A Back-Loaded Gospel:
The Error of Redefining Faith
My college roommate had a talent for card tricks.
It infuriated me.
He had this one trick called The Slapstick.
First, he’d shuffle a deck of cards and ask me to pick one without showing him. After I had memorized it and put it back into the deck, he’d shuffle the cards again and place the deck between my fingers. And then— wham!—he’d slap my hand sending the cards scattered across the floor.
All except one.
There, in my hand, I’d still be holding the card I originally picked out of the deck!
How’d he do it?
As I said, it infuriated me!
I wasn’t angry at my roommate—his trick was great—I was frustrated because I wasn’t clever enough to figure out how he did it. Somehow, he tricked me. I missed his sleight of hand.
Unfortunately, too many preachers play sleight of hand with the gospel.
With one hand they distract you with talk about justification by faith alone, making you comfortable. And then—wham!—with the other hand they sneak in salvation by works while you’re not paying attention.
They “back-load” the gospel.
What does that mean?
Sneaking in Works
A preacher front-loads the gospel when he teaches that you are saved by faith plus works.
A preacher back-loads the gospel when he teaches we are saved by faith that works.
See the difference?
Or rather, do you see there really is no difference?
Front-loading the gospel openly makes works a condition of salvation.
Back-loading the gospel covertly makes works a condition of salvation, by subtly redefining faith to include works.
People who believe in a back-loaded gospel lack assurance for the same reason people who believe in salvation by works lack assurance. They need to look at their works to know if they “really” believe. But since they’re all sinners, with a mixture of good and bad behavior, they’re never sure if they’re good enough to be saved.
Do you believe a back-loaded gospel?
Let me give you an example of the kind of sleight-of-hand I have in mind, where teachers initially claim to believe in justification by faith apart from works, only to introduce works through the back-door, by redefining faith to include works.
In a recently published Systematic Theology, a Calvinistic author claims to believe in justification by faith apart from works. As he writes,
Justification is by faith apart from works, apart from works of the law, without works.1
This is admirably clear, is it not? Three times in one sentence he emphasizes that justification is by faith apart from works. If you heard him preach that, you’d think he believed it!
The author even rightly recognizes that if justification were based even partly on works, we could not have assurance. In discussing the Roman Catholic view, he says,
This means, then, that salvation is based partly on our works. The consequence, then, is that we cannot be assured of our salvation in this life, because we are never sure whether our works have been sufficient.2
So, if you were to hear this man teach about justification from the pulpit, you would come away thinking he believed in justification by faith, apart from works.
And you would be wrong.
Read on a little further and you find he plays sleight of hand with the saving message and redefines faith to include doing good works:
…saving faith is a faith that works…3
...justification is by a living faith, not a dead faith, a faith that works, rather than a mere profession. But faith does not justify because of its connection to works. It justifies because its nature is to trust, in this case to trust the grace of God in Christ. That trust motivates us to please God and therefore to do good works.4
...if you assent to the truths of Scripture, not feebly or forgetfully, but in a way that determines your behavior, thoughts, and feelings, then it seems to me that you have all that is needed for true faith. But then your faith is better described not merely as assent, but according to the third component of faith, trust.5
The author goes on to explain that one of the components of trust is “subjection to Christ as Lord, a willingness to obey…faith must be living faith, obedient faith, faith that works…”6
On the one hand, this man will teach you are saved by faith, apart from works.
On the other hand, if you don’t have works you don’t really believe and aren’t saved.
What exactly is the difference?
Whether you are saved by faith plus works or by faith that works, either way, works are made a condition of salvation. And if it’s a condition of salvation, we can never have assurance. As the author himself admitted, “we are never sure whether our works have been sufficient.”
That is the result of the back-loaded gospel.
Works Don’t Work
If you have become confused by a back-loaded gospel, the only solution is to clearly understand that salvation is by faith apart from works, period! No tricks. No fine print. No reservations.
John’s Gospel tells us the result of believing in Jesus is that we get eternal life (cf. John 3:16; 3:36; 5:24; 6:47; 10:28). It never ever says that salvation depends on works. It only ever says that salvation is by faith. The verb believe is mentioned one hundred times. No wonder John’s Gospel has been called “The Gospel of Belief.”
Paul, in his letters to the Galatians and Romans, is even more explicit. He repeatedly proclaims that we are justified by faith apart from doing the good works of the law.
Remember the verses we quoted above?
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
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).
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us (Titus 3:5a).
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Galatians 2:16).
Does it get any clearer than that?
We are saved through believing in Jesus, not by doing the good works of the Law. If doing good works was part of what it means to believe, Paul’s argument would fall apart.
But they’re not the same. Faith and works are polar opposites.
To believe means to be persuaded that something is true. It contains no element of behavior. No work. Of course, our beliefs influence our behavior, but you can’t say that works are part of faith itself.
Faith and works are two different things, and faith is the only condition of salvation.
Is that why you lack assurance?
Were you taught that works were part of faith? Were you taught that you didn’t really believe unless you acted a certain way? Were you confused by a back-loaded gospel?
In that case, instead of believing the back-loaded gospel, believe Jesus’ promise that we are saved by simply believing in Him. Let that be your only ground for assurance.
1. John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 970
2. Ibid., 969, emphasis added.
3. Ibid., 970, emphasis added.
4. Ibid, emphasis added.
5. Ibid., 952-53, emphasis added.
6. Ibid. He incorrectly quotes James 2:14-26 as proof of his position. See chapter 8 for the correct interpretation of that passage as it relates to faith.