Salvation Through Grace Alone (Acts 15:11)

The claim by some that there are two stages of justification (initial and final) and that the so-called “initial justification” is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) and the so-called “final justification” is in some degree (either partly or wholly) through Spirit-wrought sanctification, faithfulness, or good works and the companion claim that “salvation” (i.e., justification, sanctification, and glorification) is in the same two stages has caused me to pay more attention in recent years to Scripture when it speaks of justification and/or salvation. Thus, when my pastor (the Rev Chris Gordon of the Escondido United Reformed Church and Abounding Grace Radio) reached Acts 15 last week I could not help but notice verse 15:

But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they are.” 1

The context of the passage is the Jerusalem synod, which was called to resolve the questions raised by the Judaizers, who were teaching “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1; NASB). Further, the Judaizers sought to impose upon the Gentile Christians the requirement “to observe the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Paul and Barnabas reacted strongly against the Judaizers (Gal 2:5—Paul and Barnabas “did not yield to them for an hour”). Paul even confronted the Apostle Peter (Gal 2:11–21) over his denial of the gospel—this was an actual “gospel issue.” Implicit in Peter’s refusal to eat with the Gentiles was the message that we are justified through the works of the law. To resolve the controversy the church sent Paul and Barnabas as delegates to synod (Acts 15:2–3).

At Jerusalem, after debate, Peter stood to speak.

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are” (Acts 15:7-11; NASB).

Peter’s understanding of his ministry is exactly what Paul wrote in Galatians 2:7–8. We see the good outcome of Paul’s rebuke in Antioch. At Jerusalem, Peter was crystal clear about the gospel. In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile (Gal 3:28–29). What matters is whether we belong to Christ by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), then we are Abraham’s seed, “heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). Of course, the promise to which Paul refers in Galatians is the promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children” (Gen 17:7).

The Judaizers sought to put a rabbinical “yoke” on the necks of the Gentile Christians thereby ignoring the centrality and finality of Christ in the history of redemption (Acts 15:10). Jesus did not merely come to make salvation possible for those who do their part (e.g., bear the yoke of the law) but to accomplish our salvation and to give it to his elect freely through faith alone (sola fide). The Judaizers were “testing” God and ignoring the reality already accomplished. Sola gratia, sola fide, they already had what the law required: righteousness and clean heart (Ps 51:10). Further, the Judaizers were demanding what they themselves we unable to perform. Paul had reminded Peter that he himself “lived like a Gentile” and yet he was implicitly requiring of the Gentiles that they become Jews to become Christians. Now Peter confesses the truth to the whole synod.

The resolution is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. For Peter, grace is the cause of salvation and faith is the instrument of salvation. There is a clear contrast between his doctrine and Paul’s doctrine and the Judaizing doctrine of salvation through works.

But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they are.” 1

There are two families of English translations when it comes to the clause, “that we are saved.” Beginning with Tyndale’s translation in 1525 and continuing through the AV, the ASV, the RSV, and the ESV, some translate the aorist passive infinitive as “will be saved” implying future salvation. This is possible for two reasons: 1) Acts 15:1 says “cannot be saved,” which might imply future salvation 2) the aorist of the infinitive “to be saved,” which, pace your Greek teacher, does not necessarily signal past tense. It is ambiguous. Nevertheless, there is another family of translations beginning with the Latin Vulgate, which predates Tyndale’s translation by about a millennium, and represented by the NASB and others, what takes the aorist as a past or present tense: we are saved,” which arguably communicates the ambiguity inherent in the Greek text. There is nothing in Acts 15:1 nor in 15:11 that requires a future tense.

A second thing to note here is the instrumental construction of the preposition “through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ). The contrast here between law-keeping (represented by circumcision) and grace, i.e., the free favor of God toward sinners in Christ, must not be missed. In his commentary on this passage, Calvin saw the distinction between grace and works or law and gospel.

By the grace of Jesus Christ. Peter compareth these two together as contrary the one to the other; to have hope in the grace of Christ, and to be under the yoke of the law; which comparison doth greatly set out the justification of Christ, inasmuch as we gather thereby, that those are justified by faith who, being free and quit from the yoke of the law, seek for salvation in the grace of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, I said before that the yoke of the law is made of two cords. The former is, “He which doth these things shall live in them;” the other is, “Cursed is every one which doth not continue in all the commandments.” Let us return unto the contrary member. If we cannot otherwise attain unto salvation by the grace of Christ, unless the yoke of the law be taken away, it followeth that salvation is not placed in keeping the law, neither are those which believe in Christ subject to the curse of the law; for if he could be saved through grace, who is as yet enwrapped in the yoke of the law, then should Peter’s reasoning be but foolish, which is drawn from contraries: thus, We hope for salvation by the grace of Christ; therefore we are not under the yoke of the law.2

We should note too that Calvin answered an objection that is quite relevant to the contemporary discussions. As in Calvin’s day, there were those who argued that “we are justified by the grace of Christ, because he regenerateth [sanctifies] us by his Spirit, and giveth us strength to fulfil the law. Those who imagine this, though they seem to ease the yoke of the law a little, yet they keep souls bound with the cords thereof.”3

The problem with this approach, Calvin observed, is that it turns the gospel into law. The promise of the law is not that God will save those who cooperate with grace (Rome and at least some of the Judaizers) but that “who does these things shall live by them.” The moment works are “admitted” (for justification or salvation), “they may make us righteous in part only, the yoke of the law shall not be broken, and so Peter’s contrariety [antithesis] shall fall to the ground, or else be dissolved.”4

In other words, grace and works are two contrary principles. We either stand by grace or works but not by grace and works. Both promise salvation but they promise salvation on different terms. The Judaizers proposed to put the Gentiles under the law (represented by circumcision) for salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) on the premise that the law is not so strict that we cannot keep it. They lowered the standard. For all their boasting about the law of Moses, they did not grasp its righteousness: “cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything which is written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10). As the Reformed read Leviticus 18:5, it is a covenant of works: “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am Yahweh.” Our Lord Jesus summarized the demand of the law for salvation: do this and live (Luke 10:28).

With the law there is no “try.” There is only do. With grace and the gospel there is good news: Christ has done for you. God has looked on you with favor merited for you by Christ. Faith is the sole instrument that rests on Christ, trusts in him, leans on him, and receives him for righteousness (justification) and for the whole of salvation. So, for the Jewish Christians and for the Gentile Christians, salvation is through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have it now. In future, at the judgment, we shall be vindicated but we are already justified sola gratia, sola fide and Christ has saved us, is saving us, and shall save us through the grace of our Lord Jesus as he always has.


Resources on Final Salvation

Resources on Conditions in the Covenant of Grace

On Leviticus 18:5



Calvin (2)






Heidelcast: Recovering the Covenant of Works


1. Acts 15:11 (NA28): ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ* ⸆ πιστεύομεν σωθῆναι καθʼ ὃν τρόπον κἀκεῖνοι.
2. Calvin, Commentary on Acts, trans. Henry Beveridge, Calvin Translation Society, 2.59.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

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  1. My dear Dr. Clark, much as I appreciate and am grateful for your cogent explanation and defense of the truth, I recommend you make use of a good editor. For example:
    As Gentle as the Christians may have been beyond Jerusalem in the time of the apostles, Acts speaks of Gentiles.
    Nevertheless, I am truly thankful for your defense of justification by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone. I am now reading Francis Turretin, and he has the definitive word, I believe. The Federal Vision folly is creeping in, having jettisoned that name, to the true Reformed denominations, because of lack of clarity on this and other issues.

    • Lola,

      Thanks for the editorial help. If you’re willing to fund an editor, I will happily hire one. The donate button is at the end of every HB post and podcast.

      Most errors of grammar on the HB are my fault but in this case the autocorrect on my iPad did not like “Gentile” and substituted “Gentle” throughout.

  2. Dear Dr. Clark,
    I decided to share your resources on FV and Baptism with everyone in our Church, one-by-one. The best partner for a good defense is a winsome offense that preserves and strengthens confessional Reformed Theology through study. Thank you. Your links are well received.

    As for the ESV’s ‘future verb tense’ translation of Acts 15:11 “But we believe we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”, is John B. Polhill, (the contributor to Acts in the ESV) who is a Ph.D. at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, presenting a Baptist’s assumption or a continuum of being saved, as in your quote below?

    ‘So, for the Jewish Christians and for the Gentile Christians, salvation is through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have it now. In future, at the judgment, we shall be vindicated but we are already justified sola gratia, sola fide and Christ has saved us, is saving us, and shall save us through the grace of our Lord Jesus as he always has.’

    I understand and believe this salvation I have through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ defines and assures me of the Truth of God’s plan and choice of every spiritual blessing in Christ for me.

    On being a devoted lay student of confessional Reformed Theology and Reformed Church History, I find confusions everywhere, some involving tenses. Catherine

    • Catherine,

      I don’t know the motives of the ESV translators et al. My impression is that they received and lightly revised the RSV. Thus, a number of passages went untouched.

      As I say, both are possible grammatically so the question has to be decided by context.

      If it is future, then it is through grace alone.

  3. Thanks for this. There are now far too many who are claiming that there are two justifications, the final one being by faith and works, or as Greg Beale would have it, faith, works and resurrection. If there are two justifications, then only the final one is critical. Consequently, we are not saved by grace alone. This issue is the unnoticed giant that threatens to derail the whole Reformation project, and it has too many acolytes who have signed up to it without knowing what an anathema it is to the Gospel that Reformed Christians formerly defended.
    There are no colleges in Australia that I know of that have not embraced the notion of final justification, consequently, the law has become integral to the application of the Gospel, and essential to salvation. I am thankful that WSC is at least holding out, and no doubt being persecuted for its faithfulness. Thanks for the observations from Acts 15.

      • Hi Scott,

        It is a big call. And I must admit that I am only intimately acquainted with Presbyterian colleges. (I assume other colleges have no or little interest in these issues). However, I have had enough personal conversations with academic faculty to know that significant characters in a number of schools are mono-covenantalists. I recently heard of a recent graduate from one of our colleges who said he had never heard of a ‘covenant of works’ until it was pointed out to him recently in the WCF. Our largest Presbyterian college had as its first dean and principal a man who graduated from WTS in 1978. I’m sure you know what this would mean.

        Most here, as in North America, would be very comfortable with the view the claim “Good works are necessary for salvation.”

        I am so sure of what I speak, that I have put my name to the comments. If anybody at a Presbyterian college in Australia would like to correct me, I would rejoice to find out that I am wrong. At this point, I feel as though I am a whistle blower.
        Thanks for your great work.


    • Martin,
      I find your comment only too true. That is my experience also, that the notion of two stage justification has become almost a zeitgeist, or spirit of the age error, even among the Reformed, where you would least expect it. As we saw, in the discussion of the FV, Henk Mavis had to appeal to Synod to have a sermon by a URC minister, who preached two stage justification, brought to discipline. The officials in the consistory and classis levels could apparently not see how this was inconsistent with the Reformed confessions! Think about it! All the ministers and church officials in the classis could not determine that two stage justification was in error! Were they really so ignorant, or were they overlooking error in the interest of avoiding controversy and protecting one of their colleagues? Was that more important to them than defending the true doctrine of justification by grace alone? I find this really appalling in either case.

  4. Martin,
    I think you are quite correct, there is as lack of proper understanding about what it means, to say that, “works are necessary for salvation.” Our confessions are clear that works are necessary as evidence and fruit of our salvation, as a good tree produces good fruit. But so many people fail to grasp that it is not the fruit that makes the tree good, but the tree makes good fruit.

    The natural man is hard wired for the covenant of works. So unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom comes to us by grace, through the work of grace by the Spirit, and that we then do good works in love and gratitude to the Lord who has freely given us so great a salvation. He has set us free from bondage to the law for acceptance, so that we would obey freely, out of love and gratitude. The natural man cannot understand this, but thinks that unless we are threatened by the law with eternal damnation, we will never do good works or be sanctified.

    I think this is the root of the problem, unregenerate people who cannot understand that good works are a loving response to God for certain salvation in Christ, wanting to be accepted by God through their best efforts. I think there are many unregenerate people in our churches! To them two stage justification only makes sense, hence the tremendous appeal of two stage justification. So unregenerate moralists believe that good works are necessary, to be done, so that we might contribute to our salvation by doing our part, in faithfulness, so we will be judged to be accepted on the last day. It is said that Richard Baxter thought this, and could never understand why he was being criticized for his moralist teachings. Interesting that his church is now Unitarian!

    • Angela,
      Is it possible that men and women, who do not study the Scripture (meditating on them day and night) or the BC, HC, CD, WCF, SC, WLC, do not understand Grace – faith and belief in Christ’s Righteousness? Or is the lack of devotion to the Word and doctrine a display of a bad tree?
      It is troubling to realize the condition of His Family and distressing that I am to love, forgive and bear with those who are in the Church, but do not believe it is by Grace we have been saved. The challenge is listening, hearing, and responding to the beliefs that oppose, resist, refuse Sola Gratie.

      As I study the ordeals (investigations, hearings, meetings, etc.), regarding the FV’s false ideas, I see faithful diligence in the men of the WSP, PCA, URC to uphold and declare Scripture and Doctrine as the only Truth. Their labor, with respect, kindness, and charity, as they presented the Truth of Scripture, held the ‘confused’ accountable. This fruit and the distinctions instruct me to wear the Whole Armor of God, even as a lay person.

    • Catherine,
      Welcome to the club. As Dr. Clark points out again and again, there are, and always have been two ways of being in the covenant, and only God knows for certain who is only outwardly in the covenant and who is inwardly in the covenant by regeneration by the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures tell us that a remnant will be saved. Not all Israel is Israel! That includes the people and even teachers in our churches. Why are the Apostles constantly warning against false teachers and false prophets? It is a mine field! That is why we have to be constantly vigilant, and put on our spiritual armour, ready to fight the good fight of the faith with the weapon of the Word, like the Bereans who tested everything they heard, even Paul’s preaching, against the Word. But thanks be to God that He promises that no one can pluck us out of His hand, and that He will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. Our righteousness and our salvation is secure because it is the very righteousness of God imputed to us, when we believe. The danger of two stage justification is that we will look to our own righteousness as necessary for final salvation, and that would make justification through by grace, through faith only applicable to this life, and not where it really counts, to our eternal acceptance with God, if the final judgment is on faith and our works. As our confessions point out, believers will be vindicated not judged on the last day, because we were already judged and justified through the righteousness of Christ. Our good works, done out of love and gratitude are fruit and evidence of this. That includes loving and obeying God’s Word.

      • Angela,
        Seeing the actual condition of the Church rather my ‘assumptions’ uncovers my lack of knowledge of God’s Will for His Church and dependence on our Lord and His Word regarding Ecclesiology and Soteriology. Isn’t this the fruit Paul calls God’s people to display in Ephesians 6:10-20, 23, especially love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ?

        I have not really seen the spiritual battle field as ‘being prepared with the Word, dependent on the Lord, praying at all times and loving with faith’ from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

    • Catherine,
      I’m not sure I understand your question. Ephesians 6: 10-20 describes the preparation for battle against the devil’s schemes of doing damage to the church. I think that means we oppose false teaching, errors in the administration of Word and sacraments, and insist on the proper use of discipline. I also think that is consistent with loving the Lord and fellow Christians. False teaching and practice will not convey the saving gospel or honor God, so it is not loving to those in the church or to God to overlook or tolerate it. Praying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” is definitely a part of this spiritual battle. Loving God and peace among the people of God must always be based on God’s Truth, revealed in the Word. Eph. 6: 23

  5. There is a boatload of reputable translations that support “we are saved thru grace . . . ,” the NIV, NLT and NET are just a few. A.T. Robertson and Kenneth Wuest both support “we are saved thru grace” as well. Robertson writes:

    That we shall be saved (swqhnai). First aorist passive infinitive in indirect discourse after pisteuomen. More exactly, “We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in like manner as they also.”

    My guess is the translation philosophy (formal equivalence) may have led the translators to go with a future tense in this passage.

  6. Paul,
    Thank you for the ‘translation philosophy’ perspective and the exact translation of Acts 15:11. This language confirms my ‘experience of believing’ I am saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus and clarifies the confessions and Scriptures, saved by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

  7. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for posting Acts 15:11 for discussion.
    I needed more information regarding your response to me, ‘if it is translated in future tense it is always by Grace’. Paul’s information helped. I believe Grace is Eternal, covering past, present and future tenses; what I have not been aware of is Bible ‘translation philosophy’. I am grateful for your work; the Heidelblog and Heidelcast are my advanced schooling in Church History and Systematic Theology.

    • Catherine,
      A cardinal doctrine is that Scripture interprets Scripture. If something seems difficult or obscure, how does the rest of Scripture explain it? Scripture does not contradict itself. What does the whole of Scripture tell us about Grace?

  8. Angela:

    I agree. If Acts 15:11 appeared to support future justification, what then do we do with all the other passages? Ambiguous language needs to be examined along side unambiguous language.

  9. Angela, I appreciate the first doctrine: Scripture interprets Scripture. In the past I was in ‘Christian” groups who were focused on their own interpretation. As I study the Heidelcast, Dr. Clark’s collection titled, “I Will Be Their God, They Will Be My People”, many of my wrong-headed, modern culture ideas are being uncovered. It’s an edifying process.
    Also since I am learning how to apply the unifying principle of Sola Scriptura and Reformed doctrine, at this time, the challenge of ambiguous/unambiguous language is best brought to the Heidelblog. I am grateful.

  10. I’m curious as to the thoughts on Acts 15:9 when Peter says “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. . . . we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are”. The context is Justification, and yet Peter says this entails “cleansing of your heart” through faith.

    • Nick,

      I noticed that too but the context isn’t perhaps narrowly justification but more broadly salvation. The passive infinitive in 15:11 isn’t “to be justified” but “to be saved,” which, if so, includes justification, sanctification, and glorification. Peter’s point is that God has justified and sanctified Gentiles, whom the Judaizers and the non-Christian Jews regarded as unclean, as well as the Jewish Christians. It is not keeping Moses’ law that sanctifies, it the Spirit of holiness how sanctifies by his grace.

      • Nick,

        One clarification.

        Salvation through grace alone means that all three aspects of salvation are by grace alone, through faith alone. It does not mean that we are justified because we sanctified. Paul does have an order of salvation and it is not that of the medieval church nor that of Trent.

        We know what Paul’s doctrine of justification is. Romans 3:22 says, “δικαιοσύνη δὲ θεοῦ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας. οὐ γάρ ἐστιν διαστολή” (“but righteousness is THROUGH FAITH in Jesus Christ unto all who believe, for there is no distinction [between Jew and Gentile]…”

        The sole instrumentality of faith in justification is quite clear here as it is in several other places in Paul. E.g., Gal 2:16: “Knowing that no man is justified from the works of the law but THROUGH FAITH in Jesus Christ and we believe in Jesus in order that we might be justified out of faith in Jesus Christ not out of the works of the law because out of the works of the the law shall no flesh be justified.”

        It’s on the basis of these passages and others that the Protestants insist that the biblical doctrine is clearly that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone. Sanctification is the consequence of justification not the ground of justification nor the instrument of justification, i.e., the divine declaration of righteousness.

        We have to understand Peter’s statement against this background. He’s resolving the problem of what to do with the Gentiles and rejecting the Judaizing view that we are justified by sanctification, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace (in the works of the Mosaic law) which was also the medieval view and the Roman view.

        He says that the Holy Spirit graciously sanctified Gentile believers “through grace.” This is in distinction from sanctification by works or by cooperation with grace. He’s announcing that the Gentiles already had what the Judaizers said that they wanted out of the Gentile believers: sanctification. Peter certainly wasn’t saying that the
        Gentile Christians are saved because they are sanctified nor justified because they are sanctified. He’s saying that God had already graciously worked salvation in the hearts (a synecdoche) of the Gentile Christians.

    • Nick,
      As Dr. Clark has explained, our sanctification does not contribute to our justification. Rather our sanctification is a consequence of our justification. It is fruit and evidence of our trust that God as truly cleansed our heart through faith.

      That is how the blood of Christ cleanses, because Christ’s obedience, even to death, has met all of God’s requirements of perfect obedience for us and satisfied the wrath of God against our sins. When we truly believe this, our conscience is cleared of the guilt of doing what we ought not to have done and of failing to obey perfectly as God requires. Because of this we are grateful and love God, so we want to obey His law to demonstrate our love and gratitude in response to His amazing love of sending His Son to obey perfectly and die the death we could not die, in our place.

      Since the requirements of perfect obedience were met by God, (as He promised unilaterally, when He alone walked through the pieces to ratify the covenant grace with Abraham), in sending his son, we are free from the impossible requirements and penalties of providing perfect obedience to the law, Not because God has lowered His standards, but because the requirement of perfect obedience, and the penalty of death has been provided by God Himself. That frees us to obey simply out of love and gratitude, it cleanses our conscience, cleanses our heart so that we obey the law out of love rather than fear that we have not met God’s just requirements. God’s just requirements have already been met for us, by Christ. Amazing love! How can we not respond in grateful obedience? That is how God’s grace sanctifies us as a consequence of our once and for all justification.

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