How Does Faith Save Us?
For by grace you have been saved through faith…. – Ephesians 2:8
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. At the heart of the celebration is Luther’s insistence that we are saved by grace through faith and not by good works. But how, exactly, does faith save us?
Some people think about it like this: God is angry because we’re sinners and God is obligated to punish us with eternal death (aka hell). But because God also loves us and doesn’t want to punish us he sent his son, Jesus, to die in our place. And if we believe the right things about Jesus (think Apostle’s Creed) then God will forgive us and give us eternal life (aka heaven). In this scenario “faith” is part of a transaction. Believe the right stuff and God will commute your death sentence. The technical name for this theological notion is “penal substitutionary atonement theory”, a phrase that is sure to make you the intellectual hit of your next dinner party.
I used to think about faith in that way. I don’t any longer. Let me propose a different way to think about how faith saves us.
Jesus did not come into this world to change God’s mind about us, but to change our mind about God. Like Adam and Eve we live in the guilt and shame of our sin, hiding from God and from one another. When I talk about being “dead in sin” that’s what I mean. There is a “deadness” that happens when we live in guilt and shame. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal the depth of God’s love for us and for all that God has created. We are forgiven because God isn’t keeping score. We don’t need to be saved from a wrathful God; we need to be saved from our fear that we are unloved and unworthy (which drives much of our sinful behavior) and the deadness of our guilt and shame.
Faith is daring to believe that we are as loved and forgiven as Jesus proclaims. Faith is trusting that God is at work, making us whole and new. All people are “saved” from God’s perspective. A lack of faith leaves us doubting that we are loved and forgiven, leaving us dead in our sin.
Think about it this way. Imagine I wrote you a check for $1 million. If you had faith that the check was real and that I had the money to back it, you would cash the check and enjoy the money. If you didn’t have faith that the check was real or that I had the money to back it, you wouldn’t bother cashing it. You might just throw it away without ever enjoying the gift. The love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaims for all people is like that check. Whether you “cash in” on that promise or not depends upon whether you believe it to be true for you or not.
I don’t have faith to ensure that God will love me. I have faith that God does love me. I don’t want my neighbors to know Jesus so that God won’t cast them into eternal death. I want my neighbors to know Jesus so that they know how loved and forgiven they are.
We are indeed saved by grace through faith. Thanks be to God!
Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN