It is so easy to try to make Jesus out to be the defender of our particular understanding of Scripture. Some will quote Him to prove that a Christian must do good works. Others will quote Him to try to prove that a person cannot do enough good works to merit salvation. The battle ensues! Which was Jesus? An advocate of works or an advocate of grace? Which side in our battle was He on, anyway?
But for the one who wants to listen to Jesus and learn from what He has to say, Jesus does not appear to be an advocate of either side in this battle of words. His is not the simple logic that says these two are incompatible. His logic is more complex, but a logic nonetheless. Perhaps this should not surprise us. After all, Christianity is the religion that affirms that God is one, and that God is three. It affirms that Jesus was a man, and that Jesus has always been God. It affirms that God's will is sovereign, and that man also has free will to accept or reject God. In each of these cases, people of simple logic try to pit one position against another. But God's thoughts are not man's thoughts, nor man's ways God's ways (Is. 55:8).
A rich young man, successful as the world counts success, came to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" (Matt. 19:16). For a moment Jesus seemed like a grace man when He said, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good" (Matt. 19:17). He thus affirmed that man cannot be good, that only God is good, and that good deeds cannot lead to eternal life. But in the very next breath He seemed like a works man, for He continued, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:17). And He not only pointed the young man to major commandments of the old law, but He added a hard one: "go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, . . . and come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21).
When the young man could not accept these terms, Jesus noted that with men it was impossible for a rich man to be saved, but "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:25-26). Here He seems like a grace man again: only with God is it possible for a man to be saved. But then He turns around and seems like a works man when he calls on His disciples to abandon houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, and lands for His sake (Matt. 19:29).
Jesus will simply not fit in our molds. We don't quite know which nook to pigeonhole Him in. But can we not grow in the same kind of complex logic that Jesus showed? Can we not affirm that a Christian must do good works? Can we not also affirm that a person cannot do enough good works to merit salvation? It is not an either-or proposition. Let us listen closely to Jesus and learn from Him.
Copyright © 1993, Bruce Terry. All rights reserved. This article may be freely reprinted in bulletins and newsletters so long as no charge is made to the reader and this copyright notice is included.