Oftentimes, false doctrine is created by little more than thinking. Don’t misunderstand—I am not suggesting for a moment that Christians are to be mindless zombies without any rational thought processes. However, for the believer, Scripture must always be our guide—at the foundational level. The Bible is always sufficient. Many well-intended followers of Jesus have wound up denying plain Biblical truths simply because they sought to prove something more—something beyond the pages of Holy Writ. The idea of what “might” be—what is “possible”—has driven solid churches into doctrinal error. And the idea that God saves people apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of those errors, no matter how well-intentioned somebody may be who preaches it.
Before I get too far, I want to be as clear as I can possibly be here. I am a firm believer that God is the sole Author of salvation. I believe the Bible teaches that we are all totally depraved by nature—and left to ourselves, none of us would ever choose Jesus. This fallen, corrupted nature we inherited from Adam as a result of the Fall. Therefore, it was necessary for God to act if anybody was ever to be saved. So—before He ever created anything, He chose a people for whom Christ died. He calls these same people effectually in time. And He sovereignly keeps those people. The work of salvation is a Trinitarian work as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all cooperate in unity to carry out the plan of redemption. In the words of the prophet Jonah, then, “Salvation is of the LORD.” (Jonah 2:9 KJV)
This is the message of Scripture—that God is to be glorified in all things including the salvation of sinners. However, you simply cannot attempt to give God more glory by going outside the boundaries of Biblical doctrine. When we attempt to do so, we then must twist Scripture to fit a man-made system. At the end of the day, “…it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21). That is, God is pleased to work through the Gospel of Jesus Christ to save lost sinners. That’s what the Bible clearly says. And we need to be cautious—fearful, really—of attributing something to God that opposes the way He has declared He is “pleased” to work.
Floating around among supposed Calvinistic types is the idea that God mysteriously saves people apart from the preaching of the Gospel. That is, regeneration occurs by the Holy Spirit without any means at all—without any Gospel understanding whatsoever. This may be evident in the unreached man who bows to a totem pole—as he is worshipping according to all the light he has been given. It is said that this man is—or at least may be—displaying a regenerated heart through the only method he knows. Others suggest that it may even be possible that some will live out their human existence without ever coming to faith in Jesus—and wake up in Heaven one day to realize they were actually saved. Such an example is not merely absent in the Bible, it’s actually contradictory to a host of passages. First, let’s look at the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The theme of Paul’s epistle to the Romans is justification by faith. In other words, Paul is writing to the churches in Rome to contrast two purported ways of salvation—salvation through law-keeping and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. These two ways are polar opposites, according to Paul. In Chapters 1 & 2, Paul slams the door shut on both Jews and Gentiles earning their way into favor with God. By Chapter 3, he has “already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Romans 3:9). This statement is followed by the lengthy declaration that all men are helpless on their own—“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’” (Romans 3:10-18)
To Paul, all are helpless and hopeless if left to their own way. According to Paul, men and women are depraved—not partially, but totally. Apart from the grace of God, no one would be or could be saved. How many does Paul say can earn their own salvation? “None…no, not one; no one…no one…All have turned aside…”. And to put the proverbial icing on the cake, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20). The Law, then, wasn’t given as a means to earn salvation. On the contrary, the Law was given to expose our inability to earn salvation by our works. God’s Law actually exposes our sinfulness. If Paul’s letter stopped at this point, we’d all be without much hope. Thankfully, it does not.
Having proven that salvation cannot come through law-keeping, Paul then explains how God has chosen to save sinners. He writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:21-25). Two of the grandest words in Scripture—“But now…”. We are all naturally depraved and helpless on our own—“But now…”. “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” (Romans 8:3). God has done what was impossible for us to do on our own. He has provided the way of salvation for depraved sinners. And, according to Paul, “the righteous of God [comes] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” He goes on to say that “propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Simply put—according to the apostle Paul—there is no possibility of righteousness or redemption or propitiation apart from “faith”. He will later write, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1). So, there is also no justification or peace with God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s message in the book of Romans. Justification by faith alone apart from works is the theme of that wonderful book.
When Paul pens the scalding letter to the churches in Galatia, he corrects their idea that law-keeping is necessary to be saved. In no uncertain terms, he calls such a message “a different gospel—not that there is another one” (Galatians 1:6-7). Salvation by works is not only not Biblical, but also it is a death sentence to each and every one of us. We simply are unable to earn salvation because the standard is far too high. As Paul explains this to these bewitched saints, he writes, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15-16). Paul’s message to the churches in Galatia is exactly the same as his message to the churches in Rome. We are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”. In fact, Paul goes on to say, “we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law”. If, then, we are justified by faith according to Paul, it is dangerous to suggest that believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not necessary. Paul says it is vital—so don’t trust a man who says it isn’t.
Jesus Himself said much the same. On that night when Nicodemus came to question this new “teacher come from God” (John 3:2), Jesus gave him quite a lesson. Most of us will recall that Jesus declared, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). In other words, the Holy Spirit must give life—spiritual life—beyond what we have naturally. This is what it means to be “born again”--a second birth. However, Jesus is not discounting faith (believing the Gospel) or contradicting Paul. On the contrary, Jesus goes on to say, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The believer in Jesus has “eternal life”. And if this wasn’t clear enough, Jesus continued, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18). There is simply no other way to take these words. The believer in Jesus “is not condemned”--or we might say he is saved. However, the unbeliever “is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This means there is no such thing as a regenerated unbeliever—at least not Biblically. A man may preach such a doctrine. However, he is preaching a message that opposes the message of Jesus and Paul—and a host of other Biblical writers, for that matter.
Honestly, if I were to list the verses which taught salvation by grace through faith here, you’d probably quit reading at some point. The doctrine is so often taught in no uncertain terms that it seems impossible for anybody to miss it. Only when we try to go beyond Scripture can we read in a doctrine which has men and women saved in a different way than the Biblical writers put forth. Men may talk about coons in trees—or weights on dead men—but those are man-made illustrations. They are not Scripture. Anybody in any doctrinal system can make up stories to fit their own doctrines. But if we believe Scripture is sufficient, then our doctrine must be rooted in the text of Scripture, not cute little illustrations. And according to the Bible, men are saved by God’s grace through faith in God’s Son—specifically, His sacrifice at Calvary.
Now—how does this faith come? This too is clear if one merely reads the Bible and takes it at face value. For sake of time and space, I’ll just list a few verses here which are clear enough. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…” (John 17:20). “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48). “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16). “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17). “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-24). “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…” (Ephesians 1:13). “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5). “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:18). “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…” (1 Peter 1:22-23). This list could go on a while. Only a master at exegetical gymnastics could convince himself or others that these verses do not mean what they clearly say. To miss the importance of the Gospel in the conversion of sinners, one must be willingly ignorant—because the Bible is loud and clear.
The Scripture knows nothing of a regenerated unbeliever. In fact, in literally every instance in the Bible where a person was saved, the Word of God is present. Jesus declared that faith—believing—was necessary to be saved. Paul said the same. The other Biblical writers declared the same. And repeatedly—over and over again—not only do we see it stated that Biblical faith comes through the Gospel, but example after example after example prove that God works in just that same way. Again, He works that way because that is the way He has chosen to work—it's the way He is pleased to work. Understand, we do not limit God when we believe He does what He says He wants to do. Human beings receive no glory in salvation because the Gospel will fall on deaf ears unless the Holy Spirit works. However, to deny the importance of the Gospel and justification by faith is to actually disagree with the very One we claim to trust.
Biblically, faith comes through the Gospel.
Todd Bryant is the Lead Elder at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Northport, AL. He has pastored there since 1998. For more more information on the church and links to audio sermons and apps for electronic devices, visit www.sovereigngrace.net