You’ve no doubt heard Christians say that salvation is by grace alone and not by works. What they mean is that the condition of salvation is faith, not obedience. I’ve believed that for as far back as I can remember. I still believe it. But I also believe we are saved by obedience. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s actually true, so allow me to explain.
What is salvation?
I’ll begin by defining the word salvation. Following the second coming of Christ, Christians will be able to claim to be saved, because they will actually be dwelling in God’s eternal kingdom. Obviously, no one can claim salvation in that sense today. When Christians say, “I’m saved,” they typically mean that they are in a right relationship with God and thus have the assurance that if they were to die at that moment they would spend eternity with Him.
This is the kind of salvation that I grew up believing comes by grace alone through faith, and it is a thoroughly biblical idea. Paul wrote that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). And he put it most succinctly in verse 28: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
That’s pretty plain. No amount of good deeds, no amount of law keeping—no amount obedience, if you please—can qualify you and me for acceptance by God or for entrance into His kingdom. So am I contradicting my statement earlier in this article that we are saved by obedience? Not at all!
God’s standard is obedience
It is important to understand that God demands perfect obedience of everyone. It is because we have disobeyed that we need salvation in the first place. The tiniest sin—even if it’s just eating an apple that God said not to eat—will cause us to lose eternal life. And if even one tiny transgression will cause us to be lost, then obviously we can say that God requires obedience. We can even say that He requires obedience as a condition of eternal life, because Adam and Eve’s one sin cost them their eternal life. And God has not changed His requirements since then.
Again, it looks like salvation by grace alone through faith apart from obedience is out the window—but it is not!
Allow me to introduce you to merit—a word that you hear every now and then in Christian circles. Merit, in the theological sense, is the idea that our good deeds are credited to our account in heaven as “points” toward our salvation. It’s true that our good deeds are recorded in heaven (Malachi 3:16), but some people twist this idea to mean that they must do enough good deeds to offset all their bad deeds. This is precisely the kind of salvation by obedience that the Bible condemns!
Some people claim that the good deeds of genuine Christians count as merit toward their salvation, because those deeds were done through the power of God in their lives. But the Bible is very clear that no amount of good deeds on our part—not even those we do through the power of the Holy Spirit—are ever credited to our account for salvation.
The solution to the problem
Then how can I insist that salvation is by obedience?
The question is, Whose obedience am I talking about?
And the answer is, Christ’s, not yours and mine.
It is the obedient life that Christ lived while He was on Earth—and that alone—that can be credited to your account and mine for salvation. His merits, His good deeds, His obedience applied to your record in heaven, will indeed lead to your eternal life.
This concept is thoroughly biblical: “It is because of him [God ],” Paul said, “that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). That sentence is rather long. To put it a bit more succinctly, Paul said that Christ has become our righteousness.
I like the way Ellen White put it: “He [Christ] lived a sinless life. He died for us, and now He offers to take our sins and give us His righteousness. If you give yourself to him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.”
Some people reading this article may feel that their life is too sinful for Christ to accept. But Jesus said, “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37, NKJV).* You cannot commit a sin that is bad enough to exceed God’s willingness to forgive you and credit Christ’s righteousness to your account. When God forgives and credits His righteousness to you, you stand before Him just as though you had not sinned. You’re perfect!
And obedience made it possible. Not yours. Not mine. Christ’s!
Does our obedience count?
A number of years ago I wrote an article for Signs of the Times® on this topic, and a reader wrote me a letter taking strong exception to what I’d said. He claimed that faith and obedience are like Siamese twins: if we separate them, we destroy both. He meant that my statement that our human obedience is not a condition of salvation separates obedience from faith and destroys both.
Perhaps to some extent the problem is a difference in the way my correspondent and I define the word condition. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines condition as “anything called for as a requirement before the performance or completion of something else; . . . [a] prerequisite.” In other words, A is a requirement that must be met in order for B to be completed.
So here is the question: Is obedience a requirement that we must meet before God can save us? Is God sitting up in heaven saying, “As soon as Arnold Wheeler obeys Me (or at least starts to obey Me), I’ll grant him My salvation”?
The answer is no. Obedience is something we do after we have been saved, not what we do in order to be saved. And the reason is quite simple: While true obedience includes our outward deeds, it is not just our outward deeds. True obedience is both the outward deed and the inner motive that prompted it.
A man who refuses to have an affair has obeyed outwardly, but he has not obeyed the way God requires if he harbors sexual lust toward another person in his heart. That’s what Jesus meant when He said that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). True obedience requires that we care enough about our spouses and others that we don’t even want to have an affair.
Obedience from the heart
Now it happens that unconverted people are able to restrain themselves from committing outward acts such as adultery, lying, and stealing, and we are all glad for it. This kind of self-control makes for a well-ordered society. However, we have not obeyed in the biblical sense unless we have experienced the inner transformation we call “conversion” or the “new birth.” The only obedience that is acceptable to God is that which arises out of a converted mind and heart.
And the point is this: salvation has to happen first, and only then is this kind of obedience possible.
Allow me to use an analogy. Let’s say that I’ve spent a hot summer day working in my yard, and at the end of the day I’m all covered with sweat and dirt. So I go inside to take a shower and clean up. But suppose that the condition for getting in the shower in the first place was that I had to be clean. That wouldn’t make sense! The shower is where I get clean, so being clean can’t be a condition for getting in the shower.
I trust that everyone reading this article can agree that in order to be saved a person has to be converted, and conversion, which leads to salvation, is what makes true obedience possible. Unsaved people cannot truly obey God from the heart. Therefore, God can’t require as a condition of salvation that which people can do only after they’ve been saved.
The condition—the basis—of our salvation is faith. The result of our salvation is obedience. Unsaved people can’t obey. Saved people may not be able to obey perfectly, but they will want to obey and they’ll be sorry and ask for forgiveness when they disobey.
And the good news is that Christ’s righteousness covers the sin they just committed, and they stand before God just as if they had not committed that sin.
So the next time you yield to that besetting sin, instead of punishing yourself with guilt and telling yourself that God surely can’t save anyone who’s as bad as you, say this prayer: “God, I confess that I just sinned, but I thank you that Christ’s righteousness covers that sin and I stand perfect in your sight right now.” Of course, you will still want to overcome that sin, so ask God to lead you to victory over that temptation. But you can be assured that Christ’s righteousness covers you every step of the way.
* Bible text marked NKJV is taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.