The Bible says that a person is saved by grace, but that they will be judged by their works. Can both of those statements be true?
The Bible states that there will be a judgment of the entire world and that God will judge both the righteous and the wicked. Moses wrote about the judgment in Deuteronomy 32, and it is found throughout the New Testament. Prophets and apostles spoke or wrote of the judgment over and over again. It is one of the most prominent teachings in the Bible.
The apostle Paul wrote a lot about the judgment. He had the opportunity to preach about it to the philosophers in Athens. There is an appointed day when God will judge the world. “Because He [God] has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Acts 17:31
On another occasion, he presented the subject of the judgment to the Roman governor Felix. This was a once-and-only-once opportunity to speak to Felix. “After some days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him concerning the faith in Christ. Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, ‘Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you.’ ” Acts 24:24, 25. Unfortunately for Felix, like for so many people who procrastinate, that convenient time never came. Felix was given an opportunity that day to forsake his evil ways and to be made ready for the judgment, but he let it go by disregarded.
In this world, it is a judge’s responsibility to pass judgment based upon a set standard by which that judgment is determined. This standard is composed of the laws passed by the local, state and federal governments.
God also has a standard, a law made up of ten commandments (Exodus 20:3–17), and it is according to this law that He will judge the world on the appointed day.
This is described in James 2:10–12: “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.”
James makes this very clear: while there are ten commandments, the Bible speaks of them as one law. So, if a person breaks just one of the ten commandments, that person is a transgressor of God’s law and will be judged according to that law.
God spoke the law with His own voice to the children of Israel, and He wrote it with His own finger on tables of stone. Those tables of stone were given to Moses and placed in the ark of the covenant, in the most holy place of the earthly sanctuary.
When God spoke His law to the children of Israel, it was not the beginning or the origin of the law. Man knew from the time sin entered the world that it was not right to kill someone. It was wrong to lie, even all the way back to Lucifer’s campaign of deception in heaven. The Sabbath was established and sanctified at the end of the Creation week and had been observed by God’s people for thousands of years before the law was written down at Mt. Sinai. The children of Israel had spent many years in captivity in Egypt, and during their captivity, they neglected to teach their children about God’s law. This made it necessary for God to remind them of the law they had once faithfully followed.
God wrote the law, the ten commandments, on tables of stone, and it is significant that He did so. Writing with His own finger in solid rock, it showed that the character of His law was permanent, enduring—it could not be done away with. To express the everlasting nature of God’s law, Jesus said, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass” than for a single part of a letter to pass from the law (Luke 16:17).
This presents to us a problem. We have all broken that law. “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness [transgression KJV].” 1 John 3:4. “[For] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
So if all have sinned, if all have broken the law, and if all are to be judged by that law, then we all deserve to be judged guilty. Is it possible for us to escape the penalty of our sins?
First, let’s see what the penalty for breaking God’s law is. We find that in Romans 6:23 Paul wrote, “The wages of sin is death.” If the wages of sin were a ten-year prison sentence, then you could pay that penalty yourself. But the wages of sin is eternal, permanent death. Is there any way that we can escape this penalty?
If the penalty for sin is eternal death, then the only way of escape is if someone else pays the price. And that is exactly what Jesus Christ did. “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures … .” 1 Corinthians 15:3. Christ died and paid the penalty for our sins.
However, if we continue in sin, there is no chance that we will receive salvation. Notice what the Bible says: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times, and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear before Him. But it will not be well with the wicked … . ” Ecclesiastes 8:11–13, first part
We cannot continue to live in sin and expect to be saved. Isaiah speaks to this principle, “Say to the righteous that it shall be well with them, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for the reward of his hands shall be given him.” Isaiah 3:10, 11
We cannot be saved in our sin. There is only one way that we can be saved and that is to be saved from our sins. This was proclaimed before Jesus’ birth. The angel said to Joseph, “You can marry your wife, because, that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she is going to bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21
How exactly does God save a sinner from their sin? One of the most comprehensive explanations of how God does this is found in the book of Romans. “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Christ Jesus, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:21–26
A scripture like that might cause some people to say, “That just sounds like theological talk. I don’t understand how it works. I don’t understand how or what to do. I can’t explain or understand all that theological language. Can’t you just tell it to me in simple language?”
Yes, the gospel can be stated in very simple language.
The first step is to repent—to be sorry enough for the sins we’ve committed that we turn away from them. “Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a Godly manner. What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.” 2 Corinthians 7:10, 11
Repentance is the first step in salvation, but what is it that makes a person sorry for what they have done? The Bible says that it is the goodness of God that leads a person to repentance (Romans 2).
Since the Bible is clear that all have sinned, then everyone in the world needs to repent. Paul further supports this in Acts 17:30. Speaking to the philosophers in Athens he says, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.” Remember, repentance is simply being sorry enough to quit doing the sinful things they do. Genuine sorrow for sin gives no excuse for it. Unlike Adam and Eve who both tried to justify what they had done, the sin will be faced and confessed.
Once we have repented from our sins, the next step is to confess our sins. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9. Confession involves not only God, but the individual we have wronged. We must go to that person to confess and make it right. Ezekiel talks about the necessity of making things right in Ezekiel 33:15. “If the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” So confession also involves making restitution. If I have wronged someone, and if it is possible to do so, then I must make it right.
Having repented, confessed, and made restoration, one must make a commitment. Remember the story of the Philippian jailor found in Acts 16: “ ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ ” Verses 30, 31
The word “believe” is usually translated and used to mean faith, to believe something enough to make a commitment to it. In this case, you believe in the Lord enough to make a commitment to Him; to believe in Jesus, not only as your Saviour from sin, but as the Lord of your life.
Jesus explained this belief to the Jews in so simple a manner, that none could misunderstand. “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and you do not do what I say?” Luke 6:46. If you make a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in Him as your Saviour from sin, choosing to follow Him, then your faith will be accounted for righteousness and you will receive the gift of salvation. Faith is simply trusting in God enough to make a commitment to Him as your Lord, Master, and Saviour; then you just follow Him. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Luke 9:23 tells us, “ ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.’ ” Making a commitment to accept Jesus as your Saviour and the Lord of your life, means denying self.
By denying self, we surrender to the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to transform our sinful nature so that we can, by the power and grace of God, become like Christ—to ultimately have a Christlike character. “He who says he abides in Him, ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” 1 John 2:6. This means that we will live the way Jesus did.
We are not to simply make a profession of faith or belief. Rather we are to repent, confess, make restitution, and then commit to actually following Jesus. A wonderful promise is given to us when we follow these steps to salvation. “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [forgiveness] of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38
The Bible says that by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body. Baptism by water is a symbol of being baptized by [receiving] the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:16, 17 that when we receive the Holy Spirit, we become a new creation. “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” The Holy Spirit creates in us a new mind, a new Spirit, making everything new. Then He will enable us to follow Christ in righteous, holy living; something we could never do ourselves.
The apostle Paul explains this all in greater detail in Romans 8:1–14. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” With a new heart, a new mind, and a new Spirit, we are enabled to live a new life, one patterned after Christ’s own life.
This is why the final judgment is based on works. We are saved by grace, but we must then exhibit the corresponding works of a transformed life. Our works are an outward expression of an inward change. Without the transformation of the Holy Spirit, we will continue to live a life according to the flesh and our works will, in the judgment, condemn us, because it will be clear that we have not received the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has said that no one can be in the kingdom of heaven unless they have received the Holy Spirit. “ ‘… Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ … ‘… Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ ” John 3:3, 5. “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Galatians 5:16, 22–25
We can only receive the Holy Spirit if we choose to follow and obey Jesus. But when we receive the Holy Spirit, when He enables us to live a new life of faith, then in the judgment, when our works are examined, they will not be found to be the works of the old unconverted man, but the works of a life transformed by the saving power of the Holy Spirit. [Emphasis supplied.]
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.