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Working Your Way to Heaven

Do you know what a Pharisee is? The best way I can think to explain this is to say that Judaism has many different doctrines just like Christianity. Only instead of having Baptists, Catholics, and Lutherans they had Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus time. Becoming a Scribe or a Pharisee in those times was a very big honor. These were the people everyone looked up to. A Pharisee tried to lead a perfect life within the strictures of Mosaic Law. If one of these guys were around today he would probably be looked up to and respected for his great religious devotion. This folks is a perfect example of someone really trying to work their way to heaven. Do you know what Jesus said of these men with his own mouth?

Matthew5: 20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Well considering that the scribes and Pharisees were the best of the best that man had to offer that sounds pretty hopeless for anyone who thinks that they have to try to live a righteous life to get to heaven. In fact the stories about Jesus are filled with confrontations between the religious leaders of his day and himself. These people in many cases were trying to do the right thing, and were held in the highest esteem by their peers. Yet many still believe that the only way to get to heaven is to try to be a really good person. I sometimes ask people like this just how good do they think that they have to be to make it there. Amazingly the same people that are putting that requirement on themselves are not trying to lead a good life at all, and are by their own admission not going to heaven. Observe these passages from the New American Bible.

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so no one may boast.

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Notice how these passages refer to salvation as a gift. Does anyone pay to receive a gift on his or her birthday? No, someone else pays the price for a gift and in turn they bring it to you all wrapped up in pretty paper with a bow on it. What do you do to get a gift? Simple, you accept it. Now, two questions come to mind for me. 1. Why would someone give you a gift? 2. Who paid for it? The answer to both these questions is answered in the following verse.

John 3:16 For god so love the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Imagine if you will, that someone you love is about to be run over by a car right in front of you. This person has their back to the car so they can't see it coming. Are you going to say, "Hey so and so if you are really good I will give you a little shove and save your life"? Of course not, you would simply take whatever action you deem necessary to save them.
Imagine yourself in God's position. I believe that God loves all people, and he wants them to spend eternity in fellowship with him. Yet he is polite enough allow people to make that decision on their own. He realizes that the great majority of people are never going to cut the mustard on their own. In fact a large number of them don't even realize that he exists or have totally misunderstood what he is like if they do. If you think of sin as the car and you as the person standing in front of it unaware God essentially threw himself in front of the car to push you out of harms way. He made a single unselfish sacrifice to save as many people as he possibly could, and he did it in a way that many would recognize the sacrifice for what it was and where it came from. The nature of sin is death and because sin came into the world it brought death with it. Basically mankind has been placed in a situation where someone is going to die. So you can either burn in hell for eternity or you can let Jesus push you out of harms way.
So what about leading a good life, doing good works, and being righteous? Does that mean that we have a license to sin now? Absolutely, positively NO. However, our motivations are now different. We are no longer trying to live a righteous life because we are trying to save ourselves, but because God asked us to. Living a righteous life is an act of love and obedience. Frankly I view anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian and is not trying to lead a righteous life as ungrateful and insincere.

James 2:14 What good is it, my brother, if someone has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

James asks a very important question here, and it has been suggested by some that James is contradicting Paul's teachings in this passage. One thing that a person needs to understand is that the two authors were viewing the same problem from different viewpoints. Paul was arguing against those who believe that they can achieve God's salvation through their good deeds. Yet Paul fully understands the need to lead a righteous life.

Galatians 5:16 I say, then: Live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh has desires against the spirit, and the Spirit has desires against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. 18 But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, 2o idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissentions, faction, 21 occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against this there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ [Jesus] have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit. 26 Let us not be conceited, provoking one another, envious of one another.

While James is arguing that if you have authentic commitment to God in faith you will display good works in your life otherwise you are not truly committed to God.

James 2:14 What good is it, my brother, if someone has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? 17 So also faith of itself, if it does not have works is dead. 18 Indeed someone might say, " You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. 19 You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. 20 Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called, "the friend of God." 24See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also Justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them by a different route? 26 For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

To simplify this basically Jesus and Paul both said at various points in their ministries something to this effect. Works without faith will not save you. Then James turns around and says faith without works is dead. Both statements are equally true, and I feel scripturally justified when I say that if you feel "saved by grace" is a license to sin then you are insincere in your commitment to God. If you are insincere then your faith is dead and useless, and you need to reevaluate your commitment to God and start living in the Spirit.