The functions of grace and obedience in the plan of salvation are not clearly defined in the minds of all Christians. Some believe that salvation is given freely, without conditions, to all who believe in Jesus. They say that obedience has nothing to do with salvation. Others believe there are conditions that man must meet before salvation may be received. Still others, doubtful and confused over the issue, have become hesitant or even inactive in Christian service. What do the Scriptures teach?
Salvation has its foundation in the death of Jesus on the cross. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Eph. 2:8-10). Various passages of Scripture support this truth.
Nevertheless, Jesus began His ministry by announcing a coexisting truth. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This aspect of salvation is lifted out many times by both Jesus and the apostles. Those who would be saved are enjoined again and again to repent, believe, and obey. Jesus asked the people of His day, “Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46).
In the plan of salvation, there are things only God can do. Only a divine Savior could make atonement sufficient to cover our sins. Only God could look at the sacrifice made and say, “I will forgive all your sins.” Only He could redeem us from our former lives of sin, put new hearts in us, and give us a new life. When atonement, forgiveness, and redemption meet, salvation is available. No man, by his most heroic efforts, could come even near to that which God did for us through Christ Jesus.
Paul, the apostle, wrote, “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men” (Titus 2:11). Yet many continue on the broad road to destruction (Matt. 7:13). Since Jesus’s death was sufficient to cover all sin, and salvation is available to everyone, why are not all men saved? It is because some refuse to be taught by grace to “live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:12).
Even though the essence of the plan of salvation could be wrought only by God, there is a part He has given to men. Man’s part is commanded by divine authority, and we dare not ignore it. Clearly, forgiveness is not given to humanity in an overall amnesty, but it is given to one individual at a time. Salvation is accomplished in the individual when that person does, by choice and action, the part given to him by God.
We, as individuals, are instructed by the Word of God to acknowledge our sins and to repent of them. This part, given to us, is plainly taught by Jesus and emphasized by the apostles. God will not repent for us. He reveals to us our rebellion, pride, and error, and asks us to turn away from them.
God also asks us to believe. He has given to each of us the ability to believe, but each must choose to exercise that ability. We must decide what and in whom we will believe. To believe in Jesus embodies more than to merely believe that He is, more than to believe that He died for the sins of the world. It is to embrace His teaching and example and to follow them. It is to accept that I, personally, am a sinner and that Jesus is my only hope of salvation.
God asks that we obey Him. “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:9). To obey God means to give earnest attention to His Word, submit to its authority, and do what it says. Obedience to God is much more than a lethargic assent to the validity of the Scriptures. The teachings of the Word should carry for us a deep moral conviction that moves us to action.
Some people say, “Obedience will not save you.” In a sense, this is true. No merit is attained through repentance, faith, and obedience. Salvation is not earned. But will one be saved if he is not obedient to God? The Word gives us no reason to believe this is so. The emphatic tenor of the Word is that God “in flaming fire [will take] vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:8). Even a casual reading of the Scriptures should convince us that God asks obedience of those who would be saved. A careful, honest reading will engrave this truth indelibly on our minds.
In repentance, believing, and obedience, God does not leave us completely on our own. He comes to our aid as we take faltering steps to fulfill our part in the plan of salvation. He strengthens us and gives us direction, showing us the next step to take. Yet we must exercise will, spirit, and self-denial, often at considerable cost to self. We must “strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many…will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24).
An example of God’s grace toward men and what He expects of them is found in Numbers 21:4-9. The children of Israel had sinned against God and against their leader, Moses. Serpents appeared in their camp and began to bite the people. The bite likely brought an intense, burning pain, and many people died from it. God instructed Moses to make a serpent of brass and to raise it on a pole. Then God said, “Every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon [the brazen serpent], shall live.” This indicates that those who refused to look upon the serpent died. God’s grace had provided a remedy for Israel’s sin. Those individuals who left their tents and, in spite of misery and pain, journeyed to the serpent and looked on it were healed.
For all men in every generation, Jesus’s death on the cross has made available atonement, forgiveness, and redemption. This, only God through Jesus could provide. The best, most earnest efforts of man would be of no use if Jesus had not died. And still today, the Word and the Holy Spirit point man to his part: repentance, faith, and obedience.
Messenger of Truth, 2017, No. 10