When Are We Saved?

From Issue: R&R – Issue 43 #12

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was written by A.P. auxiliary writer Dr. Donnie DeBord (Th.M. and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). Dr. DeBord is an assistant professor of Systematic Theology and Bible at Freed-Hardeman University.]

When and how are sinners saved? Are sinners saved by faith or by works? Does God save without obedience? Faith and works are often put in contrast to one another when perhaps it would be better to understand belief and works as essential to faith. Abraham believed God’s promise in Genesis 12 and acted on faith. In Genesis 15, God reassured Abraham of the covenant. Abraham believed God and his faith was counted as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s faith was already proven to be an obedient faith. Paul later argued that Abraham was justified by faith without “works of the law” (Romans 4:1-12) to argue the superiority of “faith” over the Mosaic covenant, which was not given for centuries after Abraham. It seems that Paul wanted his readers in Rome to know they could be justified just like Abraham, who was justified by faith—obedient faith—without the law of Moses.1

Belief and works are two sides of the same coin. Those who are “just” or “righteous” are those who actively “live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). What “matters” is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Hebrews 11:6 reminds us that to be a person of faith is to actively “draw near to God” and then to be rewarded for seeking him. Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:1-3), but Abraham’s faith “was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” Therefore, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:22-24, ESV). To believe is to obey.

Christians are “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1) and “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). This is no contradiction. Instead, belief and works are inseparable in the Christian life. Faith can be seen (Matthew 9:2). Christians are described as “faithful”—those who are actively living in the faith. The faithful servant is the one who is actively prepared for his Master’s return (Matthew 24:45; 25:23). Barnabas encouraged Christians to be “faithful to the Lord” (Acts 11:23).

Paul demonstrated the necessity of belief and action in Galatians 3:26-27 when he said: “you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Christians are “justified by faith,” and that justification by faith begins at baptism. The soon-to-be Christians in Acts 2 were “cut to the heart” and asked what they should do in Acts 2:37. It seems safe to say these individuals believed the truth about Jesus in verse 37. However, they were still “in sin” rather than “in Christ.” So, they were required to “repent and be baptized” to receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Their belief was incomplete without repentance and baptism.

Baptism is not a human work by which salvation is earned. Instead, baptism is a work of God in which salvation is bestowed. Colossians 2:11-14 shows that God is the primary worker in baptism. Christians are “buried with him in baptism,” “raised with him through faith,” “made alive together with him,” and “forgiven.” The individual is baptized, but God is the one who works to bring about salvation. The struggle between belief and works is better seen as the union of trust and submission.

This union of belief and action is also demonstrated by Martin Luther in his “Treatise on Baptism.” There Luther said, “there is on earth no greater comfort than baptism, for through it we come under the judgment of grace and mercy, which does not condemn our sins, but drives them out by many trials.” Luther went on to say, “There is a fine sentence of St. Augustine, which says, ‘Sin is altogether forgiven in baptism; not in such wise that it is no longer present, but in such wise that it is not taken into account.’”2 Luther said “a man becomes in baptism guiltless, pure, and sinless…. This faith is of all things the most necessary, for it is the ground of all comfort.”3 Following Luther, it seems John Calvin also saw no contradiction between belief and obedience. Calvin said, “[T]hey who regarded baptism as nothing but a token and mark by which we confess our religion before men, as soldiers bear the insignia of their commander as a mark of their profession, have not weighed what was the chief point of baptism. It is to receive baptism with this promise: ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved’ [Mark 16:16].”4 The premodern consensus was that God worked when individuals were baptized.

In this discussion, it is helpful to remember that neither faith nor works are meritorious acts by which salvation is earned. God “purchased the church with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Paul said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).5 Whoever desires may “take of the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). Salvation is received by those who believe (John 3:16) and obey (John 3:36).6 But salvation rests upon the promise and work of God. This great truth is summarized in Titus 3:4-7, as Paul taught that God “saved us” but “not because of works done by us in righteousness.” Rather, salvation is bestowed when belief is met with obedience in baptism, which is “the washing of regeneration.”


1 For a brief study of faith and obedience in Romans, see Dave Miller (2021), “The Obedience of Faith in Romans,” Reason & Revelation, March, 41[3]:34-35,

2 Martin Luther, “A Treatise on the Holy Sacrament of Baptism 1519,” Works of Martin Luther, 1:62.

3 Ibid., 1:63.

4 John Calvin (1960), Institutes of the Christian Religion: Volume 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster), IV, xv, 2.

5 For a study on grace, faith, and works in Ephesians, see Eric Lyons (2020), “Ephesians 2:8-9: Contradictory, or Perfectly Consistent?,” Reason & Revelation, October, 40[10]:110-113,116-119,

6 For a study of faith and obedience in John 3, see Eric Lyons (2019), “‘Believing’ in John 3:16,” Reason & Revelation, September, 39[9]:98-101,104-107,


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