Each time I talk about the gospel, I get resistance from Christians who want to call foul. They quote verses from James, and 1st John trying to point out that we must have works to maintain our salvation.
It worries me quite a bit that this is a common understanding of the gospel. How have we become so confused about the central claims of the New Testament? We agree that salvation is free, right? We agree that it’s grace, right? Why are Christians so eager to try and prove that eternal life isn’t free.
The general idea that these dissenters try to propose is that eternal life is a free gift, but if we don’t do good works then we can either lose it or, possibly we never had it in the first place. These two essential claims of this group, I will call, 1. Jesus, The Repo Man and 2. Jesus, The Imaginary Car Salesman.
Here is the basic description of these two claims, which will be followed by an analysis of each.
1. Jesus, The Repo Man.
Illustration: You get word that a car lot is giving away free cars. You go and talk to the salesperson and sure enough, without having to pay anything you may drive the car off the lot. You get your free car and go about your business. A few months later the car salesperson shows up and says, “why haven’t you been making your payments?” You’re confused because wasn’t the car supposed to be free? You find out that there are monthly payments that you are expected to make. Now the salesman has traded in his free car giving persona for that of the repo man. The repo man takes your car away. Before he leaves, he hands you his business card and says, “come on down to the lot we are giving away free cars.” You are, once again confused. Are they truly free? Foolishly you go down to the lot and try once more. Only to find out that, sure enough, you’ve been fooled a second time. It continues to happen for as long as you are willing to let it happen. In the same way, these folks says, you can have eternal life without having to make a "good-deeds" down payment. However, soon after, the preacher begins to tell you that if you don’t start acting right soon after, your eternal life will be reclaimed by the spiritual repo man, Jesus. Now I’d ask you- how is that a free gift? If this describes how Jesus operates, then he is quite cruel, bordering on being a liar. This teaching has hurt and even destroyed many’s desire to be involved with Christians at all.
2. Jesus, The Imaginary Car Salesman.
Illustration: You can drive off the lot with the car without making a down payment. During the buying process, the salesman helps you set up automatic payments that will be automatically drawn from your account without you having to worry about it. You take the car home and use it for a while. After a while, the car salesman shows up and says, “why haven’t you been making your payments?” You’re confused because they were supposed to be automatic right? He tells you that since the payments aren’t coming out automatically, it means that the car you purchased was imaginary and not real at all. The real car is still sitting at the car lot waiting for you to get it. The one you’ve been driving around was imaginary the whole time. You’re confused because there is still a car that doesn’t look imaginary in your driveway. The imaginary car salesman then convinces you that the reason the car doesn’t exist is that you never made the purchase in the first place. If you had, then your automatic payments would be working. This imaginary car salesman will then convince you that you need to come back down and try to purchase the vehicle once more, he can’t ensure that the car you buy will be real this time, but only that you need to try again. So you double back and try to purchase the same car once more, going through the same process. If the automatic payments don’t get drawn, this time, the car will still be imaginary. So if you go through the process again, but do make the payments then the car will be real. Holy cow, this one is even weirder. So in the case of the Imaginary Car Salesman, the car represents your eternal life. You think you’ve gained eternal life when you place your faith in Christ alone. You are told that you will be automatically changed, which means you will automatically do good deeds. You put your faith in Jesus and go on about your life. If your life doesn’t change quickly enough, or at all, the preacher tells you that you never believed in the first place. He says that you don’t have eternal life, you only thought you had it. How do they know this? Supposedly it's because your so-called automatic life change didn’t happen. The only logical conclusion is that you were wrong to think you had gained eternal life… because there’s no way that the preacher could be wrong, could he?
These two concepts, 1. Jesus, The Repo Man and 2. Jesus, The Imaginary car salesman, have done considerable damage to believers in the last 50 years. Notice that in both of these, Eternal Life is not free.
The growing crowd of Christians-turned-atheist
I’m convinced that many of the people who have abandoned the faith, and become atheists are the victims of this same teaching. Preachers and teachers sold them the lie that they would automatically change if they would only believe in Jesus. They became believers while they were kids or teens, but then noticed that nothing seemed to change. The youth speakers, or the preacher, or the over-zealous volunteer, doubled down on the message and insisted that they were the problem, they needed to try harder to put their faith in Christ. So, in an attempt to correct the problem, they worked to jam, slam, and cram their faith into the Lord. Even then, they didn’t automatically change. Therefore, in their minds, it must all be a lie. This basic misunderstanding of grace slowly allowed all other aspects of faith to erode. Little by little they began to consider that if this seminal fact could be a lie. They think, what else is based on false notions? Maybe all of it.
Over time their confidence in Christ’s promises evaporated. Now, note that this doesn’t mean their eternal life evaporates, or goes away. They are frustrated because they were sold an illogical, muddy, and misleading version of the gospel. For many years I found myself drawn down this same path. I thank God that he allowed people to come into my life that corrected this terrible understanding, and it changed my life. It rejuvenated me, my bitterness began to dissolve, and my passion for sharing the gospel, in a clear way, erupted into the forefront of my mind and life. It makes me wonder if youth speakers had been more careful in what they taught in the late 90s and early 2000s, if we would have less young adults abandoning the churches today.
So if we are to break this trend, we need to consider what the Bible says about these issues. The first question we need to consider is, “Does the Bible say that salvation is a free gift?
The short answer, in this case, is the only answer. Yes! Not only does it imply it, but it also uses those words, free… and gift… in the same sentence! Ephesians 2:8-9, calls salvation a “gift of God.” Romans 6:23 calls it a “free gift.” Acts 11:17 calls the “gift… he gave us when we believed…” Matthew 10:8 says, “freely you have received,” John 4:10 calls it a “gift of God.” Romans 8:32 says he “gives it freely.” Acts 8:20 calls it the “gift of God.” 2 Corinthians 9:15 calls it “His indescribable gift.” Romans 5:15 calls it “gift,” 6 times 3 of which it specifically says “free gift.” So clearly if it is a free gift then the illustrations we previously mentioned don’t make sense. In both of those illustrations, Jesus the repo man, and Jesus, the invisible car salesman, don’t present salvation as a free gift. They present them as a no-down-payment purchase which is maintained with good works.
Now, let’s consider individually what some of these claims might mean. Could Jesus give the gift of eternal life and then take it away?
Could Jesus be a repo man?
We’ve already established that eternal life is a gift and a free gift at that. So is it possible that Jesus will give it to us for free but then take it away if we don’t behave? Paul answers that pretty clearly. In Romans 11:28 he says, “the gifts… of God are irrevocable.” I don’t know how to add to that. He just makes it obvious for us. When God gives a gift, he doesn’t revoke it. He doesn’t repossess it. He isn’t a repo man. Still not convinced?
In John chapter 10 Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” Notice in this verse that Jesus speaks as if this is a done deal. He’s talking about people that were currently living when he made the statement. If it turns out that any of those people don’t have eternal life, then Jesus was lying.
Romans 8 supports this when it tells us that nothing can separate us from the Love of God. “Nothing,” includes us. Not even if we get cold feet and try to back out of the deal, even then we still can’t be separated from the Love of God. Ephesians 4:30 says that we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption.” Nothing can peel off, remove, or erase that seal, which is the Holy Spirit. We know that the seal is final because John 14.16 says that the spirit will be with us “forever.” It’s like the houseguest that won’t leave even if we get tired of his constant advice. 2 Corinthians 1:22 echoes this idea when it says that God has put his Spirit in us as a “seal” and a “guarantee.” Jude 24 says that he will “present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.” The New Testament talks as if salvation is a sure thing for those who have believed.
Here’s one that I love. Jesus says in Matthew 6:20-21, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In this verse, Jesus gives a promise of assurance. He’s speaking to believers who have eternal life. For those believers, he claims that they can be so confident of their Heavenly citizenship that they should invest in the heavenly economy. They can begin to build their heavenly wealth while they are here on Earth. He calls the treasure that you build up in Heaven, “your treasure.” If it’s your treasure, does that mean you will eventually have access to it? Obviously yes. He makes no mention of unclaimed treasure. He makes no mention that you could build up treasure but then lose access to it, by not being allowed into heaven. Eternal life is such a secure promise that he acts as a Heavenly Investment Broker, as he assures the investor of their reserved place in the Kingdom of Heaven and their access to the treasure that they build up.
Let’s examine the second claim as represented in Jesus, the invisible car salesman. The claim is that life change, good deeds, and “fruit, should happen automatically. They argue that if sin continues, and good deeds don’t then you were never saved. So let’s examine whether good deeds happen automatically.
Are good deeds automatic for the Believer?
This idea brought me to a crisis point theologically. The churches that I spent my teen years at taught that if you had “really” put your faith in Christ, then you would automatically start living like him. It’s almost like the manipulative wife who says, “If you really loved me you would buy me a newer car.” They taught that if you didn’t start living like Jesus at least in some way, you hadn’t “truly” believed. It sounded almost like a magic spell that Jesus casts on all that “truly” believed. It was supposed to be this automatic, almost zombie-like, state where the believers would be undeniably compelled to live like Jesus. It's a classic tactic of youth camps, and emotionally charged college conferences and events. Supposedly we would automatically become like do-gooder robots who couldn’t help but live like Christ. So the problem then, for me, became this: If I noticed in my life that a particular sin persisted, then instead of doing the hard work of rooting that sin out, I turned around and blamed Jesus because his spell hadn’t worked. Although this wouldn’t do, as the youth camp speakers would tell us, because Jesus was never the problem… It was always me. That seemed like sound logic, so I was left with one option. Apparently, I hadn’t believed in the correct way, or hard enough, or truly enough. So I would go back to square one and try all over to make sure I had really, truly, solidly, believed and put my faith in Jesus. This could never fix the problem, because, in reality, I had believed. (In reality, as I would learn later, the Bible makes no distinction between belief in Jesus and “real” or “true” belief in Jesus. There are none of these arbitrary distinctions between head faith and heart faith in the actual scripture. ) The thing that eventually occurred to me was this. My amount of belief wasn't the problem. Jesus wasn’t the problem. The problem was the youth camp speaker who played fast and loose with the truth. My understanding of assurance was the problem. If someone had just told me, “You already have believed, but life change isn’t automatic. Jesus assures your salvation. Stop trying to get re-saved and start working on your sins,” I would have been much better off.
Let’s go back to Matthew 6 one more time. Jesus instructs us to build up treasure in heaven. The way that Christians build up treasure in Heaven is by doing good deeds. (Note that it’s not the good deeds that gives you eternal life, but your faith in Christ.) Our good deeds grow our heavenly wealth, privilege, and treasure. The New Testament teaches that not all will have the same amount of treasure in Heaven. Some will have lots, some not so much. Jesus will give his faithful followers more reward than those who were not as faithful. Talking about Christians, Matthew 16:27 records Jesus’ words when he said, “and then he will reward each according to his works.” The writer reminds Christians of their potential reward in Hebrews 10:35 when he says, “do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward.” John tells a group of believers in 2 John 1:8, “look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward.” Paul says to a group of church members in 1 Corinthians 3:8, “each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” One of the final verses in the Bible, Revelation 22:12 records Jesus talking to believers when he says, “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with me, to give to everyone according to his work.”
So those who have believed in Jesus are promised entrance into Heaven. That’s final. There is no condition other than faith in Jesus for Heavenly entrance. However, there is a reward, a bonus if you will, that he promises, and it is a reward that is proportional to the work each believer does during his or her life. Now we are considering whether good deeds happen automatically for a Christian. If our good deeds happened automatically why would Jesus reward us unevenly? If good deeds were automatic, then we should expect everyone’s reward/bonus in Heaven to be equal, but that’s not what we find in the Bible. The obvious conclusion is that good deeds don’t happen automatically, but instead come with hard work. Eternal life is a free gift for those who believe in Jesus, but a reward/bonus comes by hard work. Paul supports this when he says, "I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." (1 Corinthians 9:27)
Here’s another question that helps us refine the discussion. If good works come automatically, then why is so much of the Bible devoted to telling us how to do good works. If it’s automatic, why waste time explaining how? Galatians 6:9, and 2 Thessalonians 3:13 tells believers not to grow weary of doing good. Why would he say this, if it were automatic? Paul says in Romans 7 that he wants to do good, but he still does bad a lot of the time. If good works were automatic, why would he say this? A list of all the verses in the New Testament that give instructions for good works would be too long. Hopefully, you can confirm this by memory from reading your Bible, hint, hint. Most of the prescriptive parts of the bible are about this. So I’ll say it again, why would the bible need to give so many instructions for how believers should live, if their lifestyle was going to be automatic? The answer is, good works aren’t automatic.
If good works are not automatic, then to claim someone never “truly” believed, nor has eternal life based on their works, is equivalent to promoting a works-based salvation. It is no different than just coming out with the honest conclusion. These people want to teach that salvation isn’t free. Isn’t this what the Pharisees taught, and Jesus lambasted them for it.
So good works are not automatic, but they are expected. Good works are not automatic, but they are encouraged. Good works are not automatic, but they are required if you want to gain a bonus or reward once you arrive in Heaven. Good works are not automatic. We’ve been given the power to do good works but are not forced.
Compelled but not forced.
When I was in high school, I saw many people become believers. I’m convinced that they followed the biblical description of faith as laid out in the gospel of John. Verses like John 3:16, and many others in that book show that faith alone in Christ alone is what is required to gain eternal life. These friends of mine fulfilled that requirement by almost any definition. (I’m aware that I can’t know what they were thinking, but they were outspoken about what they had come to believe.) So, I was surrounded at that time of my life by a group of believers who I would spend eternity with in some heavenly capacity. Now, almost a decade and a half later, a handful have gone into ministry, a significant number are Bible believing Christians, but many of them seem uninterested in faith, church, and other Christians. Some even claim to be atheists. You’ve seen this story play out too, right? There’s a simple pragmatic problem with good works as an automatic byproduct of belief in Jesus. The problem is, we’ve seen it happen other ways.
However, often the Christian will quote this verse, 1 Corinthians 5:17 which says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” They claim that this verse means if you are a Christian you can no longer willfully live with sin. However, the author of this verse contradicts this idea in the same letter in which this verse appears. He re-confirms that he’s talking to believers when he says in verse 10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” So in this chapter, he’s begging Christians to live in a way that will give them a good outcome at the judgment seat of Christ. (Note that the judgement seat of Christ is a judgment only for Believers. It’s the judgment where Jesus gives out reward (bonuses) and rebuke to all believers based on their performance.)
So some claim that as a “new creation.” We are virtually forced to do good works as a lifestyle. If we don’t do good works, they claim, then we prove by our actions that we never believed. They say we can show by our actions that we unsaved. However, if that were true, why doesn’t Paul say that? Instead of calling their salvation into question he begs them to act according to their new-creation-abilities. Their “ability” is the key here. Think of a superhero who can fly but decides not to. Think of an Olympic athlete who could win gold, but decides to stay home and eat cheeseburgers. Think of a Christian who has Christ’s resurrection power to overcome sin… but decides not to. That’s what Paul is talking about here. He reminds them that they will stand before Christ and give an account of their Christian lives. He wants them to be able to proclaim proudly, “I did the best I could do, because of your power in me.” He wants Christians everywhere to use the power that was placed in them to overcome sin in their life. If they do, then reward, and Heavenly Bonus await. If they don’t, then Heaven awaits, but they will be rebuked by Jesus on their arrival there.
He covers this same idea in Romans when he says, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” With this Paul explains that Jesus has placed the same power in us that raised him from the dead. That doesn’t mean we can’t resist the desire to overcome sin, but it means that we have the ability to do so. We can overcome sin because Jesus overcame death. Whether we do, that is up to us. Paul would not have had a need to remind us of this if it were automatic. He reminds us because he wants us to choose to overcome sin.
Isn’t the Spirit supposed to force us to do good?
Nope. Notice that John 16 says the role of the spirit is to, “convince of sin” and “guide.” John 14 and 15 call the spirit, “Helper” and “Comforter.” 2 Corinthians and Ephesians call the spirit, “Deposit” and “seal.” Hebrew and Romans calls the Spirit “witness.” In other places, the Spirit is called “teacher.” Many more are used to describe and name the Holy Spirit, but among those names “prison warden” never shows up. “Enforcer,” is not among the descriptions of the Spirit. The Spirit is a help, and a guide but its role is not to force believers to do what is right. God wants all to do good deeds because he seeks to reward all for their work.
So, Jesus isn’t a repo man. Jesus isn’t an invisible car salesperson. He offers eternal life for anyone who believes in him for it. He offers a reward/bonus for anyone of those believers who work hard for him. The bottom line is, once you have eternal life, you can’t lose it by the lack of good works, and he won’t take it away. However, you can lose your potential reward/bonus if you are not faithful to him.