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If you were to brush aside all of your prejudices and just read the teachings of Jesus as they appear in the Bible, you would never reach the conclusion that he was trying to get the world to see that there is something fundamentally wrong with trying to be good.  Nevertheless, that is more or less the conclusion reached by those who teach that virtually all forms of religious discipline are variations of “salvation by works”.  

This teaching has, in fact, become, for a large proportion of the church world, the defining feature of Christianity:  They proclaim that all other religions on earth say that we must be good in order to attain salvation, whereas Christianity teaches just the opposite, i.e. that Jesus has done it all for us.  For many, in fact, this IS the “good news”.  No more rules, no more discipline; just infinite forgiveness for anything you choose to do wrong.   But is that really what the Bible teaches?

The Bible does teach that God loves us, and that Jesus suffered as payment for our sins, so that God can forgive us at the same time that justice has been done (i.e. Punishment has been meted out, but it was given to Jesus instead of us.)  However, I see nothing to suggest that one should not also be trying to do their best to be good, and to obey the rules as God has given them, both before and after we ask for his forgiveness for the shortfall that is always there, even in the best of us.

Some may not be aware of it, but amongst the strictest teachers of this no-works “gospel”, the four Gospels in the Bible are conveniently dispensed with by teaching that they too are “law” or pre-Christian.  The doctrine says that even when Jesus was saying, “If you don’t do this, you can’t be a Christian”, he was really just trying to illustrate how impossible it is to follow him, in the hope that we would give up and grasp the new “gospel” as described above.

So where did this new gospel come from?  

Those who teach it, say that the Apostle Paul was given the task of preaching the true gospel, and that it takes precedence over everything that Jesus said, because Paul preached after the death and resurrection of Jesus, whereas Jesus taught before his death.  

But is this no-works approach really what Paul taught?  Once again, if we push our prejudices aside and look at the bigger picture, we can see that Paul definitely believed in obedience and discipline.  Peter noted that some of the things Paul taught could be easily twisted to say things that he was not really saying (II Peter 3:15-17), and this certainly is the case with the false or exaggerated “grace” teaching, i.e. the one about it being wrong to think that our trying to be good has anything to do with God’s decision to forgive us for where we fall short.

Jesus gives us a picture of him sharing a yoke with us, where he does the lion’s share of the work (Matthew 11:29-30).  However, it’s still a partnership, with us both moving in the same general direction, i.e. toward being good.  His yoke is “easy”, but it’s still his yoke, and he still wants us to choose to take it upon ourselves.  

Paul rather obviously does the same thing, saying quite a few things about obedience and, in particular, its links with salvation (e.g. Romans 2:7-9, Galatians 5:7, Philippians 2:12, II Thessalonians 1:7-9, II Corinthians 10:5-6, and Hebrews 5:9).  But he also reminds people a couple of times (most notably in Ephesians 2:8 & 9, and Titus 3:5) that it is important to remember that our good works do not earn us salvation, nor do they obligate God to give us salvation.  We should always be grateful to God that he has chosen to forgive us, even though we do not deserve it.  This is the snippet of truth in the teaching against “salvation by works”.

However, Paul also warned against taking this appreciation of God’s grace and turning it into “an excuse to be selfish” (Galatians 5:13)  He warned that the One who decided to cut off the Jews when they rejected his Son, would do the same to us if we fail to appreciate what a privilege it is to have been chosen by Him.  (Romans 11:21-22, )  James, the brother of Jesus, goes further, in arguing quite forcibly that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  Take note that he taught this need for us to do good works as evidence of faith after the death and resurrection of Jesus; so the argument used against Jesus cannot be used against James.  Nevertheless, the entire epistle of James is also tossed aside as irrelevant, without any justification for doing so.

I must declare loud and long that the phrases “salvation by works” and “working your way to heaven” are never found in scripture.  They are the catch cries of religious leaders who want to condemn the efforts of anyone apart from themselves from practicing religious disciplines other than the ones that they teach… for, in the end, they all teach “works” of some kind, just not the works that Jesus taught.

For these teachers, the initial works are two:  (1) say a magic prayer; and (2) close your mind to anything that might cause you to doubt that the magic prayer did it all for you.  

Genuine repentance I agree with.  Heartfelt prayer, yes, definitely.  But recitations, no.  There is no record of Jesus or any of his followers in the Bible ever doing or teaching such things.  And they certainly didn’t teach that saying a prayer today can excuse you from being faithful tomorrow.  It infuriates me that so many of these teachers who promote such shallow traditions declare quite strongly that everything they do comes from the Bible.  What hogwash!

Finally, there is the argument that the fault with all other religions is that they teach good works as a means of attaining salvation, whereas good works must always come as a result of having already received salvation.  So what happens when I address professing Christians, those who claim to have already worked it all out through the prayer, etc., urging them to obey the teachings of Jesus?  Once again, I am met with shrieks about “salvation by works”.  In other words, even though they would say that good works will result spontaneously after one has said the little prayer, when someone comes promoting obedience to the teachings of Jesus, what they do most spontaneously is to condemn the teaching as being “salvation by works”.

So, in conclusion, there is neither scriptural support nor consistency in the assumption that spiritual discipline (i.e. “good works”) are a heresy or that teaching such disciplines, as Jesus did, is contrary to the gospel of Christ.  Indeed, teaching such disciplines, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, IS the gospel of Christ!  And, as Paul said so often, we need to start obeying that gospel.  (Romans 10:16, Galatians 3:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:8)

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