I do a lot of reading on theology and it seems like there are all kinds of versions on certain topics. I pray for God to shake up Christianity one day so that all these different interpretations of the His Word are eliminated and the Truth is illuminated. It gets pretty confusing sometimes because Scripture backs up these opposing viewpoints. So, salvation is by grace. The grace of God is what saves us from His wrath, Right? But what initiates this grace? Does God decide when you are saved or is it a decision God leaves to us ( like we open the door for Jesus to come into our hearts)? Is it completely up to us if we want to be saved or not? What initiates this grace? Or, was God's grace given to us when Jesus died on the cross?
As David long ago pointed out, "The entirety of Your word is truth" (Psalm 119:160). When people seek to learn all that God has taught on a particular matter, you will find that God is absolutely consistent in His message. What happens though is that false teachers don't teach the entirety of God's word. They only teach parts of it that make their particular beliefs look good. If they are forced to consider a passage that contradicts their beliefs, they will jump through all sorts of hoops to explain away why the verse doesn't say what it obviously does say. "Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote to you; as also in all of his letters, speaking in them of these things. In those, there are some things that are hard understand, which the ignorant and unsettled twist, as they also do to the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing these things beforehand, beware, lest being carried away with the error of the wicked, you fall from your own steadfastness" (II Peter 3:15-17).
God wrote His word to be understood and He commands us to understand what He wrote. "Therefore don't be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:17). Thus we conclude that it can be understood and it isn't that hard, though it might require effort on our part (II Timothy 2:15).
Reading through your Bible, you will find that salvation is connected to a number of ideas. Grace is one, but it is also connected to hearing, faith, repentance, confession, obedience, baptism, and Jesus death on the cross. (See Things that Accompany Salvation for more details.) None of these are contradictory ideas, they all work hand-in-hand toward the same goal of salvation.
At its most elementary level, grace is an unearned gift. Your paycheck does not come by the grace of your boss, but when Aunt Martha decides to send you a hundred dollars, just because she feels like it, then that gift is by Aunt Martha's grace.
This is Paul's point in Ephesians 2.
"You were made alive when you were dead in transgressions and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:1-10).
The fact that we have an avenue to salvation is because of God's grace. We certainly are unable to save ourselves. So God provided a way to be saved that was within our means. That is an unearned gift to us. One aspect of that salvation was Jesus' gift of dying on the cross on our behalf. Without his death, we could not be saved, and yet Jesus freely paid the cost for us. That too is a gracious gift to us. But we should not that both gifts, how to be saved and the payment for salvation, were gifts offered to every person. "For the love of Christ constrains us; because we judge thus, that one died for all, therefore all died. He died for all, that those who live should no longer live to themselves, but to him who for their sakes died and rose again" (II Corinthians 5:14-15). Christ didn't just die for the saved. Christ died for everyone, "who gave himself as a ransom for all; the testimony in its own times" (I Timothy 2:6).
But we know from the Bible that everyone will not be saved. So how is it that God can give salvation to everyone and yet everyone will not be saved? It isn't that hard of a concept. Suppose Aunt Martha sent you a hundred dollars. If you tossed it out, or put it away never to be used, would that gift benefit you in any way? Obviously not. You have to make use of the gift in order to benefit from it. Paul said the same thing regarding God's gift. Remember Ephesians 2:10? "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them." These are not works that men make up to earn salvation. God gave us tasks (works) to do in order to benefit from His gift. If we don't do those works, we can't be saved. Yet, at the same time, since these are God's commands, we cannot claim we are earning our salvation because the conditions are laid down by God. "For this cause, we also, since the day we heard this, don't cease praying and making requests for you, that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, that you may walk worthily of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, for all endurance and perseverance with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who made us fit to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light" (Colossians 1:9-12).
God decides when you are saved by laying the conditions you must meet to receive the gift He is offering you. Thus, when God says, "This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you--not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 3:21). Then baptism is a condition for salvation because God made it so and not man. When God says it is a gift given through faith, then faith is a condition for your salvation. Yet, God doesn't force anyone to be saved. He wants our love freely given to Him and we demonstrate our love for God when we obey God. "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous" (I John 5:2-3).