Delivered as a pre-communion message at Woodland Christian Church on June 24, 2017.
Have you ever been told that salvation is not by works? You have probably been told it a thousand times. Interestingly, it is technically not true. You are saved by works — just not yours. For example, in Ephesians 2:8-9 we read that, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Whose works is Paul talking about? He is talking about the believer’s works.
Some conclude, then, that our salvation is not built on our works but on Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Even this is not the complete picture, however. It is not enough for us to be forgiven in order to have eternal life. Yes, you heard me correctly. If you imagine sin as a infinite debt, it is not enough for that debt to be wiped to zero in order to be accepted by God. In order to be accepted by God we must be righteous. Indeed, David wrote in the Psalms, “I shall behold your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.”
Some might retort with, “Once I forgiven, I am automatically righteous.” Again, this is technically not true. Moses this to Israel: “It will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us.’” In other words, you are only righteous if you obey God’s law. All of it. Perfectly. To go back to the bank analogy, it’s not enough for your bank account to simply say zero. It must actually have an infinitely positive balance.
Christ commanded as much. At the Sermon on the Mount he said, “Be perfect.” To the rich young ruler he said, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” The second passage in particular is mystifying to those who have only heard the idea of “salvation by works” spoken of in a negative sense. They say, “How could Jesus himself say that to enter into life we must do good works?” Because salvation is by works.
Now that we have established that we must be perfect law-keepers to enter Heaven, the question is raised: “How can I, a sinner, be made righteous?” And the answer is simple: through faith in Jesus. But not just in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, but also in his life. Yes, we hear often of Christ dying on our behalf, but did you know that Christ also kept the law perfectly on our behalf and that when you trusted in Christ, that perfect law-keeping was credited to you?
Theologians and pastors, including the pastors at this church, have rightly referred to this as a great transaction. Think back to our banking analogy. Imagine that you have an account and Christ has an account. At the time you believe the gospel, your infinite debt is credited to Christ’s account and his infinite wealth is credited to your account. To use more theological terminology, your sin was imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to you.
If this all sounds too pedantic for you, let me describe it as Paul describes it in Romans 4: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” Yes, brothers and sisters, salvation is by works. But, praise God, he has done that work for us through Jesus Christ.