Works salvation is the view that justification is not by faith alone, but is by faith plus works (e.g., baptism, turning from sins, and perseverance in obedience).
Many who call themselves Evangelicals today believe that works salvation is a saving message. That obviously includes those who believe in works salvation themselves.
One denomination teaches that salvation is a process requiring hearing, believing, baptism, repentance, and obedience: “Man’s part: 1. Hear the Gospel…2. Believe the Gospel…3. Repent of past sins…4. Confess faith in Jesus Christ…5. Be Baptized…6. Be faithful unto death.”i
Another denomination identifies the plan of salvation as requiring, “Faith in Jesus Christ…[and] repentance… confess that we are sinners…and turn away from our sinful ways and to His righteousness…[and] water baptism…[and] spiritual baptism.”ii
But many who do not believe in works salvation nonetheless believe that it is a saving message.
A leading Reformed scholar addressed the question, “Are Arminians Saved?” He said, “I certainly hope so and believe so, for I was one for five years after I was converted before I became Reformed in my theology, and I believe that I was in a state of grace at that time.”iii
A Reformed pastor similarly writes, “Well, is Arminianism error? Yes I believe it is. Does Arminianism damn the soul? I don’t believe so, no.”iv He went on to say that he agrees with one Reformed theologian who says that “the debate between Calvinists and Arminians is an intramural debate among Christians.”
An academician who believes in and teaches eternal security, made a similar argument based on church history: “So, unless Christ built His church on an organization of unbelievers, I would conclude that the teaching that belief in eternal security is a requirement for justification is based on insufficient historical theology. The church flourished [from AD 100 to AD 1500]. Yet there is no record of anyone who believed in eternal security or had assurance of his salvation. Are we really ready to say that all the people of whom we have a written record between the apostles and the Reformers went to hell? The historical theology which would claim such is insufficient, and so is the biblical theology behind this position.”v He went on to add, “If God is building His church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, then there had to be a witness from A.D. 100 to A.D. 1500. In other words, there had to be genuine born-again people living throughout this era. But we have no written record of anyone teaching forgiveness of postbaptismal sins once and for all at the point of faith in Christ.”vi
It is widely held in Evangelicalism today that works salvation is a message that is sufficient for one to be born again. Even many who think that works salvation is erroneous suggest that it is a saving message.
But what do the Scriptures say?
John 3:16 is a faith-alone message. The Lord said that “whoever believes in Him”—not “whoever behaves in Him”—will not perish but has everlasting life. John 5:39-40 and 6:28-29 indicate that the message of works salvation is not a saving message. So do Eph 2:8-9 and Gal 1:6-9.
Paul called the works-salvation message of the Judaizers “a different gospel” and he pronounced a curse (anathema) upon all who preach such a message (Gal 1:6-9). The Jerusalem Council also rejected that message as being a saving message (cf. Acts 15:1, 7-11).
The Lord Jesus told Jews who believed in works salvation that they had to come to Him (i.e., believe in Him; see John 6:35) in order to have everlasting life (John 5:39-40).
The message of salvation by faith plus works is inconsistent with the message of salvation by faith alone.
Of course, if anyone has ever believed in the free gift of everlasting life by faith apart from works, then he remains born again even if he later falls into works salvation. Once a person is saved, he remains saved forever. However, if a person has never believed in Jesus for irrevocable salvation, then he has yet to be born again.
It is remarkable how widespread it is today to hear people of every theological stripe claiming that people who believe in works salvation are born again. Why would you evangelize people whom you believe are already born again? Only if we know that the works salvation message is not a saving message will we pray for the salvation of and seek to witness to our friends and loved ones trapped in that dead-end religion.vii
i From “The Plan of Salvation” at https://www.clovischurchofchrist.org/resources/the-plan-of-salvation.
ii From “The Plan of Salvation” at https://www.apcwaterloo.com/the-plan-of-salvation/. See also https://apcstl.org/about/our-beliefs.
iii R. C. Sproul, “Are Arminians Saved?” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BH-PIg8-iM8.
iv John Samson, “Are Arminians Saved?” at http://effectualgrace.com/2011/09/13/are-arminians-saved/.
v David R. Anderson, “Is Belief in Eternal Security Necessary for Justification?” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal (Spring 2008), available at https://www.chafer.edu/journal-downloads.
vi Ibid. The implication is that the following was a saving message until AD 1519 (and likely continues to be a saving message): the view that Christian baptism is necessary to initiate a process of salvation and that faith in Christ plus post-baptismal turning from sins and obedience are necessary to continue the saving process.
vii It is somewhat comforting to realize that our parents or siblings or friends who currently believe in works salvation may have believed in the free gift of everlasting life in the past. However, how do we know that? In most cases, we have no way of knowing that. And even if we were sure that they are believers who have strayed, we would still long for them to have the certainty of their eternal destiny.