I wanted to touch on this a bit more because it’s a point that people often struggle with. It’s a simple point, but even from the time of Jesus, you see this kind of thinking in the minds of people.
We saw in the gospels the story of a rich young man who came to Jesus and asked,
Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life? (Matthew 19:16)
Here you see implied in the man’s very question the idea that salvation is an obligation on God’s part. That if we fulfill our side of the bargain and do A, B, and C, that God has to give us eternal life.
Jesus plays along with this idea by saying, “Well, do the commandments.”
The young man says, “I’ve kept the commandments.”
Jesus says, “Really? Let’s put that to the test shall we? Give all that you have to the poor, and then come and follow me.”
Now if this man loved God with all his heart, soul, and strength, and if he loved his neighbor as himself, the two key cornerstones of the law, he would have had no problem with this. Indeed, if he had kept the first of the ten commandments, to put nothing in front of God, he could have done this. But he couldn’t. He loved his money too much. More than God. And more than his neighbor.
The very law that this man said justified him, instead condemned him. The only thing God was “obligated” to do was condemn him.
The sad thing is, this young man learned only half of what Jesus was trying to teach him. That no man can keep his end of the bargain, so he can’t possibly earn his own salvation.
Had only this young man looked up at Jesus at this point and said, “I can’t do it. I can’t keep the commandments as I thought I could. How then can I be saved?” I believe Jesus would have smiled at this man and told him what he later told his disciples. “With man this is impossible. With God, all things are possible. ”
But instead, the young man walked sadly.
We see this again in a parable that Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14. One man in the story, a Pharisee, boasted before God about his own righteousness. In short, he was saying, “You owe me, God. You owe me salvation because I am so good.” The other, a tax collector (one of the most despised of people in Jesus’ day for multiple reasons), instead cried out to God, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus then told them, “Do you know who went home justified before God that day? It wasn’t the Pharisee. Despite all the Pharisee’s boasts, his “righteousness” fell far short of God’s standard. He will be condemned. That’s what he earned. But the other, the tax collector, he went home justified before God. Why? Because of something he did? No, he was forgiven purely by grace. His salvation was a gift granted to him by God merely because he asked for God’s mercy.”
Finally, we see this in the cross and Christ’s interaction with the thief. The thief had done nothing to earn salvation. Quite the contrary, his actions “earned” him crucifixion. But when he put his faith in Christ, Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Though he had done nothing to earn God’s salvation, he nevertheless received it as a gift.
All throughout the gospels we see this theme woven into the narrative. What do we earn for our “works?” Condemnation. Salvation is a gift. It always was, and it always will be.