This verse from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia should lay to rest what it is that saves us.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13)
He makes it clear in the previous verses that our works are not what makes us right (redeemed) and acceptable to God. Hear this:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” (vs. 10-12)
Why is it then that fallen man wants to believe the lie that we can earn our place in heaven? The simple answer is that salvation by working hard to be good enough just seems right to us. One of mankind’s most basic desires is to be in control of his own destiny, and that includes his eternal destiny. Salvation by works appeals to our pride and our desire to be in control. Being saved by works appeals to that desire far more than the idea of being saved by faith alone. Also, we who live in the Western world have been raised to have an appetite for justice. Our inherent sense of right and wrong demands that if we are to be saved, our “good works” must outweigh our “bad works.” It follows that when man creates a religion it would include some type of salvation by works. That is why salvation by works or meritorious actions form the basis of almost every religion except for Christianity. What we read in (Proverbs 14:12) points directly to this idea when it tells us that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Salvation by works just seems right to us. That is exactly why Christianity is so different from all other religions—it is the only religion that teaches salvation is an unmerited gift of God and not of anything we can do to earn it. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Another reason why salvation by works is appealing is because man views sin from his own perspective rather than from God’s perspective. In other words, we do not think our sins are that bad, yet God has a perfect perspective regarding how sin separates us from a holy God. Scripture says, man’s heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and God is infinitely holy (Isaiah 6:3).
It is the deceit of our hearts that blinds us from seeing our true state before a God whose holiness we are unable to fully grasp. But the truth is simply this – our sinfulness and God’s holiness combine to make our best efforts as “filthy rags” before a holy God (Isaiah 64:6).
Our vain attempts to live righteously is a point Paul makes again and again in Romans. Consider this – if any Old Testament patriarchs could have been declared righteous on account of their works, surely it would be men like Abraham and David. However, they are instead prime examples of justification by faith alone, apart from works. Their obedience to the Lord came as a result of the faith, the loyalty and trust, they had in the grace of God. As Paul says in (Romans 4:5) “To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
We should be glad that God does not wait for us to do good deeds before He issues His verdict. He knows (and so should we) that our works of obedience are inevitable and necessary, if we have true faith (James 2:14–26). But they always flow from our justification. Our own deeds of kindness and mercy alone will never be good enough to be justified before the Lord. Only the good works of Jesus can earn God’s favorable verdict (Rom. 3:20; 2 Cor. 5:21).
We can conclude that it was only because God condemned our sin at the cross and then imputed Jesus’ righteousness to those who have faith in Him that we have hope of standing before the judgement seat of Christ without fear.
Father, help me to not be caught up in trying to earn your favor as a way of justifying myself. Remind me that apart from Christ, all of us would be condemned to die in our sins, but in Christ, we have new life and are justified by His blood. Thank You for Your amazing grace. Amen