Question: "Is salvation by grace plus works a false gospel?"
Answer: The apostle Paul combatted those who taught a false gospel in Galatians 1:6–9: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” An issue in the Galatian churches was the teaching that believers in Christ must follow the Old Testament Law (specifically concerning circumcision) in order to be saved. Paul’s unequivocal pronouncement is that a “gospel” of grace plus works is false.
Salvation is provided in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8–9). No person is perfect, and no human action can make a person right before a sinless, holy God. No one can earn or merit salvation, no matter how “religious” he or she is or how meritorious the work seems to be.
There are many genuine Christians who have a misunderstanding of the gospel of grace. This was true even in Paul’s time. Some of those who expected Gentile believers (non-Jewish Christians) to follow Jewish legal customs were true believers (Acts 15). They were Christians, but they misunderstood the free gift of the gospel to some extent. At the Jerusalem Council, the church’s early leaders encouraged Gentile Christians in the grace of God and noted only a few important guidelines for them to follow to promote peace within the church.
The problem of trying to mix grace plus works continues today. There are many Christians who have come to genuine faith in Jesus Christ who still believe they must also perform certain works to make sure they do not go to hell, as if the grace of God in Christ were not enough. While such teaching should be confronted and corrected—we must trust Christ, not ourselves—this does not mean the person is unsaved or has lost his or her salvation.
According to Galatians 1, those who teach the false gospel of grace-plus-works are “anathema”; that is, they are condemned by God. Other New Testament passages speak against teaching a false gospel. For example, Jude wanted to write his epistle about the common salvation he shared with his readers, yet he found it necessary to change topics: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3). In the next verse, he refers to those with another gospel as “ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God.”
This is perhaps the best way to describe such teaching. A person can misunderstand the issue of salvation by grace versus works and still truly believe in Christ. However, there are also ungodly people who do not know the Lord and who preach a false gospel. These ungodly individuals are called cursed, as they knowingly pervert the true message of Jesus.