The Works-Salvation Delusion
By Dave Hunt
“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come[s] by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” – Galatians 2:21
When we compare biblical Christianity with the religions of the world, using the Scriptures to guide us, we see that the gap between them is unbridgeable. In fact, one is forced to the conclusion that there are really only two religions in the world: biblical Christianity–and all other religions. (Note: I refer to biblical Christianity as a “religion” only for comparative purposes: a religion is a manmade belief system, whereas biblical Christianity is what God has revealed to mankind.)
These two “religions” are set apart primarily by what they teach about salvation–how one can get to heaven or paradise or Valhalla or Nirvana or the abode of God, or whatever else people believe about the afterlife. Each of the two can be placed under one of two categories: Human Achievement and Divine Accomplishment–or, to put it simply, the religions of “Do” and “Done.” I’m referring to the fact that either there are things you must do (Human Achievement) or there is nothing you can do because it has already been done (Divine Accomplishment) to earn entrance to heaven.
Biblical Christianity alone comes under the heading of Divine Accomplishment. All the other religions of the world must be placed under the label of Human Achievement. Let’s first consider some of the major religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and certain denominations or cults that profess to be Christian.
Hinduism has about 330 million gods who must be appeased through some type of ritual. A couple of years ago I was given a tour of a massive Hindu temple just outside Chicago. The parking lot was filled with luxury cars. There was imported stonework from Italy. No expense was spared. Inside, doctors, lawyers, and engineers, among others, according to my guide, were serving meals to the idols, Hanuman, the monkey god, and Ganesha, the elephant god.
Hinduism is a system of works–things that one must do to reach moksha, the Hindu heaven. It involves the practice of yoga, which, contrary to what many have heard, has never been for improvement of one’s health but is rather a means of dying to one’s body in the hope of delivering oneself from the physical realm. This is supposed to yoke one to Brahman, the Supreme Deity of Hinduism. Reincarnation, a system that supposedly enables one to work one’s way to heaven through many births, deaths, and rebirths, is one of the teachings of this religion.
Buddhism is also all about works. Buddha believed that the key to reaching Nirvana, which is allegedly the state of perfect peace and happiness, is through an understanding of the Four Noble Truths and by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path.
In essence, the Four Noble Truths declare that we endure suffering because of our desires or cravings. These “Truths” claim that suffering will stop when we cease trying to fulfill those desires. According to Buddhism, we can achieve this by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which has the elements of “right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.” This is all done by man’s achievement, i.e., “doing things right” in order to reach Nirvana.
In Islam, paradise is attained when Allah weighs a follower’s good works against his bad deeds on a scale at Judgment Day. The Qur’an declares: “For those things that are good remove those that are evil” (Surah 11:114). It’s a quantitative process. Good deeds need to outweigh or blot out evil deeds. From the Qur’an again: “The balance that day will be true: Those whose scale [of good works] will be heavy, will prosper: Those whose scale will be light will find their souls in perdition” (Surah 7:8,9).
Here’s an interesting example of what a Muslim faces to get into paradise: On April 3, 1991, the Egyptian magazine, Akher Saa, recorded a heated debate between four female journalists and Sheik Doctor Abdu-Almonim Al-Nimr, who holds a high position at Al-Azher Islamic University. One of the journalists asked him: “Is the hijab [veil or head covering] obligatory for women in Islam? If I do not wear the hijab, shall I go to hell in spite of my other good deeds? I am talking about the decent woman who does not wear the hijab.”
Dr. Al-Nimr replied, “The ordinances in Islam are many, my daughter, Allah made us accountable to each. It means if you do that ordinance you earn a point. If you neglect one, you lose a point. If you pray, you earn a point; if you do not fast you lose a point, and so on.” He continued, “I did not invent a new theory…for every man there is a book in which all his good and evil deeds are recorded…even how do we treat our children.”
The journalist said: “That means, if I do not wear the hijab, I will not enter the hell fire without taking into account the rest of my good deeds.” Dr. Al-Nimr replied: “My daughter, no one knows who will enter the hell fire…I might be the first one to enter it. Caliph Abu-Bakr Al-Sadik said: ‘I have no trust concerning Allah’s schemes, even if one of my feet is inside of paradise who can determine which deed is acceptable and which is not.’ [See TBC, 10/91] You do all that you can do…and the accountability is with Allah. You ask him for acceptance [Italics added for emphasis].”
In Judaism, heaven is attained by keeping the Law and its ceremonies. Obviously, that isn’t consistent with what the Tanakh (the Old Testament) teaches, yet that has been the practice of Judaism for millennia. As Jesus said, “In vain they do worship [God], teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).
His words also apply to a number of “Christian” denominations and cults that stress works as necessary for salvation. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Church of Christ adherents, Roman Catholics, Eastern and Russian Orthodox members, Lutherans, and many others all include something that needs to be accomplished or is necessary for salvation, whether it’s baptism, the sacraments, or joining their particular organization and fulfilling their requirements.
Here is an example from the first 30 years of my own life as a Roman Catholic. I lived by a religious system of laws, many of which a Catholic is obligated to keep. It began with baptism. If one is not baptized, the Church says he can’t enter heaven. It also says that although baptism is required, it is no guarantee. There are many other such rules that a Catholic must keep.
I have a book in my office called the Code of Canon Law. It contains 1,752 laws, many of which affect one’s eternal destiny. Sins recognized by the Roman Catholic Church are classified as either mortal or venial. A mortal sin is one that damns a person to hell, should he or she die without having had it absolved by a priest. A venial sin doesn’t need to be confessed to a priest, but whether confessed or not, all sin adds to one’s temporal punishment, which must be expiated either here on earth through suffering or good works or else be purged in the flames of purgatory after one’s death.
There are obligations that a Catholic must fulfill regarding both beliefs and deeds. For example, one is required to believe that Mary was conceived without sin (an event called the Immaculate Conception). If a Catholic doesn’t believe that, he commits a mortal sin, which carries the penalty of eternal damnation. The feast day of the Immaculate Conception is a holy day of obligation, a day on which all Catholics are required to attend Mass. Failure to do so could result in commission of a mortal sin.
All the belief systems that I’ve mentioned, and many others as well, consist of doing or not doing certain things to reach “heaven.” All are based upon human achievement. But what about biblical Christianity? How is that different?
Ephesians 2:8-9 spells it out for us: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that [salvation is] not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast [emphasis added].” That’s pretty straightforward. Our salvation doesn’t have anything to do with our achievements.
Verse 8 tells us that it is by grace that we are saved. Grace is unmerited favor. If any merit is involved, it cannot be by grace. It’s the gift of God. So if it’s a gift, it can’t be of works. That should be obvious. Someone puts in a tough month of work and his employer comes to him with his paycheck and declares, “Good job, Joe, here’s your gift!” No–Joe worked for what he was paid. No gift was involved.
Regarding a person who works, Romans 4:4 tells us that his wages are a payment for the debt his employer owes him, and his paycheck has nothing to do with grace or a gift. A worker who has done a good job can boast or feel a sense of pride in the work he has accomplished. Yet all of that is contrary to grace or a gift. Grace rules out any sense of merit, and a gift does away with any sense of something earned or paid for.
Paul’s teaching in Ephesians is affirmed in his epistle to Titus, chapter 3, verse 4: But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. [Emphasis added]
We can see that this is consistent with Ephesians 2:8-9. It’s not by our works that we are saved–not by works of righteousness that we have done–but it’s by His mercy that we are saved.
You may well imagine that, as a Roman Catholic conditioned by a life of Church rules and rituals, I had great difficulty believing that faith was the only basis by which I could enter heaven. It didn’t make sense to me.
Well, not only does it make sense–it’s the only possible way anyone can be saved. It is miraculously sensible!
First of all, what keeps anyone from heaven or eternal life with God? We know that the answer is “sin.” Here is a small sampling of the applicable verses: All have sinned (Romans 3:23); the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2); the soul who sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:20); sin brings forth death (James 1:15).
In Genesis 2, God explains to Adam the consequences of disobeying Him. Adam was told not to eat from a certain fruit in the Garden of Eden. It was a commandment that was related to obedience and love–not of God’s withholding something from Adam, as the Serpent implied. Remember, Jesus said “If a man love me, he will keep my words,” that is, His teachings (John 14:23). Our love for God is demonstrated by our obedience.
What was God’s penalty for disobedience? Genesis 2:17: “…for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Adam and Eve loved themselves more than they loved God, because they didn’t “keep [His] words.” They disobeyed Him, and the consequence was death. “The day you eat of it you will surely die.” In the Scriptures, death always involves separation, and in God’s judgment upon them, two applications are found: 1) physical death (the degeneration of the body, leading ultimately to its separation from the soul and spirit), and 2) eternal separation from God.
Adam and Eve did not die instantly, but the death process began at that point for them and for all creation. However, their spiritual relationship with God changed immediately and forever. God’s judgment for sin is eternal: separation from God forever. It’s an infinite penalty. And God, who is perfect in all of His attributes, including justice, had to carry out the punishment. He couldn’t let them slide by and just give them another chance. That would have meant that He was not perfectly true to His Word. The penalty had to be paid.
So what could Adam and Eve do? Nothing, except die physically and spiritually, which is to be separated from God forever. And what can the rest of mankind do, seeing that all have sinned? Nothing. Well, one might ask, what if we do all sorts of good deeds that might outweigh our sins, or if we go to church a lot, or get baptized, do religious things, receive the sacraments, and so forth? None of those things will help us. Why? Because they don’t pay the penalty. So what can we do? There is nothing that we can do-except to pay the penalty ourselves by being separated from God forever.
Our situation would be absolutely hopeless except that God has some other attributes in addition to being perfectly just. He is also perfect in love and mercy! “For God so loved the world” that He sent His only begotten Son to pay the penalty for us (John 3:16).
And that is exactly what Jesus did on the Cross. It is incomprehensible to us that during those three hours of darkness (when He cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) He took on the sins of the world and suffered the wrath of His Father-for us. On the Cross He “tasted death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9), that is, He experienced and paid the infinite penalty for everyone’s sins.
When that divine accomplishment ended, Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” meaning that the penalty had been paid in full. It was a divine accomplishment because it was something that only God could do! God became a man and died physically, because physical death was part of the penalty. Yet, as the God-Man, he was able to experience fully the penalty that every sinner would experience–being spiritually separated from God forever.
God’s justice demands payment. Either we pay the penalty ourselves or we turn to Jesus by faith and receive the benefits of His sacrificial atonement. What does Roman 6:23 say? “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Bible could not be more clear that salvation can only be “the gift of God” and that we can only appropriate that gift by faith.
Any attempt to merit salvation by our works is not just futile–it is impossible: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10). Worse yet, it is a denial of the infinite penalty that God imposed, a rejection of God’s “unspeakable gift,” and a repudiation of what Christ accomplished for us.
It used to be that most evangelicals would agree. This is no longer the case as the apostasy gathers momentum in these Last Days. Recently, a Pew Forum survey of more than 40,000 Americans found that 57 percent of those who said they were evangelicals believed that Jesus is not the exclusive way to heaven. Since Jesus is the only one who provides divine accomplishment, all that remains is the futile delusion of human achievement for salvation. TBC