READ : Ephesians 2:8-9
Today David Bast tells about the most important question and answer you will ever face. It’s a question many people have never even thought of, but our eternal destiny depends upon knowing the answer.
What sorts of questions do you think about during the course of the day? “How can I make more money? . . . How can I get a better job? How can I attract that person that I like? How can I make my kids turn out okay?” Well, here's a question that I think is more important than any other, and yet it's one that never occurs to most people: “How can I get right with God?”
Have you ever thought about that question? Do you have an answer for it? It is really the most important thing you could ever know. You might not know a lot of things. You might not have answers for the hard questions of life and society, but if you know the answer to that one question, the Bible says that you already have eternal life and someday you will live forever in the unimaginable glory of the presence of God. On the other hand, you can have the I.Q. of a genius and be able to answer all sorts of questions about the universe. But if you don't know the answer to this one, “how to be right with God,” according to the Bible, you're lost, your life is wasted, and someday you'll be separated from God forever. That's what makes it, in my opinion, the single most important question in all the world: “How can I get right with God?”
Let's begin by considering that question for just a moment. You see what it implies – that we're not right with God, the way things naturally stand. The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, said this: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us, we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:19-21). You see, reconciliation only needs to happen where two parties have somehow become estranged, where the relationship is broken down. And when the Bible pleads with us to be reconciled to God, it does so because it understands that our relationship at present is broken.
This is how the Bible describes it in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That word sin is a one-word description that things have gone wrong between God and me. “All have sinned,” it says. That's every single one of us, every human being without exception. The Bible isn't just talking about notorious criminals or obviously wicked people. When it says “all have sinned,” it means you and me. It includes those who have been baptized as well as those who come from a totally non-Christian environment. It includes those who are worshiping God as well as those who never think about God from one year to the next.
It was to Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, a devout and religious man, that Jesus said, “You must be born again.” What he meant was, “Even you, Nicodemus, you have to get right with God. And all your religion, all your morality, all your knowledge can't save you if you haven't been born again, if you haven't experienced what the Bible describes as the new birth.
According to the Bible, sin has two basic results in our lives. In the first place it cuts us off from God. Do you remember what happened to Adam and Eve in the garden after they had sinned in disobeying God? The Garden of Eden was a place of perfect fellowship and communion with God. While they lived there, Adam and Eve talked with God, they knew him and they knew each other and they knew themselves, perfectly. They lived in complete harmony with both God and each other and the whole creation. But sin came and shattered all of that. Their relationship with God was broken, and an impenetrable barrier was erected between God and Adam and Eve, between God and humanity, symbolized by the angel sent to guard Eden's door with a sword of fire.
The second result of sin is that it makes us guilty in the eyes of God. When we sin we incur guilt, a load of it, a big debt, and there's nothing that we can do to get rid of it. No human action can remove guilt: not the passage of time, not our feelings of remorse or being sorry, not our attempts to make amends, to put things right. Nothing can really totally erase the stain of guilt.
Do you know Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth? Lady Macbeth convinced her husband to murder the king in order to seize the throne of Scotland, and they killed him in his sleep when he was a guest in their own home. At the end of the play we see Lady Macbeth in an eerie scene, sleep-walking across the stage. She's tormented by the guilt of what she's done, and in her sleep as she walks about she sees bloodstains on her hands. She rubs and rubs but can't get the stains out. “What!” she says, “Will these hands never be clean? . . . All the perfume of Arabia cannot cleanse this little hand . . . what's done cannot be undone.”
And that's our problem in a nutshell. The wrong things that we've done can't be undone. They happened and they make us guilty. And what's to be done? Because unless something is done to us and for us and within us, we're in big trouble. In our sin we're cut off from God, loaded down with guilt, and unless we can find some way of becoming right with him, of putting things right, our sin and guilt will go with us into an eternity of separation from God.
So there's the problem, as the Bible defines it, at least. But what's the answer? How can I get right with God if there's nothing that I can do myself about this problem? The Bible also says that there's a way, and that's the gospel, the good news. It's the reason why gospel is good news, not because of what we do but because of what God has done for us. Listen to what I think is one of the most important verses in the whole Bible:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not because of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
That's the good news in a nutshell, the announcement of what God has done to solve our problem and bring us salvation, bring us back into a right relationship with him. That's what the Bible means by salvation. Did you notice that there are three nouns in this verse? And they are the keys, I think, to understanding how salvation works. Here they are: grace, faith, and works.
Take that last word first: works. What does it say? “Not because of works.” We're not put right with God, in other words, because of anything that we do, our morality, our religion, our good works. We find it almost impossible to accept the fact that these things aren't enough, that they can't do the job, they can't restore us to a right relationship with God. And yet the Bible says it's not because of our works. Listen to this from Paul's letter to the Romans:
For no human being will be justified in God's sight by the works of the law [what he means is “by all the good deeds that we do, including even our religion”], since through the law comes knowledge of sin . . . For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
Romans 3:20, 28
And so in the end there will be no boasting in the last day about anything that we've done, about what we have merited. We cannot do anything to save ourselves. It's not because of works.
So what is the answer? The answer is that God saves us. God puts us right with himself apart from our efforts. He saves us regardless of who we are, regardless of what we've done, regardless of what we have failed to do, if we trust in him.
Do you remember the thief who died beside Jesus Christ on the cross? He was justly sentenced and condemned, probably as a terrorist and a murderer. He was not a good person. And what could he do to save himself, hanging there on the cross? He couldn't reform, he couldn't turn over a new leaf, he couldn't start going to church. He couldn't even move! His arms and legs were nailed into place. All he could do was turn his head to Jesus and ask for mercy, “Lord, remember me,” he prayed. And that was enough.
Here's why. Listen to the other two words from that great text in Ephesians: grace and faith. “By grace you are saved through faith, not because of works.” So grace is the cause, and faith is the means of getting right with God; we are saved, the apostle says, by grace, through faith. Think about that for a moment, clearly and carefully. We're not saved because of our faith. Even our faith is not something we do; it's not a work that earns God's forgiveness. Our faith isn't the reason for our salvation; it's only the means by which we receive the gift of salvation. The reason is God's free love, or grace.
Faith is like an empty cup that we hold out to receive a precious gift. You know, if you're wandering about in the desert dying of thirst and somebody comes and gives you a cup of water, it's not the cup that saves your life; it's the water in it. So it's not our faith that saves us; it is God's grace, but faith is the means by which we receive this grace. It's necessary. Be clear on that. We have to believe in Christ. We must have faith. We must accept the gospel and put our trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. But still, our faith is only instrumental. Grace is the cause: God's extravagant love, his undeserved favor, his astonishing gift of forgiveness given in and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
So that's it; that's how we're made right with God. We are justified by God's grace as a gift. It's free to us, though not to him. God had to pay for it. And it cost him his only Son, and it cost that Son, Jesus Christ, his very life.
So there it is, the answer to our original question, the most important question you will ever face: “How are you made right with God?” The answer: “not because of works but by God's grace through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” All you need to do is accept this gift of God. The question, of course, is: Have you done that?