The “Sin” of Adding Our Works to What Jesus Did on the Cross?

By David Servant

I suspect you’ve heard the oft-repeated and solemn warning: “We better not think that we must add our works to what Jesus did on the cross.” Doing so is portrayed as the most tragic error anyone could make, a sure indication that one is not a true Christian. In reality, however, that warning is a sloppy and confusing caution that can either be true or heretical, depending on what it is actually meant to convey.

If what is meant is, “We better not think that our works atone for our sins, as that would demean the sufficiency of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross,” it is true.

If, however, what is meant is, “We better not think that our works, beyond Christ’s work on the cross, are necessary for gaining entrance into God’s eternal kingdom,” it is heretical. It contradicts scores of New Testament declarations by Jesus, Paul, James, John, Jude and Peter (all of whom believed that Jesus atoned for our sins). All six strongly affirmed that “works”—that is, behaviors which have something to do with human effort—are necessary for gaining entrance into God’s eternal kingdom. Here’s a short sample:

Jesus: Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter (Matt. 7:21, emphasis added).

Paul: Now the deeds [or works] 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. 5:19-20, emphasis added).

James: What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (Jas. 2:14, emphasis added).

John: Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother (1 John 3:7-10, emphasis added).

Jude: For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness [a license to sin] (Jude 4; emphasis added).

Peter: Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply [KJV: add] moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins. Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you (2 Pet. 1:5-11).

Yes, of course, Jesus atoned for our sins (see Matt. 20:28; Heb. 10:12; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 2:2), something we cannot do for ourselves or add to. The purpose of Jesus’ atonement, however, was not to provide us with a license so that we could continue doing the very things that required an atonement. Rather, Jesus bore our sins to make us holy:

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Pet. 2:24, emphasis added).

Notice Peter didn’t say that Jesus bore our sins on the cross so that we might continue sinning as we enjoy “imputed righteous” or “positional righteousness.” If you accept, however, what is being passed off as the gospel in many “Christian” circles, you would think that Jesus died to transform God rather than to transform us. You’d think that, before Jesus died, God was holy and hated sin, but through Jesus’ death, God found a way to be OK with sin. You would think that Jesus’ death doesn’t make unholy people holy; rather, it makes a holy God unholy!

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. The author of Hebrews warned:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries [quoting Isaiah 26:11].

Clearly, continued willful sin [not occasionally stumbling into sin that we inwardly resist, but rather, continuing our old sinful lifestyle] after enlightenment nullifies the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice. Peter continues:

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified [set apart for holiness], and has insulted the Spirit of grace? [biblical grace, that is, the kind Paul wrote of in Titus 2:11-14]. For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ [quoting Deut. 32:35]. And again, “The Lord will judge His people” [quoting Deut. 32:36 ]. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-31).

And that is a terrifying passage for anyone who is professing to be a Christian and who is telling themselves, or others, that obedience to Christ has nothing to do with salvation because “Christ paid it all.” Christ certainly “paid it all,” but He did so that we would become obedient, which is why He set us free from sin’s dominion and gave us His indwelling Holy Spirit. Having done so much for us, He expects something out of us.

As we just read in Hebrews, to continue in sin is to trample Jesus under our feet, regard His cleansing blood as unclean, and insult His amazing grace which instructs “us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Tit. 2:12). So, we had better make sure that we add “works” to what Jesus did on the cross, because that is why Jesus bore our sins on the cross, and doing so is the only genuine expression of saving faith!