Being Saved versus Am Saved

by John Ellis

The colloquial aphorism “saved by the skin of your teeth” was an integral part of the theological lexicon of my youth. To be clear, it wasn’t part of my personal lexicon; I wasn’t saved in any capacity. It was, however, uttered on a fairly regular basis by the preachers, Bible teachers, and other assorted authority figures that stood or sat behind the pulpits, lecterns, and desks I was forced to sit in front of.

Even for those unfamiliar with the specific saying, its meaning may not be foreign to their theological position. In essence, it’s a hyper reflection of the evangelistic soteriological emphasis on asking Jesus into your heart. In that emphasis, repeating the sinner’s prayer saves you from the fires of hell. And once saved, always saved. What a person does after the moment of decision has no bearing on their eternal state, in this view. The prayer asking Jesus into your heart carves your name into the Lamb’s Book of Life, and no one and nothing can erase it. Frequently, the belief was articulated by sad reflections undergirded by eschatological triumphalism – as in, “It’s such a shame that so-and-so has turned back to his drinking and carousing, but, praise God, he’s saved by the skin of his teeth.”[1]

Much harm and confusion have been sown by what is known as “easy believism.”[2] Sadly, I’ve been told by those who are boldly living in sin and do not currently claim to be a Christian that if the Bible is true, they are a Christian; they prayed the sinner’s prayer, they maintain, asking Jesus into their heart, after all. And since they “really believed” it at the time, the Bible declares them saved.

My sadness over the smugness with which that declaration has been delivered is always threatened to be swamped by my anger at the theological system that fed them that nonsense.

Likewise, dear saints who love Jesus have insisted to me that their wayward, rebellious children who are boldly living in sin and do not claim to be Christian are, in fact, saved because they once prayed the sinner’s prayer and asked Jesus into their heart. Alongside an unhelpful almost magical hope in a prayer, this view leaves Christians with an incomplete understanding of the Christian life and what their salvation entails.

Even if they don’t cognitively adhere to “easy believism,” much less heard the saying “saved by the skin of your teeth,” a large percentage, if not the majority, of evangelicals in this country have adopted the same out-of-balance perspective on salvation leading to an anemic view of the Christian life. The reason, I believe, can largely be attributed to the post-Enlightenment revivalist instincts that have upended the Bible’s soteriological emphasis combined with the fact that our natural condition is one of sinful, self-serving pride.

The Enlightenment thinkers valued individualism, and this country places a high value on the self-determined individual – autonomous expressive individualism. This can be seen, among other places, in the Epicurean influenced Declaration of Independence. With the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” borrowing epistemic weight from the ancient poem On the Nature of Things by the Epicurean disciple and missionary Lucretius, Thomas Jefferson helped shoehorn contra-Biblical beliefs into the fabric of American society. And, demonstrating the veracity of the Bible’s claims about the deceitfulness of our heart and our fallen condition, we have been more than happy to embrace the self-serving autonomous individualism that is one of the more sacrosanct tenets of our culture.

Many of our evangelical churches (including independent Baptist and Bible fundamentalist churches) have layers of self-help ideology woven throughout them.[3] While the seeker sensitive movement may have codified certain marketing practices into American evangelicalism, the modern movement didn’t invent appealing to the self in order to attract congregants. In their book The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark include an entire chapter explaining how, “The Upstart Sects Win America.”[4]

In that chapter, the pair detail how America’s great revivalists of previous centuries – primarily George Whitefield and Charles Finney – used advanced marketing techniques to coax “spontaneous outbursts” of religiosity out of pre-planned and highly organized meetings made up of future congregants for the local churches. Many of their efforts (especially Finney’s) mirrored one of the main reasons that explains the astonishing growth during the 19th century of Finke and Stark’s “upstart sects,” the Methodists and the Baptists. Including taking advantage of America’s burgeoning free market in ways that the mainline denominations did not, the “upstart sects” tapped into the fiercely independent and individualistic spirit of this country. Charles Finney was a master at it. The highly individualistic-focused and self-help-leaning emphasis on making a one-off, individual decision at a crisis point hit all the right notes in the hearts of those who believed that self-betterment was within their reach.

Underlining the Enlightenment’s influence, throughout the history of our country and its evangelical movement, phrases like the ones below have abounded:

No king but God.

Just me and my Bible.

I love Jesus, not religion.

I’m looking for a church that offers fill-in-the-blank program or ministry that meets the specific (individualistic) needs of me and my family.

The church’s music doesn’t speak to me.

The preacher doesn’t include enough applications in his sermons.

A quick perusal of the most popular Christian books, music, and other resources will unmask the continued strangle-hold that independence, individualism, and self-affirmation autonomy have over much of evangelicalism (including fundamentalism) in this country. This is an unfortunate mirroring of the sins of larger society, never minding that God’s people are called to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-16).

And this independence and individualism is reflected in how soteriology is taught and viewed in many of our churches and by a large percentage of Americans who profess to be Christians. Our almost exclusive focus on regeneration when discussing salvation bears this out. Except, this focus is not the focus of the New Testament writers. And the competing focuses between the New Testament and contemporary evangelicalism creates confusion and even consternation, especially regarding the book of James. Thankfully, though, an honest look at James, especially in light of Paul’s complimentary letters, will help push back on our out-of-balance perspective on salvation.

James 2:14 asks a question that serves to theologically undermine all levels of easy believism. In a book filled with proverbial sayings calling Believers to “spiritual wholeness,”[5] to steal Douglas Moo’s description of James’ main theme, the half-brother of our Lord and Savior challenges his readers by asking, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”

That verse has caused many furrowed brows and much confusion as modern evangelicals have attempted to synthesize it with their entrenched (and mostly unaware) out-of-balance embrace of regeneration at the expense of a robust and biblically informed holistic understanding of soteriology. “But I am saved,” the thought goes. “And I’m saved once and for all by faith in Jesus.” Frankly, our reductionist view of soteriology is contradicted by James’ questions. And, as all good evangelicals know, God is not a God of confusion. So, then, we puzzle, what are we to make of James?

To be fair, we humans have not needed Enlightenment ideology to stoke the fires of confusion and even suspicion over the book of James.

Owing in large part to the particular theological battles of his day, even Martin Luther viewed the book of James with skepticism. Never going so far as renouncing the book’s place in the canon, Luther did essentially relegate it to a position of lesser-than among the New Testament books, placing it at the very end of his German translation; almost like an appendix to the “real Bible.” The book An Introduction to the New Testament tells us that, “James came in for its most severe criticism at the hands of Luther. His passionate embrace of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone as the heart of Scripture made it difficult for him to accept James.”[6]

While, I think, we can somewhat empathize with Luther’s skepticism of James, considering the theological battles he was waging, contemporary confusion over the book is owing to the conflation of Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith to an over-realized and almost exclusive embrace of regeneration when using the word “saved.”

The late Presbyterian theologian Louis Berkhof explained that, “The Greek word for ‘regeneration’ (palingenesia) is found only in Matt. 19:28 and Titus 3:5; and only in the last passage does it refer to the beginning of the life in the individual Christian.”[7] He then adds that the concept of our new life in Christ is most often located in the Greek words gennao and anagennao, “mean[ing] either to beget, to beget again, or to bear or give birth [emphasis kept].”[8]

Those who have read and studied Jesus’ wonderful and beautiful words to Nicodemus in John 3 probably already have a good understanding of the theological implications of words like “to beget” and “give birth.” However, for the sake of defining terms as well as simplicity, let’s look to Wayne Grudem who says, “We may define regeneration as follows: Regeneration is a secret act of God in which he imparts new spiritual life to us. This is sometimes called ‘being born again’ (using language from John 3:3-8) [emphasis kept].”[9]

Grudem goes on to point out that, “Exactly what happens in regeneration is mysterious to us.”[10] One thing is sure, though, and Grudem points this out as well, that, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).”

Amen. And when people use the word “saved” as a synonym for this one-off event/act of God, I again say amen and praise God! Unfortunately, though (and that’s a qualified “unfortunately” that I’ll explain below), things like our repentance and faith and even our prayer asking Jesus into our heart are often folded into that word, too, in a way that leaves the rest of our salvation out. Except, though, and borrowing again from Grudem, our salvation cannot be reduced to the act of “regeneration [that] takes place at a clearly recognizable time at which the person realizes that previously he or she was separated from God and spiritually dead, but immediately afterward there was clearly new spiritual life within.”[11]

Look, I believe and rejoice in the truth-filled and helpful explanation/definition from Wayne Grudem. So much so, that when people ask me for my testimony, at some point I generally say something like, “By God’s grace, I was saved in the early morning of July 7, 2004.” That was the moment for me when I realized that I had previously been separated from God and spiritually dead but was now made alive by grace through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, I do so with the realization that I am reducing my salvation to regeneration and that the New Testament writers, like James, most frequently use the word saved in a much more holistic manner.

Here’s what I mean: In short, I am saved, using an incomplete definition of the word. But, gloriously, I recognize that the New Testament teaches that I am being saved, using the word in its full soteriological import.

While I do not make it a habit of disagreeing with the usually indubitable J.A. Motyer (especially not publicly), I’m not sure I agree with the theologian when he contends that “James, of course, knows that he is being impish and provocative”[12] when the apostle asks at the end of verse 14, “Can that faith save him?” I understand what Motyer is getting at – that faith is so central to the Doctrine of Salvation as to make James’ question shocking. It’s definitely shocking for many modern-day readers; I’m just not sure that the initial audience – probably Christians living in the mid to late 40s of the first century – would’ve faced the same temptations regarding exegetical missteps as those of us shaped by the evangelicalism of the post-Enlightenment world.

For starters, as Robert L. Plummer points out in the ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews – Revelation, “The question is not ‘Shall faith be able to save him?’ (so the Douay-Rheims translation), but rather, ‘Can that faith save him?’ (ESV) [emphasis kept].”[13] Motyer explains, “James offers something of a definition of the faith which he is examining. It is a mere matter of claim, a formally correct statement, but its doctrinal credibility does not issue in a new direction of life.”[14]

Obviously, our ancient brothers and sisters in Christ wouldn’t have needed to navigate the sticky wicket of translating a dead language into contemporary vernacular, much less dealing with the complexities of philology. In other words, I believe that the letter’s original recipients would’ve been more likely to understand that James isn’t talking about saving faith, to begin with.

For another thing, the range of meanings contained in the Greek word (so­zo)[15] translated “save” would’ve been much more accessible to 1st century readers/hearers, enabling them to better differentiate between saving faith and dead faith. For those of us accustomed to seeing “regeneration” as the main, if not only, synonym for “saved,” we most likely miss the eschatological view with which the New Testament writers, including James, used the Greek word sozo that we translate “save” or “saved.”

Plummer urges us to realize that, “It is important to remember that when the NT authors use the verb sozo (‘save’) to refer to salvation … they are usually referring to a future deliverance from God’s wrath at the final judgment (e.g., Rom. 5:10).”[16] Douglas Moo warns, “This perspective is important to keep in mind if we are to understand James’s theology correctly.”[17]

My point being, James isn’t claiming that works save us, referencing our regeneration which is solely a mysterious act of God. Instead, what he is teaching is complimentary to Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

While Paul uses a different Greek work in Phil. 2:12 than the word translated “save” in James, the concept of a “full-orbed ultimate salvation”[18] is still its beating heart. As Frank Thielman makes clear, “although Paul can occasionally refer to salvation as a past event (Rom. 8:24; Eph. 2:5, 8; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5, most of his references to it place it in the future, and he often connects it with the Day of the Lord (I Cor. 5:5; cf. 3:15; Rom. 13:11; 1 Thess. 5:9). Those who have been justified can be assured that they will be saved, but their salvation awaits the final day.”[19]

Of course, Paul doesn’t contradict his beloved statements about salvation by faith any more than James does. Like James, Paul’s eschatological perspective places the entirety of the Christian life in view and not just the moment of regeneration. And this takes us back to what James’ says in 2:14-16. Evidence of saving faith is fruit – works. Lack of fruit – works – in the life of those who claim to have faith, like the hypothetical speaker in verse 14, demonstrate that they, in fact, are not in Christ and are not experiencing all the benefits that come with being one of his – the benefits of genuine saving faith. This should not surprise followers of Jesus or cause them to stumble because earlier in the New Testament, our King already laid the theological foundation for this (and framed it, nailed the sheetrock up, and painted most of it).

In John 15:1-11 Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, that his true followers will bear fruit. Full stop. No debate. No controversy. Just simple and clear statements like, “By this my Father is glorified, that you may bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciple (verse 8),” and “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love (verse 10).”

In other words, there is no such thing as “saved by the skin of your teeth.” And that has implications (applications) for our life as followers of Jesus. As Paul said, we need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. And James tells us that good works is the evidence that our salvation is coming to pass and will one day be fully realized upon the return of King Jesus. And we will not be fully saved until that Final Day.

None of this means that we are left to strive through sweating and tears to make sure that we’re a true Christian. Paul doesn’t stop at Phil. 2:12 but adds in verse 13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Jesus promised that after his ascension back to the Father, his Spirit would come and indwell those whom the Father gave him. Christians have the Holy Spirit moving and working as he makes us more and more like Christ. Our sanctification is a promise.

Instead of the command to produce fruit being a discouragement, the fact that “it is God who work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” makes that command a joy. We can battle sin in full faith knowing that God will give us victory; final victory over a specific sin may not happen until our physical death or Jesus’ return, but the victory is assured. We can share the gospel in full faith knowing that the Holy Spirit is the one who brings forth the fruit; no matter what, our efforts will not be in vain and God will be glorified. We can pursue holiness in the full knowledge that our pursuit makes very real gains and that one day we will be glorified.  

Unfortunately, easy believism, at whatever level it’s infected our understanding of salvation, actively works against the glorious commands and truths from Jesus, Paul, and James. Contrary to the claims of easy believism, and according to the New Testament writers, we are not saved; we are being saved and the fruit we bear, our works, is evidence of that.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] For the record, I’m not opposed to the phrase “ask Jesus into your heart.” Much ado about nothing has been made of it recently. At no time during my childhood (or adulthood) did I even think that the statement meant that Jesus lived in a person’s literal heart. Even as a child, I knew that those who said it meant it as metaphor of sorts. If you don’t understand the obvious metaphor, that’s on you and not the metaphor – not to mention, that like how I harbor a healthy dose of skepticism towards adults who claim to be afraid of clowns, I probably won’t believe you if you say that you thought it meant a literal heart. No one over the age of 4 thinks the saying is referring to our literal heart.

[2] Driving around the country, I’ve seen many billboards containing the words of the sinner’s prayer; some variation of, “I’m a sinner, please forgive me, Jesus, and come into my heart.” That’s it. No website. No follow up words of wisdom. Nothing. Based on conversations I’ve had with others and sermons and Bible lessons I’ve heard, I suspect that some of the billboards were erected by people who genuinely believe that if someone driving by reads those words, they’re saved. On the extreme side of easy believism are those who literally treat the sinner’s prayer as a magic formula – get someone to say the words, and they’re saved and it doesn’t matter if they renounce it in the next instance. Free will is only applicable on one side of salvation, I guess.

[3] Side note: there is a great post on Medium about how the Enneagram phenomenon is part and parcel of evangelicals love of self-help and self-affirmation. You can read that piece by clicking here.

[4] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers In Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 54-108.

[5] Douglas Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 46.

[6] D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 417.

[7] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 465.

[8] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 465.

[9] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 699.

[10] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 701.

[11] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 701.

[12] J.A. Motyer, The Message of James, BST (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985), 106.

[13] Robert L. Plummer, “James” in ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews – Revelation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 250.

[14] Motyer, The Message of James, 108.

[15] There should be accent marks – a line – over both lower case “o’s,” but I don’t know how to do that and my Google search was fruitless. This footnote stands for all other ancient Greek letters missing accents that I may type.

[16] Plummer, “James” in ESV Expository Commentary, 238-39

[17] Moo, The Letter of James, 88.

[18] Frank Thielman, Philippians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 137.

[19] Thielman, Philippians, 137-8.

3 thoughts on “Being Saved versus Am Saved

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