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|Q:||I know that I can contribute nothing to my salvation. I also know that "once saved" doesn’t mean I can’t lose salvation. But if I can lose my salvation because of bad behavior, wouldn’t this suggest that although my salvation is a free gift through faith initially, that keeping my salvation has to do with works (prayer, not sinning, living a good life, loving my neighbor, going to church, devotions)?|
|A:||Scripture makes it absolutely clear we cannot contribute the least speck to our salvation. Our baptism clothed us in Christ’s perfect righteousness (Galatians 3:27). By his Son’s life, death, and resurrection God declared us—by nature wicked—to be righteous in his sight (Romans 4:5). Even our faith, which clings to Christ’s salvation, is part of God’s complete gift package (Ephesians 2:8,9) worked by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3) through the gospel (Romans 10:17). |
You are also correct that salvation can be lost. In the final analysis, it’s only unbelief that damns and not "bad behavior" itself. Yet carelessly persisting in sin destroys faith. In Luke 8 Jesus speaks of those who fall in times of testing and others whose faith is choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures. 1 Timothy 1 mentions those who shipwrecked their faith by not "holding on to faith and a good conscience."
We cannot contribute one speck to our salvation, but by our own arrogance or carelessness we can throw it away. Therefore, Scripture urges us repeatedly to fight the good fight of faith (Ephesians 6 and 2 Timothy 4 for example). We can participate in this good fight because the Spirit planted a new self within us when he brought us to faith.
However, this cooperation in sanctification is in no way a meritorious work that partially earns salvation. Our sanctified life does not make us any more children of God than we already are. We are already heirs of heaven in Jesus.
Second, it’s not our good works that preserve faith. Good works aren’t a means of grace. Good works flow from faith worked in us by the means of grace. The most crucial battle of the good fight is living in daily repentance. That’s hardly a meritorious work!
Daily repentance means that the Spirit through his law crushes our natural proud arrogance. Daily we learn to hate what our sinful nature loves. Then daily through the gospel the Spirit cheers our spirit through Christ’s forgiveness that is new every morning. Through daily repentance the same gospel that created our faith preserves and strengthens our faith.
My sins threaten and weaken my faith, but the Spirit through the gospel in Word and sacraments strengthens and preserves my faith. That’s why Lutherans typically speak of God’s preservation of faith and not the perseverance of the saints. The key is not our perseverance but the Spirit’s preservation.
The rest of our sanctified life then flows from this strengthening and preserving work of the Spirit. Fruits of faith don’t strengthen or preserve faith but flow from a faith that has been strengthened and preserved. What is more, although our new self participates in this sanctified living, the praise belongs to the Spirit. That same gospel that preserves our faith graciously empowers our sanctified living. "It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
Evil works can lose salvation by destroying faith. But the reverse isn’t true. It isn’t my good works that preserve faith. Keeping my faith has everything to do with the gospel, and that is purely the work of the Holy Spirit.