As evidence of their claim, they cite many Biblical verses which show how salvation is not a matter of works but is a product of God's unmerited grace towards us. However, there are several verses of scripture which traditionalist Christians conspicuously do not quote, and those are the ones that have to do with our worthiness.
The concept of personal worthiness is not consistent with the idea of salvation through grace alone. That is to say, if one must be found worthy of salvation that implies that one must somehow become worthy by doing something, unless, of course, the cited scripture states that it is God who is doing the work of making us worthy. Therefore, it is important for us to understand what it means when the scriptures talk about us needing to be worthy of the Lord.
In Luke 3:8 we read, "Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance." The word "fruits" as used in this context is another word for "works." Thus the Bible itself instructs us that we should bring forth works that show we are worthy of repenting. The clear implication is that repentance is not accepted by the Lord unless and until we do those things which shows we are honestly and sincerely repentant for the sins we've committed. In Luke 10:7 we're also told, "for the labourer is worthy of his hire." (see also 1 Timothy 5:18). A laborer is paid according to the value of the work which they have performed. Thus, to be found "worthy" implies the idea of having to do something that entitles or qualifies someone to receive that which they have been laboring to obtain.
But is this the correct understanding when talking about salvation? To help us make this determination, it might first be useful if we define the word "worthy." One dictionary interprets it as "Someone or something that is deserving of respect, support, or admiration because of their qualities or abilities" (Collins Cobuild Student's Dictionary). Another dictionary says, "Having worth or excellence; possessing merit" (Webster's Dictionary). Still another one explains it as "having worth or value, being honorable, meritorious, having sufficient worth or importance" (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary).
The word "worth" is defined as: "That quality of a thing which renders it valuable or useful and sought for; value in terms of respect of moral or personal qualities" (Webster's Dictionary). Synonyms for worthy are: deserving, honorable, meritorious, having value, entitled to, or due.
The apostle Paul counseled the Ephesians, "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called" (Ephesians 4:1). Before we can understand what Paul means about being worthy, we first need to determine what Paul means by the word "vocation"? (Other versions translate this as "calling.") In the two chapters preceding this verse, Paul talks about us being caught up with Christ and living with Him "in heavenly places" because of His saving grace. In the context of what Paul is talking about, it appears that the "vocation" or "calling" he is referring to is us being "called" to heaven. By definition, this is what it means to be saved. Thus, the "calling" Paul tells us to be worthy of is God's gift of salvation.
With that understanding, we can correctly rephrase Paul's admonition as saying, "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that your live your life in such a way that you are deserving and entitled to God's salvation because of the excellence of your moral and personal qualities." When put this way, being worthy is understood as something we do to merit God's gift of salvation. It's something that we attain by the kind of life we live and the personal qualities we exhibit. It's the reward we get for our labors. In fact, in the very next verse Paul specifies the kind of things we need to do to become worthy: "[Walk] with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love." According to Paul, it is when we do those things that we become "worthy" of (deserving, merit, are due) salvation.
But is this what Paul really meant? Could he be referring to something else? Is it possible that he has another meaning in mind? To the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, "Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer" (2 Thessalonians 1:5). A few verses later, he further declares, "Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power" (1:11). Notice that he talks about us being "worthy of the kingdom of God" and being "worthy of this calling," thus linking the kingdom of God with the concept of our "calling".
Later on in the same letter, Paul wrote "That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory... Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:12,14). To be called into God's kingdom and obtain His glory is the definition of salvation. As such, it is absolutely clear, according to Paul, that to be saved we must be found worthy.
But also notice that in verse 11 he states that we must be "counted" worthy. As used in this context, the word "counted" means "considered as being," worthy or "to be found" worthy. The clear implication is that worthiness is not something we automatically receive. It's something we must strive or labor for. It's something we achieve through personal effort. It's something that's based on our personal character, integrity, and abilities. In other words, worthiness is something that we possess. Worthiness is something that must be found within us before we are considered of worth or value to receive God's gift of salvation.
The Lord explained this same doctrine to the apostle John while he was in exile on the isle of Patmos. He said: "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy . He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels" (Revelation 3:4,5).
Once more we see that the Bible clearly teaches that we must be worthy to inherit the kingdom of God. Furthermore, in this case, we also see that the concept of worthiness is connected to the act of overcoming something. Only those who have "not defiled their garments" are found worthy. The obvious implication is that only those who overcame temptations and did not defile themselves by following the ways of the world will be found worthy of inheriting eternal life with God. However, to do that also implies a need for us to put forth a personal effort that then qualifies us or entitles us, or makes us deserving of salvation.
In the parable of the marriage feast, Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a king who made a marriage for his son. The king told his servants to call certain people to attend the wedding. However, when these people received the call, "they made light of it and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise... Then saith he [the king] to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy " (Matthew 22:5,8). Since this parable is meant to represent what heaven is like, we know that "the king" represents God, the Father, "the son" represents Jesus Christ, and "the marriage feast" is symbolic of God's feast of salvation. God calls people to attend His feast, but by their deeds, or actions, those whom God has called have made themselves unworthy to attend the marriage. Thus, in this parable, Christ clearly illustrates that it is what we do or don't do that qualifies us for salvation.
But perhaps the concept of worthiness might be more understandable if we take the opposite approach. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death. In other words, because of the sins we commit -- i.e., the things we do that are wrong -- we are worthy, or deserving of or merit the penalty of death. On one occasion the critics of Paul accused him of crimes worthy of death before Festus, the procurator of Judea. However, after examining what Paul had done, Festus wrote to King Agrippa, "But when I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death, and that he himself hath appealed to Augustus, I have determined to send him [to Rome]" (Acts 25:25). In other words, Festus could find nothing that Paul had done which made him worthy to be put to death.
On the other hand, Paul wrote to the Romans, "Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them" (Romans 1:32). Again we see the idea that doing something wrong entitles us and qualifies us for death.
In every instance where we find the word "worthy" in the Bible, it is connected to the things we ourselves do -- either for good or for evil -- that makes us deserving of, or merits, or entitles us either to life eternal or spiritual death.
However, there are those who still contend that it is not through any works of our own that we become worthy, but it is God who makes us worthy of Him through no effort on our part. If that is true, then we should be able to apply that understanding to any scripture that refers to our worthiness. But Paul wrote to the Colossians, "We also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you and to desire... that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1:9,10, emphasis added).
In this letter, Paul states that he is praying continually that the saints living at Closse might "walk worthy of the Lord." But how can that possibly be if it is the Lord who makes us worthy? If that was the case, Paul would have written, "Ye will be fruitful in every good work because God will make you worthy and He will increase your knowledge of God." But that's not what the Bible says. In fact, the New International Version translates this verse as "And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God."
It must be remembered that Paul is not talking about unsaved people. He's not even talking about new, or lukewarm Christians. He is specifically writing "to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Closse" (vs 2, emphasis added). It is for the faithful saints -- those who have fully accepted Christ with their whole heart and are actively living the Christian life -- that Paul earnestly prays that they may live a life "worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way." Why pray for the faithful to be worthy of the Lord if merely accepting Christ automatically makes us worthy of Him? Why pray that the faithful may be found pleasing unto God if accepting Jesus as our personal Savior is the only requirement?
There is no suggestion or implied meaning in this verse that it is God who makes us worthy. Quite the contrary. Paul's fervent plea is that these faithful saints may continue to live their lives in such a way that God is pleased with them so they may continually be found worthy of Christ. And, as we have already seen, being worthy of Christ means being worthy, or deserving, or meriting the kingdom of God, which is the definition of receiving salvation.
But what did Jesus say about being worthy? To His disciples he said "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthyof me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37-38, emphasis added). A disciple is a follower. A disciple, by definition, is an active adherent (The American Heritage Dictionary). That means a disciple is someone who actively adheres to the teachings of those whom they are following. Therefore, to be a faithful disciple, a person must actively be doing something.
Jesus told His disciples that in order for them to be worthy of Him, they must do something to show it. If they are not willing to forsake their father or mother to follow His ways, Jesus emphatically states that they are not worthy to be called his disciples. If they have a greater love for their son or daughter than they do of Christ, they are not worthy disciples. If they are unwilling to take up their cross and follow Him, they are not worthy of Him.
Jesus also illustrated this principle in the parable of the ten virgins. "Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord!, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not" (Matthew 25:1-12).
Like most parables, this one illustrates a principle of heaven. In this case, the bridegroom represents Christ bringing salvation. The ten virgins represents those who are anxiously waiting for His appearance so they can go with Him. Thus, all ten virgins represent those Christians who have accepted Christ as their personal Savior. However, when Christ came, having salvation with Him, five of the virgins had wisely done what it took to prepare themselves for Christ's coming. Therefore, with oil in their lamps, they were worthy to enter into the joy of their Lord. On the other hand, five foolish virgins had not done as they should have and, as such, were not worthy to go where the bridegroom went. In fact, once the door was closed, no matter how much they professed their belief in him, and no matter how much they pleaded, the door remained closed and the bridegroom declared, "I know you not."
Also notice, that the parable doesn't say the bridegroom forgave the foolish virgins for their lack of preparation. Neither does the story say that the bridegroom came with oil to fill the lamps of those who were waiting for him. Each virgin was responsible for filling their own lamps. Thus the five foolish virgins didn't possess something that they needed to be worthy to go with the bridegroom. The parable then says they had to go do something to gain that which they didn't have. Specifically it states they had to put forth a personal effort to buy the needed oil. To purchase something means to exchange something of value for something of equal value, and "having worth or value" is one of the definitions of being worthy.
It was Jesus who taught, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Our light shines because of our "good works." Therefore, it is certain that in this parable, the oil represents our works which we have accumulated in our own personal life. This oil is of great worth or value to our salvation because it allows our life to shine forth and thereby glorify our Father which is in heaven. And it is in this way that we become valuable and of worth to the Lord.
In all of these example which Christ Himself gave, there is nothing which even hints that all a person needs do is merely believe in Him as their personal Savior and that God will then make them worthy of salvation with little or no work on their part. By the very things which Jesus taught, He clearly illustrated that our worthiness is dependant on what we do or don't do. A person cannot call themselves a disciple of Christ and not do what Christ says (see Luke 6:46-49).
The apostle John wrote, "And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing" (Revelation 5:11-12).
We know that Jesus is the Lamb. Why did these hundreds of thousands of angels say with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb?" What makes Jesus so worthy? Was it because of what He preached? Was it because of His status with God? Was it because of his intellect or skills or spiritual knowledge? Was it because of some special Grace that was given Him? No! Jesus is worthy because of what He did! He lived a perfect, sinless life. He went about doing good to others. He cared for the poor, the sick, the sinner, and the saint He did the work His Father gave Him to do. And even when He wanted to shrink and not drink from the bitter cup, Jesus allowed Himself to be slain for the sins of the world. It was because of what Jesus did for all mankind that He is most worthy and deserving and entitled to and merits and is due our most profound praise.
Jesus is our example. He is the one we want to emulate and become like. He has shown us the way and has said, "Come, follow me" (Luke18:12). That's what it takes to become a true disciple of Christ. When we not only follow his teachings but follow His example, then we truly will be worthy of the Lord.