Where is salvation's line?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: The Bible says salvation is through faith alone. But it also says saving faith is identified by good works. Where`s the line? If someone misinterprets the Bible their whole life but has a genuine faith that Jesus is their savior, are they saved? If someone is saved, then later in life becomes an atheist, are they saved?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking such an important question. “Where’s the line?” might be “the” question for Evangelicals … because, by such a question, you are asking us to explore the “edges” of our faith — which is great. You see, even though our faith is metaphysical, and a term like “edges” might give the wrong idea about the potential for precision in this venture, it’s still a useful metaphor… since we must cover a lot of ground to talk about it. So, let me define the field we’ll explore today. Towards the East, the land stretches out as it asks, what is the minimum encounter one can have with Jesus Christ that will result in salvation? And towards the West, it stretches out asking, do people lose their salvation when they disavow Christ?  We’ll be playing in all that area in between.

This type of query requires a cumulative response; that is, there is no single answer… and it’s the type of thing we could talk about all day! But for both of our sakes, I’ll limit myself to a brief discussion of five issues… and I beg your patience in advance.

The first issue is that no one knows who else is saved. That’s between God and the person. We who are on the outside of another person’s vertical relationship with God cannot tell   through the agency of fruit inspection (Galatians 5:22-23) if that person has responded to God’s drawing (John 6:44) — to the witness of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-18) — or to the testimony of Jesus Christ (John 5:36) … as to whether they have been born anew as children of God (John 3:5-8). Therefore, we will never know if their particular line (which could be anywhere on the broad plain in question) represents the behavior of a regenerated person.

To further complicate the issue, we have different ideas of what we think a Christian should look like. But note this well: we should hope and pray that every Christian looks like Christ — and this may be true of millions! … but that’s not a deal-breaker. Being “born again” is a state of being, not a state of doing (John 3:3) — and truly saved people mix-in with everybody else. As such, they are all over the behavioral map. So, how can anybody really tell where “the line” should be? It’s at different places for different people… and the unregenerate are drawing lines, too… so we should not expect to discern who’s who or what’s what with any degree of precision.

Second, there is a difference between exploring the technical specifications for salvation and participating in the practical arts of Christian-living and soul-winning. Philosophers and theologians should be the ones to explore such questions as, how “good” of a person can exist… yet who is not saved? How “bad” of a person can exist… yet still be saved? What if Mother Teresa never really found Christ? That would be awkward… I mean… she was the poster-girl for humble service in the name of God. But we know that “good works” are not weighed for entrance to heaven (Titus 3:5) … and we can’t measure the born-again phenomenon directly (John 3:3) … but what if Charlie Manson has a deathbed conversion? That would be wonderful… but that would also be extreme… so why pitch it as normative? I say, let the theoreticians play near the edges of salvation. But I don’t think that it’s safe for the soul-winner over there. Here’s why.

If you are trying to convince someone of something, and you find it necessary to keep qualifying concepts with the word “technically” — you are on the wrong track. Now, it is “technically” true that salvation is easy to access, and it is also technically true that people can become children of God without changing their behavior (John 1:12). But just because this is technically true of the process, there is no reason to turn this into the flagship product.

But (one may counter) … is there any actual harm in doing that? I mean, easy-believism is a good selling point. Shouldn’t we bring them in by any means? Now, I don’t want to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but unless I’m missing something, it seems that he wants disciples, not converts.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you … ” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV, emphasis mine)

I understand that we Evangelicals are under constant pressure to separate salvation from works in order to counter the anti-salvific notion that a person’s charitable deeds will get them into heaven. But to misrepresent what God wants from people after they become his children is spiritual fraud. The Great Commission was not a call to bait-and-switch. It was a call for us to reveal the Christ as the Christ.

I talk about this in more detail in another article. Please check out the following link. It is important to your question but has too many details to paste-in here in toto.


Third, we need to learn from the thief on the cross. Since his was the “leanest” conversion in Scripture, we can see salvation with no attachments.

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” And Jesus said to him,“Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise. ” (Luke 23:42-43, NIV, emphasis mine)

Note that the thief was not baptized… and that he did not take any sacraments or do any good works. Yet Jesus testified that his was a true conversion. So, what happened to this man? Did he respond to this “great deal” — that a person didn’t have to change anything but his mind to be saved … so he said, “Why not!” … and he just hopped-on the Jesus train? Or did he respond to the fullness of Christ? I think the latter… and here’s why. The thief asked to be included in Jesus’ kingdom… and this means he saw him for whom he was — the Christ… and that’s a loaded term.

So, what was true back then is still true today: although easy-salvation is offered by Christ, easy-believism is never in view. The moment of salvation is a sublime instant… and it is indeed as simple as saying “yes.” But the life we live because of that moment is anything but simple. If Jesus is indeed the Christ (as opposed to being the Savior-only), then Christians should look more like disciples and less like mere converts… and there’d be no issues with those lines!

Fourth, we need to learn from the book of James… although we must be a little careful here… because James can sound like he’s promoting a works-based salvation.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14–17, NIV)

James is not preaching works-based salvation. In fact, his is almost the same complaint as yours. Where you are asking, where is the line, James is telling Christians to live in such a way that it looks like they have one. This implies that they had the same problems 2000 years ago that you are observing today: there are plenty of Christians who make no attempt to imitate Christ… while there are plenty of pagans and pseudo-Christians who do!

So, when either we or the people of the world do that fruit inspection thing, the results are ambiguous. We all see plenty of “believers” who live substandard lives… and so much so that we can’t even find their line of salvation/behavior on the reasonable field of play. But at the same time, we see many highly moral pagans and pseudo-believers who out-Christian the Christians. They draw lines, too… and it looks like they have drawn the line for Christ — and who can tell! Jesus can.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

My point from the passage above is that “apparent” salvation does not always equal “true” salvation… and if it takes the perfect judgment of Jesus to sort them out, don’t be too hard on yourself in a world where it is impossible to get it right every time. In fact, Jesus warned us about trying to do that in another parable.

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24–30, NIV)

Fifth, the Christian life is a journey… so give a guy a break. Where we will be tomorrow is not where we are today. Every person is in the “process” of sorting through God’s revelation… and every process requires time. Now, those of us who are saved are going through the additional processes of becoming more Christ-like (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 11:1) … (or at least we should be). But no matter if a person is saved or still seeking, we all — and I mean 100% of us — have continual opportunities to change. Change isn’t always for the good, though… like when a professing Christian turns to atheism… and this is where you have to use the skills from the first two sections: you are only dealing with an apparent deconversion… and not an actual one.

My second point was that the way people behave as purportedly saved persons does not always align with the technical truths of salvation… and one of the technical truths of salvation is that a saved person can’t lose it. So, what are we looking at with these deconversions? The same field that we were looking at originally… that sea of humanity where no one can really know if another person is saved.

With that in place, there are no actual deconversions… although there are events that are “labeled” deconversions. On one side — and particularly in America with children growing up in Christian homes — some people grew up awash in the Christian culture… and swallowed hard rather than rebel while growing up. But they never made that informed decision to follow Christ, so they lost the saving protection of their youth. Now, these people look and smell like real Christians! So when they bail on Christ, it looks like a deconversion… but it’s not. They are abandoning the Christian culture, not its core… they couldn’t. They simply were not in it.

The other category of apparent deconversion is when a truly born again person “leaves the faith” — and here, the example of the prodigal son speaks volumes (Luke 15:11). You see, even during all his riotous living, he never became an un-son. And even with all that water under the bridge — the insults to the father, the inheritance squandered on the wine-women-and-song — the father still welcomed him home. Now, when he was gone, he was “speaking” against his father like an atheist speaks against God — and a snapshot-in-time would reveal a man who was separated from his family. But was he really? Because our lives are movies, not snapshots.

What would you say of a “former Christian” atheist who came back to Christ… that he was unborn… and then got re-born…again? Or would you say that he was on a journey — and praise God… look where he wound up! That’s what we have with the prodigal son.

Let’s move our focus back to the technical (ontological) aspects of sonship for a minute. It really doesn’t matter what the son does or says… his DNA does not change. This is why God used family imagery like being “born again” or becoming “children of God” when speaking of salvation. Salvation is not like being hired to do a job where if we don’t meet our objectives, then we’re fired. It is rather the adoption of sons (Galatians 4:5). It’s just that we don’t always hear those cries of, “Abba, father!”

Here’s another link that makes a more complete case for the eternal security of the believer. That is the linchpin in all our discussions. I pray that all this data has clarified more than it has confused, but the issues are deep and interwoven. God bless you.


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