by Brad McCoy
The motto of Grace Evangelical Society, “Faith Alone in Christ Alone,” summarizes the Biblical truth that the reception of eternal life is based solely on the work of Christ and is received solely by personal faith in Him alone. No human works, efforts, or righteousness enter into the equation of God’s saving grace (Rom 4:16). Verses such as Romans 4:5, “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,” and Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast,” clearly validate the fact that a person’s works have nothing to do with his appropriating eternal salvation from hell.
Careful readers of the Scriptures will, however, notice other verses like 2 Corinthians 5:10,”For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad,” and Revelation 22:12, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done,” which definitely describe a future judgment according to man’s works. Those who believe in salvation by works point to verses like these to “prove” their contention that a person’s eternal destiny is dependent upon his or her personal merit.
Therefore, the question must be asked, how does one harmonize verses like Romans 4:5 and Ephesians 2:8-9 with other verses like 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Revelation 22:12? And, what personal relevance does all of this have with our daily Christian attitudes and actions?
When this writer was a seminary student, there was an interesting little sign in the office of the registrar. This sign read simply, “Salvation is by grace. . . .Graduation is by works!” That humorous message states a principle that is similar to a key axiom found in the Bible: REGENERATION IS BY FAITH. . . .EVALUATION IS BY WORKS!
Regeneration, the impartation of eternal life as a free gift to the sinner who trusts Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, is by faith apart from works (Rom 4:5; Eph 2:8-9). In contrast, and quite distinct from regeneration, every believer’s Christian life will be subject to evaluation by Christ. This judgment for all Church age believers will take place immediately after the Rapture of the Church at the Bema or Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom 14:10; 1 Cor 3:10-4:5; 2 Cor 5:10-14). The end result of this evaluation of the believer’s works will be the bestowal or denial of special rewards.
It is important to note that this will not be a judgment to determine whether or not a person will live eternally with Christ; it will rather be an assaying of the quality of a believer’s Christian experience. For the faithful Christian it will result in special reward being given in proportion to the quality of his works (see Luke 19:11-27). According to 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 at theBema, “each [believer’s] work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss [of reward]; but he himself shall be saved [from hell-he remains regenerate!], yet so as through fire.”
Notice that even in the worse case scenario the believer who is denied any reward at all is still saved. The totally unfavorable evaluation does not jeopardize his possession of eternal life.
Thus a passage like Revelation 22:12 is not referring to Jesus doling out eternal life to “good people” and consigning “bad people” to hell. Rather, it is affirming that when the Lord Jesus returns He will give special rewards only to those believers whose Christian lives have been consistently full of good works.
Regeneration, the reception of eternal life, is by faith. Evaluation (and the reception of eternal rewards) is by works. In addition to allowing us to correctly understand various difficult passages and to properly correlate different types of verses, this principle ought to act as a powerful motivator to each of us as believers to live out a faithful life of rigorous discipleship. Because eternal life is a free gift received by faith alone, we are not called on to serve God in order to gain, keep, or know that we have it. Instead, as those who are secure in their possession of eternal life (1 Jn 5:9-13), we ought to freely and faithfully respond to our Gracious God, while at the same time realizing that we do face a future evaluation of our lives before our Lord at the Bema.
Believers are not to walk with God because we fear that He is dangling us over hell and may drop us if we don’t constantly measure up. Instead, we are to serve Him out of gratitude for the free gift of eternal life He has given us and with the sober realization that we will ultimately undergo a critical evaluation of our Christian experience.
The Biblical contrast between the unconditionally free gift of eternal life and the conditional reception of eternal rewards must be recognized and appreciated if one is to properly interpret and apply what the Bible teaches about salvation and the Christian life. Truly our Gracious Savior is also a Righteous Judge.
Brad McCoy is the Pastor of Tanglewood Bible Fellowship in Duncan, Oklahoma and is a member of the GES board.