Can a person be saved who holds a wrong view of salvation?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Are there people who are saved… even though they believe they must add works to faith to get in heaven? I understand salvation to be through Christ alone. If this is true, how could people who believe otherwise be saved?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking such an important question about salvation — and your question tells me that you understand salvation correctly. You believe that salvation requires faith — but faith in Jesus Christ alone — and that this faith is apart from works, as taught by the Apostle Paul.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9, NIV)

A saved person is often said to be “in Christ” … but a person cannot be in Christ unless Christ is in him. These verses tell us how that occurs. The first thing to notice is that God the Father acts proactively in our salvation. He draws us to Christ before we know what is happening.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:44, NIV)

We say “yes” to God’s drawing by receiving Jesus Christ as God’s gift… not as a list of things to do. This is how we become children of God.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV)

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—” (John 1:12, NIV)

But ultimately, we rely on the Holy Spirit to verify that we have a connection with the Father.

“Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:6, NIV)

I use these four conditions to test a person’s salvation — but my little test has two fundamental flaws: First, no one can really know who else is saved. Second, of the saved, it’s difficult to understand how all that happened. Salvation is personal… and it is personally complex… but soul-winners want to stay true to the Bible without making the Gospel unnecessarily complex — and this where we get soul-winning methodology.

But soul-winning methodology can be different from soul-winning reality in a number of ways — and one of these ways is knowledge. There is a lot to know about the Bible and about how God does things. So, there may be a disconnect between what really happened to a person at salvation and their knowledge of what happened at salvation. As such, a person can be truly saved while misunderstanding some technical aspects of their salvation.

Let’s say that a person “got saved” while listening to an evangelical sermon. He had the witness of the Holy Spirit and had begun to read the Bible and pray. But he wrongly assumed that he has to perform good works to maintain his salvation… and we know this is not true for that person… because this is not true of salvation. But is he saved? Yes! … and he will he remain saved without further maintenance. You see, salvation cannot be undone… even to the person who thinks it can be undone.

This is only one of the countless scenarios where a person can misunderstand even an important doctrine and still be saved. We’ll need to qualify this a bit, though.

First, no one on earth understands the doctrine of salvation fully. Only God does… although some people understand it better than other people. But a person does not have to know what a theologian knows about salvation to be saved. He needs only know the critical parts — about sin, our inability to pay for our sin, and Jesus’ provision for that sin. People can get through the salvific moment without the understanding that they are eternally secure as Christians… and that no subsequent works are required for maintenance.

Second, there is a difference between knowing the wrong things about salvation after you are in Christ and knowing the wrong things about salvation as you enter Christ. If a soul-winner presents a Christ-plus-works package to a sinner — and that sinner receives Christ on the understanding that he has to add works to his salvation — then he is not saved, because he would not be receiving the biblical Christ. Jesus doesn’t need any help to save us… and insisting that he does undoes the cross!

But if a person were legitimately saved — and then later came to misunderstand how his salvation worked — he would still be saved. And as you can see, “how” and “where” a person came to know a wrong thing can be more critical than knowing the wrong thing itself.

Third, there is a difference between the logic of knowing the wrong things and the actual damage that might cause… and here’s what I mean. In a technical sense, when you add a wrong answer to a right answer, that makes the right answer wrong… as anyone who has misapplied the “AND” function soon realizes. Fortunately… and although it behooves us to understand and apply logic in our everyday lives… life is more forgiving than a programming language. Here’s an example.

Although it is not correct to say that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation — AND — that a person must do good works to obtain and maintain salvation (… and this would be a disastrous way to approach a soul-winning moment), a person who is already in Christ would not become “unsaved” if they started believing this. The big danger here is that they — as true Christians — would be painting a false picture of Christ for others to view… and this is no small problem. But it is not a deal-breaker for the person who had arrived at Christ “honestly.”

In closing, let me say that my answer to your question is yes — there are people who believe that salvation requires some type of work beyond Jesus’ work at the cross… and who are still legitimately saved? But this is because they didn’t operate under that assumption during their moment of salvation. We can correct their misunderstanding with education… but we do not want to over-correct here. Even though we love Ephesians 2:8-9 for the way it strips works away from salvation, we must always remember to add in verse 10. But we should add it where it belongs: after salvation… and never before.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

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