I’m convinced that one of the reasons we sometimes have such a hard time reconciling the concept of “faith” and “works” in our relationship to God is that we really don’t understand the concept of grace, and how it applies to that relationship. We find Christians playing “battle of the verses”, one going to Ephesians 2:8 and saying “we don’t do anything in order to be saved”, the other going to James 2:24 and saying “we are justified by our works!”
Why can’t it be both? I believe the answer is that it can, and it is.
There is a difference between earning something and being entitled to it – and I think that distinction can help us understand the relationship between the grace of God and the obedience of man. And please understand: when I say “entitled”, I don’t mean a sense of self-entitlement that we often see in life where someone says “I am entitled to certain benefits by virtue of my existence.” We’ve all met that guy. And a person who comes to God and says “God has to accept me for who I am and how I choose to live” is not going to be justified in the end. (James 4:6-7)
Earning salvation or fulfilling terms?
To understand what I mean, let’s take an example: if I buy a lottery ticket tomorrow (and no, I’m not sanctioning buying lottery tickets any more than Jesus was sanctioning the idea of a debtor’s prison – I’m just drawing an analogy), and it turns out to be the winning ticket, and I realize that I have won $20 million, at what point am I considered a millionaire? I’m going to run into a lot of trouble if I start trying to make million-dollar purchases at that very moment – because I have been given nothing at that time!
But what do I have? I have a promise, an agreement into which I and the lottery commission entered when I bought that ticket. If the numbers come up for me, the commission will then pay me the money.
Have I earned $20 million? No. Am I entitled to it? Yes.
So why am I not a millionaire yet? Because I haven’t fulfilled my part of the agreement. I need to present my ticket and fill out whatever paperwork is required. If I’m not willing to do that, I’m not getting the money. That’s because even though it was promised to me, it was promised under certain terms and conditions – which I probably never read, but which will nonetheless be enforced!
What does the Lord require?
Jesus spells out the terms of his offer in no uncertain terms to his disciples: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” God’s grace (Acts 15:11), my faith and willingness to confess it before men (Rom. 10:9) and my obedience (Romans 6:16-17) are required elements in this covenant.
So back to the question of “entitlement.” Does that mean I have earned anything? Or does it mean that God has promised something and I can be assured that I will receive it? Think about the concept of entitlement without the negative connotations we often associate with the word. The definition of “entitle” is as follows:
Notice that an entitlement is not something that I earn; it is given to me. But once I have it, I can expect that it will be fulfilled. So when Paul says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day” (2Ti 4:7-8), he’s not talking about something he’s earned. He’s referring to an assurance he has from God that because he lived his life by faith in submission to God’s will, God will reward him for that life of sacrifice.
How do we “walk worthy” of the kingdom?
We are told that we must live in a way that is worthy of the grace of God (II Thes. 1:5,Col. 1:9-10). That doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect, or that we can live in such a way that has earned salvation for ourselves. But it does mean that God has promised that if I’m willing to place my faith in Him and submit to the terms and conditions He has set forth, then I can expect that He will be faithful until the end (Heb. 10:23, II Tim. 2:10-11).
The great thing about the gospel message is that I don’t have to understand all the deep nuances of doctrinal issues. I don’t have to be able to explain why God calls us to be baptized into Christ (Acts 2:41, Rom. 6:3, I Cor. 12:13, Gal. 4:27) in order to have my sins washed away (Acts 22:16), or be able to completely define and distinguish concepts like faith, works and grace. I just need to believe the word of God and obey it. And trust that God means what He says. That’s not salvation by works – it’s salvation “by grace through faith.”