In the comments section of my previously posted sermon, my friend Tom wondered whether I had gone too far in emphasizing that we do nothing in order to be saved—that even after we’re saved, it’s all grace and no works.
I admit this is tricky.
I certainly don’t mean to say that since we’re saved by grace, works don’t matter. In fact, if we have no works to show for ourselves—if our lives bear no evidence of God’s saving grace—I’d say we were in danger of hell!
I am saying, however, that our works are always a response to a prior grace. And our works play no role in saving us.
Tom also wondered if I wasn’t affirming “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I hope not—I am a Wesleyan, after all. He’s Baptist, so he’d probably be happy if I were!
No, while I don’t affirm eternal security, I believe it must surely be difficult for a believer to backslide and forfeit a gift of salvation that they have at one time sincerely received.
But let’s not get too comfortable: this Sunday I’m preaching a text that includes 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which is a warning that believers who engage in sinful behavior persistently, without repentance, risk being excluded from God’s kingdom. Why would Paul warn us in such strong language if he were speaking only hypothetically? “Of course you would exclude yourself from God’s kingdom if you persistently committed these sins without repentance, but since you’ve been saved, that’s not really possible, so don’t worry about it.”
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee tackles this question briefly:
For Paul there is to be the closest possible relationship between the experience of grace and one’s behavior that evidences that experience of grace. Paul himself is as concerned as anyone that the latter (right behavior) should not be perceived as coming first or as leading to the former (the experience of grace). But those who concern themselves with grace without equal concern for behavior have missed Paul’s own theological urgencies by several furlongs. It is precisely for these reasons that the warning texts in Paul must be taken with real seriousness. Security in Christ there is, to be sure, but it is a false security that would justify sinners who have never taken seriously “but such were some of you.” That is to whitewash the sinner without regeneration or transformation; Paul simply would not understand such theology.[†]
I’m sure Tom would agree, whether eternal security exists or not, that we should live our lives as if it didn’t!
† Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 273-4.