A Dangerous Misconception

Let me start out this morning by stating that Christianity is not a religion! Unique among the belief systems across the world, Christianity alone is a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. Having said that, I must also state that we humans are hopelessly religious! We cannot imagine not being able to do anything to merit our salvation. Religion can simply be defined as man's attempt to save himself.

In response to the question, In your personal opinion, what do you think it takes to get to heaven? we most often hear what is termed a works answer. Over the years, I have been amazed at how many people who attend church who would give such an answer. Most generally, the answer has to do with being "good" in some way or another. People who do not attend church, but are nice people nonetheless, almost always say, "I am a good person." That is the basis of their hope of heaven.

My prayer is that the dangerous misconception of a works religion being mixed with so-called Christianity will be exposed and that any who are here that are attempting to earn their way to heaven will respond in genuine faith and trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. May the power of the Holy Spirit convict, as perhaps He has never done before. Let me be very clear. I am not here to judge anyone; Jesus is our Judge. However, Jesus, in warning us about the deception of false prophets as He concluded the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:30 said, Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Though we are not to judge anyone, we are given the liberty to examine one another's life—which is the fruit of what you believe, living out what you interpret of what you have been taught.

All around us are denominations that claim to be Christian, who make the fatal error of adding something to the finished work of Jesus Christ. A religion of works is so common that to denounce such a thing is considered heresy by those being denounced. One large group adds specific sacraments and submission to the authority of that church to the finished work of Christ on the cross for salvation. Other groups add such works as baptism or speaking in tongues or simply membership in their church as requirements for salvation. I dare say that there are many here today who would respond to the question to which I alluded earlier with a works answer.

Let us examine works and their place in the life of the Christian.

Our starting passage of Scripture is Hebrews 6:1-3. Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurreciton of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. The concept of dead works is elementary, but we will elaborate a bit, so that we will understand what they are. So the question is, what are dead works? In order to understand what they are, we need to examine two other categories of works.

Good works. Only saved, born-again Christians can perform what the Bible calls good works. These kinds of works are performed as a result of salvation—not as a means of salvation. Let me repeat that: Good works are the result of salvation, not the means of salvation. This is really where the rubber meets the road. When the world sees the good works of a Christian, the assumption is that in order to be a Christian, one must do good works. This is a dangerous misconception. Good works are done not to obtain salvation, but as a result of salvation.

Most often when I ask the question concerning how one can go to heaven, I find a works answer of some kind. "I am a good person." "I attend church." "I keep my children under control," or a myriad of other responses. It always centers on what the person has done or how they live their lives. The concept is that our salvation depends on our performance. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus tells us to perform good works, Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.. Notice, however, who gets the glory—the Father, not the person doing the good works.

The Bible has much to say about the presumed value of good works, with regard to obtaining a standing with God. In Psalm 14:1-3 God says, There is none who does good, no, not one. No one gains the attention of God by doing good works. Yet, when a Christian performs good works, they are noticed and acknowledged by God. See, for example, the good works of Mary of Bethany when she anointed the feet of Jesus, in Mark 14:3-9. Jesus said, She has done a good work for me&ldots;She has done what she could.

Thus, as I said before, only saved souls can perform good works that please God and they are pleasing because He is glorified, not because they merit anything for the person performing them.

Wicked works. The second category of works that we must examine, in order to further define and detect dead works, is wicked works. Colossians 1:20-23 tells us that wicked works alienated us and made us enemies of God. Wicked works are the deeds done by the unregenerated, natural man. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. The natural man or woman is a person who lives according to this world's system. The "prince of the power of the air [Satan]" motivates him. Her talk is filled with the lust of the flesh; he lives to gratify the desires of the flesh and the natural mind. She is a child of wrath, and his works are wicked because he or she is dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Dead works. So, what are the dead works spoken of in our text in Hebrews? Dead works could be called "religious" works. They are done for the purpose of meriting eternal life. They are legalistic efforts to keep the moral and ceremonial laws of God for the purpose of winning God's favor, and being saved by works. What exposes these works as dead works, then, is the motive of their performance. When we do good works in response to our salvation—because we have been saved—they are acceptable to God. When we do works in order to be acceptable to God, they are rejected outright by God.

Salvation is entirely by Grace. The simplicity of that statement is so disarming. When we consider the implications of such a statement, we often respond with, "yes, but&ldots;" Consider Ephesians 2:8-10 for a moment. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lets anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Do you see it? Here we find the relationship between grace and works. We are saved by grace, and we demonstrate that salvation by good works (v. 10).

I often preach at the jail. I ask questions of the inmates to evaluate where they are spiritually. "Have you come to a place in your life that you know for certain that you will go to heaven when you die?" Or, "If you were to die tonight, and find yourself standing before almighty God, and He were to ask you, 'Why should I let you into My heaven,' what would you say?" These are standard questions learned when taking soul-winning courses, and many of you are familiar with them. But, what about the responses we hear? Usually, they are works answers—dead works answers. Let me illustrate by quoting from My Utmost for His Highest, the daily devotional that many of us use, by Oswald Chambers:

I am not saved by believing; I realize I am saved by believing. It is not repentance that saves me, repentance is the sign that I realize what God has done in Christ Jesus. The danger is to put the emphasis on the effect instead of on the cause. It is [never] my obedience that puts me right with God &ldots; I am put in right with God because prior to all, Christ died. When I turn to God and by belief accept what God reveals I can accept, instantly the stupendous Atonement of Jesus Christ rushes me into a right relationship with God; and by the supernatural miracle of God's grace I stand justified, not because I am sorry for my sin, not because I have repented, but because of what Jesus has done. The Spirit of God brings it with a breaking, all over light, and I know, though I do not know how, that I am saved.

What is the point here? Salvation is by grace alone. To add anything, including my own repentance and coming to Christ, is to nullify the act entirely. It is humiliating to just simply accept the finished work of Christ, without needing to do something myself. I suspect that were I to privately ask each person here today the questions I have mentioned there would be a variety of answers. Dead works pervade our belief system and are so prominent that we fail to identify them. We rest content in our performance, counting on it to bring us to heaven. What a dangerous misconception!

So, what is the solution to all of this? When I ask the evaluatory questions of someone, there is a third question that is of major importance. "What changed, or what changes have you noticed in your life, since coming to Christ as Savior?" The Bible is clear on this point. The only reliable gage that one can use to determine if he or she has truly been saved, is a changed life. 1 John 2:15 says, Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the father but is of the world. The fact is, many people who occupy the pews of every church are people whose lives are no different than the lives of the rest of the world. The cares of this world, the pressures of the job, the worries of the future, all these occupy prime places in our minds. Yet, in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus tells us not to pay even the slightest attention to the things of this world. We are to trust Him in every situation. Many of you would never consider the sin of omission that you commit when you fail to involve yourself in the church—yet you would also never consider treating your job as you treat your church. The church is thought of as an organization to be joined, whereas our jobs are required to make a living. The truth of what I am saying is illustrated each Sunday. The church is packed on Sunday morning—revealing how popular our church is. Sunday night reveals how popular our pastor is, and attendance is considerably lower. Wednesday night, the third regular time that the body of Christ meets, reveals how popular Jesus is—and is the smallest attendance of all.

How does a person keep from becoming bogged down with the worries of this life? By fully trusting Christ. Being a Christian does not guarantee that we will be worry-free. Indeed, if anything, becoming a Christian adds to the pressures of life. We often call the Christian life a life of warfare. In fact, if the truth were told, it is not possible to live the Christian life! Yet, with God, the impossible happens all the time! Hypocrites try to live the life of a Christian, and are frustrated. Christians who are fully trusting Christ rise above such things, and are free. Christians are free, indeed, for only they are free from the bondage of sin; and it is such bondage that causes a person to live inconsistently and in distress.

Does this make sense? The gospel of Jesus Christ goes against the grain of human nature at every juncture. It is most revealing when examined against the criteria of what is required by our Lord. When asked by the scribes, Which is the first commandment of all, Jesus replied, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (Matthew 12:30). Only saved, born-again Christians can do this! Suppose the question that will be asked when you arrive in heaven is, Did you love the Lord your God with all your heart? How will you answer such a question? Will it be based upon your performance? If so, you will fail! The finished work of Jesus Christ is sufficient, and more than that, it is entire and complete. Nothing can be added to His work! Trust Him today.

Copyright © 2002, by John E. LeHew, Sr.
Bible text is from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.

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