There exists a great confusion in the minds of many today who think they want to think in biblical terms. This confusion swirls around the fact that the Bible seems to teach that grace is an undemanding characteristic of God which enables Him to give extensive benefits to folk who do not deserve any benefit. On the other hand, the Bible is also replete with imperative-voice verbs (do this and do not do that). Since everyone knows the difference between advice (which can be taken or ignored without conflict) and demand (which inserts the possibility of relationship breakdown into the arena), everyone seems to struggle with the relationship of demand to grace.
This confusion has made its presence known clearly within the pale of "Christendom". On the one hand, "Christendom" has those groups within it which clearly declare that the benefit of salvation is extended only to those whose behavior follows a certain, and clearly delineated, path. These groups, whether far-out cultic entities or closer-in denominational entities, universally hold to one central tenet: if one's behavior does not measure up to "snuff", that one will be rejected by God when the issue of entrance into heaven comes into question. "Snuff" is determined by the particularities of the doctrines held by the entity under discussion at any given time.
On the other hand, "Christendom" also has those groups within it which clearly declare that the benefit of salvation is extended only to those who reject the notion that salvation comes as a result of the measurement of actions against a standard of "snuff" and embrace the dogma that salvation comes as the result of simply believing a promise of God consisting of eternal life on the basis of the performance of Jesus Christ alone. These groups also vary widely in the details of their dogmatic doctrinal positions, but they hold one central tenet together: if one has believed the promise of eternal life which God has made, that one will be accepted by God when entrance into heaven becomes the issue under question, regardless of the number and/or severity of sins that the person in question has been guilty of committing.
Now, if the issues of salvation were only ideological and theological, there would be no confusion. Either God gives eternal life to those who behave, or He gives eternal life to those who believe. But, the issues of salvation are not primarily ideological or theological. They are relational. There is no salvation apart from the establishment of a relationship between God and the person who is to experience salvation. Everywhere in Scripture the metaphors of salvation are relational. New birth into the family of God...Adoption as sons by the Father of lights...translation out of a kingdom where people do injury to each other into a kingdom where the people do righteous things to each other..."depart from Me...I never knew you"..."this is life eternal, that they might know You"...a kingdom of priests who do adoring service to their God...a household of brothers and sisters... a building where each stone is connected in a living way to the stones surrounding it, etc. So, having a nice and neat ideology and/or theology is not primarily the solution. Instead, one must understand relationships. What is it that the Person who offers life requires for a man to have a relationship with Him?
On the one hand, is a relationship established with God if one views eternal life as a possession rather than an experience? Is having a ticket to heaven what eternal life is, or is it having an unstrained personal relationship with another Person? On the other hand, is a relationship established with God if one views heaven as something obtained by duty? Can a relationship stand the strain of pride that puts everything in that relationship on a "I have done this and you must do that" basis?If a person wants a de-personalized eternity, he wants Hell. If he wants a personalized eternity, but he wants it in terms in which he gets all that he wants at someone else's expense, he is trying to create Hell. On the other hand, if a person wants a personalized eternity that is based upon, not what he gets but what he gives to others, he wants the Heaven of Scripture, and the God of the Bible.
Now, the central question is: what does a relationship require? And the answer is simple. It requires that those in it have a fundamental interest in contributing to the positive experience of the others in it. If God is any example, it requires that those in it give up the demand for benefit and commit themselves to the effort of communicating benefit. God, Who could gain nothing by submitting to death, gave up His life in order to provide it for those who had nothing to give Him. He is the essence of eternal life. Only those who come into conformity with His likeness will experience eternal life.
But, what does that mean doctrinally?
Several things. First, it means that God must he seen in the salvation issue as One Who gives without requirement of reciprocation (this is salvation by grace).
But, it also means that those who receive salvation became as He is (this is salvation through faith) because there is no salvation if one receives a permanent permission to enter and live in a City along with permission to continue to be self centered and self seeking at others' expense. Such a 'salvation' would simply turn the City into Hell. The relationships of the City will stand on mutual self-giving. Chaos and Hell will stand on taking what one can get at whatever cost to others.
Thirdly, it means that something must be said about God's plan to extend a gracious salvation that will yield a kingdom of righteousness for all of eternity.
So. let's consider these doctrinally important things because they impinge upon the reality of how relationships work.
First, salvation is by grace. That means that God extends the offer of eternal life, with all of the necessary parts and elements (justification, sanctification, glorification, and a new creation and city in which to function), without any demand for reciprocity. This means that a person can accept the gift just an instant before physical death and receive the fulfillment of the promise extended: eternal life. Since it is by grace, there are no action-demands connected, otherwise grace is no more grace.
Second, salvation is by faith. This is where the confusion begins to creep in. Everyone knows that what a person believes has a direct impact upon what a person does. What everyone does not seem to know is that, though action springs from belief, the heart, which is the host and sponsor of the belief, is incredibly complex and confused. In other words, no one knows the heart.
This simple fact has all kinds of implications for the confusion that reigns. The extreme complexity of the heart, with its myriad of secret passages and walls of ignorance, means that a host of patent contradictions can live simultaneously in the same home. Therefore, a person can actually believe the promise of God and, because of the hidden motives (unknown even to the heart's possessor) and walls of ignorance of the heart, patently contradict, by actions taken, that promise in any given situation. In other words, Abraham can attempt to deceive the king about his relationship to Sarah out of fear for his life in spite of the fact that there is no possibility that his life is in danger as long as Sarah is not pregnant and still, within his confused heart, have actually believed God's promise of a son.
But, such confusion cannot persist indefinitely without the creation of significant relationship breakdowns. So, God's offer of eternal life, though it makes no action-demands upon the person who is receiving it, is not extended apart from faith. Faith becomes the active ingredient in God's plan to re-program the heart. God's plan is to have faith accept more and more of the Truth's fundamental identity statements so that improper hidden motives become exposed and rejected by the believer and walls of ignorance are torn down so that the implications of the promises are more clearly seen in relation to the situations of life. As the hidden motives are tested, exposed, and rejected; and the links between life and promises made by God are made clear, Abraham becomes capable of taking the son of his love up on a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice knowing that God will raise him from the dead because the promise of a seed through the son has not yet been fulfilled.
This means that reciprocity will begin to occur. God does not require it in grace, but faith will cause it to happen as a by-product. God's requirement of faith is not a sly method of turning grace into demand (Law). It is, rather. God's method of altering the dominion of Sin over the heart so that righteousness can be done.
Now, this means that salvation by grace through faith is a planned method of producing a kingdom of righteous servants/sons.
However, the complexity of the heart, the strength of indwelling Sin, and the shortness of temporal, in-this-body, life, all contrive together to keep the process from full accomplishment in this flesh. So, God has a final plan to complete the process instantaneously at the point of rapture or death. That final step is the elimination of the final barriers in the heart so that the person entering the kingdom of eternity can be capable of only doing righteousness always.
This might raise some questions about the reason why God saves some folk just before their physical departure from this life, and He saves others years and years before that event. However, those questions are answered by remembering that positions in the Kingdom to come are assigned in relation to the outcome of the Judgment Seat of Christ which ultimately clarifies just how much progress in the faith had occurred in the person's life on this earth. Those who had come to believe many truths, whose hearts had been exercised to dispose of false motives and break down walls of ignorance, will be given high responsibilities. Those who had only believed a few truths, who either died soon after entering their relationship with God, or resisted the process of heart-transformation, will be assigned lesser responsibilities.
To sum up, then, the issues of salvation are issues of grace and faith. If grace is seen as demanding reciprocity, the gospel of grace has been altered into some form of Galatianism. And, if faith is seen as not affecting the perspective of the heart (out of which the actions spring) faith has been altered into some form of what Jude described as turning the grace of God into license by belief of false dogma.
The proclamation of the gospel must take these factors into consideration. If there is a climate of profession of faith that does not include heart-alteration, James' effort (which was written to address just such a climate) needs to be pursued. But, if there is a climate of the use of the term "grace" that does not embrace the absence of works-demands, there needs to be a pursuit of Paul's Roman clarification of the essence of grace.
The significant point here is that the truth of the gospel must be preached according to the climate into which it is announced. Those inclined to abuse grace (who make it ineffectual in producing heirs of a righteous kingdom) need to be exhorted to believe. Those inclined to abuse faith (who make it a subtle demand for works) need to be exhorted to receive as from grace.