The Role of Holiness
by Paul Hazelden


Question

Subject: Confusing Verses

I'm really struggling to understand Christian beliefs. I am a teenager who believed a person must be holy (by works) to get to heaven. Last year, when I was reading Romans 10, I began to realize I was in the wrong path, and I began to perceive God's grace.

I began to have great interest in reading the bible. I began understanding that getting to heaven is by God's grace without my works (Romans 11:6). But things are still confusing - there is no more sacrifice for sins if an already santificed believer continues in sin (Hebrews 10:26-29).

Could Jesus be approving salvation by works in Matthew 7:13-14 and Matthew 7:21-23?. My church strongly approves getting to heaven by one's righteous works, and using the above verses to back them. Would you please tell me what these verses really mean? I find your article, "what about unconfessed sin" really helping. Thanks

Answer

Thank you for your message.

Please don't feel bad about struggling with these questions. Christians through the ages have experienced the same struggle to understand. I don't pretend I have it all worked out. But I can try to offer you what I think I do understand.

I think a lot of the mistakes we make come from taking something good and then pushing it a bit too far. Your church is right to say that holiness matters very deeply, and that every follower of Jesus is called to a life of holiness. It sounds like your church is taking a clear Biblical truth, and pushing the application a little bit too far.

People often get the idea that the only thing which matters is whether you go to Heaven or not. But there is a great deal in the Bible about reward. I Corinthians 3, amongst other passages - makes it clear that it is possible for Christians, if we do not live the way we should, to get to Heaven but find ourselves poor, without any reward.

At times, salvation language in the New Testament seems to be talking about getting to Heaven, but at other times it seems to be talking about being rich in Heaven. So I do believe that holiness is linked with salvation, but not in the same way that your church seems to teach.

Matthew 7:13-14 seems straightforward to me. Only a minority - the 'few' - choose life. It is a sad observation that many people choose not to follow Jesus, whatever their words say.

Matthew 7:15-20 is all about fruit. By their fruit you will know them. I believe that if we follow Jesus, there will be recognisable fruit as a consequence, but we may not have eyes to recognise what is the fruit of obedience until the day of judgement ("Lord, when did we feed you?").

Matthew 7:21-23 is making the point that there are many spiritual, seemingly good, activities which we can undertake when we are not following Jesus. We can be disobedient by doing good things, as well as disobedient by doing bad.

We can only get to Heaven through God's grace. But the people who receive the grace of salvation are those who choose to follow Jesus, who want to live in a live of love and service to Him.

The Bible teaches (I think very clearly) that we do not get to Heaven on the basis that we are good enough, but only on the basis that Jesus died for us and our sins have been forgiven. But we are also taught that living a life of obedience and holiness is a normal, natural, expected consequence of salvation. You are not going to Heaven because you are holy: you are holy because you are going to Heaven.

Hebrews 10 has to be read in the context of the rest of Hebrews, including the parallel passage in Hebrews 6:4-9. It is possible to taste the Heavenly gift without being saved, even to be a partaker of the Holy Spirit without being saved, because (verse 9) "We are convinced of better things in your case - things that have to do with salvation." All these other things, wonderful though they are, can be enjoyed outside of salvation.

I think Hebrews 10 is concerned, as much of Hebrews is, with 'false brethren' - those who come alongside believers, who say and do the right things, but who never actually choose to give their lives to Jesus. They know it all, but prefer to keep sinning, to follow their own path rather than following Jesus, and in the end it becomes clear by the way they live - by their fruit you shall know them.

After a while, they fall away. What can you say to them, to draw them back? Nothing - they already know it all, and have chosen to reject it. This is very sad, but it is not an argument for salvation by works. In context, it is quite the opposite - it is pointing out that even those who live good lives, who fit into the church and do all the right things, are not saved by all this good activity.

It is the same message as in Matthew. Those who do good works will say to Jesus - look at all we did for You, and in Your name. But Jesus' reply is "I never knew you" - we never had a relationship. I know it sounds trite, but having a relationship with Jesus, walking with him, getting to know Him, is all that counts in the end.

I hope you find this helpful.

Just quickly, can I suggest another way of looking at the situation?

People think that love and holiness are opposed to each other. They are not. Holiness is an aspect of love. You can't love someone and want to hurt or harm them - it doesn't make sense. Loving and acting rightly go together.

God is love. He wants everyone to be saved. He does not want anyone to go to Hell, so those who go to Hell do so because they choose it, not God. But choosing salvation means choosing to be with, and in relationship with, a God Who is both loving and holy. In the end, everyone has to decide whether they choose life with a good and loving God - and all that goes with such a life - or the alternative.

Every blessing,

Paul.

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