In his first letter, the apostle John makes a startling remark: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 ESV). John is saying that we can know that we are saved, that we have been regenerated by the Spirit, that all our sins have been forgiven, and that, when we die, we will pass through Heaven’s gates. How can a Christian make such an audacious claim and not be arrogant and self-righteous? After all, those of other religions would blush to make such a boastful proclamation. The answer: because Christianity is utterly unique from every other religion. All other religions say your righteousness — your good works, your piety, the deepness of your spirituality — is what saves you. Sure, God is gracious, but if you do not do enough, pray enough, read enough or participate in spiritual activities enough, there is no hope for you. Christianity, on the other hand, says that we are not saved by our works at all but wholly of grace.
Let us examine what this means. The Bible teaches that just one sin, one white lie, one lustful thought, one arrogant remark is deserving of an eternity in Hell (Romans 5:12, 6:23). “[A]ll who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10). “[W]hoever,” James writes, “keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). On the basis of your works, you stand guilty and deserving of God’s wrath. Nothing you can do can “make up” for your sins. Can a criminal tell a judge, “I know I’m a murderer, but my x hours of community service make up for it”? In the same way, your good deeds can’t cleanse you of your sin. More than that, you have no good works before God to begin with because man’s heart is not naturally good but evil and wicked (John 3:19-20; Romans 1:29-32; Genesis 8:21). Thus, it is said: “‘None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one’” (Romans 3:10-12). Even our best actions are “like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6) to God and even they, if we were to be judged only on them, call out for our condemnation. This is not to say that all sins are equal but that all our actions are corrupt and dark because they flow from an impure and depraved heart. See, then, how helpless your endless strivings and “good works” are before God. All your works condemn you. By your works, you cannot be justified.
Yet, amidst our depravity and sin, we read this: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly …while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6,8). What does it mean that Jesus “bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24) and “died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3)? It means that, on the Cross, He suffered the punishment and wrath our sins deserved in our place. He took upon Himself the condemnation we deserved, which He could do as He was both God, whom our sins are against (Psalm 51:4) and who is infinite (making Him able to bear the punishment of our sins), and man, allowing Him to act on our behalf as our mediator and great high priest (cf. Hebrews 2:14-17).
Know, too, that this atoning sacrifice was not made for mostly good people or only a portion of our sins. It is a wholly sufficient and finished sacrifice made for the ungodly, for God’s enemies (Romans 5:8,10), for those who are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) and “children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). These are those He saved, and saves completely, cleansing them from all sin (Colossians 1:13-14; 1 John 1:7). Our hearts, too, are regenerated by the Spirit at conversion, transforming the heart that once hated God into one that loves Him, desires Him and wishes to serve Him (Romans 6:17-18). Salvation is all of grace, and it is secure because it rests on the finished work of Another.
Since Jesus paid it all and accomplished for us “an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12), nothing can be added to it. No offering for sin remains (Hebrews 10:18) because we have been reconciled wholly through Christ’s atoning death, a propitiation “to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). We are not, therefore, saved by faith plus works but only by faith alone in Christ and His work alone. To suggest our works play a part in saving us and reconciling us to God is to deny the finished nature of the Atonement. For Paul, this meant to depart from the gospel and to try to be justified by works all over again (Galatians 5:2-4).
Some may be angered by this, but we should rather rejoice that by Christ alone we have been given a salvation that is sufficient, secured, and settled in Heaven. If it were not so, if Jesus died even for all but one of our sins, we would have no hope. If He did not pay it all on the Cross, we could still expect nothing but God’s wrath and judgment. But He did pay it all, and thus it can be written: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Praise be to God for truly amazing grace! All glory be to Him!
Andrew Sveda is a senior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.