The Bible conditions our salvation and eternal rewards upon our individual obedience and virtue, and not upon any merits deriving from the literal death or blood of Jesus Christ.
Megiddo Church statement in support of the above proposition.
We take the positive side of this discussion because we want to believe only what is clearly taught in the Bible. Of what benefit is any belief in salvation, if God is not its author? For we cannot give ourselves eternal life; we cannot save ourselves from pain, sickness and death. Only God can bestow salvation.
Our whole premise, then, must be, what does the Bible teach?
While the subject of the inspiration and authority of the Bible lies outside the scope of this discussion, for purposes of this discussion we must establish that the Bible is the work of an all-wise God, and as such presents on plan of salvation. Whether the writer be David, or Isaiah, or Peter, or Paul, all taught one gospel, all “spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).
On the negative side of this discussion are a number of texts which, upon surface reading, seem to indicate that Christ’s literal death and blood are the means of our salvation. But what about the other side of the question, where many more texts state just as clearly that God demands righteousness, holiness, purity as a precondition for salvation? Either we must conclude that the Bible is contradictory, or that it presents more than one plan of salvation—or that the problem lies in our understanding of the passages on one side or the other.
All of us recognize God as the creator of life. Accordingly, He has set laws in motion by which the human race is perpetuated and sustained. To each is given a limited span, which each is free to use as he pleases. At the same time God has, through His written Word (the Bible) revealed His larger plan, offering a superior life—an eternal life, salvation. To whom does He offer this? What are the conditions God has placed upon the salvation He offers? Is it for all who are “reckoned righteous” because of the shed blood of Christ? Or does it depend on our individual obedience and virtue?
Jesus’ Teaching About Salvation
What did Jesus teach? What did He say in the Sermon on the Mount? Is the state of eternal blessedness for the one who trusts in His blood or His righteousness to save them? Read the entire sermon (Matthew, chapters 5 to 7), and you will find not a single statement about the need for Christ’s literal death or blood. Each blessing is linked directly to the need for obedience and virtue. The blessings include comfort …the earth for an inheritance …complete satisfaction of every want …heavenly mercy …seeing the face of the eternal Creator Himself …a place in the kingdom of heaven. And what are the preconditions for all these? “Blessed are the poor in spirit …Blessed are they that mourn …Blessed are the meek …Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness …Blessed are the merciful …Blessed are the pure in heart” and so on. According to Jesus, there must be virtue and obedience before there can be blessing.
And the obedience Jesus taught is not a mere outward formality. It is a heart obedience. Referring to the law of Moses Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it was said …But I say ….” Where the old law demanded mere outward conformity, Jesus’ law demanded inner purity. For example, the old law forbade adultery, but Jesus said “that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).
Through the remainder of chapter 5 Jesus spells out more commands, then at the end of the chapter He makes this summary statement: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). He is saying, in other words, This is the sum total of all that I have been saying: “Be ye therefore perfect …” In other words, if you do all that I have been saying, you will be morally perfect.
Shall we say that He was not capable of saying what He meant, or that His words do not mean what they say? Or was He requiring something we cannot do?
If this were the only such statement in Scripture, we might wonder if we are understanding it correctly.
And when we read elsewhere that we must become pure even as Christ is pure (I John 3:3); that we must come to the measure of the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13); that we must be holy in our manner of living as God is holy (I Pet. 1:15-16), why not accept Jesus’ command that we must become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect? Unless we reject the plain teaching of Scripture that God will judge and reward each according to his works, whether good or bad (Eccl. 12:13-14; II Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12; Rom. 2:6; Jer. 17:10), that we reap exactly as we have sown (Gal. 6:7-8), we have no alternative but to believe that the basis of our salvation is indeed our own life of obedience and virtue before God. If we sow “to the flesh,” live to please our natural instincts, we shall reap “corruption.” If we sow “to the Spirit” we shall reap “life everlasting.”
The remainder of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount spells out more commands to virtue and obedience. Comparing believers to fruit trees He says, “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit” is saved by the righteousness of Christ? No, it must be “hewn down, and cast into the fire.” And if there has been any question about the need for obedience as a precondition of salvation, Jesus says clearly, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21).
Jesus follows this with a miniparable about two builders. One builds on the rock, the other on the sand; one’s structure stands, the other’s falls. What is the difference between the two? Only this: that one hears Jesus’ sayings and obeys them, the other hears and does not obey (Matt. 7:24-27).
Notice again that there is no suggestion of any efficacy to be derived from Christ’s literal death.
The Old Testament Teaching On Salvation
Centuries earlier the Psalmist was teaching the same standard of obedience as a requirement for salvation. “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord ….They also do no iniquity: they walk in his ways” (Ps. 119:1-3). They “do no iniquity”—here is the source of their righteousness, not in Christ’s attainment but in their own strict adherence to the law of God, to the extent that they “do no iniquity.”
Moses foretold the coming of Christ, that He would be a prophet, and that all would have to hearken to Him, and that “whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him” (Deut. 18:18-19) . What did Christ preach as He traveled from village to village? Did He teach that He was going to die and shed His blood for the salvation of mankind, that this was the purpose of His life? No, “He went throughout every city and village, preaching and showing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). In fact, so little did He have to say about His approaching death that the disciples, when it actually happened, could not comprehend it, even though He had told them.
Repentance, Then Forgiveness
What did Jesus, as He was parting from His disciples, commission them to teach? He told them clearly: “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). If His death had been the key to their salvation, would this not have been a likely time to have said so? But no, even after He had died and been resurrected, it was still necessary for them to repent so that their sins could be forgiven.
If our ultimate acceptance before God depends upon the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through His death and not upon our own obedience or virtue, why does the Bible define so precisely the type of life God requires? When we see a sign posted along the highway announcing the speed limit or giving us directions to stop or to go, we conclude that the sign was set up to be obeyed. Similarly, when we read in the Bible, “Be ye holy in all manner of conversation” or “Let patience have her perfect work” or “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath” or “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth,” is it not wise to conclude that these commands are to be obeyed? Why are there literally hundreds of admonitions to holiness, virtue and obedience if we are saved by the righteousness of Christ?
Not only does the Bible spell out the virtues God requires, but it also establishes clearly the link between our obedience and our salvation. The law of God is as straightforward as “Obey and live, disobey and die.”
What can the fact that Christ shed His blood on Calvary do to make anyone morally pure and upright? Suppose a driver has been consistently violating the rules of the highway. What must he do to become a law-abiding driver? He must stop violating the rules.
Suppose a man is making his living by robbing banks. Now suppose this man accepts Christ and His righteousness, yet goes right on robbing banks. Is he immediately counted righteous, pure and holy because of Christ’s death for him, even though he continues his same sinful habits? To be cleansed and forgiven, must he not change his manner of life? He must stop robbing banks and earn his living honorably. The blood of Christ can do nothing to change his record; he himself must reform.
The basis of salvation God prescribes is a simple, practical summons to personal reformation: stop doing wrong and do right. “Cease to do evil, learn to do well” (Isa. 1:16-17). The “wicked” must “turn from his transgressions …and do that which is lawful and right.” Then, once we turn from our sin and do right, no guilt from our former sins remains. “None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him: he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live” (Ezek. 33:14-16). Where is any need for the sacrifice of Christ?
Isaiah stated the same fact: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:6-7). When God has abundantly pardoned, what more can we need?
We are forgiven our sins as we forsake them. “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13). We “purify” our souls by “obeying the truth” (I Pet. 1:22). If our weakness has been to steal, Paul has the simple formula: “Let him that stole steal no more” (Eph. 4:28). If we have been telling lies, we must stop lying and tell only what is true (Col. 3:9). If we have been using profanity, we must stop it (Eph. 5:1-5). If we have been getting angry, we must be patient and kind (Eph. 4:31-32).
When we stop disobeying any law of God, we become clean on that point-not because Christ shed His blood for us but because we stopped committing the sin, just as the bank robber must stop robbing banks and take an honorable job to earn his living. As long as he continues to rob banks, the blood of a thousand Christs could do nothing to make his record clean. He must actually stop committing the sin before He can even consider being forgiven.
Just as we can become clean on one point, so we can become clean on another, and another, until our whole life and character reaches the standard God requires and we are “holy and acceptable unto God” (Rom. 12:1).
The Bible does not offer salvation on a free-for-all basis, nor does God impart or impute the righteousness He requires. Each aspirant must purify his own heart and character (I John 3:3), his own initiative, with the help of God, before God will bestow salvation. We must not overlook the help of God, because God provides the knowledge of what we must do, along with the mental and physical powers we need. But it is our responsibility to use all these to develop the character He requires. We cannot expect Him to change our character. This is our part of the agreement.
Every promise of God has two sides, a human side and a divine side. God says, You do this (indicating obedience and virtue on the human side) …and I will do this (indicating God’s bestowment of eternal blessings). God says, “IF” you do thus and thus, “THEN” I will do thus and thus.
Jesus promised to save those who would endure unto the end (Matt. 24:13). The Psalmist promised God’s deliverance to those who pay their vows to God (Ps. 50:14-15). Isaiah said that God will recognize “him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at [His] word” (Isa. 66:2). He promises salvation “to him that ordereth his conversation (conduct) aright” (Ps. 50:23). He will “render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6-7). The promise is based on the expressly stated condition that the believer patiently continue in well doing, not that he accept any righteousness imputed to him by Christ.
Jesus’ last message emphasizes the same point: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14).
If Jesus’ literal death and blood was the key to salvation and forgiveness, why did Jesus in His parable commend the obedient servant for what he had done: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things” (Matt. 25:21). If the servant had not been good and faithful, could Jesus have said this?
Paul himself says clearly that there is an “if” condition in the matter of salvation. Writing to the Corinthians he spoke of the gospel he had preached to them, “By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain” (I Cor. 15:1-2). They had heard the gospel, and they might or might not be saved— there was still an “if” in the picture.
Hebrews is likewise specific, that salvation depends on our individual obedience. “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
James is equally direct, that only the “doers of the word” will merit eternal rewards. “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves ….Whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:22-25). Notice that one must continue in the law, and be a “doer of the work,” and then “this man shall be blessed in his deed.”
James says again, “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (James 1:12). “The crown of life” is to the one who endures under trial.
The apostle John concurs, making this plain statement: that the world passes away, and the lust thereof, and only “he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (I John 2:17).
Three Steps To Salvation
Briefly, the Bible outlines three steps to salvation. These three steps are summarized in Rev. 1:3: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.”
The first step in the process of salvation is learning what God requires of us. Knowledge comes first. This is the normal pattern of life. The newborn child must spend years in learning before he is able to live as a responsible adult. And if he wishes to pursue a profession, he must acquire even more knowledge. This knowledge is not automatically transplanted into his mind. He must apply himself and learn.
The same is true for the aspirant to eternal salvation. He must first learn what God requires. And the source of that knowledge is the Book God has provided for our instruction, the Bible.
The second step to salvation is to apply the knowledge one has acquired, to live according to the law of God, to develop in one’s life the standard of virtue God requires.
The third step is the physical change from mortality to immortality. We are now mortal, subject to death. We must depend upon God for this third step, because we cannot save ourselves. Only God’s power can “change our vile body and fashion it like unto his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). Only He can make us like unto the angels, so that we will not die (Luke 20:35-36).
We are responsible for taking the first two steps during this present life, given the tools and the help which God provides. Then Christ when He returns will accomplish for each worthy one the third step, the physical change to immortality. “When the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory” (I Pet. 5:4). This reward will be brought “at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:13). Jesus Himself said that He was coming to bring His reward with Him (Rev. 22:12).
The Bible is contradictory if it teaches that salvation is the reward for an upright and holy life and also teaches that our salvation depends upon the death and shed blood of Christ. However, upon careful study we find that the problem is not with the Bible but with the false and misleading doctrines which have for centuries been taught in its name. God has one plan and one basis for salvation. And when we take the statements about Jesus’ death and blood as a symbolic representation of the complete sacrifice we ourselves must make (Rom. 12:1)— and which Jesus Himself made—we have harmony.
We, too, would prefer to trust in Christ’s sacrifice to atone for our sins, if only we could be sure it was God’s way. But how tragic to go to judgment depending upon the righteousness of Jesus, only to learn—when too late—that we are to be judged and rewarded according to what we ourselves have done!