All Christians Believe “Works” are Essential for Salvation

This month I’d like to continue answering questions I received in response to my e-teaching from two months ago titled, Five Modern Myths About Jesus’ Conversation with the Rich Young Ruler.

Last month I answered the question, “How can we reconcile what Jesus required of the rich young ruler if he was to inherit eternal life with what the Bible teaches about salvation by grace and not works?” If you have not yet read that e-teaching titled, The True Grace of God, please do. You must understand that God’s grace is not unconditional, as is so commonly thought, but rather, conditional, in order to grasp what follows below.

I also did my best last month to prove from Scripture that salvation by grace does not invalidate the necessity of holiness. “Works” are part of the salvation equation.

If the truth be known, every professing Christian believes that works are essential for salvation, even those who say they don’t believe it. If you find yourself debating such a person, just ask him the following question: “What happens at death to a man who has believed in Jesus but who, every day for the final five years of his life, abducted, molested and murdered children?”

The most ardent adherents of “unconditional grace” will reveal their true belief by their answer. None will affirm that such a man will inherit eternal life. And when you ask them why not, they will say one of two things, either, (1) “God would never permit such a wicked person into heaven,” which is an admission that God is not offering unconditional grace and that He requires some standard of holiness of those who would be saved or, (2) “True believers could never do such evil, so the man you describe was not a true believer,” which is an admission that true faith results in some degree of validating proof, or that God’s grace in salvation results in some degree of transformation.

So again, all professing Christians believe that there is some minimum standard of holiness required of those who would inherit eternal life, and that God’s grace does not nullify that standard.

That being the case, the most important question we need to ask is this: Is the standard that I believe God has set, which either indicates true saving faith or the minimum working of God’s grace, actually the standard God has set?

So what is God’s standard? Is it higher than what I have described in my example above? If a professing Christian abducts, molests and murders a child, not every day, but only once a month, does he “make the grade”?

In Scripture’s story of the rich ruler, as well as many other passages in the Bible, we find our answer to such questions. The young ruler inquired about God’s standard, and he learned that he was falling short. Even though he was not a murderer, liar, adulterer, or thief, he was guilty of greed, keeping for himself what God expected him to share with the poor. “One thing you lack” Jesus told him. It is that simple. Jesus wasn’t lying to him.

And that is precisely why I’ve been writing the past few e-teachings. I am deeply burdened because many professing Christians, “good people” like the rich ruler, also lack the same thing he did. Yet, unlike him, they are unconcerned, because they’ve been deceived into trusting in a false grace, an “unconditional” grace, a grace that God has never offered. Or they’ve embraced a standard of holiness that falls short of God’s true standard. Believing that Jesus’ conversation with the rich ruler has no real relevance to them, they blithely live their lives as if they will never stand at the judgment of the sheep and goats. But they will.

One Small, but Frequent, Objection

Objecting to my claim (actually, the Bible’s clear claim) that there is a minimum standard of holiness required of those who would inherit eternal life, some respond with a common Christian cliché: “All sin is the same in God’s eyes.” Therefore, they argue, it is hypocritical to set any specific standard of holiness for salvation; otherwise we are guilty of “grading sins,” something God allegedly does not do, and we end up “pointing out the speck in a brother’s eye while we have a log in our own.”

Actually, Jesus’ speck-and-log illustration is one of many scriptures that reveals to us that not all sin is the same in God’s eyes. Logs are much bigger than specks. All sin is grievous to God, but some sins are more grievous than other sins. Who would argue, for example, that under the Old Covenant it was equally grievous to God to “trim the edges of your beard,” a prohibition found in Leveticus 19:27, as it was to murder someone? Remember that Jesus criticized the Pharisees who tithed their garden herbs yet “neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23, emphasis added). Some commandments are more weighty than others, thus the neglect of some commandments is more grievous than the neglect of others.

When Jesus replied to the rich ruler’s question regarding which commandments he needed to keep to inherit eternal life, Jesus potentially could have listed any or all of the 600 or so commandments found in the Law of Moses, but He listed just six. Obviously, those six are “biggies.” Breaking those commandments would be more grievous sins to God than breaking other commandments. Just by way of reminder, they were prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft and lying, and a duty to honor one’s parents and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Take note that five of those “biggies” are found in the Ten Commandments, which were obviously all “biggies.”

Concerning the final commandment among the six Jesus listed for the rich ruler (Love your neighbor as yourself), take note that He once declared that commandment to be the second greatest (see Matt. 22:39), certainly making it a “biggie” as well. And He once associated that second greatest commandment with caring for the less fortunate (in the Parable of the Good Samaritan; see Luke 10:29-37). Neglecting the poor, a manifestation of greed, greatly grieves God. Scripture equates greed with idolatry (see Matt. 6:24; Eph. 5:5), certainly a serious sin and one of the “biggies” found in the Ten Commandments. It was greed that the rich ruler was guilty of, making him an idolater, and it was grievous enough to God to keep him from inheriting eternal life.

Five of the six commandments that Jesus listed in His reply to the rich ruler can be found in other biblical “biggie” lists (listed as sins rather than as commandments), where they are affirmed once again as being so important to God that one’s eternal destiny hinges on one’s obedience to them. Their inclusion in those lists underscores the fact that committing those particular sins (as well as any others contained in those lists) is even more grievous to God than committing sins that are not found in those lists. Here are five of those lists:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous [also translated greedy], nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10, emphasis added).

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21, emphasis added).

But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous [also translated greedy] man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-6, emphasis added).

But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8, emphasis added).

Then He will also say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me” (Matt. 25:41-43, emphasis added).

You won’t find sleeping during sermons or skipping church included in the above lists (to the chagrin of pastors). Neither will you find unthankfulness, prayerlessness, impatience, or laziness, as grievous as any of those things might be to God.

All of this is to say that, when people object to the teaching that a standard of holiness is required of those who will inherit God’s kingdom, or when they claim that “all sins are the same in God’s eyes,” they have not considered the five biblical lists I’ve just quoted, or many other similar texts.

In Conclusion

Again, all Christians believe that “works” are essential for salvation. Tragically, however, they don’t all subscribe to what the Bible clearly reveals as God’s minimum standard of “works” that always accompanies genuine faith or gives evidence to God’s transforming grace.

On one extreme, some have created long, unbiblical lists as their salvation standard of holiness. If you want to go to heaven, they insist that you must agree with their unique doctrines, subscribe to their dress code, be baptized according to their special formula, or join their church full of Pharisees.

On the other extreme are those whose standard is so low that anyone who ever prayed a prayer to “accept Jesus” at any time in his life is unconditionally guaranteed eternal life regardless of how he has lived his life. You often hear them say of the deceased something like, “I know that so-and-so wasn’t living for the Lord, but thank God he accepted Jesus when he was seven, so we know he’s in heaven now.”

Those same folks often accuse those who have a biblical salvation-standard of holiness of being “legalists,” or even “heretics who believe in salvation by works.” Oh how that must break God’s heart! They unwittingly accuse Him of being a legalist and heretic, because He has, without dispute, set specific standards of holiness for those who wish to inherit eternal life.

One of those standards revolves around stewardship. God has plainly revealed in His Word that those who are greedy, who do little or nothing to serve the “least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46), are as grievous to Him as murderers, adulterers, thieves, liars and idolaters, as they transgress the second greatest commandment and reveal their love of money.

When will this be shouted from the rooftops? Or at least proclaimed from a single pulpit?

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).

And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave” (Gen. 18:20, emphasis added).

Behold, this was the guilt of…Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it (Ezek. 16:49-50).