Is Salvation Conditional?

In the summer of 1925, J. Gresham Machen delivered a series of lectures at the Grove City Bible School in Pennsylvania—lectures that subsequently formed the content of his book What Is Faith? In these lectures, Machen explained the nature of what he believed to be one of the most prevailing religious problems of his day. He wrote, “It is one thing to hold that the ethical principles that Jesus enunciated will solve the problems of society, and quite another thing to come into that intimate, present relation to Him which we call faith; it is one thing to follow the example of Jesus and quite another to trust in Him.”

Machen was confronting the problem of the self-righteous, humanitarian spirit of the age in which he lived. Needless to say, this was not simply a problem of his day; it is a problem in our day as well. In fact, it is a problem in our hearts and minds on a daily basis. The heart of the natural man and woman is deeply self-righteous and self-trusting. Jesus and the Apostles constantly wrestled against the self-righteous spirit of the false teachers of their day, and they warned the early Christians of the danger of embracing a false gospel that seeks to slide good works into our standing before God.

The Scriptures are clear that there are only two possible ways of salvation—one by works and one by grace, one by law-keeping and one by faith. As we noted in the last post in this series, God entered into a covenant with Adam before the fall by which He required perfect, personal, and continual obedience to the law of God. If Adam were to have attained to a secure standing in holiness and blessedness before God, both for himself and his descendants, it would have been based solely on his obedience. At the outset of Scripture, however, we learn that Adam failed to obey in the first test in the garden. The broken covenant of works pronounced covenant curses rather than covenant blessings on Adam and his descendants. Yet, the Lord did not leave all of humanity without hope. God graciously revealed another covenant to our first parents, the covenant of grace, offering a new way of life and blessedness—a way of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in the Redeemer alone.

In the covenant of grace, the legal conditions of the broken covenant of works are still binding on Adam’s descendants. God cannot change; therefore, His demand for the perfect holiness of His image bearers cannot change. The words “If a person does [God’s commandments], he shall live [i.e., attain life] by them” (Lev. 18:5) carry with them all of the legal demands and promises of the covenant of works—now embedded in the covenant of grace in the giving of the law at Sinai. The problem? No mere descendant of Adam can keep the demands of the law. Why? Because all those who descend from Adam by ordinary generation sinned in him and fell with him; thus, they are born dead in sins and trespasses and are under the wrath and curse of God (Eph. 2:1–4). Because of man’s natural condition since the fall, we need a sinless descendant of Adam to keep the demands of the law for us. Jesus Christ, the last Adam, the God-man, does this by living a sinless life—keeping all the precepts of the law of God perfectly for us. Jesus kept the legal conditions of the covenant of grace as the representative of His people.

There are, however, also evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace that must be met if we are to be the recipients of the blessings of the covenant of grace. Seventeenth-century theologians often distinguished between the legal and the evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace. For instance, Francis Turretin explained, “Faith and repentance (which are the conditions of the new covenant) were not enjoined in the first covenant.”1 Turretin was speaking about the covenant of works when he referred to “the first covenant.” He elsewhere explained, “Faith is an evangelical condition after the manner of supernatural grace, terminating on God, the Redeemer.”2 Again, he stated, “In this . . . sense, faith is the sole condition of the covenant because it alone embraces Christ with his benefits.”3 The reason why faith is the leading evangelical condition is that it enables us to lay hold of Christ as Redeemer, and so to receive all the benefits that God has secured for us in Him.

Faith is not mere intellectual assent to the truth of God revealed in Scripture. It is a living and active instrument that enables us to do what is pleasing to God.

To be sure, Scripture mentions other evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace. Repentance, love, obedience, and good works can be counted among the evangelical conditions of the covenant of grace as well. However, the evangelical conditions do not all function in precisely the same way with respect to laying hold of Christ and the benefits of redemption. For instance, according to Scripture and the Reformed confessions, it is faith—rather than repentance, love, obedience, or good works—that functions as the sole instrument of laying hold of Christ and the blessing of justification. In this post, we will briefly consider in more detail what the Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches about saving faith. In the next post, we’ll consider the place of repentance in the Christian life.

Even to speak of faith as a condition is to bring us into murky waters in which we must carefully wade. It is altogether possible to place an inappropriate value on faith—to view it as a work that we do in order to merit the covenant blessings. There are many well-meaning Christians who view the role of faith in the Christian life in the following way: “Jesus did His part for my redemption; now, I must do mine and believe in Him in order to finish what He has begun.” This line of thinking reveals a faulty belief that faith is a work that we do in order to contribute to our salvation.

Instead, the Scriptures teach us that faith is a saving grace—a gift from the God who sent His Son to die for us. When the Jews were disputing with Jesus in John 6, He told them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (v. 29, emphasis added). It is God’s work to create faith in the souls of His people. The Apostle Paul also explained the gracious nature of saving faith when he told the Philippians, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).

Although faith is a gracious gift of God, we must understand that it is still our responsibility to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. While Jesus kept the legal conditions of the covenant of grace for His people, He does not keep the evangelical conditions for them. Jesus does not believe for me. Jesus did trust in His Father throughout His earthly ministry (Isa. 8:18Heb. 2:13) as the last Adam and true Israelite. However, Christ’s faith is not imputed to us. His righteousness (i.e., His law-keeping status) is imputed to those who believe in Him.

So how would you define saving faith if someone were to ask you? The members of the Westminster Assembly supplied us with a helpful definition when they wrote, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2). In Westminster Shorter Catechism, they answered the question, “What is faith in Jesus Christ?” in the following way: “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (WSC 86). Faith, thus, embraces all that God says in His Word. As the Westminster Confession notes,

By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. (WCF 14.2)

Faith is not mere intellectual assent to the truth of God revealed in Scripture. It is a living and active instrument that enables us to do what is pleasing to God. As the writer of Hebrews wrote, “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). A living faith will be evidenced by those other graces (e.g., repentance, obedience, and good works) that always accompany or flow from it. Saving faith does not lay aside the ethical teaching of Scripture. Rather, it embraces the ethical teaching of Scripture and responds appropriately to it by God’s grace. Nevertheless, saving faith only ever does so in relationship to Christ as the Savior of those who have not kept that ethical ideal and as the Lord who works renewing and sanctifying grace into their hearts and lives. It is for this reason that the members of the Westminster Assembly explain that “the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life” (WCF 14.2).

 

  1. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1994), 2:512. ↩︎
  2. Turretin, Institutes, 2:191. ↩︎
  3. Turretin, Institutes, 2:189. ↩︎

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