, holy and righteous), it is not calling him to “try to be holy and righteous in order to exchange for salvation,” but rather simply calling him to “be saved.”
That is, the command to live a Christian life is not a method or means by which we are saved, but rather a mere description of the status of having been saved.
We must not forget our real condition even as Christians. Before rebirth we were dead, but even after rebirth we are still in the water (drowning) if we do not live a sanctified holy life. When a drowning person is asked to reach out to a rescuing boat and be separated from the water, his being aboard is his salvation itself, rather than a “price” he has to pay to the boat owner in exchange for salvation.
How perverted our hearts are that we think our becoming separated from the ways of the world, becoming holy and more like the Lord is a “price” to pay in order to exchange for a salvation! The Lord Himself is our salvation. The moment we see that truth, we ought to pray: “Lord, change my life to be like you, or I will surely perish.” It has nothing to do with legalism relying on human effort to attain salvation but everything do with seeing God’s glorious complete salvation for each of His children.
At this point, one may, in fact should, ask,”if a Christ-like life is our salvation, what then is the way to attain that?” One would have already answered the question once he asks the question, because he should be brought back to Romans 1:17 now, where our question regarding the complete salvation may have started. Once you see that truth, you will shout halleluiah when you read Romans 1:17, because it clearly stands for living by faith, the only thing that God has commanded us to do. The living is manifested in our abiding in Christ, and further manifested in our both inwardly and outwardly living a Christ-like life.
Furthermore, we will also come to realize that even our faith itself is by God’s grace. Such faith is indeed faith of Christ, not merely faith in Christ. Galatians 2:20, Darby (a more truthful translation of this verse.)
Only when the Spirit reveals to us that our “being Christ-like” is our salvation, and we cannot afford losing that, will we start to truly understand that the “Christian life” is what we are, not what we do. This is a proposition far deeper than merely contrasting “sincere” to “insincere”.
And it is the faith in (and of) Christ that changes what we are. As Brother Steven Kaung once said: “Only one person can live a Christian life, and that person is Christ Himself.” You see, our faith in Him is not merely to believe that He is, but also believe that He is in us.
This is so important that I wish to say it in yet another way.
Although we know in principle that we are supposed to grow in life as Christians, many treat growth as a supplemental or ornamental aspect of Christian life. It’s our human tendency to think that “be Christ-like” is “work by us,” that is, something we do in order to exchange for something extra God has promised.
As a result, because many also know that, as a doctrinally correct answer, our salvation is supposed to be by faith only and not by works, we naturally but incorrectly conclude that “being Christ-like” could not be part of our salvation, for otherwise it would contradict the doctrine.
The tendency is so strong among God’s children that if one ever says “my salvation is my being Christ-like,” that person is immediately labeled as “legalism” and “lacking the understanding of grace.” The above fallacy is not in its logic but in its premise in assuming that “be Christ-like” is “work by us.”
Such is the poor belief of many God’s children. No wonder many never grow, and no wonder many who wish to grow do not understand the true meaning and true reason of growth.
Oh, we lift an empty banner of “living by faith” so high that we no longer see what we are called for and why. How sad and dangerously foolish it is that God’s children think we are supposed to have already attained everything God wants us to be when we first believed, and therefore treat “being Christ-like” as a mere afterthought, a hubby, a self-motivator, a respectable gesture of the do-gooders, a special gift possessed by the more diligent believers, and our “grace” to God, as it certainly seems almost like it were!
May the Lord reveal Himself to us. God’s words do not need human wisdom to be knitted together. It just takes revelation by the Spirit Himself for us to see that they are together as the Word.