Oil and water do not mix. Likewise, the Bible is clear that works intended to earn salvation do not mix with grace.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Rom. 11:6 ESV
4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. 5 However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. Rom. 4:4-5 NIV
There is a very simple reason why our salvation cannot be the result of works, or grace plus works. As Rom 4:4-5 explains, if I work for my salvation it is no longer a gift, but something that I’ve earned. It’s either a free gift (Rom 5:15-16) or it’s earned. It’s simply not possible for something to be received as a free gift and earned at the same time.There is no in between. It’s really no harder than that.
I’m obeying, not earning
Some will argue that the works they perform aren’t done with the intention of earning their salvation. Rather, they are merely being obedient to God’s commands. Okay – fair enough, that is certainly the case with many people. This simple question will separate those who do good works because they are saved from those who do them in order to be saved, “What works, practices or doctrines do I have to get right to make it to Heaven?”
Now surely everyone agrees that we can’t be mistaken about the gospel; the gospel as the Bible defines it is the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not, as some contend, everything contained within the New Testament. One can’t have a messed up understanding of the gospel and be a Christian.
So, what work, practice or doctrine will cause me to lose my salvation if I’m mistaken about it? If the answer is anything other than the gospel you are attempting to earn your salvation. Why is this so?
If I say that to be saved you must accept the gospel (through faith, repentance and immersion) AND
- worship with a congregation that uses only a cappella music
- worship with a congregation that is not a part of a denominational structure
- worship with a congregation that has the right name
- worship with a congregation that only uses one cup during communion
- worship with a congregation that has the right organization
- worship with a congregation that does not eat inside the church building
- worship with a congregation that __________________ (supply your own pet doctrine)
then I’ve added requirements to the gospel.
Paul told the Galatians that to add something to the gospel as a condition of salvation changes the gospel into something else. Doing so means that we are now working to earn our salvation and no longer see it as a free gift from God. It’s not that having strong convictions about something is awful, the problem is when we bind them as conditions of salvation. Paul says our salvation either comes by grace, or it comes by works. There is no in between.
It really boils down to this: “Do I believe that Jesus meant what he said when He promised to save everyone who “believes and is baptized (Mar 16:16)?” If so, what got me saved (acceptance of the good news) will keep me saved – period. To say that I must do something else in addition to accepting the gospel is to display a lack of faith in Jesus and His ability to save me. He needs help, so I will help Jesus save me by doing all these good works I know He wants me to do.
Jesus’ sacrifice insufficient to save?
The inescapable implication of legalism is that Jesus’ sacrifice was not adequate to save. The legalist believes there is more that must be done. Whether at a conscious level or not, the legalist cannot believe Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient. Otherwise there would be no reason for the legalist to think there are things he must do to maintain his standing before God through works. By virtue of his own effort, the legalist believes that his works are securing his salvation.
Legalists, perhaps subconsciously, believe the more obedient they are, the more God loves them and the more they deserve to go to Heaven. Ironically, a legalist never feels secure in his salvation. In spite of all the effort that is expended to secure his salvation, the legalist knows he hasn’t lived up to even his own standards. When asked the often repeated question, “If you died right now would you go to Heaven”, the legalist never can say, “Yes”. He never feels that he has done enough to merit his salvation. For meriting his salvation is exactly what he is trying to do rather than relying upon the generosity (grace) of God to bestow it upon him as the gift that it is.
As a result, the legalist typically has a strange mix of emotions. He is often a miserable person full of guilt and fear since he feels no eternal security for himself. At the same time he has feelings of arrogance, pride, superiority and condemns others who do not share his views.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of legalism is that typically, a person who is a legalist doesn’t realize he is a legalist. He believes he is doing exactly what God requires. As someone has said, “Like bad breath, legalism has a way of being obvious to everyone but the person guilty of it.” You can’t fix something if you are unable to realize it is broken.
Salvation isn’t about rule keeping
The response to grace by those who rely on works is to imply that without rules we’ll all run amok. Those who make this assertion reveal that they don’t understand the true nature of our relationship with God.
Salvation is about relationship; God is our Father. Over and over again the scriptures portray our relationship with God as that of a family. In any family there are rules of course, but the family is not defined by the rules.
“It’s like marriage. Husbands and wives will have certain rules they agree on (I get the TV for Monday night football. She gets the TV for “So You Think You Can Dance.” We pray that they never move “So You Think You Can Dance” to Mondays.) And there are certain rules inherent in marriage, imposed by God himself (sexual faithfulness, for example). But if you define your marriage in terms of rules, you’re a deeply confused person. Imagine your wife saying, “I love being married to Hank. He has found and strictly enforces exactly the right rules. I know he’s the man for me!”
If we were to compare the marriages of friends of ours, trying to decide which couple has the healthiest, most godly marriage, we’d not start by asking what the rules in their marriages are. Of course, if the spouses were cheating on each other, we’d know they have a very unhealthy marriage. But non-cheating isn’t the definition of a healthy marriage. It’s necessary. But it’s not nearly enough.
No, we’d start by looking at their relationships. Do they love each other? Do they support each other? Do they cooperate? Do they resolve conflict in healthy, productive ways, or are they passive aggressive? Do they enjoy being around each other? Is their relationship harmonious and peaceful? Do they retaliate for perceived wrongs or do they work those things out with forgiveness, apologies, and reconciliation?”
Be like a dog
Of course, there are good works we need to be busy doing. But, it’s not about “having” to do, it’s about wanting to do.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Eph. 2:10 NKJV
Christians do good works because we are saved, not in order to be saved. A good analogy to help understand this idea is to consider a dog. A dog does not bark, chase his tail or fetch in order to be a dog. No, a dog does these things because he is a dog. It’s just a part of his nature; he doesn’t focus and fixate on doing “dog things”, he just does them. If you are a dog, these are the things you do; you can’t do otherwise.
Likewise, a Christian shouldn’t have to focus on or obsess over obeying the commandments of God, we just do them because that is now who we are.
Yes, it is God who is working in you. He helps you want to do what pleases him, and he gives you the power to do it. Phil 2:13 ERV
As God transforms us to become more like Him our nature is slowly changed. We love other people (aka obey the commandments) because it’s part of our new nature. It’s starts to become automatic and we can’t do otherwise. We love others and do “God things” because we are His children, not in order to be His children. The commandments of the New Covenant describe the actions done by people who are filled with love.
Grace can’t be earned. Grace can only be accepted. Our response to God, who is generous enough to give us eternal life, is to try to become more like Him. The more like Him we become the more we’ll do the things that He does. Those who understand this recognize that we don’t do good works in order to be saved, but because we are saved.
This series of articles is not meant to be a rigorous or complete study of the subject, but merely a starting point. For a much more comprehensive study on grace I highly recommend Jay Guin’s free book, “The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace.”