Suppose you asked someone what the Gospel is: how does a person receive salvation in Christ?
How would you respond if the answer was...
“The Gospel is the good news that we have to keep all of God’s Laws and rules, because there’s no salvation apart from trying hard to do good things. By really making an effort to live up to the Bible’s teachings and principles, we can become good enough for Jesus to save us. Salvation is the reward you get for living a godly life, being devout, and having good values and morals. You won’t be saved if you don’t do enough good things. If you’re good enough and totally committed to the Lord, you’ll be saved and make it to heaven, maybe.”
I can tell which of you went to Sunday School, because you’re the ones bouncing out of your chairs and yelling, “Heresy! Legalism! Salvation by works! False Gospel!” Very good; you get a gold star. As even a child can learn from the Bible, salvation is not by our works but by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Perhaps you know some of the verses about it by heart:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
…if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…. (Acts 16:31a)
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost. (Titus 3:5)
I could go on and on. If by chance any of this is new to you, then stop right here and go investigate what the Bible says on the subject of salvation by faith (you won’t find a better list of verses than R. A. Torrey’s), along with a good simple explanation of how to receive it (again, here’s R. A. Torrey. I haven’t quoted him nearly enough lately). Seriously, go do it right now. The rest of this will still be here when you get back.
Clearly, believing that you receive Christ by your own good works is missing the whole point of the Gospel, invalidating the work of Jesus, and ignoring some of the clearest teachings in the Bible. Jesus died to save us because we couldn’t save ourselves. We can’t be our own saviors, so God became our Savior. He did all that was necessary; we just trust Him. As my pastor once remarked, “The Gospel is the Good News, not the Good Advice. It’s the story of what God did, not something we have to do.”
So here’s the thing. If the Gospel means that we receive Christ by God’s grace through faith alone, not by works at all…
…then the Gospel also means that’s how we’re supposed to live the Christian life.
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” (Colossians 2:6, NASB)
Don’t miss the structure of the sentence. Everything depends on the little words “as” and “so.” It’s a statement of correlation: As it is with A, so it is with B. What’s true of the first part is true of the second. The way you do one is the way you do the other.
The two things here are (A) receiving Christ Jesus as Lord, and (B) walking in Him, namely a transparent metaphor for living your life in Him. As you did A, so you do B. The way you received Christ is the way you live in Him.
So how did you receive Christ Jesus as Lord, again? Was it by following biblical rules or principles for living? Was it by avoiding sin and worldliness? Was it by trying hard to be spiritual, pious, and holy? Was it by having sound doctrine and good theology? Was it by having positive family values? Was it by doing all the religious things you’ve been told you need to do? In short, was it by works?
Then that’s not how you walk in Him.
You received Christ Jesus by faith.
You received Christ Jesus by realizing you were powerless to do it on your own.
You received Christ Jesus by giving up trying to do it yourself.
You received Christ Jesus by believing He could do it—and did do it—for you.
You received Christ Jesus by letting go of your own attempts to be good and trusting that He was all you needed.
You received Christ Jesus by faith like a little child.
So that’s how you walk in Him.
It’s so easy to miss this. Sometimes we even seem to want to miss this. Maybe we prefer things to be more complicated. Maybe we want to feel like we get some reward for our good works. Maybe we want to feel superior to all those sinners who don’t know how to lead a holy life. Maybe we think it isn’t fair that sinners get the same deal as righteous people. But then that’s probably how we felt about salvation before we first received Christ. That’s how we feel when we don’t like the Gospel.
The early church in Galatia had the same struggles. Paul wrote to them (a bit testily) making the same point: the Gospel is all one piece.
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? (Galatians 3:1–3, NIV).
The questions are obviously rhetorical. Well of course we didn’t receive the Spirit by keeping the Law. That would be legalism, salvation by works, a false Gospel. We saw Jesus as crucified for us, and we believed in Him, and that was that—it was completely a work of the Holy Spirit, not of ourselves.
Well then, says Paul, it’s plain foolish to believe that you start the Christian life by trusting in God alone and continue it by doing good works. “After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” You already know your own righteousness is insufficient to get you saved; why do you think it’s sufficient to help you walk? You already trusted in the Holy Spirit to save you in Christ; why not trust in the Holy Spirit to make you live in Christ?
Salvation is not just beginning a membership in the club of Christians. Grace is not just what gets you in the door. “Saved by grace” is like saying “Alive and breathing.” Sure, that’s the beginning of your life, but it’s also the rest of your life. You don’t stop breathing just because you’ve already been born; you don’t stop trusting in God’s grace because just you’ve already been saved. It’s either all of grace, or it’s none of grace.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6, ESV)
It’s like living. It’s like growing. It’s like resting and quiet and stillness and peace. It’s like a branch on a vine. Which is exactly what Jesus has been saying all along:
Abide in Me,
and I in you.
As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself
unless it abides in the vine,
so neither can you
unless you abide in Me.
I am the vine,
you are the branches;
he who abides in Me
and I in him,
he bears much fruit,
for apart from Me you can do nothing.