Thursday, November 24, 2011

Salvation: What’s Required?

Confidence in God is confidence about His gift of salvation. Knowing that salvation is a gift from start to finish enables us to take our attention away from ourselves, and whatever contribution we need to make, and place it gratefully and joyously upon our Savior. However, if we are not confident of this knowledge, our attention will recoil back upon ourselves. We will obsess about whether our performance is adequate enough or our good deeds plentiful enough to merit God’s grace.

Such an obsession will either produce arrogance, if we are blind to ourselves, or depression, if we can see our inadequacies clearly enough. Our only remedy is the certainty that God’s grace is sufficient and that our salvation is a settled matter. Consequently, we are liberated to praise and adore Him.

However, there are several factors that can deprive us of this confidence. Our failure to understand Scripture properly can undermine this confidence. For example, many verses indicate that our righteousness has to exceed that of the religious leaders if we are going to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20). Others seem to equate salvation with achieving a certain level of holiness:

• Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

Meanwhile, Jesus also seems to equate salvation with attaining a certain level of goodness:

• Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:28-30)

I had been tormented by these verses and others like them. I didn’t know if I was good enough to make the grade and my hope that I’d be able to attain to these heights was quickly vanishing. The harder I’d struggle to make the cut-off point, the more I saw my depressing adequacies and sins.

Fortunately for me, the torment turned me back to Scripture. For instance, the writer of Hebrews demonstrates what he means by “holiness” through the example of Esau who cared so little about his standing before God that he sold his birth right for a bowl of cereal. Although he later regretted it, he never repented of his sin (Heb. 12:16-17).

This understanding was liberating. I now understood that “holiness” wasn’t a state of purity that I could never attain, but a gift granted to the penitent. Verses began to come together for me. I recalled that by confessing my sins, my God would forgive and cleanse me of all their filth (1 John 1:9). Instead of producing waves of anxiety, even the word “salvation” slowly became a refuge for me.

I think that Job had learned a similar lesson. During his trials, he had issued many imprudent accusations that God wasn’t treating him justly. However, after a humbling encounter with God, Job wisely confessed: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6).

God now addressed Job’s friends:

• "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7)

This is astounding. Job had said many wrong things about God. However, once Job confessed his sins, everything changed! In God’s mind, he was righteous. He had now spoken “what is right” about God! Everything was radically different. He had been restored to such a state of purity that all his deeds were now pure in God’s sight. Job’s confession – not his purity – opened the door.

But what about the many verses that claim that we must be righteous or “good?” If anyone had failed the “goodness test,” it was King David. He was given everything, but evidently was dissatisfied with what the Lord had given him. He committed adultery with a married woman and then killed her husband when his cover-up failed to work. Nevertheless, in one of David’s memorable penitential Psalms, he declared the blessedness of the righteous:

• Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD'S unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him. Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psalm 32:10-11)

Evidently, David, with what seemed to be a great display of presumption, considered himself among the “righteous” and the “upright!” How could he have numbered himself among the righteous after the horrible sins he had committed? What hubris! Or was it? David didn’t deny his sins:

• Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"-- and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:3-8 )

David had learned a painful lesson. He now saw that blessedness was not the result of his own goodness, but of God’s gift of forgiveness that came through David’s confession of sin. In light of this forgiveness, he embraced the fact that he was now “righteous” and “upright” in God’s sight. His status had been miraculously transformed in an instance. He now regarded himself among the holy and the righteous because his God regarded him in this manner. In verse six, he reaffirms this fact: “Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found.” Despite his grievous sins, David realized that he could still be counted among the “godly!” What a blessing that we can confess our sins before God!

Who then are the “good” who attain to the resurrection of the righteous (John 5:28-29)? Clearly, no one has ever been good enough to deserve this resurrection. None of us will ever be able to acquire enough merits to inform God, “Look at this list of my good deeds. Now, as You can see, I deserve salvation!” Instead, here is our real status before our God:

• As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (Romans 3:10-12)

Who then are the righteous or the “good?” Certainly not those who have attained goodness! They simply didn’t exist:

• Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

According to Paul, righteousness was something that a mere human has never achieved. Although the law seemed to provide a means to attain righteousness, it instead convicted us of our utter lack of righteousness and then pointed us to our only hope (Gal. 3:22-24).

If true righteousness is an impossibility for us, then who are the “righteous” to whom David refers? There is only one possible answer. These are believers whose sins have been forgiven and cleansed – the very people who mourn over their sins and hunger and thirst after a righteousness that can only come from God. We along with David now stand cleansed before our incredible Savior.

However, there are verses that seem to identify our works as the determining salvific factor:

• "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:44-46)

Here, our uncertainty is based upon our confusion of root with fruit, cause (grace) with effect (good deeds). Jesus had taught that if we are a (born again) good tree, we will inevitably produce good fruit. If I trust my doctor, I will take the medicine he gives me. If I don’t trust him, I won’t take it. I might not always take it on time. Nor will I always take it in the right manner (on an empty stomach). I might even get angry at the side effects it produces and stop taking it. However, my faith in my doctor will at least lead me to confer with him about my problems.

The fruit doesn’t cause the fruit tree. Instead the apple tree causes the apple. Good deeds don’t save us. There are merely the fruit of salvation. If I truly have faith, there will be changes pleasing to God. If I trust in my Doctor, I will go to Him and confess to Him what is wrong and listen to His admonition, even if it hurts.

Our obedience might be fumbling, but it’s still the fruit of salvation - obedience. Abraham’s nephew Lot had lived a compromised life at Sodom, but in his God’s eyes, he was (and is) “righteous Lot” (2 Peter 2:7). If we have confessed our sins to Him and trust in His provisions for us, we are TRULY His!!


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