In the study of God's Word we can save ourselves a lot of error and confusion if we distinguish between passages that deal with salvation and those that are concerned with Christian life and service.
Generally speaking, the salvation passages are not difficult to discern. They give consistent testimony to the following facts.
As far as God's part is concerned, salvation is by grace (Rom. 3:24).
As far as Christ's part is concerned, it is made possible by His substitutionary work on Calvary's Cross (2 Cor. 5:21).
As far as man is concerned, salvation is by faith, entirely apart from the works of the Law (Gal. 2:16).
As far as assurance is concerned, a believer can know he is saved on the authority of the Word of God (1 John 5:13).
As far as security is concerned, the child of God will never perish or come into judgment for his sins (John 10:27-29).
The difficulty arises when we fail to recognize passages that have to do with Christian life and service rather than with salvation. Take John 15:1-11, for example:
I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full (RSV).
The subject of this paragraph is fruitbearing, that is, the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the Christian (Gal. 5:22, 23). It was not written to sinners needing a Savior, but to saints needing Christlikeness. if you don't see this, you may come up with the conclusion that Christians may be cast into the fire of hell after all (John 15:6). What it actually teaches is that the world takes the name and testimony of a backslidden believer and casts it in the fire. Unsaved people have nothing but contempt for a branch that does not abide in the Vine.
Another passage that is often misunderstood is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble-each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (RSV).
The subject of verse 11 is salvation; it teaches that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only valid foundation. But the rest of the passage deals with building on the foundation-in other words, with the service that follows salvation. There is no suggestion that any believer will be tested by fire. It is his works that will be tested. The man himself will not be burned up, but his works may. The emphasis here is not on the faith that leads to salvation but on the works that lead to reward or loss of reward.
Or take as another example Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (RSV).
In the last verse Paul speaks of the possibility of his being disqualified in the end. But the context does not deal with salvation, but with self-control in the Christian life. There was no possibility of Paul's being rejected as to salvation, because he was accepted in Christ. But failure to discipline himself might result in his becoming a castaway as far as service and reward were concerned.
The distinction between salvation and service is the key to resolving one of the seeming contradictions of the New Testament. In Matthew 12:30 our Lord said,
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (RSV).
But in Mark 9:40 He said,
He that is not against us is for us (RSV).
At first look these verses seem to be a flat contradiction of each other. But the difficulty disappears when we see that the first deals with salvation and the second with service. In the first instance, the Lord Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees, who were rejecting Him as the Son of God and accusing Him of performing miracles in the power of the Devil. When it comes to the Person of Christ, anyone who is not for Him is against Him.
The second case was concerned with a man who was serving in the Name of Christ but who was not following the disciples. When they forbad him, Jesus said, "Forbid him not . . . for he that is not against us is for us." When it comes to service for Christ, anyone who is not against us is for us.
These illustrations should show how helpful it is to distinguish passages that deal, with salvation and those that deal with Christian life and service. In your Bible study, therefore, ask yourself whether the passage you are considering deals with
God's work for us-salvation
God's work in us-sanctification
God's work through us-service.