How to Become a Christian: Chapter 12 - Salvation cannot be earned

Salvation is based on our faith, not our works

Apostle Paul emphasises that salvation is not obtained through your own good works or deeds, or by keeping the Law of Moses, but only because of God’s grace.  That means it is solely based on God’s undeserved favour, which He freely gives as a gift to those who have faith.  Salvation must be received as a free gift or it cannot be received at all.  You cannot earn it, no matter what you do, and no matter who you are. 

Paul knew that it was no use seeking to gain any righteousness for himself by observing and obeying the Law.  He wanted only to have the righteousness that comes from having faith in Christ:

7But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ,  9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,Philippians 3:7-9 (NASB)

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews also emphasises the vital importance of believing or having faith:

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.Hebrews 11:6 (NASB)

If you were able to earn salvation by your own good works then you would be able to boast about it. You could strut into Heaven telling others that you were there as of right and that you had deserved it and achieved it by yourself, through your own merit.  Few people would speak about their own self-righteousness and merit as openly as I have just put it above.  But in our own way, more subtly perhaps, that is exactly what most of us wrongly imagine about ourselves.  If we do we are deluded because we have no basis to boast whatsoever:

27Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Romans 3:27-28 (NIV)

1What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4Now 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. 6David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7“Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
8Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”
                                                                   Romans 4:1-8 (NIV)

To explain the concept of the free gift another way, imagine that Queen Elizabeth II was having a banquet to celebrate her jubilee and she wanted to invite a wide range of people to come to share it with her.  She and her staff would select names and send out invitations.  Suppose one of those invitations was received by you.  That is not such a strange idea, since the Queen does often invite ordinary people like you and me.  Could you say that you “deserved” to be at that banquet or that you have a “right” to be at it?  You could not. 

The only appropriate way you can go is to accept the invitation gratefully.  Imagine instead that you were to write back to the Queen to accept her invitation and say “You chose the right person when you invited me.  I feel sure I deserve to be here.  I’m quite a bit better than my neighbours in the way I live”.  Few people would ever write such a foolish letter, but many would think it in their hearts when dealing with God.

Or, what would happen if, instead of simply accepting the invitation graciously with a thank you letter you were to write back to the Queen sending her a cheque for £500?  Imagine you told her that instead of receiving the invitation as a free gift, you preferred to “pay” for it by giving her that cheque because you didn’t want to “feel beholden” to her. 

What would her reaction be?  It would be viewed as extreme rudeness and presumption for you to imagine that you could reject the free gift and instead buy or earn your place at the Queen’s banquet. 

But what if you offered her £1000 or £10,000? Would that make it better? Would there be a figure for which you could buy an invitation? Whatever you offered to pay, the insult to the Queen would be the same.  Therefore, all your assets combined together and even multiplied by a million would still not be enough to buy your way in. 

The Queen has no need of your money or mine.  You can never buy her attention in the way that wealthy people sometimes ‘buy’ time and attention from politicians.  She would be disgusted by your offer of money and would reject it, even if you were a billionaire.

Let’s now look at this illustration again, but with God instead of the Queen.  Also, instead of offering Him money, think in terms of offering your own righteousness or goodness.  Neither you nor I come remotely close to having enough of these qualities to deserve to enter Heaven on our own merit.  Thus, quite apart from being an insult to God, it is simply no use you trying to get into Heaven that way. 

The problem is that you just have not got any righteousness to offer.  Neither have I.  Only one person has ever lived a perfect life, such that on the basis of His own life He deserves to go to Heaven.  That is Jesus Christ Himself. 

Nobody else has ever had any righteousness in themselves, not even the apostles who wrote the New Testament.  They wrote about themselves as being sinners and unworthy. The apostle Paul even referred to himself as “the chief of sinners”.  He knew that because of his enormous knowledge and the abundance of divine revelation that had been given to him, a lot more was expected of him than of us. Thus failings on his part would be viewed as major sins even if they would be viewed as minor if we did them. If Paul saw himself as a great sinner, then how can you or I imagine ourselves to be worthy? 

Would you say that you are better than the apostle Paul, or Peter, or John?  We could not even say that we are equal to them?  Yet even if somehow you were equal to apostle Paul, it would still not be good enough, because even he knew that he was a sinful man. If so, then so are you. 

Salvation, forgiveness and eternal life can only be given to those who are willing to receive it all as a free gift. They must know that they have nothing sufficient to offer in return and no possible basis for deserving or earning any of it.  They realise that if they are to get into Heaven they must do so based solely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, not their own.  There is a kind of pride and arrogance involved if we try to earn our way into Heaven.  Therefore salvation has to be based on our faith, not on our obedience to any system of law.  The same was true for Abraham.  He was saved solely by faith:

13It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. 16Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.                                                Romans 4:13-16 (NIV)

20Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,21being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, Romans 4:20-23 (NIV)

It takes humility to realise that you just aren’t good enough and that you need instead to rely on God’s grace and mercy.  Too many of us would rather starve than receive “charity”.  That attitude is foolish.  We need God’s grace and His mercy. We would be fools to refuse them and to try instead to make our own way to Heaven.  Yet, that’s exactly what many of us attempt to do.

When we are saved, (i.e. justified or made righteous) God views us as having all the righteousness that Jesus Christ has.  It is almost as if you were to borrow Jesus Christ’s identity papers or bank card and have access to His entire bank account.  It is as if Jesus made you a joint signatory with a duplicate cheque book and authorised you to write cheques on His infinite bank account.  You would then effectively have as much money as He has and be able to write cheques for any amount, however large, just as He could.  It is the same with sharing His righteousness. We are treated as if we had as much righteousness as Him. 

Imagine a man who goes to a cash machine. In his left hand he has his own bank card for his overdrawn bank account.  In his right hand he has a valid duplicate copy of Jesus’ bank card from His infinite bank account.  What would you say if, instead of inserting Jesus’ bank card into the machine and having access to the infinite riches in His bank account, he was to reach instead for his own card and use that, leaving Jesus’ card unused? 

Would he not be a fool to do that?  Yet that is exactly what we do if we try to rely on our own pathetic self-righteousness, rather than relying on what Jesus did for us on the cross when He paid for our sins Himself.  To make such a foolish choice would be proud and sinful in itself. 

It may be that someone would do that because they say they feel “unworthy” to use Jesus’ righteousness.  But, though that sounds superficially humble, it isn’t.  It is foolish, proud, ungrateful and rebellious.  It means arrogantly insisting on standing on our own two feet when the only wise and humble thing to do is to rely on God’s help and “accept His charity”, i.e. His grace and mercy.  It also implies that what Jesus did wasn't good enough.

If God views you as having all the righteousness of Jesus Christ, then He can allow you into Heaven without being inconsistent or breaking His own rules.  That is because in God’s eyes a legal transaction or exchange has taken place.  All of your sin is transferred on to Jesus Christ, and all of His infinite righteousness is transferred to, or shared with, you. 

The technical term for this is “imputed righteousness”.  It means that instead of having righteousness of your own, someone else’s righteousness is imputed to you.  It is credited or transferred to your account, as if it was your own. 

When I have said to people that I feel an assurance that I am going to go to Heaven, they have often been surprised. Some have said that I am being presumptuous or boastful.  Their mindset is that you can only get to Heaven through being a good person.  They therefore assume that I must be saying that I believe I am very good.  Yet my assurance of salvation and of going to Heaven is not based on me being a good person. 

I am not claiming to be a good person.  On the contrary, I am claiming to be a bad person.  The basis for my assurance of salvation is simply that I know that I have repented and believed in Jesus Christ. I have put my trust in Him and I am relying solely on Him, and on His righteousness, (or in terms of our earlier analogy, His ‘bank card’) as the only basis to permit me to enter Heaven. 

It is only because Jesus Christ suffered and died in my place on the cross that I can know for sure that my sins, past, present and future, have been paid for and punished.  Jesus took all the punishment in my place.  Therefore I am not boasting or being arrogant at all when I say that I am confident I am going to heaven. 

My confidence is not in myself, but in Jesus and His trustworthiness.  I know what He has done for me and I know that He can be relied on, whereas I cannot be.  I have nothing to offer in myself. Neither have you.  Even apostle Paul had no righteousness in himself:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)

If apostle Paul could not describe himself as being any better than that, what does it say for us?

That is why I said above that Christianity is exclusively for bad people. It is for those who know that they are bad, and who have absolutely no illusions about being good.  Ironically, it is only non-Christians who imagine themselves to be good people.  Genuine Christians, who have truly repented, never think that.  They know too well how sinful they are to ever imagine that they are good.  Real Christians know that their own ‘bank account’ is overdrawn and worthless. And they are not too proud to rely on Jesus’ righteousness or ‘bank card’ instead. 

God has not saved us because we are impressive people or better than others.  On the contrary, He tells us the opposite.  We have absolutely nothing to boast about in ourselves:

27but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,  28and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,  29so that no man may boast before God.  30But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,  31so that, just as it is written, "let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."     1 Corinthians 1:27-31 (NASB)

There is something very deep in our hearts which makes us want to cling to relying on our own (imagined) goodness and merit and seeking to earn our own way into Heaven.  Though it doesn’t look, at first sight, like a presumptuous or proud thing to do, it clearly is.  In fact, if you wanted to insult Jesus and dishonour what He did for us, could there be any more effective way of doing so than simply to refuse to accept His help and to choose instead to try to do it for yourself?

For a clearer understanding of the meaning of the word 'salvation' and the different senses in which the word is used in the Bible, see The three stages of salvation - chapter 22.  That will help you to see the differences in meaning between "justification, "sanctification" and "glorification". Each of these are part of an ongoing process which the Bible calls salvation.  Understanding the definitions of those three words, and how they refer to different stages in the process of salvation, will prevent a lot of confusion.

The word we have been focusing on in this chapter is "justification".  That is the first part of salvation. It is based solely on what Jesus did, not on what we do.  "Sanctification", which begins after  we have been justified, is different.  We do have a part to play in the process of sanctification, but not in our justification.

The final stage of salvation, i.e. "glorification", is also dependent solely on God. He alone causes it to happen when we are resurrected in our new and perfect resurrection bodies. So, like justification, that is solely God's work, not ours.

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