By nature and by training we all seek solutions to our problem of sin. To varying degrees, these solutions include doing something—law keeping, good works, etc—to please or appease or satisfy the God who is one day going to judge us. The idea of contributing to one’s own salvation is universal. It’s the engine which propels every religion.
But you may say, “I’m not that religious.” Well, even people who are “not religious” feel this way—and their feelings are based on some version of being good.
Now there are many flavors of works-based salvation. Let me mention ten of them:
1. The Work of Philanthropy
“I’m going to give money. I’m going to contribute. I’m going to give to the poor. I’m going to see someone in need, and I’m going to meet that need. I’m going to make charitable gifts, and as I give I really cannot imagine in the final day that the Almighty would damn me. After all, look at all the money I’ve given.”
2. The Work of Service
“I’m going to volunteer. I’m going to pitch in. I’m going to give my time. I’m going to use my skill and expertise. I’m going to get my hands dirty for Jesus, or for whatever deity I think is in charge. I’m going to work, to do good, and to serve—whether it’s shoveling my neighbor’s walk or going to a food pantry. And, on judgment day, I just can’t imagine that God would watch a video of my life, of me serving on Thanksgiving Day with the homeless, and still send me to hell.”
3. The Work of Ritual
Confession. Confirmation. Communion. Baptism. Prayers. Beads. Candles. Church attendance. Pointing a mat toward a city and bowing down five times a day in the direction of that city. Whatever. Some sort of a ceremony is going to get me right with God.
I’ve been to funerals and so have you where the clergyman has stood and said, “We know that the dearly departed is going to one day be in the presence of God because they were baptized.”
4. The Work of Comparison
“Alright, I’m not the best guy in the world but I can point you to a million people who are far worse than me. If we’re looking at a bell curve, I’m on the plus side. By comparison, I’m in.”
5. The Work of Comprehension
“This whole thing is a riddle. And I’m going to figure it out and when I figure it out then I’m going to be in God’s good graces. If I learn enough about the Almighty, then I will be accepted. I understand and can articulate the salient points of the gospel; therefore, I’m a recipient of salvation.”
Side-note: these people can be tricky for a church. And if your church has elders, it’s where they are deficient. Just imagine: someone desires to be a member of your church, and your elders ask them to share their testimony of salvation. And they do—with precision and emotion. Your elders sit across the desk from someone as he or she tells them about how Jesus lived a perfect life, died in the place of sinners, and rose from the dead. Your elders listen as he or she describes trusting in Christ alone.
This person is correct on every point, and so—at my church, at least—we say, a few weeks later, “Welcome to North Shore Baptist Church.” But some time passes. And their life proves that all they knew were the facts. But truthfully, we could teach a parrot to say the facts. Jesus told us that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We need to remember that. There are many today who are unsaved and on the way to hell and yet have a very correct understanding of the gospel.
6. The Work of Decision
Walk that aisle, sign that card, pray that prayer. Well-meaning Christian pastors will tell you that if you simply make your decision to ask Jesus into your heart as your personal Savior then you are saved and you can doubt no more.
There’s that ridiculous story of the farmer who is standing in the field and doubting his salvation. He says to himself and to the Devil: “I’m going to make it secure right now and he takes a wooden post and pounds it into the ground.” And he looks to that post and says, “Right here, this is the time I made sure that Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” Other days, he’d be working in that same field, having doubts about his salvation, and he’d simply tell the Devil to look at that post which marked the day Jesus became his Lord and Savior.
The man is trusting in a post in the ground. It’s unwise to rely on a monumental, emotional decision that you made years ago as the ground for your assurance.
7. The Work of Restitution
“I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life so I need to go back and take care of it.”
I had a man tell me once that he went several years without tithing and now he is paying God back. “I’ve hurt some people in my life and I need to go and ask their forgiveness. I’ve stolen from people so I need to go to them and make things right. I need to go back and take care of the wrongs in my life. Once I’ve done that, then God will forgive me.”
8. The Work of Affliction
This looks like beating yourself up, or penance. “If I give myself hell here and now, then God won’t give me hell later.” Martin Luther, in an attempt to be saved, used to beat himself with a whip, literally, he used to flog himself until he realized that the just shall live by faith.
9. The Work of Meditation
“I can just go on a retreat and be quiet and still before God. He connects with me when I clear my mind. When I’m poised and quiet, God comes and meets me where I am. “
10. The Work of Seeking Affirmation
“I don’t know whether or not I’m saved but if I can get the elders to say that I am, or if I can get anybody else who is saved to tell me that I am, then I will find rest before God.”
Unsaved people add countless other contributions to their resumes in order to be right with God. By nature, we all feel like we need to do this. Our sinful prides says that, with God’s help, we have what it takes to get there. We just need to apply ourselves because, after all, I’m me.
But as reasonable as this seems, it’s wrong. In fact, it’s the opposite of the truth because even a drop of ink dropped on an Elvis autograph renders it trash. And any work which you try to contribute to your salvation, your justification before God, annuls the grace of God and insults the God of grace. You have absolutely nothing that God wants.
So come to Christ, but come to him with nothing.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the 9Marks blog and is used with permission.