Is Salvation a Reward or a Gift? Yes by MARK JONES for The Gospel Coalition
When a sinner believes in Jesus they have the right to eternal life. This is a strong emphasis in the New Testament. Eternal life is God’s free gift in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23) for all who believe (Rom. 3:22–24). The person who believes “has eternal life” (John 3:36), so there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). These verses and many more highlight the glorious truth that salvation is a present reality: a verdict has been delivered by God to those who are in Christ.
However, the careful reader of Scripture will also notice passages that highlight a “works” element in relation to eternal life. A good example is Galatians 6:7–8, where Paul writes:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
“Sowing to the Spirit” here clearly involves good works. The key question for us is this: how can those who already have eternal life by faith be said to “reap eternal life” by sowing to the Spirit in works of grace-fueled obedience? This is admittedly a complex question. After all, eternal life as a free gift (Rom. 6:23) and eternal life as a crop reaped (Gal. 6:8) don’t exactly sound the same on the surface.
The best way I’ve seen this question solved by has been to distinguish between the “right to salvation” and the “possession of salvation.”
Distinguishing Between ‘Right’ and ‘Possession’
This distinction between right and possession was employed by Reformed theologians in centuries past. Our right to salvation has in view the work of Christ on behalf of sinners, which is received by faith alone. So the person who puts their faith in Christ has eternal life because the person has Christ himself. All of our works of obedience are excluded from the “right to salvation” (Rom. 4:4–5; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5).