As Christians, we know that salvation comes by grace and not by works. It’s part of the bedrock of Christian faith. Yet we also know the Bible tells us we need to be overcoming sin and living right. It’s easy to get the idea that salvation is really based on our good works more than it is on grace. And since we all still find ourselves sinning, life can get pretty frustrating and depressing at times.
In Ephesians 2:8-9, the apostle Paul tells us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
And yet, other passages in the New Testament seem to indicate that we will only be saved if we are doing good works. Take Revelation 20:13, for example: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works” (KJV).
How do passages like this one fit with the passages that tell us we are saved by grace and not by works? The problem is, we can’t enter the kingdom of God unless we are righteous. That is a fact, and there is no way around it. Unless we’re righteous, we’re doomed.
The further bad news is that we don’t have what it takes to be righteous. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
So if we have to be righteous to be saved, but none of us actually are righteous, how can anyone be saved? That’s where the gospel, the good news, comes in. Second Corinthians 5:21 tells us, “God made him who had no sin [that is, Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
That means we are saved by, and only by, God’s gracious acts of love on our behalf. In spite of our sinfulness, God loves us and wants us in his kingdom. First Timothy 2:3-4 says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
Even though God wants all people to be saved, it seems that some aren’t. But contrary to what many Christians might think, it’s not because they aren’t righteous enough. It’s because they trust in their own so-called righteousness instead of in Jesus Christ, who actually is their righteousness.
Jesus told a parable about a man who tried to sit down at a king’s banquet table wearing his own garments instead of the banquet garments provided by the king. Let’s read the story in Matthew 22:1-14:
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
‘Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”
‘But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
‘Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man was speechless.
‘Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”‘
Jesus’ point is that God wants us at his banquet table, so he’s made sure we can have, free of charge (because we haven’t got enough to pay for it), everything we need to be there.
So, when we read a passage like Galatians 5:24, which says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires,” it doesn’t mean that if we crucify the sinful nature then we can belong to Christ. It means that we are righteous because we belong to Christ. We are not righteous of ourselves; we are righteous only in Christ.
We can believe it or not, but that is what God says he has done. If we believe it, we will welcome the free wedding garments. If we don’t believe it, that is, if we don’t accept God for who he is, the Father of Jesus Christ through whom he has saved the world, then we’ll keep on living like we always have, cutting ourselves off from the joy of real life that is waiting for us in God’s banquet hall.
Jesus is telling us that in the kingdom of God, people who think they have righteousness of their own aren’t welcome. It is sinners who are welcome, people who know they are sinners, and who trust God to forgive them and make them righteous in Christ. Those who think they are in some way more deserving, or more acceptable, or less dirty than the others, aren’t able to stay.
Ephesians 2:4-7 tells us:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
We can enjoy the glorious fruit of Jesus’ victory only by trusting him, not by improving our behavior. Paul wrote in Romans 3:27-28, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
When God sent his Son to die for our sins and to be raised for our life, he made two things plain:
1) He loves us immeasurably and unconditionally, to the point of taking our burden as his own, even to the point of death, and
2) Our salvation was entirely his work; there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
Imagine what would happen to, for example, a tomato plant if that plant suddenly declared independence from soil, water and light. Without resting in the elements that produce its life and growth, the plant would be doomed. It can never be what it is, a tomato plant, without soil, water and light. It can never do what tomato plants do—bear tomatoes—without soil, water and light. Yet our self-assured little tomato plant, if we can still call it a tomato plant, has decided it can be a better plant by its own hard work than it can by resting in its source of being.
Sin amounts to a state of declared “independence” from God. It’s a denial of who we really are, of who we were created to be. It’s like that tomato plant saying it has a better idea of what tomato plants ought to be. This denial of who we really are is the very condition of our lives. Each individual sin we might commit is just the natural fruit of a corrupt heart that doesn’t know the true source of its own life.
No matter how much we overcome, no matter how many sins we shed, no matter how many bad habits we replace with good ones, no matter how much better we are today than we used to be, it is still fourth down and a thousand yards to go. It’s not enough. We’re not going to make it.
That’s why we have to get our minds off ourselves and onto our Lord and Savior. We need to give up on ourselves and put our trust in Jesus. He fixes us from the inside out. We need to quit looking at the evidence we see in our lives and start trusting Jesus to be for us and do for us what he says he will be for us and do for us. We need to quit worrying that he will not be faithful on account of our being sinners, and start trusting him to forgive us and clean us up like he said he would.
It works like this: our unfaithfulness does not keep God from being faithful. He will be faithful because that is the way he is—faithful. We can stick out our tongues at him all day long, and he will still be faithful. We will have sore tongues and we will miss out on all the fun he wants us to have, but in spite of our wooden-headedness he will still be faithful.
God will not stop loving us and he will not stop knocking on our door, urging us to let him come in. He is, and always will be, faithful, even when we are not. We are free even to deny him. We are free to give up on him. We are free not to believe him, even to hate him. We have that choice, the choice to love our own so-called lives and turn down his gift of real life. We don’t have to enjoy his kingdom. He will let us be miserable if we insist on it.
Even so, he will always remain faithful, always love us, never forcing us to accept his love, but always urging us to. As Paul wrote: “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:11-13).
We can get ourselves into all the trouble we want, and God will still be faithful. He will hurt for us and grieve for us, because he loves us, but he will not force us to trust him. If love is forced, it’s not real love.
“Wait a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you saying I can sin and still be saved?” All I can say to that is that you are a sinner and God saves sinners, so there can be no other answer but yes.
Does that mean I’m encouraging you to sin? Of course not. I’m encouraging you to trust God to love you and forgive you and save you in spite of your sins, because that is what he promises to do.
But how can a person can have true faith in Christ and still keep sinning? Well, it would be nice if we believers would quit sinning, but nobody, ever, in all history has quit sinning this side of death. Only Jesus was without sin.
We are all sinners, and God saves us anyway, because saving sinners is what he does. That is not an invitation to sin; it is simply a fact. God remains faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to him. If we put our trust in him and admit we are sinners, he is faithful and just to forgive us.
Someone might ask, “But God won’t save us unless we change, will he?” Change how much? Change a little, change a medium amount, change a lot? How much is enough? God saves sinners. He heals the sick, not the healthy. In Mark 2:17 Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
But don’t we have to change at least some before God will save us? God doesn’t save on the basis of human changes. He saves on the basis of his own righteousness. Romans 3:21-28 says,
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
Salvation isn’t about how much sin we put out of our lives. God wants us to trust him to make us righteous in Christ. We are saved by Christ’s righteousness, not ours. We don’t have any. But Christ has taken all humans, including you and me, into himself, and he stands in for us before the Father. He has brought all humanity, including you and me, into his intimate, loving relationship with the Father. So when we sin, as we all do, we can trust God’s word that we are already forgiven in Christ.
God’s children want to obey him. The Spirit of God in us leads us to obey him. Our consciences, appropriately, plague us when we know we are disobeying him. Still, there are two things we need to remember: 1) We have been forgiven already, and 2) We keep sinning no matter how much we overcome.
The person who thinks he stands is the very one who needs to take heed. Why? Because nobody stands except in Christ. Even with all the apostles urging to do what is right, not one of us actually walks a perfectly pure and holy life—except as we are held in Jesus.
Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, Jesus said, we have no part in the kingdom. The Pharisees were the most careful and devoted law abiders around! They took the word of God seriously, and they devoted themselves scrupulously to observing it. But Jesus said that anyone who will be in his kingdom must have even greater righteousness.
Do you have such a level of righteousness? I sure don’t.
That’s just the point. Salvation doesn’t come by what we do, no matter how good we are—or think we are. Our righteousness is the righteousness of Jesus, as we’re told in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31: “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.’”
So how do we stand? By trusting Christ who raises the dead.
How do we stand? By trusting our Father who justifies the ungodly.
How do we stand? By trusting the Holy Spirit who leads us continually back to Christ.
We do have a choice. We can try to make life worthwhile on our own steam, or we can die to all the things we thought were worth clawing for in this world, and trust God to give us the real life we don’t yet see, the one that is hidden in Christ with God, as Colossians 3 tells us.
Yes, it’s good to “get serious” about overcoming sin. We can avoid a lot a pain and heartache by not sinning. But we need to do so in the complete assurance that we are already God’s forgiven and beloved righteous children for Christ’s sake.
The reason God wants us not to sin is that sin hurts us. It hurts us and it hurts others. It’s like what Proverbs 6:27 says about adultery, “Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?” Sin hurts us, and it also makes us think God doesn’t love us.
So even while we seek to live a godly life and stop sinning, we can quit worrying that our failures, setbacks and dry periods cut us off from God. They don’t. God is absolutely true to his covenant promise; he will never leave us nor forsake us, and we can count on that no matter how deep in the miry pit of sin we have wallowed.
In our heavenly Father’s eyes, even while we still work to turn away from our sins, we are already new and righteous with him in Christ. He sees us for what he has made us to be in Christ, not for what we have made ourselves to be by a lifetime of wrong turns, bad decisions, weak moments, failures and sins.
That’s why we can find comfort, peace and rest in Jesus Christ. And that’s why the gospel is called good news!
Author: J. Michael Feazell