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

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  • Vicki Denstaedt
    Reply

    Thank-you for the wonderful reminder – IT’S ALL ABOUT LOVE!!!

  • Richard Johnson
    Reply

    . To the best of my knowledge, up until very recently every church in the world that had some profession of Christianity and displayed the cross subscribed to the doctrine of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. There are few, if any, doctrines more foundational and universally accepted among Christian churches than that of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. Jesus’ substitutionary atoning death on the cross is the core of, the center of, the heart of the Christian Gospel! When Christians commemorate (partake of) the Lord’s Supper in communion, they are remembering Christ’s shed blood and broken body given (sacrificed) for the remission of their sins. The Bible clearly says: Jesus came as the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sin of the world; Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins; He who had no sin became sin for us.
    A denomination that denies the substitutionary atonement is certainly not a Christian denomination by any historic/orthodox definition of Christianity. Apparently, members of liberal Mainline denominations are so far from Biblical teaching that they now will unquestionably accept any heresy that comes from their leaders. In my opinion, if anyone wants to get back to authentic Biblical Christianity, they will need to leave the ELCA and other Mainline denominations. I say that as a former Lutheran, and one who still has great respect for (although not total agreement with) Martin Luther and his teachings. Here is what Luther taught (in his explanation to the 2nd article of Apostle’s Creed) about the substitutionary atonement: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity”.
    I John 4:10 (NIV) says: 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
    1 Corinthians 15:3- (NIV) says: 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
    1 Peter 2:24 (NIV) says: 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “ RJ

    • Jeff Marian
      Reply

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Richard. Penal Substitutionary Atonement was articulated as a cohesive doctrine by St. Anslem around 1000AD. For the first millennium of Christian history the dominant understanding was a theory often referred to as Christus Victor. There have also been significant movements across the broad spectrum of Christendum that have considered what God is doing in the cross of Christ apart from PSA – for instance, the Franciscan Order. I very much appreciated Dr. David Lose’s book, “Making Sense of the Cross” Peace, Pastor Jeff Marian

      • Richard Johnson

        To the best of my knowledge, “all” protestant churches (certainly including Lutheran) at the time of the Reformation taught/subscribed to the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement (aka propitiation). This further departure from the basic/fundamental doctrines of Biblical Christianity is very recent even for the ELCA and the other liberal mainline denominations.

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