Can You Earn Salvation?

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Can You Earn Salvation?

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The Bible says very clearly that salvation cannot be earned through works. The apostle Paul writes, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation is a free gift from God received after genuine repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38-40).

However, salvation is something we are capable of losing. The author of Hebrews warns that it is possible to "neglect so great a salvation" (Hebrews 2:3) if we do not "give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away" (Hebrews 2:1). So how do we avoid neglect and spiritual drift? We need to be zealous to follow God's way of life. This includes doing what Jesus Christ told the rich young ruler: "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17).

Why? Because the only way to be happy is to be like God, which He explains through His laws. His laws are good, and so He wants us to obey them for our good and for the good of those around us. We must recognize that God's law is so important to Him that our disobedience required Jesus Christ to die. This should lead us to choose and to strive to avoid sinning.

The Bible tells us that "all have sinned [broken God's law] and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The blood of Christ removes the death penalty from us each time we sin only when we truly repent. Repentance involves turning from sin and following God and His law.

Salvation, though it cannot be earned, can be lost if we don't stay on the narrow path to life (Matthew 7:13-14). Obedience to God's "perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25) should be our natural response to Jesus' sacrifice and gift of forgiveness and salvation.

For more understanding, please read our Bible study aid booklet "The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?"


  • CharlesLaird

    I'm with you on salvation can't be earned. But the fact you believe it is something that can be lost, is a big task to prove. The implication of taking the stance you have as the author of this piece, is either one - because it's the doctrine of your church and you are just the mouthpiece or two - you believe someone can fall out of grace.

    Pointing to one piece of scripture and saying - see, this is it - is a pretty weak position to stand on. I'm not trying to beat you up on this point, but to make mention of it - as being such a huge topic, without anything other than - you can lose salvation is weak.

    But, you did and this is where we are at. So, you are suggesting, that not only did the person confess with their mouth and believe in their heart - making Jesus the Lord over their life - and then perhaps at some point they turned away.

    Or perhaps you are suggesting, that someone sinning, can disqualify someone from salvation, after they have received it. Maybe this is what you are saying?

    Perhaps you are suggesting, that just because someone made Jesus the Lord over their life, that they weren't good enough, for Jesus' sacrifice to work in the first place???

  • Tony Stith

    You've made some good points Steven,

    I think we are in agreement for the most part, but especially on two important principles:

    - Salvation is a gift given by grace and cannot be earned by our obedience.
    - Repentance and growth is necessary.

    The former is justification that we receive upon initial faith and repentance. The latter is the process of sanctification that embodies our Christian walk.

    As you correctly stated, even the initial response of a new Christian is preceded by faith.

    And that is really the main point I am making. When it comes to what makes us worthy to stand before God, to initially enter in and then remain in this relationship, it is not, as the author of the original post inferred, individual sins we recognize and repent of, but faith in the continual cleansing sacrifice of Jesus Christ covering our sins. It’s by faith in Jesus Christ that we stand.

    Romans 5:2 “...through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand”
    Romans 11:20 “ stand by faith.”

    If we truly understand the holiness of God and just how far our ways are from His, that we are sold under sin, we would realize how desperately we need to be continuously covered by His cleansing blood.

    God doesn’t look at one of His children in the midst of a particular sin and reject them because they haven’t yet recognized it and repented. We don’t keep falling in and out of relationship. We are kept continuously in that relationship by faith in Him. It is His righteousness imputed to us who believe by faith that allows us to remain in relationship, not our particular standing with regard to individual sin at any given moment.

    Romans 4:13 - 25 “For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. ...Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”

  • Steven Britt


    Regarding 1 John 2, I stated it that way because you can't keep the law if you don't know it. Psalm 1:1-3 states pretty plainly that we should be meditating on God's law all the time - again, you can't meditate on it if you don't know it! This is admittedly a derived point, but I find it important and particularly relevant because so many people don't even bother to read the Old Testament (which is where the bulk of God's law is written for our benefit, 2 Timothy 3:16).

    You've made a good point - for example, even a scholar on the law, such as the scribes or Pharisees, will not fully understand the law and thus not fully grasp the places where they fall short, and we cannot repent of something until it is known to us, and that understanding comes by the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin (John 16:8). On the other hand, there is a difference between not knowing that you are breaking a particular law versus never having heard of that law, and this is what I was driving at :)

    On 2 Corinthians 7, I think taking the word "leading" out of there actually makes it a stronger statement of the role of repentance - "repentance to salvation." I think there is a subtle difference between what I'm saying and what you think I'm saying about repentance being a "condition" for salvation. While we are obligated to repent and keep the law, that doesn't mean that those actions earn us anything; however, God sees our desire through these things and has mercy on us. God will not give us the gift of life if we continue to openly defy Him by failing to repent and to try and keep the law - at least, as we've established, to the extent that we are aware of our sin. Furthermore, out of love for God, we should be actively engaged in searching out our sins as David also did.

    This last point may be splitting hairs, but when you say that "repentance is a prerequisite for entering into the initial relationship with God, but we are kept there by faith" - in my view, the initial step of repentance is as much motivated by faith as the the ongoing repentance that we should be doing as our relationship with God continues to grow. Overcoming and going on to perfection is merely the duty of a Christian once we enter that relationship - allowing God to transform our lives, which comes by faith and hard work, being like the wise servants from the parable of the talents.

  • Tony Stith

    Thanks for your comments Steven and Ivan.

    Steven, while I understand your larger point, it's important to note that I John 2 actually reads “keep my commandments” rather than “know the law.” There is a difference. If coming to a full knowledge of God’s law were a requirement of entering into a relationship with Him, none of us would have a chance. As Christians, we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Coming to know and understand Him and His ways is a process. At the beginning, we do not fully comprehend all of God’s laws in all of their depth.

    For example, I may understand that I should not kill, but I may not fully understand all of the ways in which I fall short of His law in my failure to love as Jesus Christ loves.

    I John 2:3-6 is actually complimented by James 2 which tells us that without works, our faith is dead. We show our faith is alive by our works. It is not the works, the keeping of the law that saves us, but our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Our works, keeping the commandments, are simply a demonstration that our faith is genuine and alive.

    Steven, we have to be careful that we don’t read Paul’s words in 2 Cor 7 to mean that our keeping of God’s law leads us to/or earns salvation. To read it that way would be contrary to many other scriptures that clearly state otherwise(Romans 3:27). Actually, the word leads was added later.

    The author of the original post wrote “The blood of Christ removes the death penalty from us each time we sin only when we truly repent.”

    All of us are under the death penalty because none of us loves perfectly as Christ loves. As long as we live in the flesh, we will, along with Paul, be “wretched.”
    I John 1:7-9 teaches that as long as we walk in the light, faithfully striving to obey Him, the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. This does not, as the last part of this passage affirms, negate our responsibility to repent of specific sins when they become known to us.

    While repentance is a prerequisite for entering into initial relationship with God, we are kept there by faith. (Gal 3:26).

    That faith, as James 2 teaches, produces works. As we grow in a deeper knowledge and appreciation of God's law, and as His Spirit convicts our hearts of sin, our response is to repent and produce better works. It’s the natural response of a life lived by faith.

  • Ivan Veller
    Hello Mr. Stith, Hopefully these resources can provide some additional clarification: -- "Salvation is a free gift by God’s grace, so we can’t begin to earn salvation. But God will not give grace to someone who is not repenting of his sins and is not submitting to God and His laws. People who are trying to obey God’s laws often give in to temptations and sin, but if they are truly sorry, God will forgive them again and again. God knows our hearts. If we are not accepting the rule of God’s laws over our lives and trying to obey, God will not continue to forgive...If we deliberately continue to break the law, we will not be able to have a relationship with Him, which means we will not be able to enter into the Kingdom" ("The Law: God's Design For Our Lives"). -- "Once we become saints, we can't stop there. We don't 'have it made.' Phase number two is progressive sanctification-the lifelong spiritual purification and growth that must take place after baptism. It is the changing of one's life to conform to Christ...the ongoing conversion of our minds and hearts and behavior, the building of godly character. Phase two requires remaining in the state of sanctification or holiness that went into effect at baptism. We remain holy by receiving ongoing forgiveness from God each time we succumb to temptations to sin. 'If we [we baptized believers] confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness' (1 John 1:9). In phase two, God commands that a holy life. While speaking to believers who had been made holy at baptism, Paul said, 'Pursue...holiness, without which no one will see the Lord' (Hebrews 12:14)" ("The Beautiful Process of Becoming a Saint"). -- "'You shall be holy, for holy' (Leviticus 19:2)...Following the holy, just and good law of God (Romans 7:12) means adopting the flawless code of conduct set forward by God in the Bible" ("What Is Holiness?"). -- "He empowers them to meet his expectations...God's Spirit in us—that new heart—makes it possible for us…to live God's way of life (Romans 7:22-25)" ("Is Salvation Unconditional?").
  • Steven Britt


    A person who does not know the law of God does not know God (1 John 2:3-6), and a person who does not repent cannot receive the gift of salvation. In fact, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11 that repentance leads us to salvation because it produces the changes that we need to make in order to fulfill God's law. To "repent" literally means to "turn away," and, in that sense, we cannot turn to do what is right without first turning away from what is wrong - i.e. repentance is necessary to do exactly what you say needs to be done to "stay in the faith."

    Concerning the matter of not being able to repent of EVERY sin that we commit, this may be technically true, but look to David's example in the Psalm 139:23-24. David asks God to search his heart, reveal his sin to him, and to lead him in God's way. If we seek to remove sin from our lives and humbly ask God to show it to us so that we can work to do so, will He not show it to us and help us to deal with it? It is a process, and I know from experience that we don't realize all of our sins at the same time - that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to actively seek out sins to repent of. Knowing the law is the first step, and that comes simply by reading and studying the scriptures.

    Also, regarding your position that repentance is a response to the free gift of justification rather than a prerequisite for it, consider how Peter's interaction with the men in Acts 2:38 played out. Peter had just finished convicting these people of contributing to Jesus' death and convincing them that He actually was the Messiah. The men were "cut to the heart" - sorry for what they had done to God - and asked "what shall we do?" Peter responded in Acts 2:38, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." As I mentioned before, read through 2 Corinthians 7, understanding that this was written to people who had already gone through the Acts 2:38 process of believing, repenting, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. You will find that repentance is an integral part of Christian life, being the very mechanism by which we produce the fruit of the Spirit that God requires of us.

  • Norbert Z

    Should "can you earn salvation" be a difficult question, even to anyone who just reads the OT?

    Have you an arm like God? or can you thunder with a voice like him? Deck yourself now with majesty and excellency; and array yourself with glory and beauty. Cast abroad the rage of your wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and abase him. Look on every one that is proud, and bring him low; and tread down the wicked in their place. Hide them in the dust together; and bind their faces in secret. THEN WILL I ALSO CONFESS TO YOU THAT YOUR OWN RIGHT HAND CAN SAVE YOU. (Job 40:9-14)

    To be justified for salvation requires a Justifier.

    I believe justification is more personal than the theology of many preachers would have us believe.

    Which is why I'm thankful for the material supplied by UCG, this group of believers tends to try and teach rather than preach, albeit imperfectly.

  • Tony Stith

    I appreciate this answer to a difficult question. However, I am struggling with the premise of the last two paragraphs.

    Paul, in Romans 4:13 tells us that righteousness is imputed to us through faith that it might be by grace.

    As a Christian, Paul writes in Romans 7 that in his flesh nothing good dwells.

    Psalms 39 tells us that man at his best state is altogether nothing.

    Isa 64 says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags.

    Don't these passages and others like them demonstrate, though we certainly desire and strive as Christians to do so, it is humanly impossible for us to remain on the straight and narrow path? Even if we repent of the sins we are aware of, there is no possible way we can repent of all of our sin. As Paul himself states, even with God's Spirit, though to will is present in him, there is another law at work. As long as he is in the flesh he, and us, are wretched sinners. His answer? "Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ! So with the mind I serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin." (Romans 7:24)

    Isn't it more accurate to put the emphasis on remaining in the faith as a prerequisite for not losing our salvation than a continual cycle of sin and repent, sin and repent? As long as we have a mindset, a commitment and desire, inspired and empowered by God's Spirit, to strive to remain faithful, to walk in obedience and submission, the blood of Christ covers all of our unrighteousness. Christs righteousness is imputed to us, then, not depending on whether we have come to recognize and repent of all of our sins, but on whether we are in the faith. (Romans 4:13)

    Obviously, emphasizing faith does not mitigate the need for Christians to examine themselves, repent and turn from their sins. That is the natural response of children who desire to be like their Father, when they see areas of their life that are contrary to His nature. What emphasizing faith does do, however, is put the process of recognizing and overcoming sin where it belongs, as a response to the free gift of justification we have been given through faith in Christ, not a prerequisite for it.

    I appreciate any clarification you can provide.

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