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Salvation Is Not By Works
Although salvation is not by works (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5), God's judgment is:
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth-those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. (John 5:28-29)
"will render to each one according to his deeds": eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness-indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 2:6-10)
But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37)
God's judgment upon all, be they in Christ or not, is indeed going to be according to works (see also Matthew 25:31-46). Paul even says, "not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified (Romans 2:13). If this is so, and it is, how is it then that God, "has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works" (2 Timothy 1:9)? How can it be that it is "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us" (Titus 3:5)?
I. All Under Sin
All men "are under sin" (Romans 3:9; 5:12). No matter who you are. No matter what you've done. You are a sinner.
As it is written: There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18)
The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is none who does good, no, not one. (Psalm 14:2-3)
Therefore, all men are guilty before God (Romans 3:19) and need to be saved (Isaiah 64:5). And since they are guilty and sinful, men are incapable of doing good on their own (Psalm 16:2). Even their righteousness God considers as good as a rag with more than one menstruation upon it.
But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; (literally in the Hebrew, a garment of periods, beged `iddiym, Isaiah 64:6; Hebrew Isaiah 64:5)
Good without God = o. Therefore, men need to be saved. And since men have no righteousness of their own, salvation is impossible without the mercy and grace of God. As Jesus said, speaking of salvation, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible" (see Mark 10:26-27). Men, left to their own merit, on their own good deeds, cannot be saved. It's impossible. Because, the very best they can do ("our righteousnesses") is worth absolutely nothing. Actually, any "good" a sinner might do apart from God is disgusting in His eyes (Isaiah 64:6). Therefore, there is no way salvation could be based upon "works of righteousness which we have done."
II. All Spiritually Dead
Moreover, being under sin, as all men are, this also means that they are spiritually dead. Because "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).
God was not lying when He said to Adam, "in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:17; Titus 1:2). Adam and Eve died that day (Genesis 3:1-19). Physically they continued to live (Genesis 4:25; 5:5). But, spiritually they died, and from that day forward, spiritual death and physical death continued on in their descendants (Romans 5:12). Paul said to the Ephesians,
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Before conversion, people are "children of wrath" and "dead in trespasses and sins." Spiritually dead people are incapable of doing anything spiritually good, as Isaiah 64:6 illustrates.
This is one reason why Jesus said,
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:3, 5-6)
One must become spiritually alive, born, in order to be saved (i.e. "enter the kingdom of God"). And how does one become spiritually born? By their own efforts? By trying really hard to attain some spiritual nirvana? By finding some spiritual birth canal and going through it? No. Remember, they are spiritually dead. How does a dead man bring himself to life? He doesn't. But, the Lord can.
Paul continues his discourse to the Ephesians with,
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). (Ephesians 2:4-5)
This is the work of God, not the work of man. Man is dead in his sin, incapable of doing anything spiritually good (Ephesians 2:1-3; Isaiah 64:6), but God takes dead men, and makes them alive! This is why salvation is not by works. It cannot be by works, since no man, dead in his sin, can possibly have any good works whatsoever to attain anything from God. In fact, this is why it is called salvation. Men are being saved from their miserable, helpless condition, as Romans 5:6 says,
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
III. No Righteousness Apart From God
What about after conversion? What about after we have been born again, made spiritually alive? Is our acceptance into heaven, our salvation, now based upon our own good works? No. Because we are still incapable of doing any good apart from God.
David, who was a saved man (1 Samuel 13:14), said,
O my soul, you have said to the Lord, "You are my Lord, my goodness is nothing apart from You." (Psalm 16:2)
David admitted that he had no goodness in and of himself. He had no righteousness of his own. David also said,
Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous. (Psalm 143:2)
This included David! Even though David was a righteous man (1 Samuel 13:14) he was not a righteous man because of his own goodness, but he was a righteous man because of the righteousness of God that was upon him (Psalm 4:1).
And, so it is for all who come to faith in Christ (Psalm 36:10; 89:16; 103:17; 118:19-20; Romans 3:22). Paul said,
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (Philippians 3:8-9).
Those who face the truth know that they are spiritually bankrupt. They have no righteousness of their own, no goodness apart from God (Psalm 16:2), even after they've come to Christ. Thus, Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3; see also Isaiah 66:2). In other words, these are the kind of people who go to heaven. These are the kind of people who are saved. They know they are not saved by works of righteousness which they have done (Titus 3:5), because they have none of their own. Because, even though they are made spiritually alive,
IV. Flesh Stays Sinful
In Romans 3:23 Paul wrote, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." This is true of everyone, saved or not. Even saved people still sin and fall short of the glory of God, as Solomon said, "there is no one who does not sin" (1 Kings 8:46), and 1 John 1:8 says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Sin is still a factor in the believer's life, as Paul wrote,
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:14-24)
This sinful flesh, this body of death, with it's ever present reality of sin, is constantly doing evil (verse 19). Paul said nothing good dwells in it (verse 18). Therefore, there is a constant war waging (verse 23). The sinful flesh part of Paul ("my flesh" which "nothing good dwells" verse 18), is in war against the redeemed part of Paul ("the one who wills to do good" verse 23, "the inward man" verse 22). And, as far as getting Paul's flesh to do anything good, Paul says it's impossible (verse 18). The sinful flesh stays sinful, even after being born again, and the sinful flesh will continue to be evil until the day of "the redemption of our body" (Romans 8:23).
Therefore, being still in this sinful flesh, we have sin in us, and we still sin. As 1 John 1:10 says, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us." Ecclesiastes 7:20 notes, "For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin."
Being still in this sinful state, this dictates a continual need for the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. As Hebrews 7:25 indicates.
Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
And 1 John 1:9 says,
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
If we confess our sins, He forgives us, and cleanses us from "all unrighteousness." "All unrighteous" includes any unrighteousness, even sin that we might not remember to confess or know to confess. As 1 John 1:6-7 says,
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6-7)
Those who walk in the light (i.e. the pattern of their life is obedience to the word of God) get a continual cleansing via the blood of Christ. Thus, their sins are continually cleansed away and their salvation is secure, as long as they continue in the faith (Romans 11:20-22). Those predestined to salvation will, no doubt, continue (Romans 2:6-7; 8:29-39; for more on this, see our report on Eternal Security).
Sad to say, many teach that a believer can actually live a sinful unrepentant life, and still enter the kingdom of God. This is a lie (1 Corinthians 6:9). An example of this can be found in David Jeremiah's book, God In You (copyright 1998). On page 145, Jeremiah writes,
So Paul says if we walk by means of the Spirit we won't be walking in the flesh. We won't be walking like God wasn't a part of us. Did you know that you can be a Christian and act as though God isn't even in your life? For all intents and purposes, some Christians are practical atheists. They live their lives as if there is no God. Are they Christians? Yes, if they've trusted Christ. But somehow they've gotten away from walking with the Lord. They are walking in their old flesh nature. (bold added, entire paragraph quoted)
Both Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1 say, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" These people Jeremiah speaks of are fools. They are not Christians. They are false Christians. Because, right after Paul's discourse in chapter 7 about his war with the flesh, he writes in chapter 8 verse one,
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
There is no condemnation to those who do not walk according to the flesh. In other words, there is condemnation for those who do walk "in their old flesh nature." As Paul further explained,
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:5-8)
For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Romans 8:13-14)
Sons of God live in righteousness and godliness finding out what is acceptable to the Lord (Ephesians 5:8-10; 1 John 2:3-5). The ungodly, the wicked, those on their way to hell, do not (Revelation 21:8).
V. If By Works, No Salvation
Israel of old was excluded from the righteousness of God, from His salvation, because they thought that they might attain to God's righteousness by their own good deeds. They thought that salvation would come to them if they kept the law. In Romans 9:30-32 Paul wrote,
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
What, or Who, is that stumbling stone? It is Christ (Acts 4:10-11; 1 Peter 2:5-8). Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." It is only through faith (trust) in the Lord Jesus Christ that anyone will ever, and has ever, been saved (e.g. Romans 4:3). It is not by keeping the law (good works), because, "by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:20). In other words, the law reveals the sinfulness of men, and any efforts in keeping the law for salvation is in vain.
This is why Paul was so concerned about the church of Galatia. They had accepted the true gospel, but then sometime later they were given a false gospel in which they were told they must keep the Mosaic law (Galatians 3:3-5, 10, 17). This moved them away from walking by faith (Galatians 1:6) to walking by the flesh (Galatians 3:3-5) as they looked to be perfected, i.e. made righteous, by keeping the law, rather than by trusting God to work His righteousness in them by faith (Galatians 6:15-16; Philippians 3:9).
There is a rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9) in which we must be diligent to enter (Hebrews 4:11). In other words, we had better not trust in any righteousness of our own (e.g. Luke 18:9-14). This rest is faith in Christ. It is where the believer "does not work" to be found righteous in the sight of God (Romans 4:5). It is where the saint "has ceased from his works as God did from His" (Hebrews 4:10). What does this mean? It means that any hope of godly living, any hope of living a righteous life, any hope of making it to heaven, is all cast upon the grace, mercy, and kindness of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Peter put it this way,
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:13)
And Hebrews similarly says,
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
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