At beginning of certain sermons on the Christian doctrine of salvation, I have sometimes asked rhetorically: Is salvation easy? Most of the time most people seem to at least nod that it is. Some have shouted out a resounding “Yes!” even with an added “Hallelujah!” only to soon discover that’s not the answer I will be delivering. Actually, no, salvation is not easy according to the Scriptures.
I was at a funeral once, when at the end of his message the preacher talked about how easy it is to be saved. He succinctly summarized the gospel saying, “Jesus died for your sins, all you need to do is accept his forgiveness and ask him into your heart. It’s all really quite simple and very easy. If you want to receive Jesus as your Savior just raise your hand right now,” he concluded. A few hands went up. The preacher said, “Praise the Lord!” and that was that. I saw no attempt at further counsel with those individuals, and there was no indication that there was any need for it since it all was made to sound so easy.
But it really isn’t easy! Salvation is hard!
This is where someone might interject, “But what about what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30?”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” ESV
Doesn’t this mean salvation really is easy? Well, yes and no. Salvation through faith in Jesus is easy compared to trying to save oneself through a commitment to a self-righteous legalism. This is not true, however, because salvation is possible but much more difficult through a system of works righteousness (i.e. earning one’s salvation); it is true because earning salvation through our own efforts is impossible. Compared to trying to earn one’s salvation through adherence to legalistic standards, salvation through faith in Jesus is easy because it is possible. In itself though this does not mean that salvation comes and is completed in us without great difficulty.
Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. ~ Matthew 7:13-14
So here, according to Jesus, salvation is hard; it is damnation that is easy!
After a conversation with a rich young man, who chose to walk away from Jesus rather than walk away from his wealth,
Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” ~ Matthew 19:23-26
Salvation apart from the power of God’s grace is not harder to achieve; it is impossible! Just as impossible as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle. And he really is talking about a sewing needle not a special gate within a gate in a city wall that would be possible for a camel to pass through if it was unloaded of cargo. The comparison here is on what is possible verses what is impossible.
The disciples extrapolate Jesus’ statement about the rich to apply it to everyone in general, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus doesn’t correct them to say salvation is actually easy for some and hard for others. He says salvation is humanly impossible, but made possible only by the power of God!
Salvation is not easy for anyone! It is hard!
One reason why we mistakenly might believe it is easy is because we don’t take the multidimensional nature of salvation into account. Salvation is more than justification and forgiveness of sins; it also involves new birth. Salvation involves not only a change of status from guilty to not guilty; it also involves a change of heart. Who would say giving birth or being born is easy? Who would call a heart transplant a piece of cake?!
Salvation is also not just a one time event; it is a lifelong process from the point of justification to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body in the New Heaven and New Earth. It is not just entering through the narrow gate; it also includes the journey on the hard road. And this is not to mention the arduous and often painful journey to the gate in the first place.
We see the difficult journey of salvation reiterated in the preaching of the apostles in the early church too.
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. ~ Acts 14:21-22
Genuine Christian faith is not just a one time commitment; its is a lifelong commitment that requires endurance. We have need for an enduring faith. The good news is we can count on the sustaining grace of the one who promises that he will never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5).
The multidimensional nature of salvation is evident in the fact that the Bible describes individual salvation as a past event, an ongoing present tense process, and a future hope of full redemption when Christ comes again in glory. We can say that we have been saved; also that we are being saved; and that we will be saved at some point in the future.
Salvation is also multidimensional in that it involves grace, faith, and good works, albeit in different ways.
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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10
We must not put a period where the word of God has a comma! We are saved by grace, through faith, AND for good works. Look at the way Titus 2:11-14 describes the work of grace.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Grace is not just what God does for us; grace is also what God does in us! Grace not only brings forgiveness of sins and new birth; grace also trains us in righteousness to be zealous for good works! This training is not easy!
Good works ARE NOT the cause of salvation; they are the effect of salvation. Grace is the cause; faith is the way we receive it; and good works is the fruit.
It seems that it’s pretty common for the difficulty of salvation to be downplayed if not outright denied. This happens in circles from fundamentalist to liberal, albeit in different ways.
Salvation was certainly not easy for Jesus to procure through his suffering and death on the cross. But we may deceive ourselves into thinking that Jesus paid it all so nothing is required of us. I once saw a church sign that said, “Jesus paid it all; You get to keep the change.” Wrong! The hymn writer got it right, “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe!”
The gift of God is free, but it is not cheap! Neither is it easy to receive. We must receive it through faith. Faith, the saving faith the Bible speaks of, is not even possible apart from the grace of God, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy because of the grace of God. Trusting Christ and Christ alone for our salvation and with our lives and eternity is made possible by the grace of God, not easy!
Biblical faith is to trust and obey! Obedience is not separate from faith, it is the other side of the same coin. And we must believe in our hearts, at the very center of our will and being, not just in the back of our minds. (For the connection between faith and obedience see John 3:36; Romans 1:1-6).
A New Testament professor I once had said when it comes to salvation there is no “if/ then.” That professor is a universalist, who puts a period where the word of God has a comma. There is no period after grace in Ephesians 2:8. Faith is required! But what God requires he also provides, but still this should not be interpreted to mean that it is easy.
Although we exercise faith by the power of God, it doesn’t mean its not a work out. Saving faith does not come easy! Sometimes we do need to cry out in the strain, Lord, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
There is an if when it comes to salvation despite what people like William Paul Young say. Young says:
The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.
Young says this in chapter 13 of his book, “Lies We Believe About God,” wherein he argues that it is a lie that “you need to get saved,” which is the title of the chapter.
On the day of Pentecost, when the crowd responds to Peter’s sermon by asking “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), Peter said something quite different from Mr. Young, who also wrote The Shack.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Likewise in response to the Philippian jailer, who asked “what must I do to be saved?,” Paul and Silas responded with, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).
If you read the New Testament you will see that salvation is not really easy and there are a lot of “ifs” that cover the multiple dimensions of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Here’s a sample of a few.
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. ~ Romans 10:9-10
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:31-32
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. ~ Colossians 1:21-23
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. ~ Galatians 6:7-9
Grace is free but, as Bonhoeffer said, it is not cheap. Salvation is a gift, but receiving it is not easy. The journey, as John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, well knew is hard. The destination, however, is more than worth the pain and hardship. Jesus not only made the destination possible; he made the journey possible too. Sometimes we need to be reminded that Jesus didn’t die on a cross so we can relax in a recliner. Jesus took up his cross so we could also take up ours. Jesus didn’t die so we wouldn’t have to; Jesus died and was raised again so that we too could die to ourselves in order to truly live for God. With humans this is impossible; but with God all things are possible!