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Working Your Way to Heaven



I'm surprised that I have waited this long to write an article about the concept of "working your way to heaven" and all that it implies, given that it is one of the most widely accepted myths of institutional Christianity.  Someone needs to issue a challenge as loudly as they can for evidence to be presented to support this myth, which is right up there with the infallibility teaching about the Bible as being one of the most unquestioned, and yet misguided, dogmas across almost all denominational boundaries.  I would maintain that the myth's popularity is simply because it is what people want to hear, and it is NOT because there is any valid scriptural reason for believing it.


Essentially, the myth teaches that the one thing God hates more than anything else is for people to try to be perfect... or even to try very hard to be good.  It essentially teaches that if anyone takes any of the disciplines of Jesus very seriously, then they are guilty of trying to "work their way to heaven", but it can be applied to any denomination or religion that one wishes to condemn unequivocally as well.  (My family did it with all other non-Christian religions,  but also with the Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and any other fringe group.  We were just told that they were trying to work their way to heaven, and that was the end of the discussion.)  One need only utter that phrase ("working their way to heaven") and it's like all good religious Christians shrink back in horror at such a heresy.  We don't want to touch such people with a ten foot pole.


I remember my early years in a "holiness" church which fought tooth and toenail against calvinism and all that it represented, especially the teaching that one can sin every day "in word, thought, and deed" and still be right with God because of the grace of Christ.  And yet in my family at least, when I discovered the teachings of Jesus collecting dust in a corner of our family Bible, I was immediately pounced upon for "teaching salvation by works".  In other words, even those churches which speak out most strongly in favour of discipline and setting high moral standards, will duck behind a banner of false grace when it comes to teachings about obedience to Jesus.


When brought out in the open and examined quite candidly, the teaching (particularly the calvinist version) reveals a strange anomaly.  It proclaims dogmatically that no amount of sinfulness (including quite literal and willful rebellion against God) can nullify God's agreement to save someone who has said a magical prayer asking Jesus into their hearts.  The contract has been signed, and God himself cannot weasel out of it.  However (and here is where the contradiction comes in), there is ONE sin that cannot be covered, and for which a professing Christian will be eternally lost, and that is the heresy of teaching that God has certain standards that he expects his followers to measure up to.  If one dares to say that they can lose their salvation by not measuring up to those standards, then that is precisely the one sin that a person CAN lose their salvation for (or more precisely, which can be taken as irrefutable evidence that the person never was saved in the first place).  They are simply labelled as "works" teachers, or as "trying to work their way to heaven", and that dumps them into the hopeless basket.


So what, exactly, is the premise for considering good works to be the most heinous of all sins?  Where on earth did it come from?  You would think for it to have become so widespread, there must be whole chapters in the Bible teaching against anyone trying to obey Jesus or measure up to some other standard of discipline.  However, like with so many of these myths (e.g. the tentmaking myth or the infallibility myth), it hangs on the most tenuous of threads.


There are two main verses which are presented as proof texts for all of the fantastic claims that make up the "working your way to heaven" myth.  One of them is in Ephesians 2, verses 8 and 9.


By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.


And the second is in Titus 3:5.

Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us.


Now, to be sure, both of these passages make reference to the grace of God in a positive way, and they refer to the limitations of what our works can do.  But given that the Bible is replete with references to the need for us to be good in one way or another, some of them coming right out and saying that you can't be a Christian if you DON'T do them, or that you will lose your salvation if you don't do them, these two proof texts (and the atrocious doctrine which has grown out of them) need to be looked at very closely.


Not that it takes much of a magnifying glass to read a little bit of common sense into them.  It's as simple as saying that a gift is a gift, even though there is usually some criteria that the giver uses for choosing to whom he will give the gift.


Suppose I am a wealthy billionaire, and I say that I will give a million dollars each to everyone in a group of people who will put their hand up and hold it up until he comes by with his gift, even if he takes an hour to reach you.  Do the people who get the million dollars have a right to boast that they earned it?  Do they have a right to accept the award without a word of thanks to the giver?  Can they teach that anyone else who puts their hand up and holds it up for a few minutes should be entitled to a million dollars as well?  No to all three of these questions.  The million dollars is totally out of proportion to the amount of effort that was required to get it.


Now, let's apply the working your way to heaven myth in this illustration.  Along comes someone who hears what I have just said about people not boasting about having put their hand up, and they start teaching, "Why should we even have to put our hand up? If it's a gift, then we should not have to do anything."  And so they go around telling everyone that they can have a million dollars by doing nothing (except maybe reciting some prayer that the myth-teachers have made up to take the place of having to hold their hands up for so long).  In other words, there still is a requirement (saying the prayer) but it bears very little resemblance to what the billionaire said, and it is a slap in the face of the billionaire.


It doesn't matter how popular the teaching may be, when it comes time for those who have said the magical prayer to collect their reward, do you think that the billionaire is going to pay up?  Of course not!  In fact, he would be infinitely insulted by what they have done with his generosity.


Now let's get back to what it is that God DOES require of those to whom he chooses to give eternal life.  Jesus talked about a merchant man who found a field with a treasure buried in it.  He has to sell everything he has to get the field, and yet he is overwhelmed at his good fortune to have gained possession of the treasure.  What he paid for the field was literally nothing compared to what he got.  All that he owned only paid the going price for an empty block of land.  He could not boast that he had saved up enough to buy the treasure, as that came for free.  Comparing eternal life with all that we own is like saying, "Buy this gumball for ten cents and you get all of London with it for free."


In another place Jesus says that if we do all that he has commanded us to do, then we should say to ourselves that we are still "unprofitable servants".  Here again Jesus is saying the same thing that Paul was saying in the two proof text passages; but he is saying it in the context of obedience to all that he taught.  Unlike normal workers who bring great wealth to their employers, we can do everything that Jesus requires of us, and still we have given him nothing.  We are the ones who have received and received and received.  First he gives us life.  Then he gives us happiness and a purpose for living.  And then he gives us eternal life.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light.  His commands are not grievous.  All that he requires of us is for our own good.


So none of this understanding of what Paul was saying obliterates good works at all.  Neither do they destroy any relationship between our good works and salvation.  God chooses to give his free gift of eternal life to certain people.  NOT the ones who say magic prayers, but the ones who treat his Son with the kind of respect that he deserves.  All of our obedience has not paid for anything, and yet if we refuse to obey, then he doesn't give us the prize.  Such a simple explanation, and most important, it makes sense of both grace and faith.


Remember that little phrase "through faith" in the Ephesians passage ("by grace are you saved, through faith"?  James says, "Faith without works is dead." Put them all together and we see that no works equals no faith, and no faith equals no grace.

If you read down a couple of verses further in the Ephesians passage, you find that Paul himself is talking about how we are saved for the very purpose of performing good works.  True, he appears to be talking about good works happening AFTER we have been saved, whereas Jesus appears to be talking about good works happening before salvation.  But such a distinction is only there when we see salvation as a static ritual at some specific point (the magic prayer, remember?) which may also be something of a myth.  Like when was Peter saved?  When he left his nets and followed Jesus?  When he confessed that Jesus was the Christ?  When he repented of having denied Jesus?  When he met Jesus after the resurrection?  When he was filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost?  Unless you are looking for some point at which you can stop being good, such questions are really of little practical use.


The really important question from our point of view is whether or not we are walking in all the light that we have.  Are we doing our best to obey Jesus?  Do we aspire to holiness or perfection?  If we're not doing those things, then we can kiss any hopes of salvation goodbye, since those are the kind of things that God is looking for when he goes out with his heavenly checkbook looking for people to give eternal life to.


And that's not a myth.  It's taught from cover to cover of the Bible.


15 March, 2012

 

Working Your Way to Heaven

 

I'm surprised that I have waited this long to write an article about the concept of "working your way to heaven" and all that it implies, given that it is one of the most widely accepted myths of institutional Christianity.  Someone needs to issue a challenge as loudly as they can for evidence to be presented to support this myth, which is right up there with the infallibility teaching about the Bible as being one of the most unquestioned, and yet misguided, dogmas across almost all denominational boundaries.  I would maintain that the myth's popularity is simply because it is what people want to hear, and it is NOT because there is any valid scriptural reason for believing it.


Essentially, the myth teaches that the one thing God hates more than anything else is for people to try to be perfect... or even to try very hard to be good.  It essentially teaches that if anyone takes any of the disciplines of Jesus very seriously, then they are guilty of trying to "work their way to heaven", but it can be applied to any denomination or religion that one wishes to condemn unequivocally as well.  (My family did it with all other non-Christian religions,  but also with the Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and any other fringe group.  We were just told that they were trying to work their way to heaven, and that was the end of the discussion.)  One need only utter that phrase ("working their way to heaven") and it's like all good religious Christians shrink back in horror at such a heresy.  We don't want to touch such people with a ten foot pole.


I remember my early years in a "holiness" church which fought tooth and toenail against calvinism and all that it represented, especially the teaching that one can sin every day "in word, thought, and deed" and still be right with God because of the grace of Christ.  And yet in my family at least, when I discovered the teachings of Jesus collecting dust in a corner of our family Bible, I was immediately pounced upon for "teaching salvation by works".  In other words, even those churches which speak out most strongly in favour of discipline and setting high moral standards, will duck behind a banner of false grace when it comes to teachings about obedience to Jesus.


When brought out in the open and examined quite candidly, the teaching (particularly the calvinist version) reveals a strange anomaly.  It proclaims dogmatically that no amount of sinfulness (including quite literal and willful rebellion against God) can nullify God's agreement to save someone who has said a magical prayer asking Jesus into their hearts.  The contract has been signed, and God himself cannot weasel out of it.  However (and here is where the contradiction comes in), there is ONE sin that cannot be covered, and for which a professing Christian will be eternally lost, and that is the heresy of teaching that God has certain standards that he expects his followers to measure up to.  If one dares to say that they can lose their salvation by not measuring up to those standards, then that is precisely the one sin that a person CAN lose their salvation for (or more precisely, which can be taken as irrefutable evidence that the person never was saved in the first place).  They are simply labelled as "works" teachers, or as "trying to work their way to heaven", and that dumps them into the hopeless basket.


So what, exactly, is the premise for considering good works to be the most heinous of all sins?  Where on earth did it come from?  You would think for it to have become so widespread, there must be whole chapters in the Bible teaching against anyone trying to obey Jesus or measure up to some other standard of discipline.  However, like with so many of these myths (e.g. the tentmaking myth or the infallibility myth), it hangs on the most tenuous of threads.


There are two main verses which are presented as proof texts for all of the fantastic claims that make up the "working your way to heaven" myth.  One of them is in Ephesians 2, verses 8 and 9.


By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.


And the second is in Titus 3:5.

Not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us.


Now, to be sure, both of these passages make reference to the grace of God in a positive way, and they refer to the limitations of what our works can do.  But given that the Bible is replete with references to the need for us to be good in one way or another, some of them coming right out and saying that you can't be a Christian if you DON'T do them, or that you will lose your salvation if you don't do them, these two proof texts (and the atrocious doctrine which has grown out of them) need to be looked at very closely.


Not that it takes much of a magnifying glass to read a little bit of common sense into them.  It's as simple as saying that a gift is a gift, even though there is usually some criteria that the giver uses for choosing to whom he will give the gift.


Suppose I am a wealthy billionaire, and I say that I will give a million dollars each to everyone in a group of people who will put their hand up and hold it up until he comes by with his gift, even if he takes an hour to reach you.  Do the people who get the million dollars have a right to boast that they earned it?  Do they have a right to accept the award without a word of thanks to the giver?  Can they teach that anyone else who puts their hand up and holds it up for a few minutes should be entitled to a million dollars as well?  No to all three of these questions.  The million dollars is totally out of proportion to the amount of effort that was required to get it.


Now, let's apply the working your way to heaven myth in this illustration.  Along comes someone who hears what I have just said about people not boasting about having put their hand up, and they start teaching, "Why should we even have to put our hand up? If it's a gift, then we should not have to do anything."  And so they go around telling everyone that they can have a million dollars by doing nothing (except maybe reciting some prayer that the myth-teachers have made up to take the place of having to hold their hands up for so long).  In other words, there still is a requirement (saying the prayer) but it bears very little resemblance to what the billionaire said, and it is a slap in the face of the billionaire.


It doesn't matter how popular the teaching may be, when it comes time for those who have said the magical prayer to collect their reward, do you think that the billionaire is going to pay up?  Of course not!  In fact, he would be infinitely insulted by what they have done with his generosity.


Now let's get back to what it is that God DOES require of those to whom he chooses to give eternal life.  Jesus talked about a merchant man who found a field with a treasure buried in it.  He has to sell everything he has to get the field, and yet he is overwhelmed at his good fortune to have gained possession of the treasure.  What he paid for the field was literally nothing compared to what he got.  All that he owned only paid the going price for an empty block of land.  He could not boast that he had saved up enough to buy the treasure, as that came for free.  Comparing eternal life with all that we own is like saying, "Buy this gumball for ten cents and you get all of London with it for free."


In another place Jesus says that if we do all that he has commanded us to do, then we should say to ourselves that we are still "unprofitable servants".  Here again Jesus is saying the same thing that Paul was saying in the two proof text passages; but he is saying it in the context of obedience to all that he taught.  Unlike normal workers who bring great wealth to their employers, we can do everything that Jesus requires of us, and still we have given him nothing.  We are the ones who have received and received and received.  First he gives us life.  Then he gives us happiness and a purpose for living.  And then he gives us eternal life.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light.  His commands are not grievous.  All that he requires of us is for our own good.


So none of this understanding of what Paul was saying obliterates good works at all.  Neither do they destroy any relationship between our good works and salvation.  God chooses to give his free gift of eternal life to certain people.  NOT the ones who say magic prayers, but the ones who treat his Son with the kind of respect that he deserves.  All of our obedience has not paid for anything, and yet if we refuse to obey, then he doesn't give us the prize.  Such a simple explanation, and most important, it makes sense of both grace and faith.


Remember that little phrase "through faith" in the Ephesians passage?  James says, "Faith without works is dead."  And if you read down a couple of verses further, you find that Paul himself is talking about how we are saved to perform good works.  True, he appears to be talking about good works AFTER we have been saved, whereas Jesus appears to be talking about good works before salvation.  But such a distinction is only there when we see salvation as a static ritual at some specific point (the magic prayer, remember?) which may also be something of a myth.  Like when was Peter saved?  When he left his nets and followed Jesus?  When he confessed that Jesus was the Christ?  When he repented of having denied Jesus?  When he met Jesus after the resurrection?  When he was filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost?  Unless you are looking for some point at which you can stop being good, such questions are really of little practical use.


The really important question from our point of view is whether or not we are walking in all the light that we have.  Are we doing our best to obey Jesus?  Do we aspire to holiness or perfection?  If we're not doing those things, then we can kiss any hopes of salvation goodbye, since those are the kind of things that God is looking for when he goes out with his heavenly checkbook looking for people to give eternal life to.


And that's not a myth.  It's taught from cover to cover of the Bible.

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