One of the great failures of understanding when it comes to the intersection of the ideas of grace, faith and works in salvation is rooted in the idea of contingency. In other words, we are not saved by any of these items independently, but each is interdependent, or contingent upon the other.
The word contingent is defined as “dependent on or conditioned by something else” (Merriam Webster).
If I were to say, “We arrived by car,” am I necessarily contending that this happened independent of any other action or might there be more to this statement? Though not explicitly stated, this is logically contingent upon other unspoken conditions, or contingencies, being met. For example, before we can arrive by car, the car’s engine must run. Before we can arrive by car, the car must be driven. Before we can arrive by car, the car must make it to its destination. Though unspoken, each of these items are not independent of one another, they are interdependent.
The same applies to our salvation. For example, the apostle Paul contends “by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5). Paul is not explicitly expressing every contingency when he makes this statement. He is summarizing an interdependent process that originates, culminates and is dependent upon this most critical facet of salvation—God’s grace. Ultimately, it is by grace we have been saved, but not solely by grace we have been saved.
Just three verses later, Paul will make the statement, “For by grace you have been saved through faith…” (Eph. 2:8a). Stepping this out, we see that Paul explicitly expresses a contingency to the statement made just three verses prior. Are we ‘saved by grace’ or are we ‘saved by grace through faith’? Understanding the idea of contingency, both statements are true.
Where the real rub arises is the role of works. As Paul continues from verse 8, he states, “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” (Eph. 2:8-9). Reading this, one might conclude that we are saved independent of our works. This is a necessary conclusion, or unavoidable conclusion, if and only if this is the only possible conclusion. Yet, is it not possible that Paul is saying God’s grace was extended independent of our works? In other words, “not of works” is not pointing to the idea of our being saved, but to the idea of God’s grace being freely extended to us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. If so, we can rightly contend that God’s grace being extended was not contingent upon our works. Yet this does not necessarily mean that God’s grace being received is not contingent upon our works. Before we can conclude that Paul is excluding our works from our salvation entirely, we must ask, is our faith contingent upon anything?
Before we run to Romans 4:1-8 or Romans 11:5-6 and argue “apart from works,” we must again recognize the realities of contingency, context also playing a critical role in our understanding (but that is another discussion). Abraham receiving God’s grace was contingent upon his belief in the promise of God, and as we will see, his faith was contingent upon him doing what God commanded (cf. Jas. 2:21-23; Heb. 11:8-10). Besides the reality of the apostles consistently prescribing some works when confronted with one seeking salvation (i.e., belief, confession, repentance, baptism), we must realize that our faith is also contingent upon something—our works.
James contends, “man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24) and “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26). Stepping this out further, if our faith is not shown by our works, our faith is dead. Therefore, to be saved by grace through faith, we must show our faith by our works. Absent our works, our faith is dead, and without faith it is impossible to please God, which is necessary to realize the benefits of His extended grace. So, to simplify, no works means no faith, and no faith means no receiving God’s grace.
For the sake of being thorough, let’s step this out one step further. Are our works contingent upon anything? Will any works do or are certain works necessary? How do we know which works are necessary? By implication, truth becomes a contingency of our works. Our works must be according to truth. Since God says, “there is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism” (cf. 1 Pet. 3:21), if I attempted to be saved by prayer, my works would not be according to truth. Since Jesus’ death nullified the old covenant and put in force the new covenant (cf. Heb. 9:16-22; Col. 2:14) If I attempted to be saved by works of the Law of Moses (i.e., the old covenant), it would not be according to truth (note Gal. 5:1-6). Those works, while well-meaning, would be something other than what God currently prescribes (cf. John 1:17). So, my faith is contingent not upon any works, but upon specific works prescribed by God.
Finally, this all comes full circle when we realize that our works, or should we say our failures regarding our works, are contingent upon God’s grace and the confession of and repentance from those failures (cf. 1 John 1:8-10). Without God’s grace, our works would indeed be but filthy rags (Isa. 64:5-6).
Realizing contingency plays a critical role in our understanding of passages involving the ideas of grace, faith and works and their role in our salvation, we can indeed resolve many misunderstandings that divide disciples today. To fail to appreciate contingency (notwithstanding context, another critical aspect to understanding) will lead us to draw faulty conclusions regarding the language the apostles use to describe the process of salvation. This greatly impacts our doctrines. If teaching truth matters when it comes to our salvation, then we find that our doctrines can indeed be a contingency to salvation as well. Let us strive to rightly divide the word of truth as we strive to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15; Phil. 2:12-13).