How do we attain salvation?
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How do we attain salvation and get into Heaven? Is it by ‘being a good person?’ If so, what’s the definition of that? Is it by doing good deeds? If so, how many does it take? Or is faith in Jesus Christ the only element we need? Would an “evil” person, such as a serial murderer for example, get into Heaven if they had faith in Jesus?
How do we attain salvation? Is it good deeds, or faith? Is it both?
Faith is All it Takes!
The short answer is “faith.” It is only by faith in Jesus Christ that we attain our salvation. The bible verses stating this are Ephesians 2:8–9 ... but it would be a crime to quote those and not add in verse 10. So here’s Ephesians 2:8–10 (CEB).
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. (9) It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. (10) Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
And so the full answer is “faith, but don’t forget your good works either! God made you for those!” The reason faith overrides all else is because our faith is premised on the forgiveness of sins and redemption of sinners through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Every sinner, from the most mundane all the way to the most brutal murderers, has the chance to put their faith in Jesus at any time and repent, right up to the last day of their life.
This seems wrong when we think of the most heinous criminals ever known. Some people’s sins are so grievous, so brutal, that our basic human sense of right and wrong makes us feel that these people should go to hell. From our perspective it’s not fair for them to have lived a life of horrible sin, having committed heinous acts against their fellow human beings who were created in God’s image, only to say “sorry” at the very end and return to Jesus in repentance, begging for forgiveness.
But to put it simply, that is a cornerstone tenet of our Christian faith. Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross, dying for our sins. If we honestly confess our sins to Him in genuine repentance, and have faith in Him that He can forgive us, then He will cleanse us and forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). The keywords there being honestly confessing the sins, genuinely repenting for them, and having the faith that Jesus is God and is merciful; He can and will forgive us our sins.
So if we say there are some sins that are too great to be forgiven, that is doubting and denying the power of God, Who is able to do literally anything and has the power and authority to forgive all sins. That is denying the spiritual significance of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
As for the fairness of it all? That’s only an issue from our limited, human perspectives. God’s perspective is eternal and unknowable for us. When it comes to this issue, it isn’t for us to say. Judgment is reserved for God (James 4:12). The words of Isaiah 55:6–9 (CEB) touch on this topic:
Seek the LORD when he can still be found; call him while he is yet near.
(7) Let the wicked abandon their ways
and the sinful their schemes.
Let them return to the LORD so that he may have mercy on them,
to our God, because he is generous with forgiveness.
(8) My plans aren’t your plans,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
(9) Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
and my plans than your plans.
Whether God will or will not forgive some specific person, we just can’t know that. We would have to be there when they get judged to know.
And it’s good news for all of us that faith is all it takes! Although we should be doing good deeds if we’re saved (which I’ll explain below), we don’t need to do good deeds in the hopes of racking up “salvation points,” making sure we have enough to cancel out our sins by the time we meet our Maker.
All of us sin (Romans 3:23) due to our imperfect nature and will still fall into sin even if we’re saved. If we were doing good deeds to earn “salvation points,” what would our “sin scorecard” look like when we finally present it for judgment? That idea is missing the point. We’re not trying to gain a “positive balance” of sins vs. good deeds or anything like that. Our faith alone is what saves us, for God is faithful to those who are faithful to Him, and sins are forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24).
We don’t earn our way to salvation by racking up good deeds; it isn’t something we earn (Ephesians 2:8–9).
If that were the case, someone who spent their life in prison could never attain salvation, for example, because they wouldn’t have time to do enough good deeds. But this is explicitly clarified in Luke 23:43, when one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus repented and asked for his forgiveness. Jesus saved him, saying: “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Again, this promise of forgiveness is central to our faith.
It’s never too late, for anyone, to put faith in Jesus Christ and be saved!
But Good Deeds Ain’t Bad!
But the fact that we’re saved by faith certainly doesn’t mean good deeds are meaningless! If we’re saved, good deeds should naturally follow with that. If we’re going to have the faith to take up our cross and follow Christ, we must try to do things out there in the world that are in line with his teachings, examples, and values. Though we’re restricted by our human limits, we still need to try and live up to the life of Jesus (regardless of whether we’re interacting with other believers or not of course). Otherwise, wouldn’t we just be keeping our faith to ourselves privately, and not sharing it with the rest of the world by performing faithful Christian acts meant to honor Jesus?
The apostle James goes so far as to call faith without good deeds ‘dead’ in James 2:14-17 (CEB):
My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? (15) Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. (16) What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? (17) In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.
Not to mention Ephesians 2:10, which I already quoted above: “Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” It’s God’s plan that we should do good deeds, so if we have Faith in him and His Son Jesus Christ, then we will naturally be getting these good deeds done as we go about living our lives in faith.
Because a person who’s focused on Jesus is focused on the things above rather than on the world (Colossians 3:2), and if they are also being guided by the spirit, then they won’t be thinking of themselves and their own selfish desires (Galatians 5:16). They will be organically producing the nine fruits of the spirit, which are: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23).
When someone is producing the fruits of the spirit, it will usually be apparent. They will speak kindly to others with patience, for example. They will be calm and at peace. When it comes to good deeds, they might, for example, buy a meal for someone they encounter who is begging. This would perhaps be motivated by the love they have for their fellow human being as a beloved child of God, and the empathy they can feel for this person and the pain of their situation (empathy being related to love).
These good deeds that God has planned for us may be big or small. They may only affect one person in a small way. But we can have faith that all our good deeds honor and glorify God, as He planned for us to do them.
And if someone gives nothing to the beggar? That doesn’t put their salvation in question. You can’t know a person’s faith in Jesus from looking at what you see on the outside. But if they’re harsh and nasty to someone who asks them for a dollar, that could possibly bring into question whether they’re guided by the spirit (I say possibly because we can never assume what’s going on with a person, and even the most virtuous people will stumble sometimes).
If they’re habitually harsh and nasty in that situation, that could imply they aren’t walking with Jesus and being guided by the spirit, and therefore are not producing the fruits of the spirit. If they truly were, they would have love for the person begging for money. They might not have anything to give, but they would at least be loving to the person asking.
And if someone isn’t walking with Jesus and being guided by the spirit, then they are focused on themselves, the world, and what they have or want or need. In that case, they will be producing the fruits of the flesh, which are: Sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that (Galatians 5:19–21).
Selfishness is explicitly called out in that list. So if in the above example the person’s refusal to give was motivated not by lack, but by a selfish desire to hold on to what they had, then they are focused on the world rather than Christ and they will therefore be producing the fruits of the flesh (as the flesh is of the world).
This is why, although we don’t earn salvation by racking up “good deed points,” it makes sense that a person who has faith in Jesus Christ will naturally be doing good deeds. It’s not because they’ve already attained salvation by their faith; they know that. But it’s because they are trying to follow Jesus and his example on account of their faith in Him, so they are being guided by the spirit, and thereby producing the nine fruits of the spirit. Good deeds are a natural product of this.
This point of doctrine is very basic and fundamental in Christianity. That’s why it’s so embarrassing to me that I only learned about it recently! For all those years I sat through Catholic masses as a child, this topic never came up. If it ever did, it simply didn’t register because I was just zoned out (Perhaps an argument in favor of not bringing your kids to church?). And I know for sure this topic was never discussed in my family. I literally didn’t even hear of this question of acts vs. faith until the end of last year.
We always have more to learn. It’s good to keep reading up on Christianity to encounter these kinds of topics we might not know. And it’s good to do a full read-through of our bibles each year and start over again the next. Passages we’ve read before can hit us in different ways on each read-through.
It’s good to build a habit of reading the Word on our own and contemplating it for ourselves (that might be the topic of my next article). That way, when we encounter some question of doctrine such as this one, we can form our own opinion, and have it backed by scripture.