How many times have you heard someone say that they believe they’re a good person so they must be going to heaven? How often have you heard someone compare their own sins to those of a murderer and conclude that they are not as wicked, therefore, God must allow them into heaven? Or what about people who believe that because they repeated a prayer when they were nine-years-old or were dunked into a pool of water that they are guaranteed eternal salvation?
It’s a pretty common view, especially in America, to believe that a simple good deed or act will grant a person eternal salvation, but this belief is not a saving one. It is, in fact, a false, works-based gospel.
Scripture is clear that a right standing with a holy God cannot be obtained through any merit or works of our own:
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” –Ephesians 2:8-9
So why is it so common for professing Christians to have the false sense of security that they are saved simply because they are “good” in their own eyes?
Perhaps it’s because they do not fully understand the extent of their own depravity or the holiness of God.
Scripture tells us that God is perfectly and infinitely holy (Isaiah 6:3) and that we are not. In fact, “there is no one righteous” (Romans 3:10), and our hearts are “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Our hearts deceive us all the time, which is why it’s so easy for a person to believe that they are in good standing with God simply because they regularly attend church and only cuss occasionally. Our own hearts blur our perception of our true state before a God whose holiness we can’t even fathom, and it is only by God’s grace that our own depravity is revealed to us. The truth is that because of our depravity and God’s holiness, our best efforts at good works are nothing more than “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
R.C. Sproul explains it this way in his book The Holiness of God:
“When we understand the character of God, when we grasp something of His holiness, then we begin to understand the radical character of our sin and hopelessness. Helpless sinners can survive only by grace. Our strength is futile in itself; we are spiritually impotent without the assistance of a merciful God. We may dislike giving our attention to God’s wrath and justice, but until we incline ourselves to these aspects of God’s nature, we will never appreciate what has been wrought for us by grace.”
A works-based gospel is also common because of a misunderstanding of James 2:24, which says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
When read in the context of the entire passage (James 2:14-26), James is not saying that a person is saved by good works — he wasn’t dealing with the means of salvation at all. Rather, James was saying that real, saving faith is demonstrated by good works as evidence that salvation had genuinely occurred.
Consider Ezekiel 36:26-27:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh…
This is the moment of salvation, when our heart is no longer dead to sin.
…And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
This is the result of salvation, when our new heart, which now has God’s law written on it, desires to obey God and causes us to walk in His statutes.
As James writes, faith without works is dead. In other words, a false or “dead” faith resides in a person who claims to be a Christian yet lives in rebellion to Christ. Their righteous works are as filthy rags. But a person who has a genuine, saving faith has been given a new heart — one that desires to be obedient and walk in the good works God has prepared for them.
The parable of the rich young man is a great illustration of this in Matthew 19.
When he came to Jesus and asked Him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him to keep His commandments. When the young man insisted that he had done so, Jesus told him to sell all that he possessed and give it to the poor. When the young man heard this and went away sorrowful, he revealed that his faith in Christ was actually a dead, false faith. If the man had a genuine faith, he would have been obedient to what Jesus called him to do. He would have borne good fruit that demonstrated his saving faith, which secured his eternity.
To say that salvation is obtained by our own works is to ignore the many passages of scripture that emphasize salvation by faith alone.
Titus 3:4-5 tells us this:
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…”
Good works are merely a characteristic of one who has been born again. It doesn’t matter how good a person you might think you are or if you think you have sinned less severely than your neighbor — you are still dead in your sin without genuine faith in Christ.
That is why it is incredibly important that we do not mistake our good deeds for the security of our salvation. Even attending church regularly, baptism, and communion are worthless deeds without a saving faith in Christ. Our salvation is given to us solely by God’s grace that brings us to faith in Him. As Jonathan Edwards famously said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” –Romans 11:6
The next false gospel we’ll discuss in this series is incredibly popular in the modern evangelical church, and it is commonly referred to as the prosperity gospel. We’ll explore why this false gospel is a blatant attack on God’s gift of salvation and how so many Christians today are deceived by this teaching.
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