by Kelly Birks
“Not only is there absolutely nothing you can do to merit your salvation, there is nothing you can do to keep your salvation.” With my arms outstretched and one of my index fingers punctuating the air for emphasis, the congregation before me was impacted not only with the truth of the text of our study (John 10:27-29), but also by the fact that the man before them was somehow different. The difference was not by human design, but by divine encounter.
I have discovered anew that propositional biblical truth changes the believer even when the believer thinks change is for the other person. Jesus said in John 8:31-32 “If you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
I used to think that the truth about salvation and the truth about how to know you are saved ran something like this: “Do you want to know Christ as your personal Savior? Yes? Then pray this prayer after me: Lord Jesus, I’m sorry for my sins; I repent from my sins. I ask that you become my Lord and Savior. Fill me with your Holy Spirit, and make me a new creation. I confess you as my Lord and believe in my heart that God has raised You from the dead. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Can you pick out the biblical truth from the religious “piggy back” error? I say “piggy back” because there were several biblical sayings that came along for the ride, but really there was only one thing that I said that biblically “hit the mark” when it came to regeneration. That one thing was believe. Consider the following verses from John: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have [now as a present possession] everlasting life” (3:16); “He who believes in Him is not condemned” (3:18); “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life” (3:36); “He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment” (5:24); “He who believes in Me shall never thirst” (6:35); “That everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (6:40).
As a pastor who was schooled in a theological tradition and had the lenses of a prejudiced hermeneutic properly fitted to his faith, I found it very difficult to accept a kind of grace that didn’t include at least some measure of responsibility when it came to one’s final salvation.
My pilgrimage toward my present Free Grace position began many years ago. I recall times of personal Bible reading, meditation, and waiting on the Lord when I would read passages like the ones quoted above and be completely comfortable with taking the words of Jesus as conditional. I knew that He had said those things, but surely it was not a complete guarantee of eternal life. After all, didn’t Jesus warn elsewhere in the Gospel of John that “if anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:6)? I read a passage like this (and others such as Matt 3:8-12; 7:19; 13:24-30; Rom 11:22; Col 1:22-23) as certainly promising salvation; but it was a conditional salvation. While all the time agreeing that salvation was by grace through faith, I also saw these “warning” passages teaching that a true believer could apostatize from Christ and forfeit eternal life. My understanding confused passages that spoke of a loss of rewards with eternal punishment, even though rewards are clearly taught in passages such as 1 Cor 3:8-15 and 2 Cor 5:10-11. Even using my Greek NT didn’t deliver me from the blindness that caused me to read one thing and see another (a kind of exegetical mirage).
Thankfully, God is faithful. I believe the Holy Spirit had not only kept me from teaching my congregation a full-blown conditional Lordship Salvation theology, but was also guiding me into more truth (John 16:13). We had recently received a new member into our fellowship. As he and I got to know each other we could both tell that when it came to “once saved, always saved” we were at opposite ends of the spectrum. We debated the issue. I had Scripture for my Lordship position and he had Scripture for his. I know I out-quoted him, but that didn’t matter. Something inside me was changing. I began to research works by Joseph Dillow and Zane Hodges. After a while a publication called Grace in Focus followed by a crimson journal with gold stamped lettering (Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society) came into my hands. Finally I was told, “Kelly, not only can no one take you out of Christ’s hands, you can’t take yourself out!” It was like seeing the black and white picture on a television screen go to color for the first time. My theological grid of interpretation came down all at once. The passages of Scripture I once saw as necessary to my former position have since been adjusted and re-illuminated through the fine tuning of the Holy Spirit.
My former position (a Christian can apostatize and thereby lose his or her salvation) and the amount of Scripture I could amass to support this position is not without its uses. As a pastor I am still very much in the business of clearing up the state of confusion that exists among my brothers and sisters in Christ relative to their eternal destinies.
To state that I am grateful to my King does not begin to express the joy in which I now walk. The charge that a total dependency on the work of Christ to keep one saved without works leads to antinomianism not only has no biblical support, but in reality shows a lack of concrete knowledge of what the Scripture says about salvation.
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37, emphasis added). “Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition [Judas, who never was saved]” (John 17:12, emphasis added). Once we add anything at any time to faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, we have reduced that which is acceptable to God to that which is filthy and defiled (Isa 64:6).
There is nothing quite like having the privilege of standing before a group of people and explaining the truth of salvation by grace through faith. What a blessing it is to see the lights go on in the eyes as the truth connects and sets people free from the curse of having to try to maintain their own salvation.
I will continue to preach and practice the walk of love with our Savior by spending time in the Word and in prayer, and by doing the Word through service to others; but I will never relinquish my grip on the precious treasure that God has given to me. “He whom the Son has set free is free indeed!”
Kelly Birks lives with his wife Brenda, daughters Janae, Lisette, and Wendy, and son, Brendan, in Omaha, NE where he is the senior pastor of the Evangelical Friends Church.