Two Sides of the Coin

I have noticed what I believe is a sort of confusion in Christian theology, especially on the popular level. It is not (I think) a particularly troublesome confusion - most of the time - but it is worth mentioning nonetheless.

Consider the two following claims: "We are saved by faith alone" and "We are saved by grace alone." Without delving into the precise meaning of the five solas, I can say at least this: It does not make obvious sense that we can be saved both by faith alone and by grace alone. It seems, rather, that we are saved by both, and that neither is alone; the one is accompanied by the other.

In making this observation, I have not uncovered any glaring inconsistency in classical Protestant theology; I have only demonstrated a need for clarification. Here, I would like to propose a rough draft of a clarification, using the analogy of a coin.

Salvation, like a coin, has two sides. It is a gift (or set of gifts) we receive both through God's efforts to impart it to us - through His grace and Jesus' sacrifice on the cross - and through our efforts to receive it - through our faith or baptism, or perhaps (controversially) through our works. My preliminary suggestion is to call the former the means of salvation and the latter the conditions of salvation. Faith, then, would be a condition of salvation - "[W]ithout faith it is impossible to please [God]" (Hebrews 11.6) - while grace would be a means of salvation. Christians often discuss the question "What saves us?" Such discussions should, in my mind, be divided into discussions of what God has done to bring salvation and what we must do to accept it.

Perhaps this distinction is simplistic at best - perhaps the line between conditions and means is not so clear-cut. Perhaps it is biased toward certain perspectives on salvation. I do not know. I find this distinction helpful because it emphasizes and brings to light the covenantal nature of salvation; salvation has two sides because it is a covenant which must be (like any covenant) both offered and accepted.

It could also illuminate certain theological debates. For example, I think that saying we are not saved by works is saying (primarily) that our works cannot and can never be a means of our salvation; in other words, we cannot earn our salvation. However, the question of whether or not works can be a condition of our salvation - whether "faith without works" can be enough - is, in my opinion, a thornier one.