The idea of performing or working in order to earn your way into heaven is unfortunately not uncommon among those who profess to be Christians. Even more, although it may not be outwardly expressed verbatim as a works-based salvation or justification, the influences of such doctrine are jarringly rampant in sermons and books around us today. Even as the authors of the New Testament are abundantly clear that it is not of works, deeds, or accolades of our own that we are a new creation in Christ, many have veered off into a deceptively burdensome and false idea that what they are doing has earned them salvation. Why does this matter? First, if we as Christians believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, we are to then go to it as the primary source for understanding such foundational truths. In addition, the Bible is in fact abundantly clear on this subject. Second, to say that you are partaking in your own salvation is to speak falsely with regard to an absolute foundation to the Christian faith. The Gospel is hinged upon understanding the doctrine of both justification and salvation correctly; for if we get this wrong, we miss the overwhelming undeserved grace, mercy, and love that God shows those that He adopts into the Kingdom of His beloved Son.
Before we dive into the underpinnings of a works-driven gospel in contrast to what scripture says, I find it wholly important for both the non-believer and believer alike to come into an understanding of definitions of words such as salvation, justification, propitiation, and grace. All too commonly in our society, the weight and meaning of words have lost their originally intended purposes. Often, we read or hear something and understand it not based on the true definitions of the words being said, but our own personal association with certain words. While this may not rub up against the day-to-day of our lives in a negative way, it is, in my opinion, one of the many reasons people fall into false doctrines. If we are to approach the Bible allowing for it to tell us what it says, we have to take a step deeper into our hermeneutics in order to unearth the author's true intent. One way we do this is by both understanding and living out of the correct definitions for certain concepts and terms. We will start with concise definitions of grace, propitiation, justification, and salvation as it relates to the Christian faith and then look even further into what the Bible says about such words and terms as seen in the application of them.
Grace - Undeserved favor from God
Propitiation - "God’s wrath is placated by Christ. Christ by His blood — His life and death — has taken God’s wrath and punishment for us. When Christ was on the cross, He not only took the punishment due for our sin, He took the wrath of God, the righteous indignation, associated with the punishment...This is the amazing propitiating power of the blood of Christ." (Anthony Carter)
Justification - "In biblical terms, justification is a divine verdict of "not guilty—fully righteous." It is the reversal of God's attitude toward the sinner. Whereas He formerly condemned, He now vindicates. Although the sinner once lived under God's wrath, as a believer he or she is now under God's blessing...So justification elevates the believer to a realm of full acceptance and divine privilege in Jesus Christ." (John MacArthur)
Salvation - The deliverance from the rightful eternal punishment for sin, by the grace of God seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone.
So What Is It? Works or Grace?
In order to gain a proper understanding of the Bible's teaching on salvation, we have to first understand the state of all humans before God apart from Christ. For this, we will take a deeper exegesis into two of the clearest passages of scripture on this topic (although there are plenty in addition to these): Ephesians 2:1-3 and Romans 5:12.
Here, In Ephesians 2, Paul is talking to now Christians at the church in Ephesus.
Ephesians 2:1-3 says, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest."
Many know the verses that follow these, but circumvent these emphatically important points that Paul is making with regard to the state of Christians apart from Christ. As Paul is speaking to now followers of Jesus, he is speaking in the past tense in relation to the state they were in prior to being made new in Jesus. Upon a quick look back at the prior chapter, we can see that Paul ended with considering that the ultimate example of God's infinite power was exemplified in the resurrection of Jesus. Now, we see Paul considering and teaching the Christians in Ephesus the implications of Jesus' resurrection power in the life of those who place their faith in Him. In the first verse, we read that Paul does not teach that believers in Christ were half alive or even sick prior to Christ. He uses a very specific word to describe the state in which we are all in, in our sins. Paul says, "And you were dead.." The next question we should ask ourselves before moving onto the following words is, "how and why were we dead, and is this physical death or something else?"
For that, Paul answers with utter clarity. The Greek word for dead is used throughout the New Testament in two ways. It is used both as a noun, describing a physical state, and also as an adjective describing death in relation to a spiritual state. In this case, Paul uses the word dead as it relates to a spiritual state of being. They were dead, Paul teaches, in their trespasses and sins. Just from this first sentence, we can conclude that as Romans 6:23a states, "the wages of sin is death." Paul continues on to say that this state of being dead in our trespasses and sins is a state in which these believers formerly walked. What did "walking" in this way look like? It looks like living in the lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of mind, which are primarily perversions of God's intended purposes for human desires (like sex, marriage, working, leadership, etc.). Furthermore, as the verses conclude, being dead in our sins in turn results in rightfully being under the wrath of God (hence the need for propitiation).
Unfortunately, this teaching may feel wholly unfamiliar to you. The idea of being completely dead spiritually in our sins and rightfully under God's wrath is not an easy pill to swallow for many. This teaching is often met with an emphatic statement of, "I am not that bad, though! I don't sin!" For that, we will look briefly at Romans 5:12. Here, Paul writes, "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned." Sin entered into the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. God instructed them to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and yet they did. God promised that if they ate of it, they would surely die (Genesis 2:16). This resulted in first a spiritual death and then a physical death of the body. Because of this, we are all born sinful and all will sin. This teaching is not given in order to convince you to believe of God out of a state of fear, but rather to bring you deeper into an understanding of just how glorious the grace of God is.
So, we can exegete a few things from these verses. We are all dead in our sins, walking according to the prince of the power of the air (Satan), carrying out the desires of our flesh and mind, and under God's wrath apart from Christ. How then do we come out from under God's wrath and have new life in Christ?
By Faith Alone, Through Grace Alone, In Christ Alone
Our original state standing before the perfect, holy, just, merciful, graceful God is as a sinner that is dead walking in evil trespasses against Him. What then are we to do with this? Paul continues in Ephesians 2, teaching those in Ephesus as to how it is that they are no longer dead in their trespasses and sins.
He teaches them, "But God rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved-and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness in us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:4-9)
In order to grasp the depth and beauty of what Paul is teaching here, let us again look at it these verses section by section. Paul starts by declaring characteristics of God after he just described adjectives for those who are not a new creation in Christ. We see a stark contrast in the deadness, indulging in desires of the flesh, and children of wrath characteristics with which Paul was describing the former way of life for the people in Ephesus (which is true of nonbelievers today also). In the contrary, He talks about God as being rich in mercy and having great love. That rich mercy and the great love of God is happening when? Paul teaches that it was existing even as these now believers were dead in their trespasses. So, the question then is, if God's love and mercy were bestowed upon the now believers in Christ even before they believed in Him and were consequently dead in their trespasses, was their now salvation as a result of their ability to earn it? Clearly, if God's love and mercy were existing towards them when they were sinning against Him and spiritually dead in their trespasses, we can conclude that this type of love cannot be earned through perfect and righteous works of our own; for no "works" are even a capability apart from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Moving on, Paul teaches how their once spiritually dead selves now have life. He says that God made them alive with Christ. How? By grace they have been saved and raised up in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus. So, God bestowed His love and mercy before these believers were even aware of their spiritual depravity to then save them by His own grace in order to give them new life in Jesus. It is important to note the total lack of any mention of action by these people. The only role they played in any of this was that they were dead in their sins and trespasses apart from Christ, and now because of God's grace in Christ, they have been made alive.
The next verse shows us a glimpse as to why God did this. Did God show them great and lavish mercy and grace because they were deserving and had special privileges in His eyes? Absolutely not. In fact, Paul teaches, it was to show in future times (which includes now) the immeasurable (beyond any human measure or comprehension) mercy and grace that God shows those He saves in and through Christ Jesus.
As if Paul hadn't already driven the truth home that these once dead people brought nothing to their own salvation in Jesus Christ, he then decides to repeat a certain phrase. He goes on to tell them yet again that it is by God's grace that they have faith in Jesus. Why is it only by God's grace, Paul? So that we cannot boast as is in our natural human tendencies to do so. Such boasting would be a conduct of the former way of life Paul was talking about. Instead, this is a gift from God. It was not out of anything they did, but simply a gift. It is a gift that allows us to see our sin rightly and to repent, or turn away from, the former way of life that resulted in spiritual death.
It was not their faith that came first before God's grace, but as Romans 5:8 teaches, "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." As part of this grace, through Jesus, we have new life. Quite literally, we as believers, have been transferred out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of His beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13) Believers are not to live in that former way of life Paul taught on in Ephesians 2:1-3. For if we were still walking in that manner of life, we would still be spiritually dead. Instead, by God's grace, we as believers in Christ are a new creation. The old self has passed away, and behold the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Praise God for this undeserved favor He shows those that are saved by His grace seeing their sinful nature rightly leading them to repent and turn away from the sins and trespasses that brought death; for that alone is how we inherit this new glorious life.
It Is Finished
The idea that we, as humans, bring absolutely nothing to the table with regards to our salvation and right relationship with God is both humbling and convicting. In a society littered with false doctrines, the idea of us being utterly depraved, sinful, and without hope apart from Jesus Christ can feel both jarring and counter to what you have either heard, learned, or presumed. Even more, as ideas like tithing equating to bigger blessings from God or the idolatry of self- love, things like undeserved favor and justification by none of our own accords can seem absurd, or better yet wholly offensive.
This foundational doctrine to the Christian faith should in many ways rub up against the offense of our flesh. In our sinful state, we often desire to create God in our image rather than remembering it is we who are created and He who is the Creator. Even more, it is we that are sinners and He who is perfect and without sin. Often, when we divulge in ideas that lead us not to the God of the Bible, who is both perfectly just and perfectly loving, we land upon a graven image of our own sinful, broken selves. As Paul teaches all throughout his epistles, we are spiritually dead and separated from God apart from the great grace with which He shows us in Jesus Christ.
As Darrell Harrison puts it, "We add nothing to our salvation except the sin which made it necessary for Christ to die on the cross." Why, then, would we even consider that we have the fortitude to earn our salvation? For as Jesus hung on the cross and spoke His last words, He said, "It is finished." By this, He did not mean that all will be saved solely because they exist after His death and resurrection. He also did not say this in order to suggest that there was something else humans could do or offer as the atonement for their sins. In fact, the Greek word used for finished here was “tetelestai” which means to bring to a close, to complete, to fulfill. The sacrifices in the Old Testament were no longer needed to atone for sins. The prophecies in the Old Testament pointing to Jesus, the Messiah, were fulfilled. The debt of sin, that we not Jesus owed, was now paid in full. Jesus owed the Father nothing, and yet He paid it in full for those that place their hope and faith for salvation in Him alone by God's grace alone.
I urge us strongly to reject any doctrine that tells you either explicitly or implicitly that there is still work to be done with regard to salvation. Are we to then sit idly and go on sinning in light of this gift of grace given by God? As Paul often states, "By no means!" We are to die to our flesh every day, not be conformed to this world, be transformed by the renewing of our minds by studying and living out of the Word of God (Romans 12:2), and we are to walk in the newness of life aimed at glorifying God above all else; resting in the continued grace of God shown to us by His sanctification, growth, and correcting in us, conforming us to the image of His beloved Son (Romans 8:29).
So, we will conclude with one of my favorite passes in Romans 6 where Paul teaches further on this new life we as believers have only by God's grace. Let us rejoice and praise God for this rich mercy, love, and grace. Let us continually turn away from the sins which would have brought us death apart from Christ. Let us aim at living lives now wholly devoted to proclaiming this good news for His glory and our and other's best.
"For if we have been united with him [Jesus] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:5-14)