Many people from their youth have been taught a salvation by works narrative. I do not mean someone said to them this is how you get saved, but that someone taught them that if they want to count for something they need to do certain things.
The American version of this teaching says, “Do good in school, get into a good college, land a good job, and then you will live the good life.” There is nothing wrong with wanting to do good in school or land a good job. However, that messaging can easily become a salvation by works narrative. We can begin to think that if we do not do good in school or fail to land that job, somehow it diminishes our worth.
Disney and the promoters of the self-esteem movement have said similar things, like, “You can be whatever you want, if you put your mind to it.” I suppose they were trying to tell kids not to let other people tell them what they cannot do. However, that messaging can easily be turned into a salvation by works narrative. If someone really puts their mind to something but fails to achieve it, does their worth diminish?
The doctrine of justification by faith alone teaches something radically different. I learned this as a young Christian. While intellectually I believed in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, I was failing to live it out. A professor at the Bible university I attended helped me with this. He said: “Let’s say you do this or that. How does your success in doing that effect your emotions? If you do well, does it make you feel good? If you do not do well, does it make you feel insecure or lacking? If so, you might be operating out of a salvation by works mentality. You are staking to much of yourself in your performance.”
Justification by faith alone does not say work less. It might even say work more. However, your motivation changes. You do not do things to get a buzz or sense of self-worth from them. You simply do them out of gratitude for all that God has done for you. You realize that without Christ you are worthless, and that is what makes Christ so good. Despite anything you did or failed to do, he says you are worth dying for. Now, whether you succeed or fail, your worth in Christ does not change.
Abraham was one of the most revered figures in Israel’s history. Yet, it was not his works that saved him. Rather Abraham had faith in the Lord, and it was credited him as righteousness (Romans 4:3).