The Bible talks a lot about grace, the unmerited favor God shows us when he saves us from our sins and grants us salvation. But our material, visual world encourages us to observe and measure our progress in every aspect of life, and many of our friends and family are still convinced we must earn something as special as salvation. Some of us think our own “good works” contribute to our salvation in some way. Let’s take a look at the Bible and track the notion of salvation as a free gift to see if our own efforts can actually earn us a spot in heaven. We’ll start with a definition of the word, “gift” as it is found in a variety of secular dictionaries:
Something bestowed freely.
gift (gÄft) n.
Something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.
Gift \Gift\, n.
Anything given; anything voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation; a present; an offering.
The word gift inherently includes the notion of free. When something is given to us, it cannot be called a gift unless it is given to us without compensation of any kind. We can’t pay for it, and we can’t work for it. If we were to do that, it wouldn’t be a gift at all, it would be a payment. Keep this in mind as we examine the word gift in the Bible:
We Cannot Pay for Our Salvation with Good Works The Bible is very clear about this. Scripture tells us we simply cannot earn our way to heaven. Our good works are an imperfect means to a perfect destination. We could never be good enough to find ourselves in a place of perfection. For this reason, God has to do all the work of Salvation. Not a single good work can be applied to the task on our part, so there is absolutely nothing we could ever boast about:
Ephesians 2:7-9 (KJV)
That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
God Applies His Righteousness to Us for Free To make it even clearer, God says the Law only leads to death because the Law requires perfection (and this is something we could never attain). Salvation, therefore requires God to do all the work, because only God is perfect by His nature. That’s why grace is given to us without cost:
Romans 5:14-18 (KJV)
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification. For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.
Grace is Given to Us Freely Through Faith According to the Bible, grace is a free gift given to us without the payment of our own good works. God justifies us “by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28) and grants us His “righteousness without works” (Romans 4:6). This theme is repeated in many places in the scriptures:
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
God intends His Salvation to be a gift given without compensation. When we try to earn our way to heaven we become prideful and arrogant, judgmental and independent. When we deny God’s total work, we tend to start to think of ourselves as God, and this is a form of idolatry God will not tolerate. Maybe this is why those who have tried to earn (or purchase) the Gift of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages have been scolded by the apostles:
And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.
The orthodox Christian worldview makes a unique claim about the nature of Salvation. Unlike any other theistic worldview, Christianity offers heaven as a free gift. When we begin to drift from this distinctive feature of our worldview, we are moving toward heresy.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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