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Salvation of Man

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Question: Work out your _________________ with _____________ and _________________, for it is God that works in you.

Answer: salvation, fear, trembling


The apostle Paul highlights the paradox of the Christian faith when he writes to the church in Philippi, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling” ( ).

There are two poles to which Christian theologians have traveled over the centuries when discussing the doctrine of salvation. Beginning in the third century, the Church began to gravitate toward the Roman Catholic view that salvation came, not through faith in Christ alone, but also through the good works of the individual and adherence to the traditions of the church – including the strict observance of the sacraments.

While the people were taught to obey the church in order to find salvation, they were also discouraged from reading the Bible – which was not hard for the church to enforce since few people were literate during the Dark Ages. The reading – and interpretation – of the Scriptures was assigned to the professional clergy.

This inevitably led to abuses by the church as their interpretation of Scripture went unquestioned and their power over the people grew unchecked. These abuses continued for centuries, leading even to the infamous practice of selling indulgences for salvation.

The concept of an indulgence was based on the medieval Roman Catholic doctrine that sinners must not only repent of sins that they've committed, they must also confess these sins and pay some sort of retribution – in their view this was an external sign of the internal repentance.

The church declared that it was necessary for a person to demonstrate that he or she was truly repentant by submitting to a "temporal punishment" – some task that involved doing "good works" – or deeds that were charitable, like feeding the poor or caring for the sick. This outward act would prove the repentance by the charitable deeds done for his or her fellow human beings.

This concept was taken to the extreme with the introduction of the concept of purgatory in the late twelfth century. Under this manmade doctrine, sins that had not been properly expiated with temporal punishment would lead to part of eternity spent, not in heaven or hell, but in a place of limbo called purgatory. At the conclusion of this punishment – and no one explained how long that would be – the individual’s soul would gain entrance into heaven.

In this medieval construct, indulgences functioned as a form of currency to “buy” your way out of purgatory and into heaven. But no one was sure where the balance of good works verses bad works stood, so they were manipulated by fear into buying indulgences as a kind of eternal insurance policy. Since the forgiveness of sin in this concept involved temporal punishment, including the doing of good works, the idea evolved into the substitution of a “holy” person’s good works for the lack of good works in someone else’s life. The sinner would pay someone else to do the good works demanded of them as temporal punishment – and thus the concept of selling indulgences was foisted onto the biblically illiterate people.

Church officials argued that clergy were doing more good works then were required to get into heaven so they could "sell" some of these good deeds to others in need. It could be compared to having more good works in their spiritual accounts than they had sins to pay for. So with the approval of the pope, the church began selling these good works as indulgences, which paid off any temporal punishment or good works that the individual believer had accumulated in the previous year.

The indulgence was given as a piece of paper, like a certificate, to prove that the deeds of the clergy had paid off the "good works debt" of the individual believer. This infamous practice took off like wild fire, aiding the church in raising money, not only for charitable works, but also for the building of elaborate cathedrals. With the invention of the printing press, indulgences were printed in mass quantities and became big business for the church.

In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A German Dominican Friar by the name of Johann Tetzel began aggressively selling indulgences to help pay for the massive construction project. Declaring that, "As soon a coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs," Tetzel manipulated the masses from town to town. He even went as far as creating a chart that listed a price for each type of sin. This aggressive marketing scheme provoked Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, to write his famous 95 Theses, protesting what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation.

Luther argued that just as indulgences do not really mean that the purchaser has achieved good works, so good works do not mean that the doer is either repentant or faithful. For Martin Luther, therefore, the concept of indulgences, like most church practices that relied on exterior behaviors, such as good works, rituals, and icons, was both illogical and unbiblical.

As a monk, Luther had dedicated himself to the monastic life through fasting, long hours in prayer and pilgrimage, and constant confession.
Like the Apostle Paul, Luther tried to please God through this dedication, but this lifestyle only increased his awareness of his own sinfulness. In Luther’s words, this was a time of deep spiritual despair. "I lost hold of Christ the Savior and Comforter,” he declared, “and made of him a stock-master and hangman over my poor soul."

In 1510, Luther visited the reconstructed steps of Pontius Pilate's palace — traditionally believed to be the very steps Jesus climbed on the day he was condemned. Along with other Roman Catholic pilgrims seeking release from purgatory, he climbed on his knees, saying the Lord's Prayer on each step. According to the church, the pilgrim's reward for this climb was nine years less time in purgatory for each step.

When he reached the top of the stairs, Luther stood up and sorrowfully thought, "Who knows if it's true?"

In 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology and joined the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, having been called to the position of Doctor in Bible. From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, along with the books of Hebrews, Romans and Galatians. As he studied these portions of Scripture, slowly a new concept began to form in his heart regarding salvation.

Studying Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Luther was amazed as he read, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’" ( NIV).

His eyes were illuminated by the Holy Spirit as he studied passages like :

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (NASB).

Luther began teaching that salvation is a gift of God's grace, received through faith in Christ alone. The first and chief article is this, Luther wrote, "Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification ... herefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us...Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls."

This revelation ushered in what became known as the Protestant Reformation.

So we see a critical balance in the doctrine of salvation. On the one hand, Paul presents the concept that salvation comes by grace through faith, and not of works ( ). On the other hand, he declares that we are to “work out our salvation through fear and trembling” ( ).

It is in this reverential balance that we find the truth – our salvation comes by the grace of God as we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection as the purchase price of our redemption. But this grace is by no means to be regarded with anything less than awe and reverence. Our salvation is anchored in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ – and that relationship must be maintained in love and commitment to a holy lifestyle.

The question is often raised by Christians, “Can one loose his or her salvation?”

Theologians have argued this for centuries. The Bible does not explicitly tell us. So it is wise for the believer to ponder verses like , “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” and also passages like :

“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.”

But let us rejoice in the counterbalancing truth that:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him in love. He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will…” ( ).

“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” ( ).

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About The Author

von Buseck

Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author and popular speaker. He is also a contributing writer for,, MTL Magazine, Charisma Magazine, and The Write Conversation blog. He holds a Doctor of Ministry and an MA in Religious Journalism from Regent University. Craig’s recent book, 'I Am Cyrus: Harry S. Truman and the Rebirth of Israel' won the prestigious Selah Award for Christian nonfiction and was nominated for The Truman Award by The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. His book, 'Victor! The Final Battle of Ulysses S. Grant' was named Nonfiction Book of the