Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Errors

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith ... not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:8-10).

Do we have to earn our salvation or not? After the last entry, I worry that it would be easy to come away with the idea that you have to be good enough to be saved. Let’s look at two mistakes it’s far too easy to make.

On the one hand, it’s natural to think that you have to be good enough for God to accept you. Those tests in 1John like “if we keep his commandments” (2:3) or if we do not “continue to sin” (5:18) sure sound like we have to be obedient enough to merit salvation. And this is a strong urge of human nature.

But we are saved by grace through faith “not by works, so that no one can boast.” No one will be able to stand before God and talk of the deeds they did to warrant salvation, and no one will be able to compare themselves to anyone else because we will all appear before the King, not as high-achievers but as pardoned criminals.

For some it’s the fear of not being good enough. For others it’s about pride — they want to contribute to their salvation. Every other religion in the world tries to tell you how to earn salvation (of one kind or another), and it’s not unusual for this to creep into Christian thought — it’s part of our fallen nature. And there are those who try to wear their “good works” like a merit badge for all to see. This is legalism, “the attitude that the law is to be obeyed for its own sake”.1

To these people, Paul says, if righteousness could be gained through works, “Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). Boice says, “We cannot be saved by grace and grace plus works all at the same time.”2 Works cannot save; do not trust in works, because if you are trusting in your good deeds, you are not trusting in Christ.

Don’t worry about not being “good enough.” We shouldn’t be flippant about sin, but we’re never going to be good enough. Tozer says:

“How good it would be if we could learn that God is easy to live with. He remembers our frame and knows that we are dust. He may sometimes chasten us, it is true, but even this He does with a smile, the proud, tender smile of a Father who is bursting with pleasure over an imperfect but promising son who is coming every day to look more and more like the One whose child he is.”3

The other natural error, called antinomianism, takes everything we’ve been taught about grace and how good deeds don’t save us and says, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1). In other words, should we not worry about sin at all since we’re saved by grace? I like the way the KJV renders Paul’s response: “God forbid!” In Christ we have died to sin; we cannot live in it any longer (Rom 6:2). Even though we are not saved by good works, we are saved for them. We were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Boice says, “This is stated in such strong language ... that if there are no works, the person involved is not justified.”2 But the good works are the fruit of justification, not the cause of it.

A form of this has become terribly common in recent decades. People believe God wants us to be “nice,” and beyond that he really doesn’t care what we do. “Nice,” of course, is watered down as much as possible: Don’t kill people, don’t steal anything big, give a dollar to the occasional homeless person, and God doesn’t care about your sex life, language, or self-absorption. God, in this view, just wants us to be happy.

God does want us to be happy, but he knows holiness is required for true happiness. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). And the scriptures warn us, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

Good works cannot save. We cannot “clean ourselves up” enough to warrant salvation. God saves us just as we are. But he does not leave us just as we were. He saves us so we can be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). Don’t fall into either trap. “Instead of living in fear that you might mess up and slip from God’s grasp, get on with loving and serving Him with all of your being, and He will minister assurance to your heart.”4

If you would like to spend some time meditating on the Christian road between legalism and antinomianism, I think Galatians 5 is the best one-stop shop. Just realize that “circumcision” stands in for any kind of works-righteousness.

1 Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine
2 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith
3 AW Tozer, The Root of the Righteous
4 Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On

Part of Christianity 101

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