Nine sweaty Tanzanian women hunch close together, shoulders over their Bibles. Fragments of read scripture quietly slip through the thick air of my students’ cramped, worn-wall, room. “He has sent His Holy Spirit.” “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” “He saved us, not on the basis of works done in righteousness.”
These girls, though filled physically with a breakfast of hot milk (heated over their little propane cooking station) and fresh muffins, devour God’s word. They chew on and try to digest it, asking me and debating with each other over what the words mean. Can it be as good as it sounds: the Holy Spirit is an unmerited, free, given, gift? Can I really pillow my head in peace knowing that He who gave will not ungive?
Before I left their little abode, one woman looked at me with eyes on fire, “you know what, Madam? I am very happy today because now I know that I have the Holy Spirit just because I believe in Jesus. I am very happy.”
During the time I spent living in Tanzania, Africa, I saw again and again that many Tanzanians misunderstand the gospel. Years of false teaching seared the lie into their heart that salvation was a work of God plus man. Instead of resting in Christ’s completed work counted as theirs, they lived in constant dread that the Holy Spirit would get fed up with their sin and leave, taking their salvation with Him. They put their faith in Christ, but not Christ alone.
How many of us are like them? We may profess and preach salvation by faith in Christ alone, but do our lives reveal instead self-reliance? Are we among the many Jerry Bridges had in mind when he wrote “most professing Christians actually know very little of the gospel, let alone understand its implications for their day-to-day lives”?
God’s Work or Mine?
Of the gospel Paul writes:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
1 Cor. 15:1-4
Christ died for our sins and rose again. That is the gospel. If we believe this we are saved (John 3:16, 36; 6:40). That is the gospel. Paul adds no works of our own, no caveat, nothing. Instead, he says elsewhere, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). The gospel is the good news of Christ’s completed work on behalf of those who believe. And this completed work includes our sanctification (and eventual glorification) through the work of the Holy Spirit. Though I believe and accept this truth, my life does not often concur.
I am a rule maker. Successfully keeping my own law gives me a sense of security and accomplishment. (Eat healthy. Check. Read to my kids. Check. Keep a tidy house. Check.) I feel secure and peaceful in going above and beyond God’s law. However, if I fail, I panic. I think God disapproves of me and doubt His sanctifying work. I say that I believe my salvation and sanctification are a totally dependent on God’s work, I live as though it depends on mine. Like the Galatians, though I acknowledge that the Spirit applies Christ’s work to me, I try to finish His work through my own work (3:3-4). Adding rules to God’s law, hoping to secure or add something to your salvation and sanctification is adding to the gospel and not resting on Christ’s work alone (c.f. Galatians 3:6-14).
For others, they are not attracted to rules but to groups or causes. They are always eager to get behind the latest endeavor to remedy societal ills. Whether it’s saving the environment, reforming the prison system, housing the poor; They invest time, money, and energy into it. But when they see no change in the climate, prison system or levels of poverty, they become disillusioned and discouraged. They had placed their hope in these endeavors and thought (perhaps unconsciously) that if they helped save society, their own salvation would be more secure. This also is not resting in the gospel alone.
There are many other ways we add to the gospel. Some may argue that baptism effectually saves the infant, provided he lives a life of faithfulness. Others may think that if we tithe x amount of dollars to the church, we ensure a blessed life now, and after death. The point is that if one trusts in any work of their own either to save them, add to their salvation, or work their sanctification, that is adding to the gospel. Such additions, as the examples above illustrate, rob us of peace. They also undermine God’s character and assert that Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient.
Undermining Christ’s Sacrifice and God’s Character
The author of Hebrews wrote that, unlike the sacrifices made by the Levitical priests, Christ’s one sacrifice was sufficient. It was sufficient to perfect “forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:1-14). For, not only was Christ’s death counted to us, but so too His perfect life. When we try to add our own works to Christ’s, we betray our belief that His is not sufficient for complete salvation. We believe His blood spares from hell, but it’s up to us make sure we get to heaven. But Paul clearly declares, “[salvation] does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). This salvation does not mean merely justification. As Paul writes later in the letter to the Romans. “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (8:29-30). Or to say it yet another way:
The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and
offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy
obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as
the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.
The good news declared in the gospel is not merely that through faith in Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, God justifies. It is also that He conforms and glorifies us by the Spirit’s work in us. All that is required of us is faith. To assert otherwise would be to undermine God’s character.
In Philippians, Paul writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). He can say this confidently because he knows that God keeps His promises. As we saw above, in saving us, God promised to bring us to glorification—through His own work. When we add our own works to the gospel, we call God a liar; a promise-breaker. More than that, we make God out to be weak: He may want to save us utterly, but He cannot; He is at the mercy of our will. But of course, we know otherwise. We know God can do anything He wants (Eph. 1:11) and that He keeps His promises (Num. 23:19). Richard Lovelace once wrote that many Christians “below the surface of their lives are guilt-ridden and insecure . . . [and] draw the assurance of their acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their religious performance or the relative infrequency of their conscious, willful disobedience.” This certainly described many of the Tanzanians I taught. It may describe many of us as well. Here Jerry Bridges’ offers a helpful word: “We don’t have to feel guilt-ridden and insecure in our relationship with God . . . we can begin each day with the deeply encouraging realization that I am accepted by God, not on the basis of my personal performance, but on the basis of the infinitely perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” And the irony is, when we fully grasp this, we will want to work for God. Not out of fear or pride, but a posture of rest and joyous gratitude for His great gift of salvation.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.
Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life, 18.