Clearing Up Misconceptions About Salvation

Title: Clearing Up Misconceptions About Salvation

Text: Romans 3:19, 21-24, 28; 10:9-11

Time: June 21st, 2010

It’s hard to believe but from time to time the gospel, the message of salvation, the means by which we are saved – gets lost among Christians, in churches, in the midst of Christianity. Yes, as hard as it is to believe the gospel of salvation gets lost once in a while, sometimes for short periods of time, sometimes for longer time periods. In fact, I bet some of the people hearing this message right now have lost the true biblical gospel, or some haven’t ever truly heard or believed the biblical gospel because it is lost to them. But how can this be? How could Christianity, how could the church, how could Christians ever really lose the gospel? The answer is that it’s pretty easy to lose the gospel message of salvation by failing to pay careful and close attention to the biblical description of the gospel. The gospel is described or explained most clearly in the New Testament Book of Romans, ironically, not in the books of the New Testament called the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now the true, biblical gospel is found in these books that go by the name “gospel” but the salvation message of the gospel is most fully explained and clarified in the Book of Romans. For example, in a most famous passage the gospel is summarized – “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” Romans 3:19, 21-22. The Apostle Paul is the primary and principle teacher of the gospel of salvation in the Bible, although Peter also teaches it clearly in his writings. The Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John teach it, but leave the Apostle Paul to explaining it fully. It’s hard to imagine that something as important as the gospel message of salvation by faith could be lost, since it’s most definitely the most important topic and teaching of the whole Bible. It’s the primary point of God’s revelation to mankind through the Bible. How could something as important as this be lost? The best answer to that question is that it simply gets buried underneath a lot of other good and important teachings. Consider that fact that the Bible is a big book and teaches a lot of things. There are many things that God has communicated to us through revelation in the Bible – and all of these things are important for us to know. But, unfortunately, it’s easy for the church and Christianity to lose perspective or lose priorities in all its teachings. So then, the most important thing – that is, the gospel message of salvation – tends to get lost from time to time, and needs to be re-found or rediscovered. But someone may say, “Yes, the gospel was lost, but the Reformation found it. Men like Luther and Calvin rediscovered it and reestablished it in the church after it had been lost. So today, it’s no longer lost.” Yes, that’s true, but only a half-truth. The gospel is still lost in much of the Christian church today; it still needs to be rediscovered by many if not most people who call themselves Christians. I’ll explain a few misconceptions concerning the gospel and hopefully keep any of us from ever “losing” the gospel, or, if any of us have never really heard or believed the true gospel, we’ll learn it correctly for the first time. Let’s first examine two popular misconceptions of the gospel, and then close with an explanation of the real gospel as presented in the Bible.

First, there is the misconception that we can be saved by our own personal goodness. Romans 3:23-24, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The biggest misconception about the gospel of salvation or the Christian gospel is that it means that if we put forth an effort to be good we can be saved to eternal life. This is the notion that many or even most Christians think – that we can be saved (“Glory to God, Halleluiah!”) by our trying to follow the will of God sincerely. Talk to the average person in the average church and you’ll most likely run into someone who honestly thinks that salvation hinges upon their trying hard enough to please God. “I’ve lived a pretty good life. I’m not a bad person. I’m not perfect and I haven’t follow God’s law perfectly, but I’ve been pretty good – good enough to get into heaven, probably.” Some people think that it’s important for them to attend church or be a member of a church or at least attend occasionally in order to maintain their right standing with God. They think it’s important for their salvation to maintain a certain level of spiritual or religious piety. Other people are under the false impression that unless they maintain a certain level of goodness – although to what degree or level is usually never clear to them – they run the risk of missing out on heaven. Of course, there is also the common assumption that if a person does something really bad or wrong, like murder or some major crime, they may even go to hell and be separated from God forever. Now these assumptions or beliefs aren’t usually spelled out clearly, but there’s an unspoken understanding among many people that unless one is good – or at least has good intentions to do good – then one runs the risk of missing salvation. For many people, sadly, many Christians even, that is the gospel of salvation, that is the message of the gospel. But these false notions illustrate how easily the true gospel of salvation can be lost either formally or informally, either officially or unofficially. For example, there are two major branches of Christianity – The Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church – who have practically lost the gospel of salvation as expressed in the New Testament. Why is this? Because they’ve come to teach that salvation is dependent upon how good one lives life in respect to God’s law. But as the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans, for example, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law,” Romans 3:28. So if these two large branches of Christianity are confused, is it any wonder that ordinary Christians are confused as well? Now supposedly the Protestant Reformation clarified the gospel enough to reintroduce the biblical teaching of salvation by faith; we assume that churches coming from Protestantism don’t make the mistake as the Catholics and Orthodox do. But that assumption would be false. Even within classic, historic Protestant churches, the gospel has been also lost. Billy Graham, the famous evangelist, made a career of preaching to mostly Protestant Christians the biblical gospel of salvation by faith. Most of his converts came from within the church! The gospel had been lost in many Protestant churches too! And the biggest misconception that there is and ever has been about the gospel of salvation is that it can be gotten through good works; it can’t. But there is another misconception today that is spreading especially within Protestantism. Let me explain.

Second, there is the misconception that we can be saved by saying or doing something. Romans 10:9-11, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Now this misconception comes close to the truth but misses it because of a false linkage between saying or doing something and trusting in the heart by faith. There is the misconception within Protestantism that one only needs to make a “profession of faith” in some public or private context, or walk forward at the invitation of an evangelist, or raise the hand or look up during an evangelistic invitation, or sign a decision card for salvation. To many people, saying or doing something – for example, one of the things mentioned above — is salvation to them. But this is a misconception and confusion of the gospel and salvation. The Apostle Paul teaches that we cannot be saved be any good act, work or deed. We must come to God by faith and trust in the Lord Jesus with our heart for salvation. So then it’s a matter of the heart not of any external act we do that saves us. The verse above is a little confusing because it put “Confess with your mouth” first before “Believe in your heart,” but we all know that what we say or do is merely an expression of what we believe in our heart or think in our mind. Our words and actions express our heart and mind. But the confusion within Protestantism is that saying or professing, “I trust in Jesus for salvation” doesn’t actually save us – that is, unless it truly expresses the intent of our heart. Neither does going forward at an evangelistic rally save us, nor raising our hand during a gospel prayer. These things might be an indication that we have truly believed in our heart for salvation – “Believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart you believe and are justified,” but these things in and of themselves are no guarantee of salvation. And that’s the problem in Protestantism, the misconception of many people, especially among evangelical Christians, that professing faith in Christ, or responding to a gospel invitation once-upon-a-while saves us; it doesn’t. This is painfully apparent when the evangelist goes home and the crusade is over, the vast majority of the people who made “professions of faith” or “decisions for Christ” drift back into their sinful lifestyles. In other words, the vast majority of those who responded in some way to the gospel invitation didn’t really find salvation because their ongoing lives never bear the fruit of salvation. Why? Because they never really believed in their heart, they never had a genuine biblical conversion. So we need to be careful not only about the misconception of salvation by works, but also need to be careful with confusing a visible, outward profession with salvation. Salvation is something that happens in the heart that expresses itself in the visible fruits of salvation – hunger for God’s Word, desire for prayer, interest in church, obedience to God’s law, willingness to confess and repent of sin, and so on. Simply “professing” or “signing up” for salvation doesn’t do it.

Third, the true gospel of salvation comes through placing our trust in Christ alone. Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” The error of the historic Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity is that through the years they lost the gospel through confusing it with moral obedience to God’s law. As a young seminary student studying at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois – a school, by the way, that the famous Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer personally recommended to me in a conversation I had with him in Livonia, Michigan at Ward Presbyterian Church. As a young seminary student I was surprised that two of the three major branches of Christianity (Protestantism being the other major branch), I was surprised that such a mistake could be made! How could one lose the gospel? How could an entire Christian culture lose something as important as the gospel of salvation? How could one read the New Testament, particularly the Book of Romans, and miss the basic message of salvation by faith? To this day, I still can’t understand how a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox theologian – or even a Catholic or Orthodox layperson – can miss the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the gospel of salvation by faith. Here it is again: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” What could be clearer? According to Paul, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” v. 23 and “There is no one righteous, not even on,” v.9. That means no saint, no holy man, no Christian pastor, priest or pope is justified by his own goodness. So then only through faith in Jesus can anyone, the best or worst of humanity, be saved. And this salvation is totally and utterly and wholly apart from any good thing a person did, does or ever will do in this life. That’s what the Apostle means when he says, “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” Apart or separate from good works of any kind. How can the Catholic or Orthodox church continue to teach that salvation is a mixture of God’s grace through Jesus Christ and our continual obedience to the will of God? “Apart from or separate from” means just that – we are saved totally and separate from any good works of our own. Now the confusion probably comes from the fact that if we are truly saved by God’s grace through faith we will bear good fruit, we will produce good works as a natural expression of our salvation. But we aren’t saved by these good works because they only testify to true heart conversion. We have every right to question a person’s salvation if their life doesn’t bear fruit that conversion produces. If they still live the same old sinful lifestyle, if they still are as selfish and self-centered, if they don’t love one bit more, if they have no interest in the Bible or prayer, if they have no desire to attend church for worship, if they care little or nothing about God’s will through obedience – yes, we have every right to question the authenticity of their Christian faith. But if they ever do get saved, if they ever do find salvation, it will be by faith and not by any good works they perform.

Now then, what is your understanding of salvation? Were you believing one of the misconceptions about salvation? Did you hold to salvation by works without even knowing it? If you did, you aren’t alone; lots and lots of people still hold to salvation by works without even knowing it, all the while thinking that it’s the gospel or good news of Christianity. But if you think about it, salvation by works isn’t good news. Nobody can live their life good enough to fully please God. Plus, every time we sin we displease God again, so if we are counting on having more good works than bad works on our record, if we are hoping that balance pleases God we are fooling ourselves. We don’t understand the full depth of sin in our lives. There is clearly an overbalance of sin in all of our lives than good deeds. If you really examine yourself and you fully understand the depth of sin in your life, you’ll never kid yourself into thinking you can accumulate more good than bad. Our sins outweigh our goodness by a long shot. It isn’t even close. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone is our only hope. But, salvation must be a genuine conversion of the heart by faith not just some kind of outward act we do at some point. I’ve talked to people who say they’ve been saved since they were a kid when they went to Bible camp and responded to a gospel invitation and asked Jesus to come into their life. Nothing much ever happened and their life didn’t change much – later they lived totality apart from God, totally selfish and in sin – but they continued to insist that they got saved when they were a kid at Christian camp. I would say that they confused going forward during a gospel invitation with true Christian conversion, because true conversion always produces the fruit of salvation, like a changed heart, an interest in God and an eagerness to read the Bible and to pray, for example. Praying a prayer, signing a card, going forward at a gospel rally, raising one’s hand in response to an evangelist – all these things mean something if the heart was converted by the Holy Spirit, if true conversion took place. If there wasn’t a genuine conversion taking, all the sayings and doings won’t help one bit. Simply bringing someone up front, won’t save them. Lifting one’s hand a million times won’t save anyone. Signing my name to every decision card in sight won’t save me – unless my heart is converted by God in response to my faith and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. So ask yourself this question today – are you truly saved? Have you placed your absolute trust in Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and save you from judgment and hell by his blood on the cross? Have you trusted in Christ alone apart from any and all of your “good” works? Let’s not be confused about the gospel of salvation because it’s the most important thing of all. Let’s make sure we are saved by the true gospel of salvation – by Grace through faith.

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