As Bible history indicates, some of God’s covenants are conditional and some unconditional. The Covenant of Works is a conditional covenant. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes this covenant as one “wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (VII.2). That is, eternal life was promised to Adam and all his descendants if they obeyed God.
Regrettably, Adam failed in his responsibilities and broke the Covenant of Works. Satan, in the form of a serpent, deceived Adam’s wife, Eve, into disobeying God with this lie: “You will not certainly die. . . . For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5). Enticed by this proposition, Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Adam, who obviously decided to make his own rules rather than obey God’s, followed his wife in sinning, and they both fell from their state of innocence.
The consequences for Adam failing in his duty to obey God were quite severe. Adam and Eve, along with all of their descendants, lost their fellowship with God, their pure nature, and their garden home. Mankind was set on course to increase their commission of evil as time progressed. Adam and Eve’s firstborn son committed murder (Genesis 4:8), and before long “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
In mankind’s fallen condition, a Covenant of Works had only the ability to bring misery and punishment upon people. Since the reward for mankind, under the covenant of Eden, was determined by their behavior, they could only reap negative consequences. Mankind was in dire need of redemption that would bring his account out of a negative status. Mankind needed rescue from punishment, and that’s exactly what God provided after the Covenant of Works was broken.
After the fall, before Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), an action that implies the shedding of an animal’s blood. At the same time, God made a second, unconditional promise of redemption with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:14–24), which also contains the first prophecy of Christ’s coming, with hints of the gospel (verse 15).
What mankind needed was redemption from their hopeless condition. Jesus Christ came and obeyed the Covenant of Works perfectly in our stead, filling man’s account with good deeds. He was able to do this because He is God in human flesh and had not inherited a sin nature from Adam. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). The product of Christ’s work becomes anyone’s possession who accepts Christ in the New Covenant, which is a covenant of grace and redemption. “And since Christ met the condition of the covenant of works, man can now reap the fruit of the original agreement by faith in Jesus Christ” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, First Banner of Truth, 1958, page 214).
Theologians sometimes refer to Christ’s work in two parts: His active and passive obedience. His obedience was active in the sense that His actions conformed to God’s will. This active obedience, which consisted of His miracles, obedience to God’s Spirit, and good works, stands in substitute for an entire life of disobedience. Christ’s passive obedience is seen in His choice to yield to God and receive mankind’s punishment upon Himself. The passive obedience of Christ is sufficient to pay for all sinful lives, no matter how much sin has been committed. Christ met the terms of the Covenant of Works and exonerated all who will believe in Him.
While the Abrahamic Covenant continues and has not yet been completely fulfilled (even to this day), God changed course with His chosen people Israel at Mt. Sinai. God added the Law, and with it a new dispensation, which had a beginning and an ending (Romans 10:4).
The fifth dispensation is that of Law--Exodus 19:5 to John 19:30.
Stewards: Moses and the children of Israel as a nation at Mt. Sinai
The Period: from Mt. Sinai until Christ Jesus fulfilled the Law with His death
Responsibility: Keep the whole Law (Exodus 19:3-8)
Failure: The Law was broken (2 Kings 17:7-20)
Judgment: Worldwide dispersion (Deuteronomy 28:63-66; Luke 21:20-24)
Grace: The promised Savior is sent (Isaiah 9:6-7; Galatians 4:4-5)
Israel was never to be saved by keeping the Law (Romans 3:20). The Law was meant to govern their earthly lives, to define sin, and to point to the coming Savior. Neither did the Law change the provisions of the Abrahamic Covenant.
The dispensation of Law is named after the Mosaic Law, called a “covenant” in Exodus 24:7-8; Deuteronomy 4:13; and Galatians 3:19. It was God’s only conditional covenant with Israel in that blessing and success depended upon the people’s obedience to the Law (Exodus 19:5). It did not take long for the Law to be broken, as proved by the golden calf in Exodus 32.
The Law was also a temporary covenant to be made null and void by the institution of the New Covenant(Jeremiah 31:32; Hebrews 8:13; 10:9). The Law was added “because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Galatians 3:19).
It is important to note that the Law of Moses was given only for the nation of Israel (Exodus 19:3-8; Deuteronomy 5:1-3; 4:8). Jesus made it clear that it was given to Israel and not the Gentiles (Mark 12:29-30). The apostle Paul said the Law was given to Israel and not the Church (Romans 2:14; 9:4-5; Ephesians 2:11-12). The dispensation of Law is over.
How unfortunate that Israel misinterpreted the purpose of the Law and sought a righteousness by good deeds and ceremonial ordinances rather than by God’s grace (Romans 9:31—10:3; Acts 15:1)! Because they were focused on attaining their own holiness, they rejected their Messiah (John 1:11).
Israel’s history from Mt. Sinai to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 was one long record of violating God’s Law. However, the Law was still fulfilled, as Jesus states, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Because of Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of the Law, we are saved through Him: “A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
In the dispensation of Innocence, God worked face to face with His highest creation, made in His own image. After the fall of Adam and Eve, mankind was no longer innocent, and God appealed to humans to use their divinely implanted consciences to do right. That brought in the second dispensation (Conscience), which lasted for about 1,600 years until God could tolerate the sin no more and brought a flood to destroy all but eight persons—a remnant to continue His sovereign plan for mankind. During the dispensation of Human Government, civil authority was established to govern society, but again, mankind rebelled—this time, at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4). After God dispersed the people, He created the nation of Israel from Abraham and his descendants (the dispensation of Promise). After God had created the Hebrew people, He gave them the Law through Moses (the dispensation of Law). God’s people consistently broke the commandments, but the Law was finally fulfilled in Christ. The Lord then established the dispensation of Grace. God’s unmerited favor would finally allow His chosen people (believing Jews and Gentiles) to have lasting fellowship with Him.
Grace is the sixth dispensation (John 19:31 to Revelation 3:22).
Stewards: The church. All believers are ministers of their spiritual fruit and a “holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9)
The Period: From the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), a period of nearly 2,000 years and counting
Responsibility: To be perfected by sanctification; to love one another; to exhibit ever-increasing godliness (1 Thessalonians 4:3; 2 John 1:5)
Failure: A lack of maturity; worldliness; many churches falling into apostasy (Galatians 5:4; 2 Timothy 3:1-5)
Judgment: The blindness of apostasy and false doctrine (2 Thessalonians 2:3; 2 Timothy 4:3)
Grace: Forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus (1 John 1:3-7; John 14:20)
This dispensation of Grace is often referred to as the Church Age because it is during this era that Jesus is building His Church (Matthew 16:18). It began at Pentecost (Acts 2) and will end when all who are born again by the baptism of the Holy Spirit are raptured out of this world to be with Jesus Himself (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The Church is mentioned again in Revelation 19 as returning to earth with the Lord Jesus at His Second Coming.
Grace is God’s benevolence to the undeserving. Grace is the rule of life for the Church, and through the Church God’s grace is extended to the whole world, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is taken to the ends of the earth. It has been said that grace saved us (Ephesians 2:8-9), it supports us (Romans 5:2), it teaches us (Titus 2:11-12), and it disciplines us (1 Corinthians 11:28-32; Hebrews 12:5-11). With the Holy Spirit indwelling His Church, we are able to walk with the Lord and live as He intends (Philippians 2:13; Ephesians 2:10; 5:17-18; Philippians 1:6; 4:13; Romans 8:14). It is not heaven yet, and it is far short of perfection, but as the Church is being sanctified, it provides a little taste of heaven on earth (Ephesians 2:21-22).
Dispensationalists see that God has worked with different people in different times in different manners. Usually, seven dispensations are identified: Innocence, Conscience, Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and Millennial Kingdom. Each dispensation reveals a six-fold pattern involving the stewards of the dispensation, their responsibility, a specific period of time, a failure, the resulting judgment, and God’s grace.
The second dispensation is that of Conscience--Genesis 3:23 to 8:19.
Stewards: Cain and Seth and their families
The Period: From man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden until the Flood, a period of about 1,656 years
Responsibility: To do good and offer blood sacrifices (Genesis 3:7, 22; 4:4)
Failure: Wickedness (Genesis 6:5-6, 11, 12)
Judgment: The worldwide Flood (Genesis 6:7, 13; 7:11-14)
Grace: Noah and his family are saved (Genesis 6:8-9; 7:1; 8:1)
During the dispensation of Conscience, mankind only became worse and worse. Guided by conscience, man was supposed to choose to do good and approach God by means of a blood sacrifice (Genesis 4:4). It was during this time that the first death occurred, when Cain slew his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8). God had accepted Abel’s animal sacrifice but not Cain’s grain sacrifice. Before the murder, God warned Cain of impending sin and told him that he could still choose to do well (Genesis 4:6-7). Cain had the opportunity to bring a proper sacrifice, after he saw what pleased God. But Cain let jealousy cloud his eyes. Cain demanded that God be pleased with his own efforts and refused to follow God’s plan. This kind of thinking still plagues mankind today, as people attempt to approach God on their own terms rather than on God’s terms.
Mankind violated his conscience and failed in his responsibility to choose to do right. Apparently, God wanted man to discover that he could not let his conscience be his only guide. Conscience proved to be a very poor guide, indeed. Out of all that lived in this dispensation, only Abel, Enoch, and Noah were called righteous (Hebrews 11:2-7; Genesis 5:22-24; 6:8-9). Genesis 6:5 states, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” The Lord’s solution was to destroy man from the face of the earth, along with all land-dwelling animals (verse 7). “But Noah found favor [grace] in the eyes of the LORD” (verse 8).
Noah warned his contemporaries for 120 years as he built the ark and as the LORD showed His great patience. God as the righteous Judge must deal with sin, and judgment was often quick and severe in the Old Testament. His judgment then—and His grace within that judgment—should inform us today. “For if God . . . did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (2 Peter 2:4, 9). The heathen today are under the same responsibility as mankind was from the Fall to the Flood, with their “conscience bearing witness” (Romans 2:15).
God extended grace to Noah and his family and gave instructions to build the ark and established His covenantwith them (Genesis 6:14-22). God saved eight people and brought them forth into a new dispensation (Genesis 7:1; 8:1; Hebrews 11:7). The apostle Peter uses God’s grace to Noah as an illustration of God’s grace today to us who are saved by faith. Just as Noah and his family were “brought safely through the water,” we are saved by the baptism of the Holy Spirit—“not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:19-21).
When the Bible speaks of “the law,” it refers to the detailed standard God gave to Moses, beginning in Exodus 20with the Ten Commandments. God’s Law explained His requirements for a holy people and included three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral laws. The Law was given to separate God’s people from the evil nations around them and to define sin (Ezra 10:11; Romans 5:13; 7:7). The Law also clearly demonstrated that no human being could purify himself enough to please God—i.e., the Law revealed our need for a Savior.
By New Testament times, the religious leaders had hijacked the Law and added to it their own rules and traditions (Mark 7:7–9). While the Law itself was good, it was weak in that it lacked the power to change a sinful heart (Romans 8:3). Keeping the Law, as interpreted by the Pharisees, had become an oppressive and overwhelming burden (Luke 11:46).
It was into this legalistic climate that Jesus came, and conflict with the hypocritical arbiters of the Law was inevitable. But Jesus, the Lawgiver, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Law was not evil. It served as a mirror to reveal the condition of a person’s heart (Romans 7:7). John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Jesus embodied the perfect balance between grace and the Law (John 1:14).
God has always been full of grace (Psalm 116:5; Joel 2:13), and people have always been saved by faith in God (Genesis 15:6). God did not change between the Old and New Testaments (Numbers 23:19; Psalm 55:19). The same God who gave the Law also gave Jesus (John 3:16). His grace was demonstrated through the Law by providing the sacrificial system to cover sin. Jesus was born “under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and became the final sacrifice to bring the Law to fulfillment and establish the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Now, everyone who comes to God through Christ is declared righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:15).
The conflict between Jesus and the self-righteous arose immediately. Many who had lived for so long under the Pharisees’ oppressive system eagerly embraced the mercy of Christ and the freedom He offered (Mark 2:15). Some, however, saw this new demonstration of grace as dangerous: what would keep a person from casting off all moral restraint? Paul dealt with this issue in Romans 6: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (verses 1—2). Paul clarified what Jesus had taught: the Law shows us what God wants (holiness), and grace gives us the desire and power to be holy. Rather than trust in the Law to save us, we trust in Christ. We are freed from the Law’s bondage by His once-for-all sacrifice (Romans 7:6; 1 Peter 3:18).
There is no conflict between grace and the Law, properly understood. Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf and offers the power of the Holy Spirit, who motivates a regenerated heart to live in obedience to Him (Matthew 3:8; Acts 1:8; 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:14). James 2:26 says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” A grace that has the power to save also has the power to motivate a sinful heart toward godliness. Where there is no impulse to be godly, there is no saving faith.
We are saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). The keeping of the Law cannot save anyone (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). In fact, those who claim righteousness on the basis of their keeping of the Law only thinkthey’re keeping the Law; this was one of Jesus’ main points in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20–48; see also Luke 18:18–23).
The purpose of the Law was, basically, to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Once we are saved, God desires to glorify Himself through our good works (Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, good works follow salvation; they do not precede it.
Conflict between “grace” and the “Law” can arise when someone 1) misunderstands the purpose of the Law; 2) redefines grace as something other than “God’s benevolence on the undeserving” (see Romans 11:6); 3) tries to earn his own salvation or “supplement” Christ’s sacrifice; 4) follows the error of the Pharisees in tacking manmade rituals and traditions onto his doctrine; or 5) fails to focus on the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
When the Holy Spirit guides our search of Scripture, we can “study to show ourselves approved unto God” (2 Timothy 2:15) and discover the beauty of a grace that produces good works.
Ephesians 2:8–9 makes it clear that we are not saved by good works. In fact, before we are saved, our works are done in the flesh and cannot please God; even our most “righteous” deeds fall far short of God’s glory (see Romans 3:20 and Isaiah 64:6). We can be saved only because God is gracious and merciful and has designed a way for us to be declared righteous when we are not (Psalm 86:5; Ephesians 2:4). When Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), we inherited His righteousness. Salvation is a divine exchange: our tattered rags of self-effort for the perfection of Christ. Because His death and resurrection paid the price for our evil deeds, we can be declared perfect before God (Romans 5:1). We are told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” like a flawless garment (Romans 13:14).
At salvation, the Holy Spirit moves into the repentant heart (Acts 2:38). Self is no longer the uncontested lord of our lives. Jesus is now the boss. That’s what it means to say that Jesus is “Lord” (Romans 10:9; Colossians 2:6). We were once headed south; we are now headed north. Everything is changed. We begin to view life from God’s perspective, not our own—as John Newton wrote, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
The sins we once committed without thought now bring conviction. To know God is to see sin the way He sees it: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (1 John 3:9). In other words, the believer will see a decreasing pattern of sin in his or her life. Believers may still sin, but they will not continue practicing sin as a way of life. There will be a difference between the old life without Christ and the new life in Christ. The born-again Christian produces “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Salvation enables us to live “in the Spirit” and so truly perform good works (Galatians 5:16).
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God’s goal in saving us was not only to rescue us from hell, but also that we would reflect His character and goodness to the world. God delights to see us becoming more like His Son (Romans 8:29). We were created in God’s image. Sin marred that image. When God bought us back for Himself, it was to restore His image in us and free us to become all we were created to be. When the Holy Spirit comes to live inside us, He prompts us to do things that glorify God (John 14:26). Our desire to please God grows as our understanding of Him grows. That desire to please God results in good works.
It is biblically inconsistent to say that someone has been saved but has not changed. Many people go through the outward motions of giving their lives to Christ, but no lifestyle change follows. That is not real salvation but is a “dead” faith (James 2:26). When you walk into a dark room and flip the switch, you expect light. If no light appears, you rightly assume something is wrong. It would be logically inconsistent to say that the light is on when the room is still pitch black. Light naturally dispels darkness. When a dark heart receives the light of salvation, it is illuminated (John 12:46). Priorities change. Desires change. Outlook changes. Life is seen clearly for the first time. If the darkness of sin continues, we can rightly assume no light came on.
To use another biblical analogy, God wants to produce fruit in our lives (see Galatians 5:22–23). He is the Vinedresser, Jesus is the Vine, and we are the branches. The branches are naturally attached to the vine; from the vine they get their support, their ability to produce fruit, and their very life. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (John 15:5). That is the purpose of the vineyard—to produce “much fruit.” Good works follow salvation.
So, although we cannot be saved by our good works, when we are saved, we will produce good works. Just as a baby will grow after birth, so a believer will grow after the new birth. We grow at different rates and in different ways, but a live birth results in growth. If a baby never grows, there is something very wrong. No one expects a baby to stay a baby forever. As he grows, the child begins to look more and more like his parents. In the same way, after salvation, we grow, and we begin to look more and more like our Heavenly Father. This is only possible as we “abide in Him” and allow Him to reproduce His character in us (John 15:4).
Good works do not produce salvation. Good works are the product of salvation. Jesus said to His followers, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
The term “cheap grace” can be traced back to a book written by German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937. In that book, Bonhoeffer defined “cheap grace” as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Notice what is emphasized in Bonhoeffer’s definition of cheap grace and what is de-emphasized. The emphasis is on the benefits of Christianity without the costs involved; hence, the adjective cheap to describe it.
A similar debate regarding cheap grace erupted in the 1980s and 1990s in the Lordship Salvation controversy. The controversy began when pastor and theologian John MacArthur objected to a teaching that was becoming popular in evangelical circles called “carnal Christianity.” The reference is to a statement that the apostle Paul made in his first letter to the church at Corinth: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). The phrase “of the flesh” is the Greek word sarkinos, meaning “flesh.” The word carnal comes from the Latin word for “flesh.” In the New Testament, flesh can simply mean “skin, flesh, body.” However, Paul often uses it to speak of our sinful nature—that unredeemed part of man with whom the new man in Christ must battle daily (Romans 7; 1 Corinthians 3:1-3; 2 Corinthians 10:2; Galatians 5:16-19).
The idea of carnal Christianity essentially teaches that as long as one makes a profession of faith in Christ, he or she is saved (Romans 10:9), even if there is no immediate obedience to the commands of Jesus and the apostles to live a life of holiness. It is the idea that we can have Jesus as Savior, but not necessarily as Lord. People who advocate for carnal Christianity, or “free grace” as it’s often called, do not deny the necessity of good works (i.e., holy living) for sanctification, but they distinguish the call for salvation from the call to sanctification (or discipleship).
There are many Scripture passages that free grace advocates use to support their position. It is not necessary to cite them all, but two of the most popular and forceful passages are John 3:16 and Romans 10:9.
• For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
• Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Clearly, these passages, and others, teach that the one who believes in Jesus Christ “has eternal life” and “will be saved.” There is no disputing this. However, what people like John MacArthur and others were objecting to is not that salvation and eternal life are free gifts of God’s grace, but rather the teaching that the call to salvation does not also include a call to repentance and holy living. In other words, they were objecting that the doctrine of free grace was becoming a doctrine of cheap grace. What the proponents of Lordship Salvation assert is that salvation is a call to discipleship, that one cannot have Jesus as Savior without also acknowledging Him as Lord.
The New Testament uses the word for “Lord” (kurios) 748 times, and 667 of those times it is used in reference to God or Jesus (e.g., “Jesus Christ our Lord,” Romans 1:4). In contrast, the New Testament uses the word for “savior” (soter) only 24 times. It seems clear that the emphasis in the New Testament is on Jesus Christ as Lord, not as Savior. Now in saying that, it is not meant to downplay or denigrate the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. What a glorious and gracious provision God has made for His people in providing Jesus Christ as our atoning sacrifice who thereby guarantees salvation and eternal life for those who believe in Him. Jesus Christ is most certainly our Savior, but this cannot be separated from the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, and as Lord, He commands and we obey.
Jesus, in His Great Commission to the 11 remaining disciples, commanded them to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them (Matthew 28:19-20). Evangelism and discipleship go hand in hand. A disciple is one who observes (keeps, obeys) all that Jesus has commanded. There is no two-stage process in Christianity—first, be saved; then become a disciple. This arbitrary distinction is foreign to the New Testament and therefore foreign to Christianity.
To play off the title of Bonhoeffer’s book, let’s look at what Jesus said to His disciples about discipleship in Luke 14:25-33. In that passage, Jesus says to the crowds that no one can be His disciple unless they first hate their family (v. 26). Furthermore, the one who cannot bear his own cross cannot be His disciple (v. 27). Two conditions are given by Jesus in order to be His disciple. The first is to be willing to renounce family in order to follow Jesus. The second is to be willing to die, both literally and metaphorically (“die to self”) in order to follow Jesus. Jesus then gives two examples of “counting the cost.” The first is an example of a man who desires to build a tower without first counting the cost of building the tower. After realizing he cannot complete it, he gives up in shame and embarrassment. The second is that of a king preparing to go to battle and making sure he can defend against the superior foe. The point Jesus is making is that discipleship has a cost.
Furthermore, discipleship requires repentance and obedience. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the message He preached was a message of repentance (Matthew 4:17). The message of the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was also one of repentance (Acts 2:38). Along with repentance comes obedience. Jesus told a crowd of listeners that salvation and obedience go hand in hand: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). Jesus then goes on to differentiate the one who builds his house on the sand from the one who builds his house on the rock, that is, the man who not only hears the words of Jesus, but does them, too.
Cheap grace seeks to hide the cost of discipleship from people. It seeks to claim that as long as we make a profession of faith, we are saved. God’s grace covers all our sins. Again, that is a wonderful truth! The apostle Paul says as much when he writes, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21). Yet, right after writing that, Paul follows it with this: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2). Salvation by grace alone through faith alone is so much more than simply mouthing the words “Jesus is Lord.” We are not saved by a profession of faith. We are not saved by praying the Sinner’s Prayer. We are not saved by signing a card or walking an aisle. We are saved by a living and active faith (James 2:14-26), a faith that manifests itself in repentance, obedience and love of God and our neighbor. Salvation is not a transaction; it’s a transformation. Paul says it best when he says we are “new creations” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). There is nothing “cheap” about grace!
Decisional regeneration, sometimes referred to as decision theology, is the belief that a person must make a decision for Christ, consciously accepting Him as Savior, in order to be saved. According to decision theology, the new birth occurs when someone 1) hears the gospel, 2) is convicted of the truth of the gospel, 3) understands the need for salvation, and 4) chooses to accept Christ rather than reject Him. Often, the decision to accept Christ is marked by an action such as walking an aisle, praying a "sinner’s prayer," signing a decision card, or similar activity.
Detractors of decision theology consider it a misleading and dangerous teaching because it gives man too much control over his salvation. Some see decisional regeneration (salvation depends on making a decision) akin to baptismal regeneration (salvation depends on being baptized) and other works-based systems. If salvation is by grace, then it is an internal work of the Holy Spirit, occurring at the time of His choosing. Decisional regeneration, on the other hand, posits that the moment of salvation occurs when someone makes a choice to “accept Christ.” This, say opponents, is tantamount to salvation by works, because exercising the will is a human work and therefore cannot be part of salvation.
Some are opposed to decision theology because it risks associating a spiritual event with a physical action. Telling someone to "make a decision for Christ" and to "express" that decision outwardly fosters the notion that salvation is synonymous with walking an aisle or reciting a prayer instead of being the work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). This false association, in turn, can lead to false conversions, because someone who walks an aisle after a sermon may think he is saved (on the basis of an emotional experience), when there has been no work of God in his heart. Also, the detractors of decision theology are quick to point out that nowhere in the Bible are "decisions for Christ" mentioned, nor is anyone commanded to "accept Christ" or to "ask Him into your heart."
Further, Scripture says that man in his natural state is incapable of choosing Christ. He is "dead" in sin (Ephesians 2:1), he cannot please God (Romans 8:8), and he is utterly helpless to come to God on his own (John 6:44-45). There is "no one who seeks God" (Romans 3:11); an unsaved person is unable to "accept the things that come from the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians 2:14). This being the case, asking a non-Christian to make a decision for Christ is like asking a corpse to dance. Divine intervention is necessary.
Central to the debate over decision theology is the debate over monergism vs. synergism. Is salvation God’s work or man’s—or both? Monergism, closely allied with Calvinism and its tenet of irresistible grace, teaches that God is solely responsible for all aspects of our salvation. God sovereignly saves without any cooperation from us whatsoever, even giving us the faith to believe (Ephesians 2:8-9). Synergism teaches that we cooperate in our salvation to some degree. Decisional regeneration can be seen as synergistic in that we must decide to accept Christ—a very limited cooperation, but cooperation nonetheless.
The Bible is clear that salvation is totally the work of God. We can do nothing to secure salvation for ourselves (Romans 3:20). The Lord chooses us (John 15:16), draws us to Himself (John 6:44), gives us life (John 14:6), and preserves us (John 10:28). The new birth is not the result "of human decision" (John 1:13). Just as the Lord brought life to the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37), Jesus "gives life to whom he is pleased to give it" (John 5:21). At the same time, the Bible commands everyone to repent (Acts 3:19, 17:30) and to believe in Christ (Acts 16:31). While the words "make a decision for Christ" are not used in Scripture, the fact that we are commanded to repent seems to imply an exercise of the will.
How is one saved? By grace through faith—and even faith is a gift created through the hearing of God’s Word (Romans 10:17). Salvation does not come by walking an aisle or raising a hand. Saying a prayer does not save anyone. Reading and agreeing with the salvation pages on GotQuestions.org cannot save. Salvation is making a new spiritual creation, something only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.
Does this mean that it is wrong for an evangelist to hold an ”altar call” after his message? Not at all. However, we must be careful never to attribute our spiritual peace with God to a physical act of our own. Coming to the front of a church is not the same thing as coming to Christ. Also, we should remember that simply "making a decision" of some kind is not what saves us; it is the all-powerful, sovereign work of God in Christ that saves. Rather than calling on people to "invite Jesus to come in," it would perhaps be better to urge them to repent of their sin and cast themselves on the mercy of God in Christ.
Easy believism is a somewhat derogatory term used by opponents of the view that one needs only to believe in Jesus in order to be saved. From this they conclude that those who hold to sola fide (“faith alone”) teach that no corresponding need exists for a committed life of Christian discipleship as proof of salvation; however, that is not what sola fide means. True faith in Christ will always lead to a changed life. Another common usage of the term easy believism is in regards to those who believe they’re saved because they prayed a prayer—with no real conviction of sin and no real faith in Christ. Praying a prayer is easy—thus the term easy believism—but there is more to salvation than mouthing words.
Much of the debate over easy believism is unnecessary and is based on a misunderstanding of the Scriptures. The Bible is clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The essence of this doctrine is found in Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.” So we see that faith, given as a gift by God, is what saves us. But the next verse tells of the results of that salvation: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Rather than being saved by some easy act of our own wills, we are saved by the hand of God Almighty, by His will and for His use. We are His servants, and from the moment of salvation by faith, we embark on a journey of pre-ordained good works that are the evidence of that salvation. If there is no evidence of growth and good works, we have reason to doubt that salvation ever truly took place. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20), and a dead faith is not a saving faith.
“Faith alone” does not mean that some believers follow Christ in a life of discipleship, while others do not. The concept of the “carnal Christian,” as a separate category of non-spiritual believer, is completely unscriptural. The idea of the carnal Christian says that a person may receive Christ as Savior during a religious experience but never manifest evidence of a changed life. This is a false and dangerous teaching in that it excuses various ungodly lifestyles: a man may be an unrepentant adulterer, liar, or thief, but he’s “saved” because he prayed a prayer as a child; he’s just a “carnal Christian.” The Bible nowhere supports the idea that a true Christian can remain carnal for an entire lifetime. Rather, God’s Word presents only two categories of people: Christians and non-Christians, believers and unbelievers, those who have bowed to the Lordship of Christ and those who have not (see John 3:36; Romans 6:17–18; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:18–24; Ephesians 2:1–5; 1 John 1:5–7; 2:3–4).
While the security of salvation is a biblical fact based upon the finished work of salvation by Christ, it is certainly true that some of those who seemed to have “made a decision” or “accepted Christ” may not genuinely be saved. As noted before, true salvation is not so much our accepting Christ as it is His accepting us. We are saved by the power of God for the purpose of God, and that purpose includes the works that give evidence of our conversion. Those who continue to walk according to the flesh are not believers (Romans 8:5–8). This is why Paul exhorts us to “examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). The “carnal” Christian who examines himself will soon see that he/she is not in the faith.
James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” The type of “belief” demons have can be compared to the intellectual assent made by those who “believe” in Jesus in the fact that He exists or that He was a good person. Many unbelievers say, “I believe in God” or “I believe in Jesus”; others say, “I prayed a prayer, and the preacher said I was saved.” But such prayers and such belief do not necessarily signal a change of heart. The problem is a misunderstanding of the word believe. With true salvation comes genuine repentance and real life change. Second Corinthians 5:17 says that those who are in Christ are a “new creation.” Is it possible that the new person Christ creates is one who continues to walk in the carnality of the flesh? No.
Salvation is certainly free, but, at the same time, it costs us everything. We are to die to ourselves as we change into the likeness of Christ. Where easy believism fails is its lack of recognition that a person with faith in Jesus will lead a progressively changed life. Salvation is a free gift from God to those who believe, but discipleship and obedience are the response that will no doubt occur when one truly comes to Christ in faith.
John MacArthur, whose book The Gospel According to Jesus lays out the case for lordship salvation, summarizes the teaching this way: “The gospel call to faith presupposes that sinners must repent of their sin and yield to Christ’s authority.” In other words, a sinner who refuses to repent is not saved, for he cannot cling to his sin and the Savior at the same time. And a sinner who rejects Christ’s authority in his life does not have saving faith, for true faith encompasses a surrender to God. Thus, the gospel requires more than making an intellectual decision or mouthing a prayer; the gospel message is a call to discipleship. The sheep will follow their Shepherd in submissive obedience.
Advocates of lordship salvation point to Jesus’ repeated warnings to the religious hypocrites of His day as proof that simply agreeing to spiritual facts does not save a person. There must be a heart change. Jesus emphasized the high cost of discipleship: “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27), and “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (verse 33). In the same passage, Jesus speaks of counting the cost; elsewhere, He stresses total commitment: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that eternal life is a narrow path found by “only a few” (Matthew 7:14); in contrast, easy-believism seeks to broaden the path so that anyone who has a profession of faith can enter. Jesus says that “every good tree bears good fruit” (verse 17); in contrast, easy-believism says that a tree can still be good and bear nothing but bad fruit. Jesus says that many who say “Lord, Lord” will not enter the kingdom (verses 21–23); in contrast, easy-believism teaches that saying “Lord, Lord” is good enough.
Lordship salvation teaches that a true profession of faith will be backed up by evidence of faith. If a person is truly following the Lord, then he or she will obey the Lord’s instructions. A person who is living in willful, unrepentant sin has obviously not chosen to follow Christ, because Christ calls us out of sin and into righteousness. Indeed, the Bible clearly teaches that faith in Christ will result in a changed life (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:22–23; James 2:14–26).
Lordship salvation is not a salvation-by-works doctrine. Advocates of lordship salvation are careful to say that salvation is by grace alone, that believers are saved before their faith ever produces any good works, and that Christians can and do sin. However, true salvation will inevitably lead to a changed life. The saved will be dedicated to their Savior. A true Christian will not feel comfortable living in unconfessed, unforsaken sin.
Here are nine teachings that set lordship salvation apart from easy-believism:
1) Repentance is not a simple synonym for faith. Scripture teaches that sinners must exercise faith in conjunction with repentance (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 20:21; 2 Peter 3:9). Repentance is a change of mind from embrace of sin and rejection of Christ to a rejection of sin and an embrace of Christ (Acts 3:19; Luke 24:47), and even this is a gift of God (2 Timothy 2:25). Genuine repentance, which comes when a person submits to the lordship of Christ, cannot help but result in a change of behavior (Luke 3:8; Acts 26:18–20).
2) A Christian is a new creation and cannot just “stop believing” and lose salvation. Faith itself is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:1–5, 8), and real faith endures forever (Philippians 1:6). Salvation is all God’s work, not man’s. Those who believe in Christ as Lord are saved apart from any effort of their own (Titus 3:5).
3) The object of faith is Christ Himself, not a promise, a prayer, or a creed (John 3:16). Faith must involve a personal commitment to Christ (2 Corinthians 5:15). It is more than being convinced of the truth of the gospel; it is a forsaking of this world and a following of the Master. The Lord Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
4) True faith always produces a changed life (2 Corinthians 5:17). The inner person is transformed by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20), and the Christian has a new nature (Romans 6:6). Those with genuine faith—those who are submitted to the lordship of Christ—follow Jesus (John 10:27), love their brothers (1 John 3:14), obey God’s commandments (1 John 2:3; John 15:14), do the will of God (Matthew 12:50), abide in God’s Word (John 8:31), keep God’s Word (John 17:6), do good works (Ephesians 2:10), and continue in the faith (Colossians 1:21–23; Hebrews 3:14). Salvation is not adding Jesus to the pantheon of one’s idols; it is a wholesale destruction of the idols with Jesus reigning supreme.
5) God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3; cf. Romans 8:32). Salvation, then, is not just a ticket to heaven. It is the means by which we are sanctified (practically) in this life and by which we grow in grace.
6) Scripture teaches that Jesus is Lord of all. Christ demands unconditional surrender to His will (Romans 6:17–18; 10:9–10). Those who live in rebellion to God’s will do not have eternal life, for “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6).
7) Those who truly believe in Christ will love Him (1 Peter 1:8–9; Romans 8:28–30; 1 Corinthians 16:22). And those we love we long to please (John 14:15, 23).
8) Scripture teaches that behavior is an important test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one’s faith is genuine (1 John 2:3). If a person remains unwilling to obey Christ, he provides evidence that his “faith” is in name only (1 John 2:4). A person may claim Jesus as Savior and pretend to obey for a while, but, if there is no heart change, his true nature will eventually manifest itself. This was the case for Judas Iscariot.
9) Genuine believers may stumble and fall, but they will persevere in the faith (1 Corinthians 1:8). This was the case for Simon Peter. A “believer” who completely turns away from the Lord, never to return, plainly shows that he was never born again to begin with (1 John 2:19). This was the case for Judas Iscariot (see John 6:70).
A person who has been delivered from sin by faith in Christ should not desire to remain in a life of sin (Romans 6:2). Of course, spiritual growth can occur quickly or slowly, depending on the person and his circumstances. And the changes may not be evident to everyone at first. Ultimately, God knows who are His sheep, and He will mature each of us according to His perfect time table.
Is it possible to be a Christian and live in lifelong carnality, enjoying the pleasures of sin, and never seeking to glorify the Lord who bought him? Can a sinner spurn the lordship of Christ yet lay claim to Him as Savior? Can someone pray a “sinner’s prayer” and go about his life as if nothing had happened and still call himself a “Christian”? Lordship salvation says “no.” Let us not give unrepentant sinners false hope; rather, let us declare the whole counsel of God: “You must be born again” (John 3:7).
Many understand the term repentance to mean “a turning from sin.” Regretting sin and turning from it are related to repentance, but are not the precise meaning of the word. In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8–14; Acts 3:19). In summarizing his ministry, Paul declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). The short biblical definition of repentance is “a change of mind that results in a change of action.”
What, then, is the connection between repentance and salvation? The book of Acts especially focuses on repentance in regard to salvation (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). To repent, concerning salvation, is to change your mind regarding sin and Jesus Christ. In Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts chapter 2), he concludes with a call for the people to repent (Acts 2:38). Repent from what? Peter calls the people who rejected Jesus (Acts 2:36) to change their minds about that sin and to change their minds about Christ Himself, recognizing that He is indeed “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Peter calls the people to change their minds, to abhor their past rejection of Christ, and to embrace faith in Him as their Messiah and Savior.
Repentance involves recognizing that you have thought wrongly in the past and determining to think rightly in the future. The repentant person has “second thoughts” about the mindset he formerly embraced. There is a change of disposition and a new way of thinking about God, about sin, about holiness, and about doing God’s will. True repentance is prompted by “godly sorrow,” and it “leads to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Repentance and faith can be understood as two sides of the same coin. It is impossible to place your faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior without first changing your mind about your sin and about who Jesus is and what He has done. Whether it is repentance from willful rejection or repentance from ignorance or disinterest, it is a change of mind. Biblical repentance, in relation to salvation, is changing your mind from rejection of Christ to faith in Christ.
Repentance is not a work we do to earn salvation. No one can repent and come to God unless God pulls that person to Himself (John 6:44). Repentance is something God gives—it is only possible because of His grace (Acts 5:31; 11:18). No one can repent unless God grants repentance. All of salvation, including repentance and faith, is a result of God drawing us, opening our eyes, and changing our hearts. God’s longsuffering leads us to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), as does His kindness (Romans 2:4).
While repentance is not a work that earns salvation, repentance unto salvation does result in works. It is impossible to truly change your mind without changing your actions in some way. In the Bible, repentance results in a change in behavior. That is why John the Baptist called people to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). A person who has truly repented of sin and exercised faith in Christ will give evidence of a changed life (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 5:19–23; James 2:14–26).
To see what repentance looks like in real life, turn to the story of Zacchaeus. Here was a man who cheated and stole and lived lavishly on his ill-gotten gains—until he met Jesus. At that point he had a radical change of mind: “Look, Lord!” said Zacchaeus. “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Jesus happily proclaimed that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’s house, and that even the tax collector was now “a son of Abraham” (verse 9)—a reference to Zacchaeus’s faith. The cheat became a philanthropist; the thief made restitution. That’s repentance, coupled with faith in Christ.
Repentance, properly defined, is necessary for salvation. Biblical repentance is changing your mind about your sin—no longer is sin something to toy with; it is something to be forsaken as you “flee from the coming wrath” (Matthew 3:7). It is also changing your mind about Jesus Christ—no longer is He to be mocked, discounted, or ignored; He is the Savior to be clung to; He is the Lord to be worshiped and adored.
Technically, repentance is a change of mind, not a turning from sin. The Greek word translated “repentance” is metanoia, and the meaning is simply “a change of mind.” In common usage, however, we often speak of repentance as “a turning from sin.” There is a good reason for this.
Repentance is often associated with salvation in Scripture. What happens when the Holy Spirit begins His work to bring a person to salvation? The Spirit gives the sinner a personal understanding and infallible conviction that the facts concerning his spiritual state are true. Those facts are his personal sin, the eternal punishment due him for his sin, the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ suffering for his sin, and the need for faith in Jesus to save him from his sin. From that convicting work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), the sinner repents—he changes his mind—about sin, the Savior, and salvation.
When a repentant person changes his mind about sin, that change of mind naturally leads to a turning from sin. Sin is no longer desirable or fun, because sin brings condemnation. The repentant sinner begins to abhor his past misdeeds. And he begins to seek ways to amend his behavior (see Luke 19:8). So, ultimately, the result of the change of mind about sin is good deeds. The sinner turns away from sin toward faith in the Savior, and that faith is shown in action (see James 2:17).
The change of mind (repentance) is not precisely the same as the active turning from sin and visible performance of good deeds, but one leads to the other. In this way, repentance is related to turning from sin. When people speak of repentance as a turning from sin (rather than a change of mind), they are using a figure of speech called metonymy. In metonymy, the name of a concept is replaced with a word suggested by the original.
Metonymy is quite common in everyday language. For example, news reports that begin, “The White House issued a statement today,” are using metonymy, as the name for the building where the President lives is substituted for the name of the President himself.
In the Bible we can see other examples of metonymy. In Mark 9:17 the father states that his son has “a mute spirit” (NKJV). The evil spirit itself is not mute. The evil spirit causes the boy to be mute. The spirit is named after the effect it produces: a mute child. The metonymy here replaces the cause with the effect. Similarly, using the word repentance to mean “a turning from sin” replaces the cause with the effect. The cause is repentance, a change of mind; the effect is a turning away from sin. A word is replaced by a related concept. That’s metonymy.
In summary, repentance is a change of mind. But the full biblical understanding of repentance goes beyond that. In relationship to salvation, repentance is a change of mind from an embrace of sin to rejection of sin and from rejection of Christ to faith in Christ. Such repentance is something only God can enable (John 6:44; Acts 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25). Therefore, true biblical repentance will always result in a change of behavior. Maybe not instantly, but inevitably and progressively.
An unrepentant person knows that he or she has sinned and refuses to ask God for forgiveness or turn away from the sin. The unrepentant show no remorse for their wrongdoing and don’t feel the need to change. Unrepentance is the sin of willfully remaining sinful.
Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action. Repentance leads to life (Acts 11:18), and it is a necessary part of salvation. God commands everyone to repent and have faith in Christ (Acts 2:38; 17:30; 20:21). Unrepentance is therefore a serious sin with dire consequences. The unrepentant live in a state of disobedience to God, unheeding of His gracious call. The unrepentant remain unsaved until they turn from their sin and embrace Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote, “Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy” (Proverbs 29:1). To be stiff-necked is to have a stubborn, obstinate spirit that makes one unresponsive to God’s guidance or correction. The stiff-necked are, by definition, unrepentant.
The apostle Paul warned of the consequences of unrepentance: “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:5–9; cf. Psalm 62:12). There is a judgment coming. The results of righteousness will be beautiful, but the consequences of unrepentance will be harsh.
The book of Revelation shows how inured to sin the sinner can be. During the tribulation, after three different judgments of God, the wicked will remain unrepentant, despite their great suffering (Revelation 9:20–21; 16:8–11). The tragedy is that, even as some people are experiencing the horrendous consequences of their sin, they will continue in their state of unrepentance.
Is there such a thing as an unrepentant Christian? Biblically, to become a Christian, one must repent and believe; a believer in Christ is one who has repented of sin. What, then, of professed believers who live in unrepentant sin? Most likely, they are not saved; they are mere professors, with no work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. The apostle John states it bluntly: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth” (1 John 1:6). The other possibility is that people claiming to be saved yet living in unrepentant sin are saved but acting in disobedience—in which case their unrepentance is a temporary hardness of heart, and God will discipline them (Hebrews 12:4–13). There is a sin unto death for the believer (1 John 5:16; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:29–31), but, barring that extreme circumstance, God will eventually restore His disobedient child to fellowship (see 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).
The unrepentant sinner needs to hear the good news of God’s salvation. God’s goodness leads people to repentance (Romans 2:4), and He is a God of forbearance and longsuffering. Christians should confess their own sins, pray for the unrepentant, and evangelize the unsaved: “Opponents [of the truth] must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25–26).
The Bible speaks often of a contrite heart. In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord says, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” And in Psalm 51:17, David writes, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Contrition is spoken of as something God likes, and it is linked in these verses to humility, brokenness, and a healthy fear of God’s Word. So what exactly does it mean to be contrite?
According to the International Bible Encyclopedia, “A contrite heart is one in which the natural pride and self-sufficiency have been completely humbled by the consciousness of guilt.” The Hebrew and Greek words often translated “contrite” actually mean “crushed, crippled, or broken.” When contrite modifies heart, we get the picture of a conscience that is crushed by the weight of its own guilt. When a human spirit stops justifying its wrong choices, awakens to the depth of its depravity, and humbly accepts God’s righteous condemnation of sin, contrition is present. A contrite heart offers no excuses and shifts no blame. It fully agrees with God about how evil it is. A contrite heart throws itself upon the mercy of God, knowing that it deserves nothing but righteous wrath (Isaiah 6:5; Psalm 41:4).
The place of contrition is a blessed place to be. God says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). The contrite are promised a dwelling place with God. Their broken hearts will be revitalized.
Jesus illustrates what a contrite heart looks like in Luke 18:10–14. The humble repentance that God desires is contrasted with self-righteousness in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The eloquent prayer of the proud Pharisee did not reach the heart of God, but the humble cry of the repentant sinner brought forgiveness. They both needed mercy, but only the contrite heart was in a position to receive it.
Jesus also referenced a contrite heart in the Beatitudes when He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The “mourning” here is a grief over one’s own sin. The mercy and forgiveness of God comfort those who see their sin the way He sees it.
A contrite heart does not take the forgiveness of God for granted. It is grieved over its own sin and what that sin cost the Son of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Contrition is a key factor in true repentance. Without it, we are like the proud Pharisee, going through the motions of religion but harboring arrogance in our hearts. Contrition agrees that a heart intent on following Christ must reject evil in all its forms. A contrite heart harbors no thoughts of repeating its sin; rather, it seeks the strength of God to overcome sin and move on toward holiness (1 Peter 1:15–16).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness is “confidence in one’s own righteousness, especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” Biblically speaking, self-righteousness, which is related to legalism, is the idea that we can somehow generate within ourselves a righteousness that will be acceptable to God (Romans 3:10). Although any serious Christian would recognize the error of this thought, because of our sin nature, it is a constant temptation to all of us to believe we are, or can be, righteous in and of ourselves. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostle Paul came down particularly hard on those who attempted to live in self-righteousness.
Jesus’ condemnation of self-righteousness was especially harsh in His treatment of the Jewish leadership of the time. Six times in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for rigidly adhering to their legalistic traditions in order to make themselves look better to others. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collectorwas specifically told by Jesus to “some who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9–14). The Pharisee assumed his acceptance with God based on his own actions, whereas the tax collector recognized that there was nothing in himself that would cause God to approve of him. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees and scribes about true righteousness. At the same time, He spends a great deal of time and energy warning His disciples about the dangers of self-righteousness, making it clear that, without Him, they could do nothing (John 15:5).
Paul’s treatment of self-righteousness is no less scathing than Jesus’ was. He began his great argument in Romans for the grace of God by condemning the Jews’ self-righteous trust in circumcision (Romans 2:17–24). He follows that up in chapter 10, saying that the Jews tried to gain acceptance with God based on their own righteousness, demonstrating ignorance of the true righteousness of God (Romans 10:3). His conclusion is that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, not man (verse 4).
Paul’s letter to the Galatian church also addressed this issue. These believers were being told that they had to do certain things to be acceptable to God, specifically, to be circumcised. Paul goes so far as to say that this is another gospel and calls those who advocate it “accursed” (Galatians 1:8–9). More tellingly, he tells his readers that, if righteousness could come from their own actions, then Jesus died “for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21), and that righteousness could come “by the law” (Galatians 3:21). Paul’s conclusion about the Galatian believers was that they had been foolish in their attempt to be perfected by the flesh (Galatians 3:1–3).
It would be an understatement to say that every believer is plagued by this attitude. It is in our sin nature to try to do something to merit our salvation. The costly freedom of grace, bought for us by the blood of Jesus with no contribution from us, is difficult for our prideful hearts to understand or appreciate. It is far easier to compare ourselves with one another than it is to recognize that we cannot measure up to the standards of a holy God. However, in Christ we can know true righteousness. In Christ, we can know the forgiveness of sin that comes to us through grace. Because He stood in our place, we benefit from both His sinless life and His sin-bearing death (2 Corinthians 5:21). Because of His sacrifice, we can face our sin and bring it to the cross, rather than try somehow to be good enough for God. Only in the cross can we see the grace that covers all our sin and defeat the constant tendency toward self-righteousness in our hearts.
On one hand, there is no difference between faith and belief. The two terms are often used interchangeably. The Gospel of John was written so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The Gospel of John does not even use the word faith, although the concept of faith is thoroughly woven into John. Throughout Scripture, there is no distinction between faith and belief.
On the other hand, in popular English usage, the word faith often has a deeper meaning. Belief often refers to an intellectual acceptance of facts. If you ask the average person on the street if he believes in Alexander the Great or Abraham Lincoln, he would probably interpret the question to mean, “Do you believe that such a person existed?” Most, no doubt, would answer in the affirmative. However, faith, in modern usage, has the added idea of trust and commitment.
God’s justice and mercy are seemingly incompatible. After all, justice involves the dispensing of deserved punishment for wrongdoing, and mercy is all about pardon and compassion for an offender. However, these two attributes of God do in fact form a unity within His character.
The Bible contains many references to God’s mercy. Over 290 verses in the Old Testament and 70 in the New Testament contain direct statements of the mercy of God toward His people.
God was merciful to the Ninevites who repented at the preaching of Jonah, who described God as “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). David said God is “gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in loving-kindness. The LORD is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:8–9, NASB).
But the Bible also speaks of God’s justice and His wrath over sin. In fact, God’s perfect justice is a defining characteristic: “There is no God apart from me, a righteous [just] God and a Savior; there is none but me” (Isaiah 45:21). “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).
In the New Testament, Paul details why God’s judgment is coming: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5–6).
So the Bible showcases the fact that God is merciful, but it also reveals that He is just and will one day dispense justice on the sin of the world.
In every other religion in the world that holds to the idea of a supreme deity, that deity’s mercy is always exercised at the expense of justice. For example, in Islam, Allah may grant mercy to an individual, but it’s done by dismissing the penalties of whatever law has been broken. In other words, the offender’s punishment that was properly due him is brushed aside so that mercy can be extended. Islam’s Allah and every other deity in the non-Christian religions set aside the requirements of moral law in order to be merciful. Mercy is seen as at odds with justice. In a sense, in those religions, crime can indeed pay.
If any human judge acted in such a fashion, most people would lodge a major complaint. It is a judge’s responsibility to see that the law is followed and that justice is provided. A judge who ignores the law is betraying his office.
Christianity is unique in that God’s mercy is shown through His justice. There is no setting aside of justice to make room for mercy. The Christian doctrine of penal substitution states that sin and injustice were punished at the cross of Christ and it’s only because the penalty of sin was satisfied through Christ’s sacrifice that God extends His mercy to undeserving sinners who look to Him for salvation.
As Christ died for sinners, He also demonstrated God’s righteousness; His death on the cross showcased God’s justice. This is exactly what the apostle Paul says: “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24–26, emphasis added).
In other words, all the sin from Adam to the time of Christ was under the forbearance and mercy of God. God in His mercy chose not to punish sin, which would require an eternity in hell for all sinners, although He would have been perfectly just in doing so. Adam and Eve were not immediately destroyed when they ate the forbidden fruit. Instead, God planned a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15). In His love God sent His own Son (John 3:16). Christ paid for every single sin ever committed; thus, God was just in punishing sin, and He can also justify sinners who receive Christ by faith (Romans 3:26). God’s justice and His mercy were demonstrated by Christ’s death on the cross. At the cross, God’s justice was meted out in full (upon Christ), and God’s mercy was extended in full (to all who believe). So God’s perfect mercy was exercised through His perfect justice.
The end result is that everyone who trusts in the Lord Jesus is saved from God’s wrath and instead experiences His grace and mercy (Romans 8:1). As Paul says, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:9).