Some of us are better at math than others. For some reason I’ve always been good at number games, like what is 27 times 27 (729) or 32 times 32 (1,024)? But I’ve always been highly challenged by columns of numbers on a ledger sheet or in a checkbook. Some people seem to have problems, too, with what I call “biblical math.”
It concerns what is required to go to heaven and enjoy eternal life. There’s one side that says all you need to do is add up good deeds and compare them with bad deeds. If the good adds up to more than the bad, you’re good to go.
When asked if they expect to go to heaven when they die, the vast majority of people will respond, “I hope so.” Then they might enumerate reasons why: “I’m basically a good person.” “I support charitable causes.” “I’m nice to puppies.” “I think I’m better than the next guy.” “I try to practice acts of random kindness.” Stuff like that.
Those are all laudable things, without question. We’d certainly like to see everyone behaving well rather than behaving poorly. But if we believe the Scriptures, they categorically affirm that none of us is going to earn our way into heaven. It’s not going to happen. It’s not an issue of which total is greater.
Consider the following: Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us, “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.” Lest we be accused of biblical “cherry picking,” we also have Titus 3:5 which declares, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
These are just two of many passages we could consider, but they clearly teach that not only can we not earn our way to eternal life through our works and good behavior, but even the faith to believe in what Jesus has done for us is a gift from God.
But there’s another side to this coin. It’s one that essentially contends that while Jesus has paid the full price for our sins – “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) – we still need to add to what He has done to stay in God’s good graces.
We might term this “Jesus-plus” thinking. It goes something like this: “Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and we receive forgiveness through His mercy and grace. But there are still things we must do to ensure that we’re Christians.” Biblical mathematics, don’t you know?
These might include things like being baptized in a prescribed manner (usually by immersion); showing up faithfully whenever the church doors are opened; wearing the right clothes and/or having one’s hair trimmed and styled in specific ways; listening only to certain kinds of music; giving or tithing a minimum amount. The list could go on. You probably can think of additions you’ve heard.
The bottom line is that this kind of teaching essentially contends that Jesus isn’t enough. We must add something (or some things) to what He’s already accomplished on our behalf. Some might even point to verses like “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), or “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).
These are important declarations, indeed, and we dare not cast them aside. But neither they nor other similar verses justify “Jesus-plus” teaching. As Oswald Chambers wisely observed more than a century ago, working out our salvation with fear and trembling amounts to working out what the Lord has already worked in. Kind of like squeezing out a saturated sponge.
When you plant an apple tree, you presume that eventually it will produce apples. And we don’t try to get oranges off of oak trees. Similarly, if we are genuinely new creations in Jesus Christ, as 2 Corinthians 5:17 describes, then there should be evidence of that spiritual transformation in our lives. Our actions, as well as changes in our thoughts and even things we say, serve as manifestations of that.
We’re not saved by our works – but our works demonstrate that we’re saved. As Jesus said, for instance, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Or as John the Baptist admonished, “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God” (Matthew 3:8, New Living Translation).