|Volume 17 Number 3 March 2015||
T. Pierce Brown (deceased)
Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” About 65 years ago, I heard a preacher who was trying to impress upon us the importance of giving beyond a tithe use this Scripture to show that unless we gave more than the Jews did under the Law of Moses we could not be saved. Although I was but a boy, I wondered if the same principle of “exceeding righteousness” would apply to their prayers and Scripture reading. If we discovered that the average Jew prayed two hours a day, must ours be at least two and a half hours in order to be saved? If they read the Scriptures three times a day, must we read four times?
Surely it does not take a brilliant scholar to discover that Jesus was not teaching that our salvation depended upon our doing more acts than the Jews did that we could classify as righteous acts. The truth is that their righteousness consisted primarily in the outward observance of laws of God and traditions of men. If God said to wash their hands, they thought washing all the way to the elbow would be even more righteous than God required, and apparently assumed that this extra righteousness would balance out their failure in some other area. That may be one reason they seemed to make the keeping of their traditions more important than keeping God’s law. That is, keeping God’s law would make them righteous, and keeping their extra addition to God’s law would make them super righteous. Thus, they made void the law of God with their traditions.
Unfortunately, we still have the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees evidenced among us, and the Word of God again being made void by tradition or assumptions of man. Apparently in an effort to defeat the false doctrine of salvation by grace only, some have taken the position that our salvation from past sins was mostly by what they call our “works of faith,” with the final little push that got us through, an act of God’s grace. It seems to be presented about like this: We hear the Gospel. That is our work. We believe it. That is our work. We repent. That is our work. We confess. That is our work. We are baptized. That is our work. Then, God adds His little touch of grace and saves us, but the majority of it was done by us.
I have no doubt that the scenario just mentioned would seem perfectly logical to a large number of persons, many of whom are preachers. The truth is that it is by God’s grace that we hear the Gospel. If it were not for the grace of God, we would have been given no chance to believe it and repent. We would not even know how to be baptized, nor the purpose of it if it were not for the grace of God. The plan from beginning to end was by God’s grace, for man could not have devised it.
There is a great deal of difference in the truth that we must accept that grace on the terms by which it is offered and the false doctrine that our salvation is based upon the works of righteousness which we have done, with a little of God’s grace thrown in to take care of what we could not do on our own. Then, these false teachers (who apparently think they are the only “latter day saints”) say that our eternal salvation is entirely by our works of faith. They try to lessen the impact of that false doctrine by throwing in phrases they have picked up from sound scholarly brethren who have mentioned “works of merit” and “works of faith,” but to save their souls they could not tell you whether visiting the sick or trying to win a soul is a “work of merit” or a “work of faith.”
Let us try to clarify that for you. Man has always been saved by grace, if he is saved at all. Those who assume that under the Law of Moses they were saved by works of the law misunderstand not only the Law of Moses, but also the whole Bible teaching on the subject. They could have been saved under the Law of Moses on the basis of keeping the law only if they had never broken it. Once they broke it, the only way they could ever be saved was by God’s grace. Thus, they were not saved by law keeping any more than we are.
Furthermore, it has always been true that whatever has been given to man by grace through faith always had to be appropriated on the terms by which it was offered. It was by grace through faith that Noah was saved. It was by grace through faith that the walls of Jericho fell down. It was by grace through faith that Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy.
It is not a sufficient explanation for some person who thinks he has attained to his state of super righteousness to simply state, “A man is saved by works of faith, not by works of merit.” Let him answer these kinds of questions: “Was Joshua’s walking around the wall of Jericho a work of faith or a work of merit?” “Was Naaman’s dipping in Jordan a work of faith or a work of merit?” Name a work of faith and show how it differs from a work of merit.
The truth is that any act that you perform, either to be saved from your past sins or to be saved eternally, in the assumption that by so doing you have earned your salvation, becomes a work of merit. You will look in vain in the Bible to find one set of works that are called works of merit, and another that are called works of faith. When you have done whatever God has told you to do, you are still an unprofitable servant, and must be saved by His grace. If, when you were baptized, you assume that your baptism in any way earned your salvation, it became a work of merit to you. If, after you are baptized, you strive to win some soul, attend various services, visit the sick every day and assume that you have therefore attained a degree of righteousness that earns salvation, you are assuming a false doctrine that eternal salvation is dependent upon the number and/or variety of good works you do. Thus, the things that you might like to classify as “works of faith” become “works of merit.”
Let me try to make the point clearer. Your salvation does not depend on how many church services you attend or on how many souls you lead to Christ. That does not mean that the person who deliberately forsakes the assembly has as good a likelihood of being saved as a person who is faithful in his attendance. It is not because the one attending did more works of righteousness than the other did. It is because the one who deliberately forsakes the assembly does not love the Lord, and his actions indicate it. One will not be lost because he has not won any soul, but because he does not love the Lord and desire to be Christ-like. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men,” but He did not say you had to catch any, or that the number you caught would determine your salvation.
Surely, any discerning person can understand the difference in a person going out and trying to win a soul because he is grateful that God has saved him and given him the honor of being a coworker with Him, and going out to win the soul because he believed the heresy that his salvation depends on winning souls. Unfortunately, many of us who have taught and emphasized the importance of personal evangelism for so many years have almost, if not altogether, emphasized it that way. That is, your salvation depends on following the leader, giving sacrificially as determined by some manmade arbitrary measurement, winning one more soul today, attending the prescribed meeting or doing whatever the “spiritual advisor” has decreed will increase your righteousness above that of the “main stream” Christian who is relatively unconcerned about winning a soul.
I have stated it this way many times, and heard others so state it, “Jesus came to seek and save the lost. For what did you come? If you follow Jesus you will be a soul winner.” Then, we made it sound as if we win enough souls, our salvation is secured on that basis. It is not so, and it is sad that truth may be so easily perverted, especially when so many feel perfectly satisfied and safe in their indifference toward soul winning.
The alternatives are not: Salvation is either on the basis of doing works of righteousness, or it is by grace alone. Neither is it: Eternal salvation is on the basis of doing good works, or one can neglect the doing of good works and show lack of concern for obedience to God and still be saved. The alternatives are: If you are a child of God, saved by grace, yet do not love the Lord enough to want to glorify Him in attending services, Bible study and striving to win souls, you have no promise of eternal salvation, for you have received the grace of God in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1).
If one who has been saved from his past sins is lost eternally, it will not be simply because he failed to do so many works of righteousness that God had to send him to hell because he failed to do those. He will be lost because he did not have enough love and faith to try to do what he knew was pleasing to God. If we are to be saved because we have done enough good works that we deserve to be saved, none of us will be saved. Remember that what you may have called “a work of faith” becomes “a work of merit” if you think it is the basis of your salvation.
[Editor’s Note: Becoming a child of God and willingly embracing that family relationship to our Heavenly Father is not as much a matter of what we do but who we are – who we have become. Consequently, we will act as the children of God, which manifests itself in visible ways (Matthew 5:14-16). “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8 NKJV). ~ Louis Rushmore, Editor]