The idea of works-based Christianity is one that has plagued the Church since the beginning of the Christian movement. People have a natural tendency to point to this act or that work to obtain the forgiveness of sin. However, I would argue that the more prevalent tendency is to teach works-based maintenance of salvation rather than a works-based reception of salvation.
Sure, there have always been those rituals or traditions that different sects within Christendom have clung to as if they were a necessity to receiving God’s grace. Yet all of them are relatively easy to dismiss as prerequisites for salvation. For example, many have pointed to baptism as one such entry rite. This simply cannot be the case. There are numerous examples showing baptism as a post-conversion act taken by those who have already expressed faith in Jesus and received God grace. Actually, to say that baptism is a requirement for salvation would suggest that Jesus himself was either ignorant of this prerequisite, or an outright liar. Think about it, as Jesus hung on the cross between two criminals, one of them expressed faith in Jesus, to which Jesus declared, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me today in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, CSB) If baptism were in fact a prerequisite to salvation, how could Jesus make such a promise to this man?
So, while works-based entry to the Christian faith has always been, and always will be a problem, the more common issue seems to be a works-based maintenance of salvation. It’s almost as if we say, “salvation is a free gift of God, but you need to follow these rules, or you aren’t really saved.” While most of us wouldn’t actually say this, practically, our actions reflect it.
And many well-intentioned preachers have compacted the problem from the pulpit. I know this is something I have done without realizing it. How many times have we heard a sermon that says, if you are really a follower of Jesus you will ______ (you fill in the blank). Like I said, it’s not as if we want to lead people astray or build up some impossible standard that people can’t live up to. But this kind of preaching inevitably leads people to feel discouraged and disgruntled, and often makes them feel as if they need to walk away from the Church.
Paul himself deals with this issue in the book of Galatians. The central theme of the letter is the importance of keeping the Gospel of Jesus the only Gospel we preach. In other words, don’t add to or take away from the free gift of grace offered by Jesus. Paul says it this way, “I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and trying to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7) He then goes on to explain that nothing can truly change the gospel and even goes so far as to describe an incident where he had to rebuke Peter for showing priority to those who held to certain religious rites.
So, does this mean that a person can live however they want and be followers of Jesus?
While the answer to this question is too complicated to completely unpack here, the simple answer is yes. The Bible refers to a person of faith as a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 6:15) and says that God changes our desires by giving us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). It appears that we can, in fact, do whatever we want, but part of receiving God’s grace means that He will give us a desire to follow after Him that will naturally result in fundamentally different lives.
So, is there anything that we must do to maintain salvation? Absolutely not! But should we be pleading with God to change our hearts so that they reflect His desires? Yes.
What we should be advocating for is that those who have received God’s grace of Salvation in Christ begin to question what it means for God to change their hearts. Paul goes on in Galatians to say that Jesus has become His life. He has turned from any works-based salvation, and maintenance of salvation. Instead, Paul says, “what matters is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
Believers have an awesome privilege to be used by God. Any works that are done by the person of faith are simply an overflow of the love that we have experienced. Any activity (Baptism, evangelism, Bible study, prayer, etc.) must be seen as a response to the grace God has already granted us rather than some way to “prove” our faith.
But thank God, he has chosen to use as ambassadors of His grace through which he displays His love, grace, mercy, and so much more.