There are people who misunderstand Pauls teachings about works vs. faith. They interpret him to mean that humans have no part to play in their own salvation. They think the word works means every form of human activity. So they conclude that in order to avoid trying to earn our salvation humans must remain totally passive in the process. But Pauls warnings about works were aimed at people who were trying to earn eternal life by obeying all the rules in the Bible. His point was to tell them that they must receive Gods gift of righteousness by faith because no one can live a life good enough to earn it. He was trying to stop people from attempting self-righteousness, not demand they become passive.
Jesus statement about the work of God is in answer to a question the crowd asked Him when they caught up to Him in Capernaum. They asked, What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God? (v28). He told them that there is only one work anyone can do and that is to believe in Him (v29). As we listen to His answer it seems clear that in Jesus mind believing in Him is not a work in the sense that someone is trying to earn salvation. It is the means by which they receive Gods gift of grace.
To explain this truth Jesus went on to compare Himself to the manna God sent to Israel each morning during their years in the wilderness. People would go out with baskets and collect the manna until each one had enough to eat. Surely no one thought of themselves as earning their daily bread; they were merely doing their part to receive a gift. Picking it up off the ground didnt produce bread; it was the action necessary to receive the bread God provided. The bread was a free gift sent from heaven.
Passivity and self-righteousness
Those who consider even the exercise of a persons will to be a work are often sincerely trying to honor God. They want it to be clear that He alone is responsible for our salvation and that no human will ever be able to boast that we saved ourselves (Ro 3:27). But in doing so they reduce our role to the point that the human is totally passive and has no part to play at all. But everything Jesus says in this, as well as the other gospels, indicates that we humans have a God-given capacity to choose to believe or not believe when truth is presented to us.
There are, of course, people who hold the opposite view. They would say that there are many demands in the Bible which must be obeyed if a person wants eternal life. In their minds, in order to be saved a person must, at least, do more good deeds than bad deeds. They think God will weigh our good deeds and bad deeds, and the side with more will determine our future. Those who think this way often select certain behaviors as especially bad and certain behaviors as the ones God values most. They take great comfort in comparing themselves to others. Heres a parable Jesus used to illustrate this kind of attitude: Luke 18:9-14.
This kind of thinking always ends up focusing on certain selected behaviors (outward religious actions) and validating itself by comparing what our group does with what bad people do.
I wish I could say that these attitudes are two extremes and that most people avoid them. But sadly thats not the case. A large number of people believe in total passivity, and a large number of people are working hard to earn their salvation. For some reason accepting my own responsibility to believe the truth when God reveals it to me, while at the same time acknowledging my helplessness to earn my salvation can be confusing. Yet this is the answer Jesus gave when the crowd asked, What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?
The fact that it was necessary for the Father to send His Son to die for us proves that all humans are desperately infected with sin. Even the best among us exhibits such sins as selfishness, dishonesty, lust or independence from God. In the Book of Romans Paul quotes from the psalmist who says, There is none righteous, not even one (Ro 3:10).
Paul says all humans need Gods gift of salvation because, All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23). And he includes in that statement people who are trying to keep Gods rules. He says the solution is for each of us to receive the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Ro 3:22). In effect he is saying exactly the same thing that Jesus said. We receive a salvation we dont deserve by believing in Jesus. Our part is to make the choice to believe; His part is to win our salvation by His death and resurrection.
Its possible to hear the truth that I cant earn my salvationthat its a gift I must receive by faithbut to misunderstand what that means, to think it means I can sin as much as I want and still go to heaven, that all I have to do is keep believing in Jesus, and my bad behavior doesnt matter. But to conclude that sin no longer matters is to ignore warnings Jesus, Paul and many others give us. First, lets listen to Jesus: Matthew 7:17-23.
Now listen to Paul:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Ro 6:215-16).
Paul warns us that sin enslaves those who practice it, and it brings death. The death hes talking about is ultimately spiritual death because he contrasts it with eternal life (Ro 6:21-22).
Sin and faith
This raises the question: Must I stop sinning to go to heaven? Which brings us back to where we started: If we could stop sinning we wouldnt need grace. Heres how I understand the connection between sin and faith: I believe faith in Jesus Christ must be a living reality in my heart. You might say faith is like a flame on a lamp that needs to stay lit. As long as the flame is burning Im saved, even though I may be failing in my struggle against sin in certain areas of my life. I think this is the lesson of the Ten Virgins: Matthew 25:1-13.
This parable does not imply that I earn anything. But it does warn me that I have the responsibility to replenish the oil in my lamp, so the flame will keep burning. To me that process of replenishing the oil includes confession of sin, repentance, forgiveness, hearing/reading Gods Word, worship and avoiding temptation. I dont ever want to use grace as an excuse to sin.
I also take seriously the statement that sin brings death. I think sin always brings death, every time. So I try to avoid it and repent quickly when I realize Ive done it. I want to stop the damage as soon as possible.
If sin is allowed to accumulate it tends to smother faith, or you might say dim the flame. Sin brings shame, and shame presses me to flee from Gods presence. And the further I get from Gods presence the greater my shame and the less I really trust Jesus Christ as my Savior. Doubt increases, my heart grows hard, and faith declines until its in danger of being no more than a memory.
Is it possible for faith to extinguish altogether? I think there are numerous passages in the Bible that say it is. The point is, my salvation is not a game; its the most precious gift I have, and it deserves to be taken seriously, not exploited or neglected. Because my flesh is still an active force, I will have to struggle with it until I see Jesus, but struggles and even failures cant take my salvation away from me. Im under grace. The danger comes when I stop struggling and let sin enslave me, when I stop repenting, stop confessing my sins, stop listening to the Word and stop worshipping. Its important for me to learn to put to death the temptations that come from the flesh, not let them rule me.
Theres one more issue we should discuss when were talking about works and grace. Thats fruit. Do I have to serve God to be saved, or can I do nothing for Him and still go to heaven? The answer to that question is actually fairly complicated. I think it depends on why Im fruitless. Paul says a person can do the wrong things and end up fruitless but still go to heaven. Listen:
If any mans work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1Co 3:15).
I think hes talking about someone who tried to serve God but did it the wrong way. But Jesus tells a parable about a person who had no desire to serve God: Matthew 25:24-30.
This man was fruitless not because he tried to serve God but did the wrong things; this person was fruitless because he didnt really love God at all. His lack of interest in serving God is the outward evidence of a sour inner attitude. In this case the parable informs us the person is not saved. I think Jesus illustration of the vine and the branches explains why. Listen:
I am the vine and you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit
if anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up (Jn 15:5-6).
So believing in Jesus isnt agreeing with a doctrine about Him; its entering into a relationship with Him. And He says if I stay in that relationship I cant help but produce fruit, not because Im doing works to try to earn anything, but because the life of Jesus inside of me is changing me into someone who is a blessing to many others. Apparently its impossible to stop the transformation that takes place when Jesus is present. It only stops when the relationship stops.
Lets listen to Him once more: This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent. The only work I need to do is believe, but my faith brings me into a relationship with Him, which causes me to want to serve Him and obey His commands (Jn 15:14). Loving Him changes everything (Jn 14:15). Its not work anymore.
1) What would you say to a person who claimed, If Im saved by faith it doesnt matter if I sin?
2) Whether you grew up in church or are a new convert, do you recall the moment you knew you believed in Jesus? When was it, and how did you know?
3) Are you serving God somewhere? What are you doing? Do you have to do it or is it something you get to do because you love Him?