Because of a severe winter snowstorm, our flight from Detroit to Pittsburgh had been delayed by several hours. I was tired. My wife was tired. It had been a long day. Feeling cross and irritated, I took my complaints to the ticket counter: Either allow us to board the airplane or provide us with hotel accommodations for the nightbut no more endless waiting in this crowded, noisy, airline terminal! Not a very Christ-like attitude, I must admit, but a few other passengers followed my lead and, within a quarter-hour or so, the ticket agent announced that passengers could begin boarding the Pittsburgh bound flight.
My sense of relief was short-lived, however, for as the plane taxied to the active runway, I uneasily surveyed the dreary night sky. Large, blinding snowflakes blew horizontally across the ramp. Gusts of wind rocked the wings. The night sky was inky black. It was all very unsettling and I began wondering how safe such a flight might be.
As the whine of the jet's engines roared to full throttle, I silently prayed for God's traveling mercies. I doubt that I was the only passenger in prayer, for as the plane lifted from the runway, a wind sheer tossed the DC-9 as carelessly as a leaf blown about in the wind. My poor wife squealed and I grabbed the seat and held on for dear life. A hundred anxious gasps resounded through the plane's cabin. Thankfully, the pilot quickly corrected the DC-9's precarious attitude and, without further incident, we soon touched down in Pittsburgh after an otherwise uneventful flight.
I am no stranger to flying. When I was fourteen years old, I took my first flying lesson. At the legal age of sixteen, I was permitted to fly solo. I could fly a light plane before learning to drive an automobile. I have always been fascinated with aircraft. Of course, my flying experience has been limited to small, single engine aircraftI've never piloted any plane that had more than four seats. No, I would not be much help in the cockpit of, say, a Boeing 767. My aviation skills are more suited for a Piper Cub.
Imagine, then, the colossal ego that would have been demonstrated had I, during that turbulent takeoff, strolled up to the cabin door announcing my flying services to the experienced flight crew. "See here, this weather is a bit tricky, but I've got some flying time in a Cessna 172 and an Aeronca Champ. You boys need a hand with the controls of this bird?" Had I been so brazen, the crew would have ushered me back to my seat with a stern warning not to annoy them again. And rightfully so. I have no business in the cockpit of an airliner. My job was to stay seated, enjoy the complementary peanuts and soda, and allow the professionals to pilot the plane. My help was not wanted.
And when I first came to Christ Jesus for salvation, my help was not wanted.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Ephesians 2: 8, 9
Christianity stands alone among the world's religions in its teachings that faith, not works, is the one necessary ingredient to salvation. Hinduism, as an example, teaches that one must live a succession of ever improving lives so as to progress to the ultimate state of nirvana. One's successive life will depend upon the good or bad of one's preceding life. Living a good life will, for the devotee, accumulate good karma. Living a bad life will, likewise, reap the penalty of bad karma. The quality of the next life will depend on the good or bad performed in the present life. Good works, then, are vital for the Hindu who desires to obtain the ultimate goal of nirvana through reincarnation.
Islam likewise teaches that salvation must be earned. The Koran gives specific requirements for earning Allah's favor; even so, the faithful Muslim is taught that keeping these rules will not guarantee salvation. Indeed, Allah seems to be a difficult god to please.
Pseudo-Christian cults such as the Watchtower and Mormonism also teach works-oriented salvation. Faith in Jesus, they say, is not enough. One must pledge one's allegiance to the organization. Both organizations teach they are the one true restored churchall other churches are in apostasytherefore, one cannot by loyal to God without first demonstrating loyalty to the organization. How foolish! No organization died for our sins. And the bodies of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, and Charles Taze Russell, the first president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, are both moldering in their graves. How odd, then, to realize a faithful Mormon or Jehovah's Witness must submit to the whims and wishes of their leaders even when organizational protocol conflicts with the sound teachings of the Bible.
A belief in works-oriented salvation was the hallmark of the Jewish Pharisees. Zealous Pharisees sought to earn God's favor though an elaborate method of rule keeping. The pomp and ceremony of the Pharisees made a good, outward showing, however, Jesus knew the hypocrisy in their hearts.
A work-oriented salvation appeals to the pride of the human heart. Christianity requires that we admit we are lost sinners incapable of saving ourselves. Such an admission is, of course, a humbling blow to our human pride; one Bible teacher said we are beggars who have found a free source of bread. Understanding that we are "lost sinners" and "beggars" does not satisfy the human ego; however, a misguided person can stroke his or her pride with the "lifting ourselves by our own bootstraps" mentality of a works-oriented method of salvation. The sinner can bask in a heaping dose of false pride by thinking that he, not God, is the author of his own salvation. He can take a great measure of pride in believing that his good deeds have made him worthy to stand before the Holy God. Scripture teaches, however, that pride is the most vulgar of all sins and that man is totally incapable of saving himself from the wrath to follow. Pride coupled with human works is the straightest path to Hell. We are saved by placing our faith in the finished work of Christ Jesus. Faith alone saves alone.
Is this to say our works and deeds are unimportant? Human efforts are as filthy rags to anyone depending upon self-righteousness for salvation. Heaven is not a paycheck for a life of good works; our works, then, are merely outward manifestations of our faith in Christ Jesus. We perform our good deeds and good works because we love Himwe do not work for Him so that He will love us in return. He already loves us! While we were sinners, Christ Jesus died for us! God is not a cosmic employerHe wishes to become our Father. Salvation is not a reward to be earned for a lifetime of service. Salvation is a gift from a loving Father to His adopted sons and daughterssons and daughters who have placed their faith, their hope, and their trust in the finished work of Jesus.
Jesus paid our sin debt through His death on the cross. He was the perfect sacrificethe unblemished Lamb of God. And no matter how unworthy the sinner, a simple profession of faith in our resurrected Savior will transform the helplessly lost sinner into a splendidly adorned son or daughter of the King. A king's child is a prince or a princessno amount of mere human effort could accomplish so great a transformation. Christianity is truly a rags to riches story.
Dr. Michael Blunk is a staff writer for an apologetics ministry and serves full time as a chaplain with Wayside Christian Mission. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org