While I was attending Walla Walla College in the late 1970s, a professor asked his class an impromptu quiz. “How many believe,” he asked, “that we can work our way to heaven by our good deeds?”
Only one or two hands went up.
“How many believe that our salvation is totally a gift of grace without regard to our good deeds?”
This time a few more hands went up.
Finally, he asked, “How many believe that we must do all the good works we can to make it to heaven and that somehow at the last minute, Jesus will step in to make up the difference?”
At that, over two dozen hands were raised high.
Which question would you raise your hand for? The answer says a lot about our relationship to Jesus. The first answer is a simplistic view of the world. Mother Theresa will be in heaven. Hitler will not. There are no nuances. Simply place the deeds in the balance and whichever way the balance tilts is your fate. Tilt one way, even slightly, then eternal damnation awaits. Tilt the other way, then eternal bliss is your fate. Even agnostics often have this kind of faith, doing good to hedge their bets toward salvation in case there is a God.
Ezekiel made it clear that God does not work like this. He wrote, “But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” declares the Sovereign LORD. “Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
“But if a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will they live? None of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness they are guilty of and because of the sins they have committed, they will die.” Ezekiel 18:21-24, NIV
Clearly then it is not a matter of which side of the balance weighs the most, but the final course of the life is what is significant. The righteous person can wipe out an entire life of righteousness by ending in evil, and the wicked person can wipe out an entire life of wickedness by their repentance. It is possible, therefore, for a Hitler to enter heaven and a Mother Theresa to be excluded based solely on the final events of their lives. Some have great trouble with this. I once had a woman tell me during a Bible study that if the wicked people she met in life ended up in heaven and not in some eternal torment then she did not want to be in heaven. How sad if her wish to not be in heaven is granted.
But what about the majority view point from the college class that we must strive to fill our lives with good deeds to earn salvation and that God will answer our desire for heaven by stepping in at the last minute to make up our lack? At first glance, this seems to be righteousness by faith, because it is God riding in on a white horse at the end that actually does the saving. But is it? There still seems to be an emphasis on accumulating merit through the doing of good works.
The prophet Isaiah says we are incapable of achieving any merit through our good works. He wrote, “…all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64:6, NIV This of course assumes that we are able to do righteous acts, but maybe this is assuming too much. Jeremiah wrote, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” Jeremiah 13:23, NIV Apparently there is a flaw with the idea that God watches our lives and then makes up the difference at the last minute. We cannot do good according to Jeremiah and even if we could it would have no more value than filthy rags according to Isaiah. The flaw is the emphasis on our works.
This brings us to the few students who believed that salvation was a gift and without regard to our good works. For those who emphasize the importance of obedience for salvation, this is troubling, but it is the very point that Paul makes in his epistles. He wrote to the Ephesian church, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV (see also Romans 6:23)
But some might ask, “If Jeremiah says we cannot do good, and Isaiah says even if we could it is just filthy rags, where do good deeds come in? Why is there even a mention of good deeds in the Bible if they are meaningless?” This question only arises because of the flaw mentioned above. Isaiah and Jeremiah were speaking of our good works. But there is another type of good works. Paul also wrote about this. Reading on in Ephesians, we see “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10, NIV Good works were intended by God from the moment we were created. But through sin, our purpose, our will became corrupted, and we were no longer able to accomplish what God had planned.
What place do works have then in the Christian’s life? We can no more in our own strength and will do good than we can be good. Just as God must provide the grace that saves us, He must provide the grace that manifests itself in good works. The Bible puts it like this, “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Philippians 2:13, NIV This is the secret to good works. They cannot be yours or mine. They must be God’s good works. If they arise out of our will, they are just filthy rags. It must be God’s will active in us. And arising out of His will they will then be His works and not ours.
Just as a person may say, “I see,” with their eye or, “I feel” with their fingers, without the mind in operation through the eyes and the fingers, the seeing and the feeling are meaningless, so good works that are not the result of God both willing and doing in the life are useless.
Most of us understand this better than we may realize. Don’t we clearly see the difference between a gift we receive out of obligation and one we receive out of love? If we do good works out of obligation either in our own minds or through the influence of others, they are only the filthy rags of Isaiah. But if the good works arise out of our love for God and other human beings, then they are truly not our good works but the works of God active in us. In fact, the grace of God which saves us awakens such a love in our hearts that it cannot be constrained but will pour forth, and the same love which drew us to Jesus will draw others also.
This is why Jesus spoke of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. He knew that the works done by the sheep and neglected by the goats were indicative of whether or not they were in a saving relationship with God. The sheep were in love with the Shepherd while the goats were not.
When discovering this parable, our natural response is to tell ourselves, “We need to do the works Jesus was talking about.” But this will not save us. We cannot simply decide to do good. This is no different than when the children of Israel refused to enter the Promised Land and then finding out the result of that choice, decided to then go up into Canaan with disastrous results. (see Numbers 13-14) Moses knew this would not work and warned them against it. You cannot graft good works onto a heart that is not filled with God’s love and expect to find salvation. In other words, you cannot “fake it until you make it.”
It also does no good to convince others to graft good works onto their lives. It will not save them. Instead they must surrender completely to the grace of God. Then the desire for good works will come from God through the love that awakens in their hearts. They are not helped by simply deciding that they are going to do good works or from us telling them that they need to do them. They can only do those works as they surrender in faith to God’s love. Only those who live this surrendered life by faith will be saved. I would like to be one of them. How about you?