It is being argued by some prominent evangelicals, who identify themselves as Reformed, that salvation is in two stages. They say that the first stage of salvation is justification by grace alone, through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. In their scheme, however, there is a second stage. This is where things become complicated.
Ball Of Confusion
Many who have read or listened to these teachers have only heard or read them speaking about the first stage of salvation and have assumed (as I did) that they are orthodox. This reading of their doctrine ignores, however, what these teachers are actually saying. It ignores the rest of what they are saying. In their scheme, justification by grace alone, through faith alone is only stage one. There is a stage two. Here is where the problems begin. The proponents of this view speak of “final salvation through works” (see the resource page below). So, in their view, there is an initial salvation and a final salvation. For them, our justification by grace alone, through faith alone, is just the beginning of the story.
This is not a way that the Protestant Reformers spoke about salvation nor is it the way that the Reformed Churches, in their confessions, speak about salvation. Following the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:8–10, they taught and confessed “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God, not from works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Paul there clearly makes faith the instrument of our salvation and contrasts it with works. These are two distinct principles, faith and works (Rom 11:6). Further, Paul knows nothing of two stages of salvation. Paul did not say, “For you are initially saved through faith alone but you will be finally saved through your works. That thought never entered his mind.
The source of this two-stage doctrine of salvation is neither Paul nor the Reformers. It is Rome and some ostensible evangelicals who are dissatisfied with the Reformation account of Scripture. Rome says that we are initially justified through baptism but only finally justified by grace and cooperation with grace, which they call sanctification. In their scheme, we are only as justified as we are sanctified and we are never sufficiently sanctified in this life. Therefore, according to Rome, we are never actually justified in this life. They have formally condemned as presumptuous anyone who says that they are now justified by grace alone, through faith alone.
Some evangelical revisionists have, over the years, adopted and adapted this two-stage scheme and tried to tie that wagon to the Reformation. In so doing, they have created a kind of theological Frankenstein’s monster. Under their view, we are out on bond, provisionally free but awaiting trial. In their scheme, Christ has made it possible for us to be saved but he has not actually accomplished our salvation. We have yet to do our part, which will be part of the instrument of our “final salvation.”
That should satisfy no one who knows his Bible or his Reformed catechism.
Defining Our Terms
To be sure, salvation as the Reformed often use that word includes more than justification. It also includes sanctification and glorification. In other words, we are saved from the wrath to come and we are saved to glorious communion with God in Christ. We may say that justification is God’s sure declaration of the legal righteousness of his people. Sanctification is the gradual and gracious transformation of the believer into the image of Christ. In this life this process is never complete. Glorification is the complete transformation of the believer into the image of Christ. The Reformed churches confess that all of it, justification, sanctification, and glorification is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide).
What Jesus Says
Just yesterday morning my dear friend Bob Godfrey was preaching from Luke chapter 7. Beginning in verse 36 we read that Jesus was invited to the house of Simon the Pharisee (not to be confused with Simon Peter, the disciple). While he was there, as was the custom, reclining to eat with his head toward the table and his feet away, a “sinful” woman (Luke is probably quoting what people said about her and assumes that we understand) enters and begins crying so that she was able to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and then anoint his feet and kiss them. Of course, the Pharisees were scandalized by this. Jesus, however, was scandalized by them. They had not washed his feet. They were shocked that a sinful woman had touched his feet but Jesus said to her: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (v. 50: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε· πορεύου εἰς εἰρήνην).
The sinful woman was not provisionally justified. She was but finally saved. How? Through her works? No. He says, “Your faith has saved you.” She has done nothing. She has said nothing. We know that her salvation is not provisional or temporary. The form of the verb makes that clear. It is an accomplished fact. Jesus does not say that she “will be saved” (if she produces enough works or is sufficiently sanctified). She is saved now.
How? Through faith. How was her faith able to save her? Was it by the inherent power of her faith? Not at all! This is the point of Luke’s comment. She was a “sinful” woman. The virtue of faith is not its holiness or power. The virtue of faith is that it looks to Christ. Her faith was not powerful except that it trusts and puts all confidence in Jesus. She knew what she was and she knew what and who Jesus is. The Pharisees did not know who Jesus was but she did. She knew the Savior when she saw him, even if the Pharisees did not.
How can we be sure that she was saved finally? Jesus says, “ Go in peace.” He did not say “go in hope you might be saved in future” but go, now, in peace now. He could say that because, through faith she had received him who is our peace with God. Paul puts it this way: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).
Our justification now is not provisional, contingent upon our future performance nor our future sanctification. Salvation—all of it—is full and free and it is through faith alone. Her faith saved her because her faith looked to Jesus who saves needy, helpless sinners.