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Is Grace Not Enough?

We are told that salvation is not the free gift of God (i.e. by grace, favor that we cannot earn or deserve). We are told that good works are absolutely necessary. Let me try to assemble all of the New Testament passages used to make this argument, and then let’s take a look at how these passages all apply to the people who make these claims.

How well are you obeying? And how can you know if and when you have done enough?

In Matthew 7:21, Jesus warns, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Hebrews 5:9 says that Jesus has become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Hebrews 10:26-27 also warns, “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Paul says in his sin list in Galatians 5:19-21 that whoever practices these sins “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul also tells the Philippians (2:12) to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

James the brother of Jesus says three times (James 2:17, 2:24, 2:26) that faith without works is dead. In Revelation 2:23, Jesus announces from heaven that “I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.” Revelation 20:11-13 also tells us that in the final judgment, all will be judged “according their works” as recorded in the books, “according to what they had done.” They will be judged by the One “from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.”

Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (The Greek verb here can also be a command rather than a statement.) Jesus says it again twice in verses 21-23: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, is the one who loves me… If a person loves me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” Jesus says it one more time in John 15:10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

John’s first epistle is enough to make anyone nervous. 1 John 3:6 says, “No one who abides in him [Christ] sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Verse 9 says, “The one who has been born of God does not sin, because God’s seed abides in him; he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” John goes on in 1 John 5:3 to say, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Several New Testament passages speak of the need to “endure to the end.” These include Matthew 10:22, Matthew 24:13 (= Mark 13:13), and Revelation 2:26. All four of these address situations of powerful persecution. So does Hebrews 3:14, which says, “For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.” Hebrews 6:4-6 warns that if a person falls away after have been “enlightened” (the description is vague as to whether the person was actually saved or not), such a person is “impossible to restore to repentance.” Such verses give the impression (rightly or not) that it doesn’t matter how well a believer runs the race, if they fall away before the finish line.

Perhaps you’re like the Rich Young Ruler. Jesus says, “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments.” You say, “All these I have kept from my youth.” Don’t be too sure.

Jesus says that whoever calls his neighbor an emptyhead (Raca) or a fool (literally “moron”) shall be in danger of the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus says in Matthew 5:27-28 that whoever looks at another person with lust (presumably to whom we are not married) has already committed adultery with that person in their heart. Jesus says in Matthew 6:15 that if we do not forgive others, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Have we truly forgiven everyone?) Jesus commands us to love one another “as I have loved you” (John 13:34 – that’s a tall order!). Jesus says in Matthew 25:45, “Inasmuch as you did it not to the one of least of these, you did it not to me.” (How many times have we failed?)

Do you still think you can do all of this? Jesus is trying to prove you wrong.

Grace and works are mutually exclusive, according to Romans 11:6; if we are saved by grace, then we cannot earn salvation by works. If we are saved by works, then grace goes out the window. So how do we understand these passages that emphasize works and obedience? Here’s how.

First, these scriptures stress the need to live a life that is consistent with what we claim to believe, a life of overwhelming gratitude for what Christ has done for us. That is Jesus’ point in John 14:15-23. It is John’s point in 1 John 3:6-9. It is Paul’s point in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say, then? Shall we continue in sin, so that grace may abound? May it never be! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?”

Second, these verses are a sobering reminder that without God’s free and undeserved gift, we are toast. You think you’re good enough for God? Don’t count on mercy. You will be judged by your works. You think you can earn your way to perfection? Don’t count on grace. (Galatians 5:4) As I have stated in my post "The Curse of Galatians 3:10", all who rely on obedience to become worthy to spend forever with God must obey everything that God has commanded.

Some recognize how difficult (if not impossible) it is to do all that God requires, but they reassure themselves that they have far more time beyond this earthly life to achieve the perfection of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 5:48. They need to reconsider, in light of Hebrews 9:27: “It is appointed for a person once to die, and after this comes judgment.” There is no indication here of any additional time to get right with God, after we run out of time on earth.

All this should drive us to despair of trying to achieve salvation by our works, and to accept the undeserved favor of God shown to us in the work of Christ. Instead, let the free gift of salvation through the cross of Christ be the inspiration that drives you to love God by doing what God says.