In my many years of being a Christian and working in evangelical Christian ministry I’ve encountered what I think are three common gospel distortions of how grace, faith, and works are to be understood in salvation. These are so common that I, at one time or another, have held all three of these unbiblical perspectives. And I still have to be careful and diligent so that I don’t fall back into the distortions. In this article, I’ll briefly introduce these three errors and then spend the latter part of my article discussing the meaning and importance of salvation by grace.

Three Gospel Distortions

1. The Legalist
There are different types of legalism (or law keeping) as it relates to salvation and the living of the Christian life.1 Perhaps the worst kind is holding the view that by doing good works or by obeying God’s law, a person can actually earn or merit salvation. This is patently unbiblical and contrary to historic Christianity, as we’ll see below. 

But my foray into legalism was much more subtle and less detectable. Almost imperceptibly, I came to think that by performing certain behaviors and avoiding others, I would become more fully accepted by God. I did believe in salvation by grace through faith in Christ and not by works. But early in my Christian life I thought that by not drinking alcohol and not watching certain television programs, God would find me more acceptable.

Of course, for some people there are good reasons not to drink alcohol or watch television programs that contain content that conflicts with Christian truth and virtue. So followers of Christ need to examine their conscience in light of Scripture and decide which debatable activities they will or will not involve themselves in (see Romans 14). 

My error was in thinking that by avoiding these activities, I was contributing something extra to God’s saving grace. I was similar to the Pharisee in Luke 18:9–14 in thanking God that, unlike others, I didn’t drink alcohol or watch worldly television programs. I’m sure my self-righteousness rubbed other Christians the wrong way.

Yet the reality is that all those who are trusting Christ by faith are already fully accepted by God’s loving grace. As the apostle Paul declared:

“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21)

All Christians need God’s constant grace to grow in sanctification (transformation into the moral image of Christ). But that growth is the fruit of grace, not something added to it.

2. The Libertine
Unfortunately, in reaction to legalism there were other times in my Christian life where I rebounded to the other extreme. I would describe this view as reflecting the sentiment that since I’m now grace-oriented, I don’t need to be as vigilant about living a holy life (called libertinism2).

This view is equally a distortion of how to live the Christian life. As we’ll see later, it’s God’s saving grace that teaches believers to strive for a life that reflects gratitude and godliness.

Again the apostle Paul declared:

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1–2)

All Christians, in our lifelong process of sanctification, have liberty in Christ. But libertinism contradicts saving grace, which motivates true virtue and the doing of good works.

3. The Unlovable
Another position I’ve wrestled with, especially as an older Christian, is reflected in the view that God is so holy and my sin is so great that God could not possibly love and forgive me. My specific struggle here is with the cognitive dissonance between claiming to believe so deeply in God’s grace, love, and forgiveness and yet knowing that my life often doesn’t reflect corresponding graciousness, loving-kindness, and forgiveness to other people. This hypocrisy is sometimes jarring.

But God’s grace, love, and forgiveness knows no human bounds. Once more I draw your attention to the apostle Paul’s declarative theological conclusions:

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

Believers in Christ must confess their sins and accept the reality of the Lord’s ongoing forgiveness even for besetting sins. As the apostle John says:

 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8–9)

Salvation by Grace
In understanding our salvation and how we’re justified and sanctified, we must remind ourselves of two important points:

(1) We are saved by grace, not by works.

(2) Saving grace motivates the believer to pursue godliness.

Here again is Paul the apostle:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Regarding these two critical verses, allow me to quote two of my favorite contemporary theologians. Reflecting my ecumenist spirit, one is Reformed and the other Wesleyan.

Presbyterian theologian John Jefferson Davis comments on Ephesians 2:8–9:

“The basis of our salvation is grace; faith is the instrument through which we receive it. This faith should not be misconstrued as a form of spiritual works.”3

And here’s Methodist theologian Thomas Oden on the same passage:

“Grace is the divine good will offered to those who do not deserve it and can never earn it.”4

Oden further notes: “By grace the sovereign God freely moves toward sinners to offer reconciling forgiveness, a new birth of freedom, and adoption into the family of God.”5

Takeaway
In contrast to the three tangled gospel views above, here’s the Scriptural pattern for salvation in terms of justification (an event of divine acquittal) and then sanctification (a process toward holiness that isn’t completed in this life).

We are:

  • Saved by Grace
  • Through Faith
  • In Christ 
  • Not by Works
  • Saving Grace Motivates Good Works

May God’s amazing grace give you abiding peace and rest for your soul.

Reflections: Your Turn 
Have you wrestled with any of these three gospel distortions?

Resources

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes 

1. See theologian R. C. Sproul, “3 Types of Legalism,” Ligonier, July 17, 2019.

2. See Theopedia, “Antinomianism,” accessed March 6, 2024.

3. John Jefferson Davis, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine & Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 90.

4. Thomas C. Oden, The Justification Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 81.5. Oden, Justification Reader, 81–82.

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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