By Timothy Oliver
The word Gospel means Good News. It is frequently the case, however, that we do not, even cannot, understand or appreciate good news without first having understood the “bad news.” That is, good news is good news precisely because it provides the antidote to, or relief from, some kind of problem. Without knowing or understanding the problem the good news answers, we simply will not understand or appreciate the good news, or the goodness of the good news. So to understand and appreciate the Gospel, we must first turn our attention to that problem answered by the Gospel.
The Pandemic State of Sin
The Bible tells us we all have a serious problem called sin, which in its most basic nature is, as Scripture puts it, lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4). We could make it more specific and say that sin is any transgression of, or any lack of conformity to, God’s law.
Sin was brought into the world by one man, Adam, but it brought sin and death to all mankind (Rom. 5:12). The problem, according to Scripture, is absolutely universal:
2. The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God.
3. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one.
In case you missed the point, God repeats this in the New Testament:
10. as it is written, “ There is none righteous, not even one;
11. There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God;
12. All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.”
We find this hard to believe; at least we don’t like to believe it. We make comparisons between ourselves and we see some people who seem so much better than others, and we start to think they are “good people.” And by human standards they may well be. The problem is, the standard we are up against is not a human standard:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
God does not measure us against each other. It is God’s standard, God’s definition of right and wrong, good and evil; it is God’s law, and God’s glory, by which He measures us. And by His standard we have all sinned.
1 John 1:10
If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him [God] a liar and His word is not in us.
The Persistence and Profundity of Sin
A person might read those last two verses and say, “Well, yes, I have sinned in the past, but I have repented and stopped sinning. According to Scripture, however, not only has every person sinned, no one has stopped sinning:
1 John 1:8
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
In this verse sin is not referenced to the past, but to the present. None of us can truthfully say that we have—present tense, right now—no sin. A verse in the Old Testament makes the same point:
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.
If a person had sinned in the past, but had now stopped, then now he would be doing good continually. But scripture says there is no one that does that. That means, not only have we sinned in the past, but also none of us has stopped sinning. Every one of us still has sin, in the here and now, though a person might actually think he had no sin or be unaware of his sin.
Scripture tells us why a person might think that way:
Every man’s way is right in his own eyes; But the Lord weighs the hearts.
The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?
You see, our deceitful, lying hearts lie to us. We think our ways are right because our deceitful, lying hearts almost always have a justification for why we do what we do. We might even acknowledge that normally it would be wrong, but in this particular case, because of this or that particular reason, it was right, or at least “okay.” But just as John said, “we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
A person might look at all the above evidence and say, “Well, maybe no one has stopped sinning yet, at least not altogether. But still, we can work on it, repenting of, and overcoming, one sin at a time until, eventually, we will have stopped.” This is a vain delusion:
Can the Ethiopian change his skin, Or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good, Who are accustomed to doing evil.
Jeremiah is saying that in our natural state we have no more capacity to stop sinning than a black man (Ethiopian) has to turn white, or a leopard has to change its spots. Blacks don’t turn white, and leopards don’t lose their spots, because they can’t. Being black and having spots are innate qualities, a part of their very nature and being. Sin, likewise, is a part of our very nature, not as God originally created Adam, but as all men have inherited from fallen Adam. Sin won’t go away, because it’s not simply what we do, but who and what we are.
Someone might still say, “Well, maybe it is a matter of who and what we are, but still, we can change who and what we are.”
Unfortunately, “who and what we are,” does not refer to a mere condition, a changeable state. Scripture says it’s more than a condition—it’s our nature. You cannot act, be, or become something contrary to your nature. That which is intrinsically evil cannot transform itself into something good. To do so is against its very nature. We are not merely sick and simply in need of some good medicine and a healthy regimen. According to Scripture, in our nature we are spiritually dead:
1. And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,
2. in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
3. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
Born into this world spiritually dead, separated from God, your spirit is as absolutely useless toward any spiritual end as your physical body, having died, is useless for any physical end. Physically dead, separated from your spirit, your body is utterly useless in the physical realm. Spiritually dead, separated from God, your spirit is utterly useless in the spiritual realm. All the works you can possibly do in your natural state, therefore, are useless, dead works.
The Problem Created by Sin, Between God and Us
Sin creates a barrier between God and sinners:
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
God is utterly righteous and holy. He not only has no sin now, He never has had any sin at any time in all eternity past (Isa. 50:21; Mal. 3:6). And He hates sin absolutely. He loathes it, with a fixed, settled, and implacable hatred. God’s holiness demands that He judge sin and sinners. That is a fearful prospect for us sinners:
17. ‘Can mankind be just before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?"
18. ‘He puts no trust even in His servants; And against His angels He charges error.
19. ‘How much more those who dwell in houses of clay, Whose foundation is in the dust, Who are crushed before the moth!
If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no man living is righteous.
Because we compare ourselves with each other and see some people apparently better than others, and because we compare ourselves with ourselves and see our deeds and motivation as sometimes better than at other times, we tend to think there is some goodness within us with which we can pay for, balance out, or at least ameliorate that which is bad.
Being spiritually dead, however, makes everything that we do tainted with sin.
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
You see, even our best deeds, what we think are our righteous deeds, are, in God’s eyes, like a filthy garment. The Hebrew for filthy garment is used elsewhere in the Old Testament in only two ways: to describe lepers’ garments (leprosy being the ultimate representation of “uncleanness” under the Law and in Jewish culture) and, women’s underclothing during their menstrual period (also “unclean” under the Law).
For His own purposes God has allowed sin, temporarily. But He has served the world notice that He intends to, and certainly shall, judge and destroy sin. If all our righteous deeds are so filthy in God’s sight, then obviously we simply have no “spiritual capital” with which to pay our debt of sin, survive the judgment, and avoid the full wrath of God. If we are not somehow delivered from sin before that day we will be in a world of hurt, for eternity:
2 Thessalonians 1:7b-9
7. …when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,
8. dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
9. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That death which at the judgment is the final wages of sin is eternal, just as the life which is affixed opposite to it is eternal. Spiritually dead sinners will be brought to judgment and there receive the decree of God that they shall experience the second death, which is separation from God, in conscious torment, for all of eternity. There is no pain or sorrow that can be experienced in this life on this earth that can even begin to compare to it. Think of it! What absolute terror, what absolute horror, what absolute despair one will feel, when, after billions of billions of billions of years of torment and agony—of body, soul, and spirit—one realizes, the torment has only, barely, begun.
What we need is spiritual life. But being spiritually dead ourselves, we cannot possibly give ourselves spiritual life. Neither can we win spiritual life by doing good deeds, because all our righteous deeds are filthy in God’s sight. The fact is, one cannot do any truly good deeds without being spiritually alive in the first place. Among men we may look good, our works may look good, even very religious. But while we are spiritually dead none of our works have, nor can they impart, spiritual life. They are, as noted earlier, simply dead works. We are, therefore, utterly helpless. That is the one thing you absolutely must understand before we can move on to the gospel, the good news. Your salvation cannot possibly come, either solely or in part, from anything that you could ever do or be, in and of yourself. I say again, you are utterly helpless.
God’s Solution to Our Problem
At last, perhaps, we are prepared to receive and appreciate God’s good news, the gospel. We will look at the details as we move further along, but the first thing you need to understand is that your salvation, if you are ever to have salvation, must come to you entirely from outside yourself. If you inject yourself into the process, if your filthy hands so much as touch it, you will spoil the pie.
That is why none of the religions of the world but one can possibly save you, because all the religions of the world but one require that you stick your finger in the pie. Whatever those religions may offer as salvation, whether or not you will ever receive it always depends on your own behavior, all of which, the Bible says, is sin-tainted, spiritually dead works.
Only Christianity offers an alternative. That is why Christianity is exclusive: because it is utterly unique. Christianity alone offers a Savior outside ourselves, untouched and unspotted with sin, able to save us “to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25-26), completely by His own power (Heb. 1:3), completely independent of anything we can ever do or be in and of ourselves (Rom. 4:4-6; Eph. 2:8-9), but able to give us a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17) and transform everything we ever do ever after (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14). Jesus Christ is that Savior.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
If no one comes to the Father but through Jesus, then it is obvious that Jesus is essential to our salvation. There are many religious groups, however, counterfeits of Christianity, that will acknowledge Jesus and His Atonement as essential to our salvation, but still not yet sufficient to save us completely, without being supplemented by our works, or some kind of input from ourselves. In other words, again, they are telling us we must stick our fingers in the pie.
But Jesus also said here, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” First notice, Jesus did not say He was the way-show er, that is, our example. The Christian may seek to emulate Christ as much as he can, but Christ’s example was to live an entire life without so much as one moment of sin. We have all sinned already, and therefore cannot possibly follow His example perfectly. That is why “following His example” will save no one, because no one ever has, nor ever can, actually do so. And in our context, here, of coming to the Father, Jesus is speaking of salvation. He is not simply the One who shows the way to the Father; rather, He is the way itself.
Note also, the use of the definite article the, throughout (the way, the truth, the life), rather than the indefinite article a. That usage excludes everything else from being the way, the truth, or the life, or any part of it. Jesus is not a way, one way among many. And Jesus is not part of the way, essential but still insufficient. No Jesus is the way, and that means He is sufficient, alone, with nothing added.
So we must ask, how does Jesus and what He did become effective in our lives?
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
If we must be born again to even see the kingdom of God, then obviously no one will ever enter there without being born again. But how does one become born again? Jesus does not describe this experience or tell us how it happens here in v. 3. But in v. 6 He does indicate that it is not something we can do or cause our-selves. He says:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
The new birth is not natural birth, nor anything we can do in the flesh; that would only result in more flesh. Everything we ever do in the flesh, that is, in our natural state, in our sin nature, can only produce more of the same—fleshy, carnal, sin-tainted fruit. Our dead spirit is part of the old sin nature; it cannot produce life itself. It is our spirit that needs life. That is why we need to be “born again,” and why the Spirit that gives birth to spirit cannot be our own, but the Spirit of God. This agrees with what John wrote earlier:
12. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,
13. who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
Jesus receives into son-ship, that is, He makes heirs of, all those who receive Him, that is, believe in His name. To believe in His name means to trust in, to fully rely upon, Him to save you completely by His power alone.
But how does one come to the point of receiving Jesus and trusting Him so? He is “born…of God.” This new birth is “not of blood.” That is, it is not your genetic heritage, the race into which you are born, Jew or otherwise, that causes, or results, in being born again.
Nor is this new birth “of the will of the flesh.” Before being born again all you are is flesh. The flesh, here, does not mean simply a physical body. Your physical body does not possess a will. No, the flesh, here, means your whole being—body, soul, and spirit—in its natural state; the old sin nature. In that state, the only will that you have is “the will of the flesh.” If this new birth is not “of the will of the flesh,” then it cannot be the result of any act of the will, any decision, made before being born again, while still in the flesh, the sin nature. You did not cause your natural birth; neither can you cause your spiritual birth.
Nor is this new birth “of the will of man.” This might seem like a repeat of the last point, but actually there is a nuance here that adds something significant. The word man, here, can be, and in some translations actually is, rendered husband. In either case, the point is, the new birth is not something that any other human being can do to you, or cause to happen to you. Some religious groups claim to be able to cause you to be born again if you will be baptized by them, or do or receive some other action, washing, blessing, etc., from their hands, by the authority they claim to possess. John says, “No.”
What he finally says is, these people who receive Jesus, who believe in Him, and are received into son-ship and made heirs, were those who had been born of God. God is the agent, God and God alone. Peter concurs:
1 Peter 1:3
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy
has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Jesus says these people who believe in Him will never perish, but have eternal life:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Always looking for something we can do to contribute to our own salvation, many have tried to make our faith to be that contribution. But Scripture tells us, even our faith is “not of ourselves” (Eph. 2:9) but is “the work of God” within us (Jn. 6:29; Phil. 1:6; 2:13), something “granted to us” (Phil. 1:29).
One might well ask, “If God is so holy, why would He ever save a sinner, one evil by nature, causing him to be born again and granting him the gift of faith to believe in Christ and His salvation?” Jesus said it was because “God so loved the world.” God does not intend to lose the human race, the pinnacle of His creation. He loves man, and one day will have a world of saved men, redeemed from sin, made pure from sin, to be with Him for all eternity.
Still, one may ask, “Okay, so He loved us. But if He is so holy, how can He righteously spare us sinners, evil by nature as we are, from the punishment we deserve? How can He, instead, righteously cause us to be born again and grant us faith to believe in Christ and His salvation, all as a free gift independent of, and despite, our sinful actions and even our own unregenerate will?” The Bible explains it like this:
23. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24. being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25. whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness,
because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
26. for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
You see, Jesus gave Himself in the place of sinners, to suffer the punishment they deserved, in their place and in their behalf. God’s retributive justice, by which punishment is required, was fully satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross. His death in the place of sinners propitiated God’s wrath against them and their sin. That is, His death in the place of sinners allowed God’s wrath against them and their sin to be fully exercised, exhausted, and satisfied, but turned that wrath aside from sinners, to be poured out on Jesus instead.
That would be the ultimate injustice, if such punishment were inflicted on the undeserving Jesus against His own will. But because of His love for the Father He voluntarily submitted His will to the will of the Father. Because of His great love for all those the Father had given Him, He voluntarily submitted to the punishment they were due.
Jesus having paid for their sins, God can now justly, righteously give them the gift of salvation and eternal life. God’s justice has been upheld. He is shown to be just. But He is also free to justify sinners, to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Wow! That is really great, good news! But wait—there’s more!
Someone might say at this point, “Okay, so God’s retributive justice is satisfied and He has forgiven transgressions of His law. But what about His prescriptive justice? Doesn’t God’s holiness and righteousness also require that we possess a positive righteousness? How can we ever have that, if everything we do is tainted with sin and like filthy rags in God’s sight?” Good question! God’s Word has the answer:
4. Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.
5. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
6. just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
If you want to work for your salvation, or think you can contribute to it by your works, (v.4), fine, go ahead. But what you’ll get in the end won’t be a favor, that is, grace. Instead, it will be a wage. And unfortunately, all your works being tainted with sin, filthy rags, and spiritually dead, the wages you will receive will be the wages of sin—death, the second death: eternal torment away from the presence of God.
If, on the other hand (v.5), you will acknowledge your unrighteous and utterly helpless state, and give up trying to save yourself (with or without the help of Jesus) but instead put all your hope and trust in Jesus alone (Him who justifies the ungodly) to save you, then something truly wonderful happens. God says He will count your faith or trust in Jesus to save you, as righteousness!
Note, God does not say such faith or trust is righteousness. It has no merit or virtue in and of itself by which we can score points with God. Our faith does not run competition with Jesus. Jesus alone saves, and saves completely, by His own power alone. But our faith in Him, in His perfect life, death, and resurrection as fully sufficient means to make us right with God—God says He will count,that faith, as righteousness!
And you see, He says He credits that righteousness to us apart from works, or as the KJV renders it, without works. That sounds almost too good to be true. But I didn’t say it. God the Holy Spirit said it, through the apostle Paul. It is apart from works for three reasons. First, none of our works are truly righteous to begin with, and cannot, therefore, earn anything for us. Second, faith itself is not a work of righteousness but a gift from God. Third, the nature of what is being credited to us is absolutely perfect and needs nothing more to be added.
If faith itself is not righteousness, then when God says He will count our faith as righteousness, that means God credits righteousness to our account. Since it is God doing the counting, the righteousness credited to us is righteousness as God sees righteousness. Jesus taught there is none good but God alone (Lk. 18:19). In God’s sight, then, He alone is righteous, and righteousness is that which describes His own perfect character. Righteousness is not a commodity to be divided up and parceled out. Anything less than God’s own whole and complete righteousness is unrighteousness in His sight. So if God is crediting righteousness to our account, it is whole and complete perfection that He is crediting to our account. That righteousness was lived out in human flesh, for us, in our place and our behalf, by Jesus Himself.
Romans 5:10, 17, 19
10. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son,
much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.…
17. For if by the transgression of the one [that’s Adam], death reigned through the one,
much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.…
19 For as through the one man’s disobedience [Adam again] the many were made sinners,
even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
You see, just as we were made sinners by Adam’s transgression, so we are made righteous by Christ’s righteousness. It is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Himself that God credits to our account. It is not our own righteousness (we have none) by which we become fully right with God, but an alien righteousness not our own. The righteousness we need, the only righteousness that will do, is that perfect righteousness of Jesus. Paul says the same thing elsewhere:
7. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
8. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,
for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ,
9. and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law,
but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
In the three verses preceding those just read, Paul recounts the list of all the reasons why, if anyone could be saved on the basis of who they were and what they had done, it would be him. But his point, of course, is that no one can be saved on such a basis. And so he tell us all those things he once prized he now counts as loss and rubbish, and he says he’s given them all up. He’s not counting on any of it, at all, any longer. Why?
Because he’s found something and someone far, far superior! He’s found what will really work, what will really save him. He no longer has any interest in establishing his own righteous by law keeping. All he wants now, all he needs now, is to be in Christ, having the perfect righteousness of Christ credited to his account. That righteousness comes from God—again, not on the basis of works, but, he says, on the basis of faith.
Paul noted how the same thing had happened to the Ephesians:
In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed,
you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise,
Did you hear that? They heard the good news of salvation, they believed, and they were sealed in Christ! What?! No works? No ordinances? No accompanying signs or wonders? No five, seven, or twelve step, twelve week, twelve month or twelve year course of discipleship? No! They heard, they believed, and they were in!
It will be readily granted that there is much more to living out the Christian life than that. But my friend, that’s all in the world there is to getting into that life, into Christ, in the first place. Once in Christ one naturally wants to please Him as best one can. But thank and praise God, one’s ultimate and final salvation does not depend on one’s success in living out that Christian life. It is settled forever the moment you are in Christ, because from that moment forward you have not only His blood covering your sin, but His perfect life and righteousness credited to your account, supplying for you all the righteousness God ever could or ever did require of you or anyone.
Do you know, this very same hope was voiced even clear back in the Old Testament?
I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
Do you see how complete it is? He doesn’t say God made a garment of salvation, a robe of righteousness, and then said, “Okay, there it is; I made it, now you put it on!” He says God clothed him with garments of salvation, God wrapped him with a robe of righteousness. It’s God all the way, my friend, and none of our own doing.
We can see the same thing even as far back as the Garden of Eden. After their sin, Adam and Eve tried to rectify their sin and compensate for its doleful effects through their own works, by making fig-leaf aprons for themselves to cover their shame and nakedness.
God would have none of it. Instead, the Bible says, He clothed them in garments made from the skins of animals. Blood had to be shed, life lost. And note again, it does not say God made the clothes and then left it to them to put on the clothes. No, again, He clothed them.
Of course those garments themselves would not actually save Adam and Eve. Those garments, how and at what cost they were provided, and the manner they were applied, were all only a picture, a type, of what would actually save them. God had already promised them a Redeemer when He was cursing the serpent (Gen 3:15). But His clothing them in garments made from the skins of animals pictured the same message as Isaiah’s beautiful metaphor, and as what we’ve been seeing explicitly taught in the New Testament. The message is, it’s God all the way, my friend, and none of our own doing.”
Listen again to the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul:
5. He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness,
but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,
6. whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
7. so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Do you see that synergy is excluded here? That is, salvation is not a joint-effort project, with our works coupled together with God’s work and God’s mercy and grace. If that were what Paul had in mind then he would have to have written that God saved us, “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness alone, but also according to His mercy. But he writes no such thing. The words alone, and also, are nowhere in the text. The same exclusion is obvious in another famous passage:
4. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
5. even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
6. and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7. so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
8. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
9. not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Earlier in ch. 2, v. 1. one, Paul wrote to the Ephesians of how they had been dead. Obviously this was not physically dead. They were physically alive and Paul expected they would read his letter! No, they had been spiritually dead.
But you see here in v. 5, God loved them even when they were spiritually dead. While they were spiritually dead and unable to do any spiritually good work, He made them alive together with Christ. This is not a reference to the resurrection of the physical body, which was yet future. They had been spiritually dead. When Paul says God had made them alive together with Christ, then, he is referring to their being born again, spiritually. So again, when immediately he says, “by grace you have been saved,” he is not referring to the resurrection of the body, but to that new spiritual life. When they had heard the good news of salvation, God caused them to be born again and believe, and sealed them in Christ (1:12). Their new birth was a spiritual birth, giving them a new spiritual life, which is eternal life. It is that spiritual, eternal life, then, to which Paul refers when he says, “by grace you have been saved.”
It is impossible for this salvation, this new birth and eternal life, to have been the result of both grace and our works coupled together, because before it occurred, or rather was given to us, we were spiritually dead, unable to do anything spiritually good.
Again, if Paul thought salvation was a joint effort between God’s work and ours, and that the Jews mistakenly had been relying on works exclusively, the answer to that problem would not be to tell them to rely on faith and grace exclusively, which he did in verses 8-9. Instead, he would have to have written, “For by grace you have been saved through faith and good works; and that not of yourselves alone, it is the gift of God as well as a result of works, so that no one may boast too much.”
But of course he wrote no such thing. His language here, as in Titus 3:5, is exclusionary. Grace and faith, on the one hand, and our works, on the other, are not presented as working synergetically to produce salvation. Rather, they are presented as alternative, and mutually exclusive, routes to salvation. It is not both/and, but either/or. You cannot mix them. Paul makes the same point even more explicitly in:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.
But if it is on the basis of works, then it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
Again, none of the above is intended to explain all there is to living the Christian life. It is only to explain how one becomes a Christian, how one is born again and is sealed in Christ for eternal life. God’s seal, by the way, sticks. If it doesn’t stick, it’s not God’s seal. I mean, look, even Tupperware can do better than that! Once sealed in Christ, one’s salvation and eternal life with God are secure. Those blessings do not depend upon our works, upon our success in living the Christian life. If they did, there would be nothing to God’s seal. If it didn’t stick, it would be worthless, and if it were worthless, then really it wouldn’t be God’s seal.
While the Christian’s salvation and eternal life do not depend upon his success in living the Christian life, nevertheless, once given a new nature and sealed in Christ the Christian will have new desires and affections that will move him to want to do good works, not to either win or hang onto salvation, but simply to please the God he loves. And that, scripture tells us, is the very purpose for and to which He saves us:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
2 Corinthians 5:15
and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves,
but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
If you’ve been listening to all this, perhaps God is touching your heart even now to believe this wonderful good news. But perhaps you’re also still afraid that you can’t measure up, can’t live the Christian life. My friend, that is no reason to resist the call of the gospel. Of course you can’t live that life in your present, natural state! But have you not been listening? God can give you a new nature! He does exactly that when He causes you to be born again and believe the gospel.
Did you hear what Paul just said?—For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus. He’s not talking about you now, in your natural state. Right now you’re in Adam, not in Christ. But when you’re born again you’re transferred into a new family; you’re created in Christ Jesus, by God. The born-again Christian is God’s workmanship, God’s handiwork. He’s obviously not completely finished with any of us yet, but He’s begun a work in the Christian that He promises He will finish (Phil. 1:6). It’s His work, not yours, even after you become a Christian. He will supply for you all that you will need in order to live the life to which He is calling you. You need have no fear of that. There is simply no good reason to resist or to delay. If God is tugging on your heart right now, then you come to Him. Jesus said:
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.
My friend, I don’t know whether or not you are one of those the Father has given to Christ. I can’t know that unless and until you do come to Him. But I know for certain His promise—I just read it—Jesus says, “The one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out.” Do you want peace with God? Do you want to be received and accepted by Him? Jesus says you come and He will never cast you out. Come now; put all your trust in Him alone to save you.
If God has been speaking to you as you’ve listened to this message, if He is planting that seed of faith in your heart even now, then why don’t you pray with me now? Please understand, just mouthing some words isn’t going to save you or anybody. But words can express the thoughts, feelings, and will of our hearts. If God is working in your heart here and now, then as you hear the words I pray, you may find they express your heart. You listen as I pray, and if what I pray expresses your heart to God, then you pray it along with me, you take ownership of it, and you make it your prayer as well, okay?
Sinner’s Prayer of Faith
Father in heaven, I confess that I am a sinner. I acknowledge before you not only that I have done wrong things, but also that my heart, my very inmost being, is corrupt. I always thought that spiritually I was just kind of sick, and needed to get better. But now I see and acknowledge that, just as Your Word says, I’m spiritually dead. I can’t bring myself to life spiritually. I cannot contribute to my own salvation. So I’m asking you to cause me to be born again. From this moment forward I will look to you for life and salvation, trusting that what You did through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is enough, all by itself, to give me life, to forgive my sins and make me right with You, and a joint-heir of eternal life with Jesus. Lord Jesus Christ, I throw myself upon Your mercy and claim You as my Savior; I have no other, and no other hope. Coming to you now, I trust that just as you promised, you will certainly not cast me out. So I thank you for accepting me, and for the assurance from Your Word that you do accept me. Now I want to live my life for You, doing the good works You have planned for me. So please, Lord Jesus Christ, come into my heart and live out Your life in me. Keep me, according to Your promise. I ask this in your precious and holy name, Amen.
Now as I said, mouthing a prayer doesn’t save anyone. Jesus saves. But the prayer I just prayed expresses confidence or trust in Jesus to save. And if you found that it also expressed your own heart, then I believe God has caused you to be born again.
But I also know that if this is the first time you’ve ever had or expressed such trust in Jesus to save you (and maybe even if you’ve trusted Him that way and been saved for a long time), Satan will be trying to do everything he can to destroy that trust and make you doubt your salvation. When he does, I don’t want you ever to assure yourself of your salvation by looking back to this moment and saying, “There; that prayer expressed my heart, and I said that prayer, so I know I am saved.”
No, instead, I want you to run to God’s Word, and focus on what He says there. I want you always to reassure yourself of your salvation by hearing God’s Word and trusting His promises. You can do that by reviewing the scriptures we’ve already looked at. But I also want to give you a few more, specifically for the purpose of maintaining the joy and assurance of your salvation. Jesus said:
38. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
39. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.
40. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life,
and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.
Jesus says He came to do His Father’s will, which was, that He not lose one of those the Father had given Him. Did you hear what He said? “That He lose nothing?” When did Jesus ever fail to do the Father’s will? Never! My friend, He hasn’t let go of you, and He never will. When you were sealed in Christ, that was permanent. God’s seal really does stick.
One way Satan tries to make us doubt our salvation is through the deceitfulness of sin. Sin is not merely deceitful in what it promises. It is also deceitful in that it pretends to be bigger than God’s power to forgive. You find yourself thinking, “That was just too big, too serious a sin,” or, “That was just one time too many. He can’t possibly forgive me now.” But through Paul the Holy Spirit says,
… where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,
You should not be content with sin in your life. But neither let it deceive you. God’s grace is bigger than your sin. Trust, and rest, in that truth.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ
The Christian life is a warfare, but instead of fighting with God, you’re fighting sin. With God you have peace. You may look at the circumstances of your life and think God must be mad at you and punishing you. Because He loves you He may discipline you, which is seldom pleasant. But He is not punishing you. He is correcting you, turning you, training you. The war between you and God is over. He won. He made the peace. He will not abandon the peace, nor forsake you.
After reminding the Ephesians of how God had saved them and sealed them in Christ by the Holy Spirit, he described one of God’s purposes in giving the Spirit:
who is given as a pledge [guarantee] of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.
It’s a bit like being on a lay-away plan, only not quite. God’s payment for us was not partial. He has already bought us completely, and fully paid the price. But He hasn’t yet come to pick us up and take us home with Him to glory. But He absolutely will; and He’s given us the Holy Spirit as the pledge, or guarantee, of that. He will come and claim His own.
Notice, too, that this is intended, “to the praise of His glory.” God’s honor is staked on His keeping His promise to save you in glory with Himself. He will not fail to carry through on His promise. That would be dishonorable to Him. Rest assured, God always acts for His own glory. He will come and claim His own, to the praise of His glory.
Another ploy of Satan is to tell us, since the Christian life is a warfare, that if we haven’t yet rid ourselves of all sin, the job is incomplete and we cannot be finally redeemed unless and until it is. Well listen:
and in Him you have been made complete.
There is a whole lot than could be unpacked from that verse, but at least one thing is certain: you already have everything you need for full acceptance with God. When you are in Christ and God looks at you, He sees Christ. Christ is fully accepted and so are you, because you are in Christ.
Well, you might think, I can believe He forgave all my sins up to that moment where I received Jesus as my Savior, but what about all the sins I’ve committed since then?
13. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,
14. having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us,
which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
Did you notice the verb tense, having forgiven? That’s what’s called the past perfect tense. What that means is, it’s an action begun and completed in the past. It’s finished! The phrase “He made you alive” is just the simple past tense. What all this means is, He forgave you even when you were spiritually dead, before He made you alive. When did He make you alive? Well, in history it was at the moment you were born again. But from God’s perspective, to whom time is irrelevant, He made you alive together with Christ!
And how many sins did it say He’s forgiven us of? All of them! Big and little, past, present, and future. Some people think God forgives us all our sins up to the point of our being born again, but then future forgiveness for future sins must still be obtained. Not so. All of your sins, not just those you committed before being born again, were in view to God when Jesus was hanging on the cross, and what Jesus died to pay for. There’s no difference between your past and future sins. All of your sins, not just those you’ve committed since being born again, were historically future to Christ’s death and resurrection. But you were forgiven all your sins and made alive together with Christ. The whole thing is already settled in eternity!
There’s something else important here. You notice it says He has forgiven us all our transgressions. There is a popular notion that somehow a “transgression” is not so serious as a “sin.” Those who think this way might even say it, “a transgression is not so serious as an actual sin.” This is absolutely untrue. The principle word translated sin has the basic meaning of falling short of God’s standard, a lack of perfection; that could be a matter of inherent weakness, but is usually a matter of the will. The principle word translated transgression has the basic meaning of illegally crossing a boundary, i.e., breaking a law. That could happen out of ignorance, but is more often a matter of willful rebellion. The fact is, neither weakness nor ignorance is an excuse for sin in the eyes of God (1 Cor. 10:13; Lev. 5:17). While these words are not exact equivalents in meaning, their meanings are equally serious, as shown by the fact that our being spiritually dead in our natural state is attributed to both (cf. Eph. 2:1).
So what is the point of all that, in a section intended to convey joy and assurance of salvation? Only this, that “all our transgressions” is not intended to mean sins of a particular, not especially serious, kind. Your most serious sins are all covered by the blood of Jesus.
12. giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.
13. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,
14. in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Note here that our being qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light does not depend upon us or any qualities we may possess. We did not, and do not, qualify ourselves; the Father has qualified us. He did so by imputing, that is, reckoning, or crediting the perfect righteousness of Christ to our account. Our being qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light depends upon Jesus and the qualities He possesses. Remember, in Him you have been made complete.
Note also, He has already delivered us from the domain—from the sphere of rulership—of darkness, and already transferred us into His kingdom. We are said to have—that is in the present tense; we have it right now—the forgiveness of sins. And it’s not going away; you are not going to lose it. God does not cancel forgiveness of sins once it has been bestowed, notwithstanding the teaching of some pseudo-Christian groups. The gifts and callings of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).
1. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
2. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.
Did you get that? No condemnation! Yes, God may discipline you, because He loves you. But He will never cast you out.
Romans 8:31-35, 38-39
31. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
32. He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
33. Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies;
34. who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God,
who also intercedes for us.
35. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …
38. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
39. nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You see, God the Father and Jesus are both for us. With them for us, who can be against us? Well, Satan is against us, but he can’t win. He’s already lost. Paul says nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is not God’s general love of the world, from which the wicked will indeed be separated in the judgment. When Paul says, “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” he is speaking of God’s special, saving love applied to believers, those who are in Christ, not Adam. Saved forever, they cannot be separated from that love.
And did you notice tucked in with all those things Paul says can never separate us from that love, he included “things to come”? That, my friend, includes your future sins. As noted earlier, all your sins were yet future historically when Jesus died for them. But He knew about all of them and died to cover every one.
And besides, God knows the end from the beginning already. What would be the point of it all, if God were to forgive you now, knowing that later He would cancel that forgiveness, or, even if He did not cancel previous forgiveness, He still knew that there were yet future sins that He would not forgive? Both ideas are just silly! God knows all of your sins, past, present, and future, right now, already. He’s just as able to forgive all of them as any of them. When God forgives you of your sins, it’s all your sins.
1 John 5:9-13
9. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son.
10. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar,
because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.
11. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
12. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.
13. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
The point of v. 9, there, is that if we believe things men tell us (and we do, all the time) then we really ought to believe something when God tells us, and that God has told us something about His Son. John hasn’t yet told us what it is that God has said about His Son, but, v. 10, whatever it is, the one who believes in the Son of God has that testimony in himself. That is, he knows it’s something given in his own case, applied to himself. Those who disbelieve God’s testimony, who reject it for themselves, are as much as calling God a liar.
Now finally, v. 11, John tells us what the testimony is that God has borne concerning His Son. It is that, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son!” Applying v. 11 to v. 10, then, we can say that the one who truly believes in the Son of God has God’s testimony in himself that God has given him eternal life. We know that this is not a reference merely to physical resurrection. How? Because John goes on in v. 12 to say of this life that, “he who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Resurrection comes to all (Jn. 5:28-29). But this life of which John speaks here, some have, others do not have.
This life which God gives to all who truly believe or trust in His Son is just what John calls it, eternal life, which Jesus defined as a life in intimate relationship with God (Jn. 17:3) It is begun in this life, John says we have it—present tense again—and those who have it are destined to enjoy it in glory in the presence of God for all eternity future (1 Pet. 1:3-5). And John says he wrote all this for the very purpose that those who believe in the name of the Son of God, that is, those who are trusting fully and solely in Jesus to save them, He wrote that they may know—present tense again— that they have—present tense again—eternal life. Hallelujah! Is that good news or what?! Here’s some more!
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life,
and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
Here Jesus is saying essentially the same thing as John did where we just read. If we hear his word—when Jesus spoke of hearing Him He was speaking about not merely hearing physically, but comprehending and believing—Let him who has ears to hear, hear! And Jesus said His words were given to Him by the Father (Jn. 12:49; 14:10). So believing in Jesus, and believing in His words, is believing Him who sent Him, that is, believing the testimony that God has borne about His Son. God the Father is speaking through Jesus promising eternal life. When we believe Him we are promised not to come into judgment, that is, condemnation. And notice again the verb tense, has passed, that is the past perfect tense. That is an action begun and completed in the past. We already have passed out of death into life. Again, this is obviously a reference to more than just physical resurrection, which in fact has not yet happened to us. But we have passed into eternal life.
26. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep.
27. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;
28. and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.
29. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
30. I and the Father are one.
Don’t worry about the nay-sayers who reject God’s offer of free salvation to eternal life, and who attempt to dissuade you and others from believing. They don’t believe because they’re not His sheep. You were, and that’s why when you heard His voice you believed and followed Him. And He has given you eternal life, just as we saw John said, earlier in this study. It does not say He gave you the opportunity to obtain eternal life—you know, if you can change your life enough, just hang on, just prove yourself worthy. No, just as it says in so many other places, it says here: He has given us eternal life—that is, the very thing itself.
And it’s eternal! Not just five year life, ten or twenty year life, not anything temporary at all, but eternal life. Now if you fear you’ve lost it, my friend, I want to ask you, which part of eternal did you not understand? Jesus says His sheep will never perish? Which part of never did you not understand? Some say, “Well, perhaps no one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand, but you can walk out yourself.” Which part of no one did you not understand? No one includes you. Once in, the Father and the Son keep you, forever.
The texts below are for when you sin and it seems like you’re just not getting better. God is going to win in your life. The perfecting work is ongoing throughout this life. We strive for righteousness now, but our only hope of obtaining it is just that, a hope. Biblically, a hope is not merely a wish, but a confident expectation. Still, it is not something we have fully in the here and now that we can see right now—else why would we still hope. We confidently expect to be made righteous at the day of Christ Jesus, that is, when we meet Him face to face, either at death or at the Second Coming.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.
1 Corinthians 1:8-9: [speaking of our Lord Jesus Christ,]
8. who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9. God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5
21. Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God,
22. who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge…
5. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
1 Thessalonians 3:13
so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
23. Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body
be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
24. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.