To properly address this question, three specific pieces need to be examined. What are people saved from? What are people saved to? What are people saved by? Grace and works will be addressed in each portion.
What does salvation save people from?
Another way to phrase this question is to ask why people need to be saved at all. According to the Bible, the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) That brings up two very important concepts: sin and death. Sin can be defined as imperfections, assaults on holiness or mistakes. As such, all people have sinned in either thought or action. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve made the mistake of thinking a piece of fruit could make them like God. That was an assault on His holiness.
As punishment, death entered Creation. While God did not take their lives immediately, He did take the life of a beast to cover their nakedness. That is the first physical death in the Bible. Before sin, God walked among Creation with Adam and Eve. Once they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve knew the difference between good and evil. They recognized themselves as evil (“I was ashamed because I was naked so I hid.” Genesis 3:10) and God as good.
After God doles out the punishment to Adam, Eve and all of Creation, the wedge in the relationship between created and Creator continues to grow. God no longer walks with them. His holiness cannot abide by their insubordination. This is spiritual death.
What do sinners need to be saved from?
- Themselves and a propensity to sin
- Spiritual death that results from separation from their Creator
Is such salvation the result of works or grace? If by works (i.e. human effort), then there was something Adam and Eve could have done to erase their sin. The fig leaves they used to cover themselves would have been sufficient clothing. They could have done something to allow God’s holiness to not be offended by their sinfulness. Ultimately, they would have been able to stop sinning.
The propensity for human sin did not subside. One of their sons killed the other, only one generation removed from the original sin. God’s holiness remained distinct and apart from their wretchedness. The sin was not erased. What they knew now they could not un-know.
Figleaves were insufficient garments, so God made them clothes from the skins of animals. That is an act of grace. God provided for Adam and Eve even though they neither earned the provision nor deserved it.
That’s the definition of grace: undeserved or unmerited favor.
What are people saved to?
Any time someone is rescued, they are saved from danger to refuge, from terminal to remission, from death to life. If people were saved from the spiritual death that results from separation from their Creator, then it would follow that they must be saved to spiritual life that restores their relationship with the Creator. If they are saved from a propensity to sin, they are saved to a propensity for righteousness.
How is this possible?
In the previous section, it was determined that humanity has a propensity to sin that cannot be eluded. If people are to be saved to righteousness, it will not be by their own doing. They have already proven, left to their own devices, they will make cosmic mistakes.
Grace must intervene because the human effort is faulty.
What are people saved by?
The one thing that does more to distinguish Christianity from all other religions in the world is grace. Other religions have paths, penance and self-denial to appease a higher power. All fall under the category of works, depending on human effort to be successful. According to the prophet Isaiah, human attempts at holiness are like soiled menstrual cloths in the eyes of a holy God. (Isaiah 64:6)
Grace recognizes the weakness of humanity, the helplessness in regards to holiness. By very definition, it is not earned. Grace is a gift. (Romans 6:23) According to the Bible, everyone sins and falls short of holiness. (Romans 3:23)
Reconciliation between the created and the Creator, therefore, is a gift that must be given rather than an achievement that must be earned. The apostle Paul explained it to the Corinthian church this way:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19a ESV)
People can be saved by grace because Christ did everything necessary to bring about reconciliation. He was sinless. He took the punishment humanity deserved. On the cross, He declared, “It is finished” indicating the work of reconciliation was complete.
Consider these other statements Paul made in different letters to churches and individuals:
- “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:4-9)
- “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law [read: works], then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)
- “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)
- “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)
Receiving grace may lead to good works, but salvation by grace cannot be earned through works. This distinction is what led to Martin Luther starting the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.