The True Plan of Salvation

By Mike Mazzalongo Posted: Sun. May 18th 2014
This lesson explores the common misunderstandings of how grace and faith work in the salvation of one's soul.

There are several ways to explain the following statement: "We are saved by grace through faith."

  • Because of God's grace we are saved through a system of faith.
  • Through God's kindness we are forgiven through faith in Jesus.
  • God is so merciful that He offers us salvation based on our faith, not based on our ability to be perfect.

We believe this basic teaching of the Christian religion but we often try to change it into something else:

  • God provides grace, we provide faith.
  • God's grace is that He reveals what we must do in order to be saved (the plan of salvation).
  • God's grace is based on our faith.

Many times our problem with grace is that we have a hard time understanding such a Godly concept and, as proud and sinful people, we cannot bring ourselves to accept free love and mercy. Usually we end up paying lip service to the idea of grace and reduce this core teaching of the gospel into a law/works system that is not biblical or biblically accurate.

For example:

A. God provides the grace, we provide the faith

The idea here is that salvation is a prize inside of a safe and God provides one of the numbers of the combination (grace), and we provide the other (faith). Grace is God's responsibility, faith is man's. Each side contributes something to produce the final result which is salvation. There are two problems with this thinking;

1. We contribute nothing to salvation

There is nothing we can do, not even the act of believing, that has any value in producing our salvation. If faith could in some way be counted as something we contributed, paid for or did to earn our forgiveness and salvation, then the question would be, "How much faith or what quality of faith is necessary to exchange for salvation?"

Faith is not something we give or exchange. Faith is the way we receive the free gift of salvation. God produced it through Jesus Christ and offers it absolutely free to those who receive or accept it by faith as opposed to earning it by law.

You cannot receive it by earning it; you cannot receive it by exchanging something for it; you cannot receive it because you deserve it; you cannot receive it through knowledge or culture or force or religiosity or magic. You can only receive it through faith in Jesus Christ.

2. This takes the glory away from Christ

If, in some way, we could provide something (i.e. faith) to obtain our salvation, then part of the glory for salvation would belong to us. The whole point of God saving man by grace through faith is to reveal the glory of Jesus Christ and the love of the Father (John 3:16; Romans 3:21-31). However, because of pride, the human spirit refuses to be totally helpless and in need of undeserved mercy.

B. Grace is the revelation of the "plan of salvation"

Some believe that God shows His grace by revealing to us "how" to be saved (hear, believe, confess, repent, baptize). This formula is referred to as the "Plan of Salvation" and the revealing of this formula is what grace is.

I have said before that the biblical "plan of salvation" is that God saved man by grace through faith. This is God's plan to save man, these are the "…things into which the angels long to look" (I Peter 1:12), and "…the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past." (Romans 16:25)

The mystery, the secret, the plan of God was that Jesus would die for the sins of mankind and that man would be saved through faith in Jesus Christ.

When we preach "the plan," the "5 steps," as the gospel, we are preaching salvation by knowledge; if you know and obey accurately the plan you will be saved. This approach says that God's grace is that He reveals this plan to us. This idea has its place in the preaching of the gospel but is not the gospel itself.

The good news (Gospel) is that because God is kind, He sent Jesus to pay the price of death for our sins and we can be forgiven of these by believing in Him. This is the good news, this is the plan!

This good news, this grace motivates one of two responses:

  1. Disbelief, which is expressed in rejection of the message and a continued pursuit of the world.
  2. Belief, which the Bible teaches is correctly expressed in the following ways - confession (of one's belief in Jesus as the son of God), repentance (turning away from sin), baptism (immersion in water) and faithful living.

Repentance, confession and baptism are visible ways believers express their faith in Jesus Christ. They are not the plan of salvation. They are not exchanged for salvation. They are the way one receives the salvation freely offered. If a person truly believes, the Bible (not the Church of Christ) says that his faith will be evident in an open acknowledgement of Jesus as the divine Son of God, a changed attitude towards sin, water baptism and a faithful (not perfect) life thereafter.

C. God's grace is based on our faith

This idea suggests that our faith is in faith and not in Christ (I have confidence in my faith, its strength, its accuracy). But faith's power is determined by what faith believes. For example, if I believe that a tree is my God then my prayers, no matter how sincere, will not be answered because a tree has no power to answer prayers.

The power that saves us is Jesus Christ. He is the object of our faith. He is the one who saves. He accomplishes our salvation and answers our prayers because, as God, He has the power to do so. It is not the strength of our faith, it is the object of our faith that makes the difference. For example:

  • Paul had religious knowledge, a miraculous appearance by Jesus, the full gospel preached to him by Ananias and he believed. So strong was his faith that immediately after he was baptized he began preaching Christ.
  • The thief on the cross saw a crucified Jesus forgive His enemies and so he asked for that same forgiveness. He saw no miracles, no visions, he was irreligious; no one explained the gospel to him, he simply believed in Jesus.

Both of these men were equally saved, both are in heaven with God. Why? Because despite the difference in the quality, strength and knowledge of their faith: they both believed in Jesus. The object of their faith was the same! The result of their prayers were the same!

In this world, many people believe (accepting as true) in various philosophies and religions. The belief that leads to salvation, however, is the one where a person accepts as true the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That particular belief expressed in repentance and baptism saves your soul.

Do not envy another person's faith (i.e. knowledge or religiosity); do not be proud of your faith; remember that grace is extended to those who believe in Jesus. Our faith is equal and equally saves us if we are focused on the right object: Jesus.

Grace and Faith +

The elements of our salvation are God's grace and our faith but the Bible qualifies that these are not alone. Therefore…

A. Only by grace but not grace alone

God's grace is His kindness and mercy; His generosity and love. Grace is God's character and attitude but it was not just His grace and attitude that saved us, this character and attitude motivated Him to do something.

Yes it is God's grace that saves us, but a grace that works to accomplish that salvation by: establishing the Jewish nation; sending Jesus; sending the Holy Spirit; sending the Apostles; sending the Church.

Only grace could and would work in this way to accomplish our salvation (pride would not do it; law would not do it; guilt or self-interest would not do it; compulsion would not do it)… only grace would and could accomplish salvation.

B. In the same way, only by faith but not faith alone

The only way man can be saved is to accept this gift from God by faith. He cannot earn, deserve, exchange, know or serve God for it. Faith is the only channel by which the gift of forgiveness and eternal life are received. However, faith is a living thing, not just a concept; not just a thought.

If grace had not acted, man would not be saved. In the same way, if faith does not act, does not express itself, does not show itself to be true faith in Christ, it cannot receive salvation.

The very nature of grace is that it must do something (e.g. create, bless, save, etc.) if it does not then it is not grace.

The very nature of faith is that it must be tested (i.e. demonstrate its genuineness). It is not biblical, saving faith unless it strives to show itself to be genuine. The Bible describes the way that faith shows itself to be genuine, and how genuine faith actually blossoms. God does not demand that a rose seed become a rose, it is programmed to do this if properly planted. In the same way, if the seeds of Christian faith are planted in a believing heart they will produce repentance, acknowledgement of Christ as Lord, the willingness to be baptized, eagerness to follow Christ, the hatred of sin, the longing for heaven, the love of the church, the desire to know and obey the Word, etc. Faith produces these things naturally!

We are saved by grace (a grace that works to accomplish our salvation) through faith (a faith that demonstrates itself as genuine by what it produces).

Those who Have a Problem with Grace

There is a danger that certain individuals in the church will refuse to accept grace on God's terms. There is also a danger of trying to accept Christ but not the grace He offers. The Lord warns of these in His lessons:

1. Simon the Pharisee – Luke 7:36-50

36Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. 37And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner."
- Luke 7:36-39

What did Simon want from Jesus? He wanted to associate with Him as a teacher, to hear Him preach, to share in His popularity. What did Simon not want? To give Jesus due respect; to be in a position to need mercy; to offer grace to the woman.

The Pharisees waited for a time to include Jesus into their group of "teachers." After all, He was a dynamic and popular teacher. What they did not want was to need mercy or to be forced to offer mercy to others. If you need mercy you have to be prepared to offer mercy. Their hard hearts had become this way because they did not see the need for God's mercy for themselves and rarely had the impulse (the heart softening impulse) to offer mercy to others. Theirs was the sin of self-righteousness.

2. Jonah

The Jews of Jonah's time hated the Assyrians with good reason: the Assyrians had attacked them, they had to pay tribute to them and they were pagan idolaters.

Jonah was called by God to go and preach to the Ninevites (the capital city of the Assyrians). We know the story of his response and effort to run away. But the true story behind his effort to flee and not do God's will was evident: could not accept God's gracious attitude towards his enemy.

Jonah was happy to receive grace for himself but was not ready for God to extend it to someone else, and certainly not his enemies! For example:

  1. When he was first approached to go preach repentance to the Ninevites he ran away in order not to do God's will. In chapter 4:2, Jonah acknowledges why he did this: not because of laziness, disbelief or fear, he ran away because of God's grace. He knew that if they repented, God would forgive them and he did not want to be the instrument through which God's grace was offered to his (Jonah's) enemies.
  2. After he was swallowed by the fish and then released through God's mercy, he finally went and preached to the Ninevites. When they repented he was very angry – not at the Ninevites but at God.

Ninevites did not have to be circumcised; did not have to keep all the Jewish laws; did not have to pay back all the money they had taken from them; did not have to make up for all the harm that they did had caused Jonah's people. God simply forgave them because they believed the message and repented. Because of His grace they received forgiveness through faith.

Jonah was so upset that in chapter 4:8 he says, "Death is better to me than life." Jonah was angry because God was too good, too kind and too gracious to Jonah's enemies.

3. The Hired Workers – Matthew 20

1"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; 4and to those he said, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And so they went. 5Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. 6And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?' 7They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.'

8"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' 9When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, 12saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.' 13But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' 16So the last shall be first, and the first last."
- Matthew 20:1-16

Note that the "all day" workers were all angry. Why? Do you think they had a valid reason to be so? Most people see this situation as unfair, however:

  • No one was cheated. All received wages.
  • The day workers received the agreed upon amount.
  • It was no one's business or judgment how the boss spent his money.
  • In the beginning the day workers were happy and eager to find work for fair pay in the first place.

What were they really angry about? They were upset by the boss's generosity. He seemed more generous to some than others.

They overlooked the fact that they had a generous boss who had been generous to them first and then to the others afterwards. Giving them work at fair pay when they had no work was generous. Giving others work at the last minute for the same pay was also generous.

We cannot accept a measure of generosity for ourselves and then complain if someone else is also a benefactor of the same person's generosity.

The day workers felt that they had "earned" their salary and wanted everyone else to earn it as well. Some Christians are like that because they think they have earned their way into God's grace. The Jews thought they had earned it as God's chosen people.

The late workers did not trust in their work, they trusted their boss to do the right thing and were rewarded for their trust, not their work.

The basis of grace is trust. God offers it to those who trust Him, not to those who think they have somehow earned it.

4. The Pharisee and the Publican – Luke 18

9And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' 13But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' 14I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
- Luke 18:9-14

What is the difference between these two men when it comes to God's grace?

  • The Pharisee thought he deserved it. The Publican needed it.
  • The Pharisee did not want to need. The Publican did not want to die.
  • The Pharisee never knew God. The Publican found peace in the arms of God's grace.

The Pharisee would have been upset if he could have known what God had done.

Answer this only in your own minds and to yourself: in all honesty, who are you most like, the Publican or the Pharisee?

The reality of the situation is that all of us are in the condition of the Publican whether we realize it or not.

Summary

We all have problems with grace from time to time:

  • We have trouble forgiving ourselves and cannot accept that God will forgive us even if we do not want to forgive ourselves.
  • We are angry when others who have hurt us find forgiveness from God while we are still harboring resentment towards them.
    • For example, I knew a woman who was upset at the thought that her husband, who had left her, could be forgiven and actually start a new life. She wanted him to suffer, not be forgiven.
  • We have trouble with those who claim to be Christians but who may not agree with us on every point of doctrine. Of course some things can't be compromised.
    • For example, we cannot call a person a brother or sister in the Lord if they have not been saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

However, there are those who refuse to allow God's grace to reach those who may have a different view of the "end times" than we do, or believers who worship differently than we do. Does grace cover moral failure only? What about failure in understanding or a legitimate and sincere difference of opinion?

I am not saying that we have to change what we believe is Biblical in the areas of morality or worship. I am simply saying that God's grace is for sinners. And all of us are sinners, including those who miss the mark on certain doctrinal issues.

The Pharisees were experts at discriminating against those who did not understand or practice all the minutia of the Law. Let's not be like that.

We can accept those that God accepts without approving of their errors. How else will we ever love and teach others if we do not extend the same grace to other people as Christ has so kindly extended to us?

Let us remember that every time we refuse to recognize and allow God's grace for someone else, we automatically stop the flow of God's grace for ourselves.

Let us also remember to preach the true plan of salvation so that we can encourage true and lasting conversions of those who are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not through works, perfectionism, knowledge, or effort.

Discussion Questions

  1. Read Ephesians 2:1-10 and answer the following questions:
    • What does Paul mean in the first three verses?
    • How does God make us alive? (Verses 4-7)
    • What is your reaction to verse 7?
  2. Why is it sometimes difficult to accept the gift of love and mercy from God?
  3. What can we possibly give in exchange for our salvation that God would consider of enough value?
  4. Why is the "Plan of Salvation" (Hear, believe, confess, repent, baptize) not a valid formula to achieve salvation?
  5. What is the ultimate choice we make regarding God's grace and what is our actions in each choice?
  6. What is meant by the phrase, "faith in faith"?
  7. Comment on the following statements:
    • "We are saved by grace but not grace alone."
    • "We are saved by faith but not by faith alone."
  8. What is the danger of trying to earn God's grace?
  9. How is God's grace demonstrated in Luke 7:36-50 – Simon the Pharisee?
  10. How can you use this lesson to grow spiritually and help others come into a relationship with Jesus?