Imagine for a moment that you have decided to buy a new television. You’ve decided to spend a little more and buy one of very high quality. You have two choices of stores. They both offer you the same price. At one, you have to pick up the television, you have to unpack it and install it and you are responsible if it doesn’t work. The other store offers free delivery, free unpacking and installation and offers you a new TV or your money back if it doesn’t work. Which is the better deal? Wouldn’t you get the best guarantee you can?
All religions of the world cause a similar dilemma when they’re compared with Christianity. They all offer some type of life after death. They all require that you decide to follow the religion; you do the work required to receive the reward; you are responsible if you don’t get the reward and there are absolutely no guarantees. The Apostle Paul explains why Christianity alone is different.
Paul uses the Old Testament figure of Abraham as his example. He writes, What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. Abraham was a fine example of good works. When God told him to leave his homeland, Abraham left. Wherever Abraham camped, he also built an altar to worship God. When his nephew needed help, Abraham raised an army and saved him. He was even prepared to sacrifice his own son to please God. But if you could ask Abraham if those things are what opened Heaven’s doors to him, he would tell you “no.”
Because Abraham also was a great sinner. He allowed his wife to be taken as a servant and as a concubine not once, but twice out of fear for his own safety. And he slept with his wife’s servant to produce a child because he was impatient for God to provide him with an heir. If Abraham had counted on his good works to save him, he would not be in Heaven. But what did Abraham discover? He discovered that boasting about our own works may get us noticed in the world around us, but boasting has no place before God.
Could you brag about what you’ve done before God? The greatest architect in the world could point to all the buildings he or she has designed and say, “Look what I made!” And God can point to the universe and say, “Look what I made!” The greatest artist in the world might point to his greatest work and say, “no one can make anything more beautiful than this.” And God can point to a single rose and say, “Can you make this?” The greatest researcher in the world might point to the new vaccine she has created and say, “look how many people I’ve saved.” And Jesus can point to all people who have ever lived and say the same thing. Nothing that we do can even compare to what God has already done.
All our works are imperfect and inadequate. They have no power to save us. That’s what Abraham discovered. He discovered that our own good deeds, our own accomplishments, can’t do anything for us in God’s sight. If we try to create our own righteousness, our own holiness in this way, Isaiah tells us all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Even what other people consider a great achievement, God considers nothing if it is achieved without faith.
Abraham knew that faith was what God searches for in a person’s heart. Paul writes, What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It wasn’t the works that Abraham performed. It wasn’t the times he obeyed God, or even disobeyed Him that saved him. It was the faith that God, the Holy Spirit had created in his heart. It was this faith that trusted God when God told him to leave his homeland. It was Abraham’s faith in God’s promise that gave him the courage to win a great battle and save his nephew. It was the faith God had blessed him with that allowed him to trust God when God told him to sacrifice his son.
Righteousness was “credited to” Abraham. He didn’t own it and he didn’t earn it. St. Paul tells us this clearly: Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. When we work to earn a living, we expect to be paid. The employer has an obligation to pay the employee; the wages are not a gift. Righteousness cannot be earned. It can only be obtained by faith. By faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior, righteousness is also “credited to” us.
Think of how a credit card works as an example. Each time you charge something, you are taking out a loan that you have to pay back. If you charge more than you can pay for, you go into debt. You may be able to make small payments, but they are never enough to get you out of debt completely. Trying to earn your way to Heaven will put you in a similar situation. Each sin that you commit is held against you. Each time you try to do a good work to make up for it, but you keep sinning and can never do enough good works, because you can’t ever be perfect—what God demands of you. When you get the bill, your sins far outnumber your good works and you realize the terrible debt you owe. What a horrible way to live, without any guarantee of salvation! That’s the life an unbeliever leads, lost and always wondering about their eternal future.
But for a Christian, the credit card example would work this way: each sin that you commit is held against you. You have no way of making any payments, but instead trust in God to save you. When you get the bill, it barely fits into the envelope it’s so thick. But after each sin that’s listed, it says “paid.” And the balance due is “0.” Christ paid the debt for your sins. What a tremendous burden that’s been lifted from all of us! The debt that we can’t possibly pay to God is paid in full! And now instead of trying to earn forgiveness with works, you do good to others out of thanks for all that God has done for you. The faith that trusted in God for forgiveness now reaches out to others to tell them the Good News that their account is also paid.
That’s what Paul means when he writes, However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Paul doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do good! But we can’t count on doing good to save us. Only faith in Jesus Christ can do that. And we only have that faith by God’s grace, His undeserved love for us.
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. How many worthless promises have you been given in your life? I’ll have your car fixed by Noon. The lotion will give you younger-looking skin. This won’t hurt a bit… How many worthless promises have you made?
The Apostle Paul writes, Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed–the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.
You are included in these words. You are one of Abraham’s offspring. You may not be able to trace your DNA to Abraham, but you are his heir, because you believe. Because of the faith created in you by the Holy Spirit, you share in the promise of salvation given to Abraham and his descendants—the promise of the only God who can give life to the dead.
Jesus describes the difference between faith in Him and faith in works, when He says to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” There is nothing in this world that can give us everything we need to be satisfied. Only faith can provide us with contentment.
The religions of this world which promise a life after death based on what you do in this life are worthless. Their promises are empty. They have no value whatsoever. Those who try to reconcile the vast differences between faith in yourself and faith in Jesus Christ as your only Savior are also making empty promises. Anyone who tells you that all religions worship the same God doesn’t understand who the true God is. And anyone who hopes that all faiths can make compromises and merge into one is holding onto any empty promise that will get them nowhere in this life and will earn an eternity in Hell.
The only power false religions have is to drive you into deeper debt, by corrupting your faith and piling up sin on top of sin and driving you to despair wondering how you can ever be good enough. God tells us in His law, “You haven’t been good enough and you can’t be good enough.” Don’t look to your works to save you, look to the cross!
In this season of Lent we especially focus on our own inabilities and sinfulness. We are reminded of how far from God’s demand of perfection we are. But we are also reminded of something else. God doesn’t make empty promises. He has never broken a promise and never will. You have the best guarantee available. God has guaranteed you that His only-begotten Son lived the perfect life you couldn’t lead. He has guaranteed you that He has accepted His Son’s sacrifice on the cross to pay for every one of your sins. And He guarantees you an eternal home in Heaven. By God’s grace, through faith, righteousness has been credited to you!