Salvation, is not earned by our own effort or merit. It is a free gift by God's grace (undeserved favour) in response to our faith
One of the hardest things for people to understand is that the forgiveness of our sins and the granting of salvation, in terms of being justified, are not things that we can earn or deserve through living a good life or through our own merit. The Bible specifically deals with this in the following passages:
And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:50 (ESV)
8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God 9not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2: 8-9 (NIV)
For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20 (RSV)
he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5 (NIV)
1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Romans 5:1-2 (NIV)
It was Jesus, not us, who did what was needed to pay the penalty for our sins. He alone has made possible our justification. It is all achieved by Jesus and not by us. Thus, there is nothing for us to boast about at any stage.
Salvation is by God's grace, through our faith, not by our own good works or merit
This question of how we gain God’s forgiveness is perhaps the most widely misunderstood issue in Christianity. If you asked a cross section of people how a person can achieve salvation, most of them would give you a similar answer. It would be along the lines of ‘living a good life’, ‘being kind to others’, ‘going to church’, ‘etc. They would use different words, but they would mean that salvation, in terms of going to Heaven, is achieved by you earning it or deserving it through your own good conduct during your life.
Heaven is assumed to be a place that “good” people go to. That makes sense to people. It fits in with how they imagine it must operate. By human reasoning, it seems fair that Heaven is for ‘good' people and Hell is for ‘bad’ people. However, I have noticed that no matter who I speak to, their definition of a “good person” always seems to include themselves. All of us are self-righteous in our own way.
Most of us would not recognise ourselves as being self-righteous, but that’s what we are by nature. Having spoken about the gospel one to one with hundreds of people over the years, I have found this to be a common theme. Few people, other than genuine Christians, consider themselves to be bad, or to have done wrong. It is the norm to view oneself as good, or at least mainly good.
To understand real Christianity correctly, we need to grasp a very surprising fact which goes against all our instincts. It is that to get to Heaven and to have eternal life is something that we can never earn or deserve through our own efforts or goodness. There is nothing you can ever do to be good enough to earn a place in Heaven. What you would have to do, in theory, would be to live your entire life from birth to death without ever doing anything wrong whatsoever.
Even one sinful thought, action or word at any point would ruin everything. It would be like driving all your life without breaking the speed limit but then for one moment, on one day, you go over the speed limit. You would be guilty and liable to a fine regardless of the fact that this was the only time you had ever done it.
In God’s eyes anyone who sins at all is a sinner. That makes you unacceptable to Him and unworthy to be in His presence. It is all or nothing. Usually people argue back that if, on balance, they are ‘mostly good' then surely that will be enough. Their assumption is that God must operate some kind of weighing scale system whereby He weighs up your good deeds alongside your bad deeds. Then if the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds that makes you a good person overall, who therefore deserves to go to Heaven.
That is what most people think. I know because literally hundreds of them have told me something like that when I have been sharing the gospel. Indeed, I have rarely ever heard anything other than that. Though it sounds reasonable, it is completely wrong. It shows a total lack of understanding of how God actually operates.
I often say to people that Heaven is a place reserved exclusively for bad people and that no ‘good’ people are allowed. They then look puzzled and I explain that nobody can get into Heaven if they think that they are a good person.
We need to get this straight right now. You are not a good person. Neither am I. Nobody living on your street is a good person. Nobody living in your town is a good person. There is no such thing as a “good” person. Even the best things we do aren't good enough to be acceptable to God. See how Isaiah puts it:
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Isaiah 64:6 (NASB)
To God, the definition of a good person is someone who islike Him. That means someone who is utterly perfect, righteous, holy and sinless at all times. In other words, nobody is good except God alone. The only goodness that is acceptable to God is total, perfect, continuou,s 100% goodness. The problem is that none of us have that. Mere relative goodness, where you can show you are 30% better than me, will not do. Look at how Jesus put it:
18A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 19"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. Luke 18:18-19 (NIV)
Jesus was being provocative with the ruler. He meant that nobody is truly good except God alone. That is the point I am making above. Jesus also meant that He Himself was God. He was testing the ruler as to where he stood on that point.
So, what we could say is that there is no way into Heaven for anybody who seeks to rely on their own goodness or virtue as the means of getting in. The only way that you can enter Heaven or receive eternal life is as a free gift. It has to come by God’s “grace”, through "faith", not by doing it yourself or earning it.
Jesus Christ died for the 'ungodly', for 'sinners' and for His 'enemies'. You will not be able to get anywhere until you realise that you belong in all of those categories and accept that you can't save yourself. You deserve nothing other than God's judgment and punishment. The same is true of everybody else too:
6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Romans 5:6-10 (NIV)
“Grace” means God’s undeserved favour. In other words it means getting something that you do not deserve. It is similar to the concept of “mercy”, which means not getting what you do deserve.
A person who imagines that he might be able to build up enough of his own merit or good deeds to earn a place in Heaven, is completely missing the point. You may as well abandon the idea now, because you will never be able to earn or deserve a place in Heaven, whatever you do. That is not the way that God saves people or allows people into Heaven:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:20 (NIV)
Jesus means that even the extremely legalistic religious observance of the Scribes and Pharisees was of no use. That is because it just wasn’t good enough. These devout Jewish men devoted their whole lives to trying (unsuccessfully) to obey every tiny detail of the Law of Moses plus thousands of their own man-made laws as well. But it was all no use, because that is not the way to get right with God or to be viewed by Him as righteous. You cannot get to Heaven by good deeds or by trying to obey the Law of Moses or any other set of rules:
nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. Galatians 2:16 (NASB)
"he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5 (RSV)
There are millions of people who may seem to us to be Christian because they are ‘religious’. They observe all sorts of religious rules and regulations. They go to church, and perhaps even help to lead at church. But, they may not be saved or forgiven. God can see their heart and He knows whether their worship of Him is real. It may be shallow or insincere or just for show. Or it may be that they only go to church because they were brought up in church and it’s become a habit. Sometimes people just like the tradition or the ritual. Only God knows those who are really His. Look how Isaiah describes it:
The Lord says:
"These people come near to me with their mouth
and honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is made up only of rules taught by men.Isaiah 29:13 (NIV)
We must therefore examine ourselves and see whether or not we are real and sincere or just following man-made rules and traditions which cannot save us.
How then do we achieve righteousness in God’s eyes? Look at what Paul says in his letter to the Galatians:
10All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." 11Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith." 12The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them." 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." 14He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Galatians 3:10-14 (NIV)
Apostle Paul means that if you seek to rely on observance of the Law of Moses (or your own version of that, i.e. your own rules for what makes a good person) then you must always obey all of it. If not, then the very law that you seek to obey in order to earn righteousness will merely demonstrate your guilt by showing you to be a lawbreaker. The very law that you are trying to keep to prove your own righteousness just becomes a ‘curse’ to you. It both proves your guilt and increases your guilt.
The only way to be saved is to willingly allow your sins to be transferred onto Jesus. When He was on the cross (or “tree”) He took that curse of the law on Himself so that it would not be on you. Consider these passages:
38"Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. Acts 13:38-39 (NIV)
Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him. 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NASB)
See also what Paul says to the Romans:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. Romans 3:20 (NIV)
Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. Romans 10:3 (NIV)
Even if you were to attempt to obey all the Law of Moses, you still could not be saved that way, because you could never manage to obey it all or to keep it up all the time. Nobody ever has, except Jesus. What then was the main purpose of the law of Moses? Paul says it is to enable us to see our sin. In other words, God did not give the Jewish people the Law of Moses so that they could be saved by keeping it. Contrary to what many assume, that was never its purpose.
It was given so that they could see clearly, from their failure to keep it, that they were sinners. It proved that they needed God’s forgiveness. It was like a mirror in which they could see themselves for what they were – sinners, just like you and me. A mirror does not improve your appearance. It merely tells you what you look like.