“Many have an idea that they must do some part of the work alone.” Steps to Christ, 69.
A friend once told me: “If you really aren’t sure of how much you can do by yourself—without depending on God to sustain you—then stop breathing the air that doesn’t belong to you. Who gives your heart the power to pump blood throughout your entire body? Have you ever taken a decision for yourself along those lines? Someone else is sustaining you.” Somehow we have created an illusion in our minds that we can actually do something by ourselves—be it in the physical or the spiritual salvific realm. When it comes to our salvation, Paul reminds us that “it is God that worketh in you, both to will and do of his good pleasure” Phil 2:13.
Many people think that justification is what God does for us (Jesus dying for our sins), and sanctification what we do for ourselves (our works). On one hand, the Catholic Church incorporated this idea into its understanding of salvation at least in part through the different sacraments, which in turn had an extensive influence on the Christian world. This continued until Luther came along proclaiming “Sola Gracia” and “Sola Fide”, showing the absurdity of being able to literally buy salvation with indulgences, pilgrimages, and Hail Marys.
Our society seems to also have been taken over by this performance based “salvation by works” lifestyle. What I mean by that is that we must do something in order for us to be accepted:
- In school, our acceptance by teachers is often based on our grades.
- At home, we love our children until they do something against our will.
- At work, we get fired if we don’t meet the goals of the company.
- In sports, we follow a process of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” awarding the fittest and excluding the less qualified.
- In business, everything is based on the principle of reciprocity—you give me, then I give you back. It’s kind of a hijacked conditioned version of the Golden rule: if you do well unto me, then I will do the same to you. If you give me money, I will give you this product.
I am not suggesting that we must completely change all of these established behavioural mechanisms, however it would be good for us to notice that the idea of receiving something for free—especially something valuable—doesn’t make sense to us at all. We have been trained to think that life doesn’t work that way. I must do something to deserve this kind of treatment. Society has created an unidentified engine inside of us that wants to generate “works” in order to “pay” for the “good” we should receive.
But the Bible gives us a vastly different picture of how God accepts us.
This is one of the major distinguishing factors between biblical Christianity and all the other major world religions. In all of them one must do something in order to receive the favour of their deity. Only in Christianity, God did something for us—he gave his life for our sins—to show that we are already accepted by him, and has given us the gift of eternal life. It is the result of experiencing this reunification with Christ and him living inside of us that produces the good works. It is Jesus doing his benevolent works through us.
Justification is what Christ does for us, and sanctification is what Christ does in us and through us.
If there is anything that we must do, it is to give Jesus permission to do that work in us because the only thing that God cannot do is to override our free will. We have the solemn responsibility to make that decision. But the good news is that even that decision is powered by God’s grace, without which we wouldn’t even have the capacity to think, decide or breathe.
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” Eph 2:8-9.
Written by Jesse Zwiker