By Bob Passantino, © 1992
As a member of the historic Christian Church, I answer this resolution in the affirmative: Yes, salvation is accomplished wholly without human effort.
I will prove that salvation is escape from the bondage of sin and the deserved judgment of God, through no human effort, but wholly on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.
I will use the Bible as my source of authority. It has a consistent doctrine of salvation, and its trustworthiness has been confirmed by Jesus’ words, validated by his bodily resurrection from the dead.
This resolution does not concern the Mormon doctrine of “unconditional or general salvation,” that is, what Mormon doctrine considers synonymous with immortality. Everyone, according to Mormonism, will be resurrected: not everyone will be exalted. Mormon apostle Bruce McConkie said, “But this is not the salvation of righteousness, the salvation which the Saints seek . . . . Salvation, in its true and full meaning, is synonymous with exaltation or eternal life and consists in getting an inheritance in the highest of the three heavens within the celestial kingdom. With few exceptions this is the salvation of which the scriptures speak.”
This resolution also does not concern whether or not it is possible to lose one’s salvation. The question is, how is salvation accomplished, not how salvation is lost.
Salvation is being rescued from the deserved wrath of God. Romans 5:9 says, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”
The alternative to salvation is destruction (Philippians 1:28), and eternal, conscious punishment (Matthew 25:46).
The moment of conversion is considered to be the moment of salvation, as Titus 3:5- 7 points out: “. . . not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” We are in need of rescue from the deserved wrath of God because we are bound by sin, both the sin guilt we inherited from Adam, and the weight of our own sins (Romans 3:23; 5:12-14).
Man is bound by sin. In Romans 3:9 Paul says, “we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.” Galatians 3:22 declares, “But the Scripture has confined all under sin.”
This bondage comes in part from our representative participation in Adam’s original sin and in part from our own sins, as Romans 5:12 clearly states, “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.”
Man cannot free himself from this bondage to sin, as Paul makes it clear in Romans 3:11-12 (quoting Psalm 5:9): “There is none righteous, no not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.”
Atonement means the reconciliation of the guilty to God by divine sacrifice, that of Jesus Christ on the cross.
There are four results of the atonement:
- The guilt of sin is transferred from the sinner to Christ (2 Corinthians 5:2).
- The guilt of sin is removed from the sinner (1 Corinthians 6:11).
- Forgiveness is granted by God to the sinner (Romans 4:6-7).
- Righteousness is imputed (credited) by God to the sinner (Romans 10:3-4; Philippians 3:9). The word translated impute in English is the Greek logizomai, meaning “to reckon, impute, credit to one’s account.”
Christ’s role in the atonement includes
- He becomes our ransom sacrifice (Matthew 20:28).
- He dies in our place (1 Peter 3:18).
- He dies for our sins (1 Peter 2:24).
- He reconciles us to God (Romans 5:10).
Because Christ’s atonement accomplishes all this, there is nothing left for us to do. All of our sins are forgiven, atoned for, and covered by Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross. No human effort can add to Christ’s all-sufficiency. As Hebrews 7 reminds us, “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him. . . . who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.”
Justification means accounting the guilty just before God. The New Testament Greek term is dikaioo, to be acquitted, pronounced and treated as righteous. 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Justification is initiated by God’s action, not man’s. Romans 4:5, speaking of Abraham as representative of all mankind, says, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
Faith is not a human work or effort (Ephesians 2:8), but is the divinely prompted heart-response of the individual (Romans 10:9-10) to the gospel (Acts 15:7-11).
Faith and repentance are corollary to salvation, meaning they accompany salvation, but they are not the cause of salvation (Acts 11:18; Acts 5:31).
Sanctification is how the Christian lives his newly justified life. Justification is completed at conversion (Ephesians 2:5); sanctification begins at conversion (Philippians 1:6; Hebrews 10:38-39).
One who has been saved (Ephesians 2:8) produces good works as a result of salvation, not a cause of salvation (Ephesians 4:1, 13). Ephesians 4:23-24 declares, “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness.”
The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is accomplished wholly apart from human effort or work:
- Ephesians 2:8-10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
- Romans 4:4-5: “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
- Titus 3:5: “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit. . . . “
- Galatians 3:21-22: “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
Passages associating works with salvation do not teach that works contribute to or cause salvation. Some of the most common misinterpreted by Mormons and others include
- James 2:14-16: “Faith without works is dead.” This passage does not teach that salvation is accomplished by any human effort, but instead that no one can see one’s faith without works. James uses Abraham as his example, just as Paul did in Romans 4. However, James discusses how one’s actions “justify” him before other men, and Paul discusses justification before God (how one becomes saved).
- Acts 2:37-39: “Be baptized for the remission of sins and be saved.” This passage does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation, but in context it teaches that baptism accompanies salvation, or, as it is sometimes paraphrased to accurately reflect the Greek, “Be baptized on account of the remission of your sins, being saved.”
- John 6:29: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.'” Far from teaching salvation by human effort, this affirms, especially in the Greek, that even our ability to believe in Him comes from the work by God enabling us to believe in Him.
- All of the other verses often misinterpreted as teaching salvation requiring human effort do not actually or contextually support such an interpretation. Instead, the Bible consistently teaches that no one is saved by works, but works are considered in every judgment pictured in the New Testament, as an evidence of salvation or lack of salvation, not as a cause of salvation. As the Old Lutheran phrase goes, “Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.”
The Bible is God’s perfect Word, and it clearly and consistently teaches that salvation is accomplished wholly without human effort. Verses misinterpreted to teach the necessity of human effort in securing salvation actually show that works follow salvation, they do not cause it.
On the basis of the argumentation and biblical evidence presented here, I affirm the resolution: Yes, salvation is accomplished wholly without human effort.