How Little Grace is Too Much Works?

Not many professing Christians would assert outright that they purchased their salvation. In fact, many would list among their “essentials of the faith” the doctrine of “salvation by grace through faith.” But the tendency of the sin nature to lean toward Pelagianism and its Arminian kin is insidious, and takes more subtle forms. (Q: How do you know you’re saved? A: Well, I’m a good person.)

But if we truly believe that sin has radically corrupted our nature, so that without the prior choosing of God and the Spirit’s washing and regeneration we would willingly choose to continue in our sin rather than turn to God in repentance and faith, then the only sure foundation of our salvation is the sovereign saving and keeping power of almighty God through Jesus Christ.

We don’t talk much of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It’s considered by some as too divisive. We do, however, talk a lot about grace, singing of “Amazing Grace,” “grace that is greater than all our sin,” and saying things like “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Ironically, however, behind any notion of grace lies that old argument-starter – sovereignty in salvation.

Were it not for God’s prior sovereignty in shedding grace on us, our radically corrupted sin nature wouldn’t even reach a hand out to accept God’s gift, much less stumble around looking for it. And Paul was not concerned about being too “divisive” when he confronted Peter – in public, no less (Galatians 2). Peter’s acquiescence to a faction within the believing community (not an unfamiliar situation, to be fair) led to the appearance that he supported a view of the necessity of Gentile circumcision. Paul saw clearly that this was a direct challenge to salvation by grace (through faith).

Some who point to their belief in “salvation by grace through faith”, however, also reject debate about Calvinism, the doctrines of grace, or sovereignty in salvation, claiming that those are peripheral issues about which true Christians can disagree, and which are good for nothing but disrupting unity.

For the purposes of much-maligned argument, however, let’s suppose that the Calvinist believes that God’s sovereignty in salvation carries implications regarding the dichotomy between faith and works as the instrumental cause of salvation. Let us also suppose that the Calvinist believes that the less grace is operative in the process of salvation, the more works is operative (from the human perspective). That is, the more a man claims to have contributed to his salvation, the less room there is for that salvation to have been secured through grace (by God).

Let us further suppose that the Calvinist sincerely holds that the less a man believes that God is sovereign in salvation, the more that man must rely upon some other causal agent to secure his salvation. Since the Calvinist and anti-Calvinist alike would agree that Satan is not in the salvation-securing business, by process of elimination no one is left to procure salvation but man. And, ineluctably, if salvation is secured by human will, it is a false salvation. Those who proclaim it proclaim a false gospel.

One can see, then, that for that Calvinist sovereignty in salvation is not a peripheral issue, about which believers can disagree without consequence, but is instead crucial to salvation: is salvation of man, or is it of God? This is why reformed theology regarding salvation, Calvinism, TULIP, and sovereignty in salvation can all be referred to as “doctrines of grace.” For Paul, circumcision was not a peripheral issue about which culturally diverse believers in an era of transformational religious expectations could disagree. Instead it was a matter of preaching a false gospel. It was about believing a false gospel that could not save because it diminished grace and elevated law (works).

Calvinists might be wrong that God’s sovereignty in salvation presents such an issue. They might be wrong – frequently are – to lose sight of the purpose of accuracy regarding salvation and instead focus on winning arguments. But believing it, they would be heartless, indeed, if they did not attempt to persuade their brothers in Christ.

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