Should Christians strive for personal salvation? The majority of Protestants will likely answer this questions with a resounding, “No!” Most will support their response by citing one of the main Reformation slogans, which asserts that Christians are justified by faith alone (sola fide). Many will go on to quote Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2.8-9, “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” (NIV 2011). However, an adequate theological response requires a bit more nuance. For, James says in his epistle that “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (2.24). Moreover, even Paul concludes his thought by noting that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2.10).
Now, it is well known (at least among biblical scholars) that James does not actually contradict what Paul says in Ephesians because James is using a different sense of the word “works.” That is, James is referring to works of love done as an expression of genuine faith whereas Paul is referring to works of the law done to earn salvation. But, the point is, James’ discernment still stands – sincere, saving faith cannot be separated from faithful living. As Augustine articulated it, “Paul said that a man is justified through faith without the works of the law, but not without those works of which James speaks” (On the Christian Life 13, cited in Blomberg 397-98).
The Reformers, of course, were very familiar with Augustine’s works. What they meant by sola fide was “a faith in divine promises of salvation in Christ, a faith that always led to sincere, grateful, determined endeavors to live wholeheartedly for God” (Payton Jr. 130). For instance, Luther wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, “Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works. . . . Righteousness does not consist in works, although works neither can nor ought to be wanting” (cited in Payton Jr. 124). In other words, the “teaching that faith can be solitary — that it can stand alone, without any diligence to serve God and others” is a serious misrepresentation of Luther’s insight on justification (Payton Jr. 129). Again, to be clear, saving faith always generates works of love out of grateful obedience to God. Thus, the contemporary notion of “solitary faith” is a semantically slight but spiritually significant distortion of sola fide, one that has spawned disastrous impressions of “easy believism” and “cheap grace.”
So, should Christians strive for personal salvation? Does it require moral effort? The paradoxical answer seems to be both “Yes” and “No.” Ignatius of Antioch wisely wrote, “It is not a matter of promising now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith” (cited in Payton Jr. 130). In his introduction to Christian belief, Roger Olson astutely characterizes the paradoxical nature of the Christian consensus about personal salvation as “both gift and task — with the priority of grace over works” (300). That is, “Christians all together believe that salvation as reconciliation with God and inward renewal from the corruption of inherited depravity and toward the restoration of the image of God is wholly and completely a work of God’s grace while at the same time also an event and process involving human agency” (Olson 301-302).
Two biblical passages seem to supply sufficient evidence for this consensus of belief. First, notice how salvation is described as both gift and task in 2 Peter 1.3-11:
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (emphasis added)
Second, and lastly, observe how Paul succinctly summarizes the paradox of salvation in Philippians 2.12-13:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed . . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Blomberg, Craig L. From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts Through Revelation. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006. Print.
Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. 2nd ed. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. Print.
Payton Jr., James R. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.