One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of Christianity is that salvation is a free gift. It is nothing that we earn. God gives salvation to us freely.
A closely associated principle is that righteousness is nothing that we achieve. God attributes righteousness to us freely. Again, we don’t achieve righteousness; God considers us righteous when are rightly related to God.
These words, salvation and righteousness, are among the most basic of Christian principles. These words are used with a great deal of presumption that everyone knows what they mean, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
What is salvation? Why should we want to be saved? Saved from what?
Righteousness may be even more misunderstood. Are we talking about moral superiority? Self-righteousness? Holier than thou?
I will try to illuminate these very central ideas to the Christian faith in this blog. Few things are more central to Christianity than the idea of salvation and righteousness.
My own experience may serve as a good example of what these terms mean and how they apply to Christian faith. Though I was raised Catholic, and went to church every Sunday with my parents, I was not a “Christian” in the sense of having a personal faith and relationship with God before the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I had read the Bible (for the first time in a college World Religion class), and I assumed there was a God, but I had no personal connection.
That all changed one day – maybe it would be more accurate to say that it all began to change one day. That particular day, I had knocked on a stranger’s door with a parcel of books I was selling to make money over the summer. The gentlemen let me in to his house and suffered through my pitch with patience. When I finished, he asked if I would let him ask me a question.
If you died today, would you go to heaven?
I responded in my own heart with candid doubt, but I told him, “I don’t know.” Then he asked more specifically,
“If you died today and were standing before God, why should He allow you into His heaven?”
I emphasize the possessive pronoun not because it was emphasized in the question, but because I realized as I considered the question the import of it. If God is God, this world is His, and heaven is His too.
As the question came tumbling out, I consciously acknowledged in my heart that I might not be welcome. I didn’t “know” God, and I didn’t know why He should “let me in”, but I didn’t let on about my vulnerability. I launched into a defense of my actions and decisions, acknowledging, as I knew I must, that I had not lived a very good life up to a point. But I had changed. I had tried to change. I had turned away (mostly) from my self-destructive drinking, the angry selfishness of young adolescence, the self-induced and self-absorbed drug stupor of my high school years. I had thrown myself into reading, learning, seeking wisdom, and I was getting good grades….
And this is where things changed for me forever. The next question hit its mark in my heart:
“What would you say if I told you that heaven is a free gift? There is nothing you can do to earn it.”
I was speechless, and I don’t remember much after those words were spoken, except for the sudden illumination. Everything changed. The only Bible verse I remember him referencing was Ephesians 2:8-9:
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Of course! It’s God’s world! It’s God’s heaven! I don’t dictate to God. How could I possibly give Him anything?! What would He want from me?
And I knew deep within me in that moment that my problem had always been pride and self-absorption. I wanted things my way. I wanted to be the best at everything. Much of my anger, frustration, and disappointment grew out of the bitter realization that I could not even live up to my own standard of who I thought I could be – who I wanted to be. I certainly fell far short of any expectation or requirement that God might have for me!
In truth, I didn’t want to have to live up to an external standard. I wanted it all my way. But I couldn’t even live up to my own image of myself.
I had already realized some hard lessons. The bitter anger I had toward my seemingly perfect father was really anger at myself for not living up to who I thought he thought I should be. In reality, they weren’t his expectations I was failing; they were my own expectations I failed to satisfy.
I was so self-absorbed I hadn’t even considered God in my life. But, in that moment, I knew that I would have to answer to a God who created the heavens and the earth, a God who created me. And I hardly had any time to let that really sink in before the solution to my utter dilemma was presented – God offers salvation as a free gift; God offers us grace so that no one can boast.
So that no one can boast – that hits right at the heart. I had always wanted it my way. I wanted to be able to boast. But that pride is a sickness. It holds us captive. It stands in the way of intimate connection with others and God – this insistence on our own way and self-absorption.
And right before me was illumination of the problem and the antidote! The answer is that God gives us freely what we want and need, but we have to surrender to get it. We have to let go of our pride and our selfish desires. We have to allow God to take His rightful place in the throne of our hearts. We have to step down from that position and allow God to be God at the core of our being.
In the next blog, I will get more deeply into the meaning of the terms, salvation, righteousness and sin, but for now I will end with this. God saves us from ourselves and our condition. He saves us for Himself, because that’s His desire – that we would be saved from the consequences of our own ways – separation from Him. But we must participate willingly in the salvation that God offers. We have to want God’s way more than our own way.
But, I have only scratched the surface on the meaning of salvation, sin and righteousness. I get into more detail on Sin, Salvation, Righteousness and God’s Plan for Us, in the next blog. I hope you found my story helpful. I pray that you find the love and forgiveness, peace and hope, and joy that I have found in connection with the Lord and Giver of life that is freely offered to us if we would only let go of our grip on having it our way and accept God’s way.