Traditional Christians interpret this to mean that we are saved into the kingdom of heaven, not because of anything we do or don't do but as a gift that God bestows upon us simply for confessing with our mouth and believing in our heart that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. The scriptural basis for this doctrine is found in Romans 10:9,10 which reads: "if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."
On the other hand, there are some Christians who say that the way to heaven is by keeping a long list of commandments given to us from God. However, the argument against this belief is that if this is true then we could boast that we've earned the right to go to heaven by our own efforts. In that case, salvation wouldn't be a gift but would be a reward or a debt God owed us (see Romans 4:4). Since Protestants feel the Bible tells us that salvation is a gift then the only logical conclusion we can come to is that our salvation cannot be dependant on performing any kind of work.
Yet, at the same time the Bible also tells us that we are to keep the commandments of God (Matt. 19:17; John 14:15; 1 John 2:3; Rev. 14:112). But, if salvation is not dependent on us doing anything then it would appear it is not important to our salvation for us to keep God's commandments. However, while saying that works won't save us most Christians also teach that it is extremely important for us to live as God has commanded.
The way most Christians explain this seeming contradiction is to say that as sinful creatures we are incapable of doing what God asks of us, no matter how hard we try. This concept of man is rooted in the idea that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and that "there is no one who does good, not even one" (Romans 3:12). That means no matter what we do we cannot please God (Romans 8:8). And that is because even our best efforts fall far short of the goodness of God. As one ministered put it: "We first have to remember that we are nothing in God's sight because of our sins. Isaiah says, 'We all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away…' God didn't adopt you because you were so useful or because you were so attractive. God adopted you purely out of grace" (Peter Schmidt, pastor of Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran Church). And to prove their point, Protestants point to Isaiah where he wrote, "All of our righteousness is like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6).
In commenting on this verse in Isaiah one biblical commentator explained: "The good we may try to do is unacceptable and unclean before the LORD. Because we are all like an unclean thing, even the good we do is polluted." (David Guzik's Commentary). Another minister clarified it by saying, "Our righteousness, the very best of our personality, the very best of our performances, the very best of all that we are, is nothing but corruption in God's sight. What we might think to be good is evil in God's sight." (Martin Scarce, pastor of New Beith Baptist Church, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia). Yet another pastor said, "As good a person as you considered yourself to be it was just filthy rags. Our ways were shameful. Our deeds were filthy. Not only did we have on rags but they were filthy rags." (Thomas Dibble, pastor of Calvary Apostolic Church).
If that is so, then how can we possibly keep God's commandments? Christianity teaches that we can't, at least, not by our own power. Christians often quote the apostle Paul where he said, "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippines 2:13) to show that it is God, working in us and through us, according to His will, that enables us to keep God's commandments.
One biblical commentator explains this verse thusly: "[Just] as there is no strength in us, so there is no merit in us. As we cannot act without God's grace, so we cannot claim it, nor pretend to deserve it. God's good will to us is the cause of his good work in us;" (Commentary by Matthew Henry). Another commentator states: "it is God who works in you both to will and then to do. He gives you the capacity to do, but He plants first of all the will in your heart…. it is God who is actually working in you. It is God who has put that yearning in your heart. It is God that has given you that desire." (Commentary by Chuck Smith).
One minister has expressed it this way: "We need to be submitting to Christ so Christ can work through us. When we love our enemies it is Christ through us loving our enemies. It is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose. So are we to do good works as Christians? Yes. Is it us who does these good works? No, not really. It is Christ in us working through us" (Pastor Brad Beamon). Another preacher said, "Jesus said: Behold, I make all things new (Revelation 21:5) and Paul agreed with that '…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!' (2 Corinthians 5:17). What the Bible teaches us is: Jesus gives us the power to change; the power to become a new creation. And that power of change begins when we first become Christians." (Jeff Strite, Pastor at Christ Of Christ at Logansport, Indiana). Still another preacher said, "when you accept Jesus as Lord, you go to the cross with Him and into the grave - your old self dieing - then coming back with new life in Him…. What's different is that the Holy Spirit has come to live inside of you - changing your heart and giving you new life." (Tom Fuller, Pastor of Living Waters Christian Fellowship, Newberg, Oregon)
Another pastor illustrated this principle with a pair of thin plastic gloves used in preparing food. He first asks if it is the glove that actually prepares the food then answers his own question by saying, "That's crazy! A glove cannot read a recipe…cannot measure out portions…cannot check to see if the seasonings are right…cannot even cut or dice or stir or serve on its own. Well …if the glove isn't doing it…who is??? It's the hand in the glove that makes all the difference! That's what it means to be a Christian and for God to put His Holy Spirit in you. God doesn't give us a list of things that we must do to serve or please Him. Left to ourselves with our own strength and abilities, we could never pull it off. So He works in you and gives you the ability to do the things He wants you to do…the things that please Him! … We don't have the right to claim that we have done anything on our own. God gives us what it takes to do all that we do." (Craig Cramblet, pastor of Olivet Evangelical Free Church, Muskegon, Michigan)
With so many scriptures and so many preachers seeming to agree with one another it would appear that the Bible clearly teaches that we, of ourselves, can do nothing to inherit the kingdom of heaven. And, whatever good we might do is only because of God who is doing the work through us. Therefore, what traditional Christianity teaches is that salvation is truly a gift because it is God who makes us a new creature in Christ, who writes His laws in our hearts, who places within us a desire to obey Him, and then performs the good works Himself through us. As such, whatever good we may do we can't boast that it was because of own efforts. As one person put it, "Salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of God."
However, as scriptural as this may seem, the problem is that it doesn't fit with reality.
While God commands us to love one another, forgive even our enemies, be honest, live virtuously, be faithful to one's spouse, speak no evil, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, there are many people who are not "saved" Christians who follow these rules in their life. Yet, according to traditional Christians that is impossible since it is their contention that only through the power of God, working in and through us that we are able to live these divine commandments.
The way most Christians respond to this reality is to answer that while man does have the ability to do all of these things by their own power, God still views these efforts as feeble attempts to imitate His goodness. They also point out that while men can do many of these things some of the time, they cannot do all of them most of the time. In the words of one minister, "We struggle and struggle only to slide back into our old ways." Therefore, they contend that an unsaved person can do good on their own only temporarily at best while the saved Christian is able to become more and more like Christ through the power of God working in them.
But, there are two problems with this explanation. The first is that if the good that an unsaved person does is not virtuous enough to please God, then it must follow that the good a saved person does is pleasing to Him, especially since it is God Himself who is doing the good through the saved person. Therefore, we should expect to see "saved" Christians behaving in ways that no unsaved person can.
For example, everyone can show love to others but supposedly this kind of normal love is far below that which God has. Therefore, it would stand to reason that when God shows His love through a "saved" Christian we would expect to see Christians exhibiting the kind of love that far surpasses anything an unsaved person is capable of doing. However, in many cases, that is not what happens. Often times, the love shown by an unsaved person is indistinguishable from that shown by many who call themselves saved Christians. And there are numerous incidents where saved Christians do not show love for their fellow man as well as many unsaved people do.
Christians explain this discrepancy by saying that in order for God to work through us we first have to submit ourselves to His controlling influence. Therefore, it is their contention that when Christians fail to live a Christ-like life it is because they have chosen not to yield themselves to God. However, this argument then contradicts their first assertion that when a person accepts Christ they become a new creature because God has put in their heart a desire to serve Him. If what they say is true, then each newly saved Christian should automatically have the desire to want to yield or submit themselves to God's influence.
And, in fact, that is exactly what they say about why Christians do good. It is their belief that a person doesn't do good works to become saved but rather they do good works because God has already saved them. What they mean by this is that good works are a natural outgrowth of accepting Christ. It's not something that a Christian has to try and do. Rather good works happen spontaneously and automatically as a result of having a new heart that desires to follow God's ways. It's not something a Christian has to do. Instead, it's something they can't help but do.
If that is true, then the same should apply to yielding ourselves to God. A Christian should automatically yield themselves to God without any effort on their part. But, that's not what Christian ministers teach. One pastor explained, "Paul says that we must not let sin reign (have authority, rule, control, occupy, hold sway, prevail) over us (see Romans 6:12). A Christian has a choice to let the Spirit control our decisions or to yield to our sinful human desires. Paul urges Christians to stop offering the authority of their decisions to their lower nature (Desiring wealth, position, power, fame, lusts of the flesh and eyes, prideful things) but instead to offer the control of their thinking to spiritual purposes. Unless a believer is seeking to actively surrender the control of His mind to righteousness it is inevitable that they will give in to the desires of the flesh" (Paul Fritz, Trinity College).
Still another minister has said, "When a saved person begins to battle sin in their own life, he enters a combat so intense it makes World War II like a Sunday School picnic… As you grow (as a Christian) you will realize further the intensity of the struggle." (Don Shearheart, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Clarenden, AR). Another minister put it this way: "The Christian life is not hard to live - it is impossible to live because only Christ can live it…. There is no way that we can be a good person and try to live the Christian life on our own." (Pastor Todd Codget).
But that belief contradicts the view that our old nature has died with Christ on the cross and that we have become a new creature who no longer desires to sin. So, what we see is that many Christian ministers teach that when we accept Christ, our old desire to sin is dead and that God has put within us a new desire to serve Him while at the same time saying that our old nature is still very much alive and that we have to exert great effort to overcome our tendency not to sin. And the way we keep from sinning is by struggling to allow God to do His work through us while also saying that Christians follow God's ways as a natural result of accepting Christ without any effort on their part.
But there is a second problem with the argument concerning the difference between the actions of saved and unsaved people. To say that an unsaved person may do some good now and then but eventually slides back into their old, sinful ways implies that such a situation doesn't happen to saved Christians. However, we know that everyone continues to sin, whether they are saved or not. And, in fact, there is a phrase Christians use to acknowledge this. They say: "We're not perfect; just forgiven." But if that's the case, then there is no real difference between the works of a saved or unsaved person because Christians are admitting that both groups of people are still sinners and that Christians are not really capable of becoming perfect while at the same time saying that God is working in us to perfect us.
The way some explain the difference between the behavior of a saved and an unsaved person is by saying that when we accept Christ into our life God has freed us from the shackles of sin. One minister explains it this way: "God has freed us, has bought us from our slave-owner, sin. Now we are free. God has given us the freedom to choose to offer ourselves as slaves of righteousness or to offer ourselves as slaves to sin" (Dan Borchet, pastor of Bakerstown Alliance Church). Another ministers has said, "Before we came to Christ we were slaves to sin - we can't help it. But Jesus came to set us free… We used to have no choice but to sin - now we have a choice." (Tom Fuller, pastor of Living Waters Christian Fellowship, Newberg, OR). Still another pastor has said, "We have been set free of the consequences of our sin. We have been set free to worship a loving God and become a slave to Him." (Robert Rose, pastor of Holyness and Jesus Church, Blue Springs, MO).
If what they say is true then what they are also saying is that an unsaved person doesn't have the ability to do anything good because they don't have any other choice but to sin. However, that is clearly not true. Reality shows us that any one can choose not to steal or to refrain from lying or to be faithful in their marriage, and many non-Christians have successfully made such choices. In fact, the basis upon which Christianity teaches that men will be punished for their sins is precisely because they choose not to obey God of their own free will. To say that Christ frees us from sin so that we can now choose to do good is to say that man never had that choice in the first place. And if that is the case then it would be extremely unfair of God to punish man for sinning when he had been created with no other choice but to sin.
But this doctrine becomes even more confusing when we consider that most Christians teach that once a person has been saved they cannot lose their salvation even if they do sin afterwards. If that is so, then what this doctrine wants us to believe is that God will punish man because he has no other choice but to sin while saying that God will save man simply because he has been freed to choose whom to obey, even if he still chooses to obey his sinful nature.
However, the problem with this concept goes deeper than that. Christians believe that God is all-powerful, meaning that He has the power to do anything He wants. If that is true then it should be a small thing for God to change sinful man into a Christ-like person in a short period of time. After all, if He could create the earth and the entire universe in just six days, it shouldn't take Him very long to turn a sinner into a saint. And to accomplish that goal all He has to do is erase our desire to sin. In fact, as we have already seen, that is what Christians teach happens to a person the moment they become saved.
But the reality is that in the two thousand years since Christ died on the cross there has not been one person who has lived a sinless life after becoming saved, even after years of struggling to allow God to work in their life. Yet, if it is God who is doing the work then He should have no problem converting someone into the kind of person who never yields to sin, especially when that person has the desire to want to become sinless, which desire Christians say is placed within us by God at the time we confess our belief in Him. Yet, at the same time Christians ministers also teach that God cannot do His work in man until man gives God the power to do so. But if that's the case, then it cannot be said that God is all-powerful.
A popular phrase that many Christians use today is that "Christ has given us the victory over sin." However, that is not what we see happening to people. While it may be true that because of Christ's atoning death sin can no longer prevent us from going to heaven, yet the fact remains that each of us still commit sin. Therefore it is obvious that sin still has control over us, and Christians readily admit this. Therefore, by their own admission, Christ's death has not given us the victory over sin, especially if it's something we have to struggle against each and every day and no one has ever been able to fully and completely win this struggle. Therefore, it can truly be said that, in the life at least, sin has the victory over us.
The question can rightly be asked: Why is that the case? After all, according to traditional Christian teachings, saved Christians should routinely and completely overcome their sinful tendencies if God has put in their heart the desire not to sin and He is working through them to perform works of righteousness. Even if we say this is a process that happens over time, we should still expect to see many people becoming perfect after having been faithful Christians for decades. Yet, in more than two thousand years there is not one person that Christians can point to and say, "Here is an example of someone whom God has completely transformed into a person who no longer ever commits any sin."
But why is that? If we say that God is all-powerful then there is absolutely no reason why God can't turn someone into a sinless person in this life. Yet there is no evidence of that ever happening.
There are only two possible reasons for this. Either God is powerless to fully and completely change our sinful nature, or the way traditional Christians understand what the Bible teaches is not correct. If we say that God is powerless then, at the same time, we are also saying that He is not someone who is worthy of our worship. Since that is not an acceptable conclusion, then that leaves only one other possible answer.
For centuries the Christian church taught that God held us responsible for keeping His commandments. But, less than 500 years ago people began to interpret the Bible differently about how God saves us. However, when we look at their view of what the scriptures teach we see that it not only differs from what the ancient Christians once believed but it also differs from reality.
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