At Issue Index  Salvation Index  Justified Contents  Previous Next


by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf

10. The Insufficiency of Good Works

The Jews in the time of Jesus were socially respectable citizens, as were their forebears. The rich young ruler was one of them, and he had outwardly kept the law. But he harbored a suspicion that his observance of the law was not adequate for salvation. The question he addressed to Jesus revealed this fear. Like his kinsmen, he rested his hope of salvation on his own doings. Hence his question: "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life" (Matt. 19:16).

By basing their hope of salvation on their doings, the Jews failed to gain salvation. The apostle Paul writes: "God’s people, who were seeking a law that would put them right with God, did not find it. And why not? Because they did not depend on faith but on what they did" (Rom. 9:31, 32, TEV). Unfortunately, the zealous Jews, "being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness" (Rom. 10:3), or as Today’s English Version puts it; they did not know "the way in which God puts people right with himself, and instead, they have tried to set up their own way; and so they did not submit themselves to God’s way of putting people right."

Even the early Christians needed to be reminded that salvation did not rest on their own deeds, but solely on God’s love and mercy. Paul writes again: "It was not because of any good deeds that we ourselves had done, but because of his own mercy that he saved us, through the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5, TEV).

But gradually Christianity reverted to the Jewish position and began to trust in works for salvation. With the Reformation, the insufficiency of man’s righteousness and his inability to gain salvation by works gained recognition. At least it was accepted in theory. But in the human heart—and even in the heart of the genuine Christian—the inability of man to earn salvation has by no means obtained clear and unchallenged recognition. Human nature instinctively hankers after self-salvation.

The enemy of God and of our salvation is constantly trying to obscure the utter necessity of entire dependence on Christ. But Peter’s categorical announcement before the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem is still true: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). A perceptive Christian writer says that "if Satan can succeed in leading man to place value upon his own works as works of merit and righteousness, he knows that he can overcome him by his temptations, and make him his victim and prey. Lift up Jesus before the people. Strike the doorposts with the blood of Calvary’s Lamb, and you are safe."1

Americans are a great do-it-yourself people. But not only Americans but most people everywhere are tempted to believe they can earn salvation. Every pagan religion is based on self-salvation. "The principle that man can save himself by his own works lays at the foundation of every heathen re1igion. . . . Wherever it is held, men have no barrier against sin."2

Christ alone can save. It is sobering to realize that, irrespective of how much we may accomplish in life, there will be no do-it-yourself Christians in heaven. Only those who have by faith accepted salvation through Christ’s free grace will be found there.

The danger of self-justification comes as easily to us as it did to the ancient Pharisees. "The faithful and true witness" (Rev. 3:14) reminds us that we who are represented by the Laodiceans are just as "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked" (Rev. 3:17). "What is it that constitutes the wretchedness, the nakedness of those who feel rich and increased with goods? It is the want of the righteousness of Christ. In their own righteousness they are represented as clothed with filthy rags, and yet in this condition they flatter themselves that they are clothed upon with Christ’s righteousness. Could deception be greater?"3

Even though most Christians know cognitively that they are saved by God’s free grace and receive salvation as a gift, it is exceedingly easy to slip back into the notion that we may be saved through our own works. Man in sin instinctively wants to be independent of God. Sin drives him away from God, as it did Adam and Eve after they ate of the forbidden fruit (see Gen. 3:8). And out very independence from God is sin.

Since we are closer to self than to God, our eyes tend to turn oftener to self than to God. And when some virtue appears in our lives, as fruit of salvation by the grace of Christ, we are prone to look to this goodness as the basis for our salvation. We are prone to believe that ultimate salvation depends at least partly on self rather than wholly on the free gift of God’s grace.

Some so-called Christians may glory in their Christian achievements. But "the man who sits most at the feet of Jesus, and is taught by the Saviour’s spirit, will be ready to cry out, ‘I am weak and unworthy, but Christ is my strength and my righteousness.’"4

"We may always be startled and indignant when we hear a poor, fallen mortal exclaiming, ‘I am holy; I am sinless!’ Not one soul to whom God has granted the wonderful view of His greatness and majesty has ever uttered one word like this. On the contrary, they have felt like sinking down in the deepest humiliation of soul as they have viewed the purity of God and contrasted with it their own imperfection of life and character. One ray of the glory of God, one gleam of the purity of Christ, penetrating the soul, makes every spot of defilement painfully distinct and lays bare the deformity and defects of the human character. How can anyone who is brought before the holy standard of God’s law, which makes apparent the evil motives, the unhallowed desires, the infidelity of the heart, the impurity of the lips, and that lays bare the life—make any boast of holiness? His acts of disloyalty in making void the law of God are exposed to his sight, and his spirit is stricken and afflicted under the searching influences of the Spirit of God. He loathes himself, as he views the greatness, the majesty, the pure and spotless character of Jesus Christ."5

"The nearer we come to Jesus and the more clearly we discern the purity of His character, the more clearly we shall discern the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the less we shall feel like exalting ourselves. Those whom heaven recognizes as holy ones are the last to parade their own goodness."6 True believers are "willing to exchange their own righteousness, which is unrighteousness, for the righteousness of Christ."7

The insidious hankering for self-salvation arises even in the mind and heart of the person who started out by throwing himself fully upon the mercy of God. After having accepted Christ’s full and free forgiveness for past sins, he may soon come to the place where he is tempted to believe that his own performance of good works will earn him salvation. But this is impossible.

No person can change his nature for the better any more than the leopard can change his spots (see Jer. 13:23). But God can and will do so when we give ourselves to Him and choose to make all our decisions in harmony with His will. This enables Him to transform us and to fulfill His eternal purpose for us. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). We give ourselves along with our wills and lives to Him and choose to live according to His will. As we do so, He re-creates us.

When our oldest daughter, Karen, was 1 years old, she was out in the yard one day in early spring. The lawn had not as yet turned green, but the dandelions were blooming. Karen picked some, but with them she also got many straws of dry grass in her little hands. With this bouquet of dandelions and dry grass she went up to the front door and rang the doorbell. When her mother opened the door, Karen reached out her handful of weeds and grass and said: "Powers, Mommy, powers.

To a coldly logical mind, Karen was offering her mother nothing but weeds, suitable only for the garbage can. But a mother’s love saw beyond the worthless gift to the motive that prompted it. Thus she did not despise and disdain the "flowers," but received them with happiness and a cordial thank you to her little daughter. She took them into the house and put the yellow flowers in a little vase. They were a gift of Karen’s love for her mother.

As Karen’s gift of love was worthless in monetary terms, really nothing but weeds, so our good works may be utterly worthless in God’s sight. Nevertheless, He is pleased with them, just as Karen’s mother was pleased with Karen’s flowers. He accepts them as our gift of love to Him. And in doing good works we are fulfilling Paul’s desire and admonition to us "that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds" (Titus 3:8).

The person who has grasped the doctrine of justification by faith has permanently lost the false security of salvation based on his own efforts. He realizes that only Jesus’ death can satisfy the divine justice and that salvation is a gift of God. "The more thorough and rich your experience in the knowledge of Jesus, the more humble will be your views of self."8 To this gift of salvation the Christian responds in devoted love and gratitude.

C. S. Lewis observed perceptively that "when a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less."9

Shortly after we moved to Takoma Park, Maryland, I came cruising down Powder Mill Road from New Hampshire Avenue to Riggs Road. I paid no attention to the speedometer. In theslight hollow before I reached Riggs Road, I saw three cars parked at the right-hand curb. I was just about ready to pass them when a patrolman stepped out into the street and motioned me to stop behind the last car. To my chagrin, I now discovered that the car at the head of the line was a police car; the other two cars had been stopped by the patrolman. When the policeman was through with the other drivers, he came and told me that I had been traveling 46 miles an hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone.

I stood condemned by the law I had broken. Fortunately, I was able to make amends for my violation of the speed law by paying a fine of $36. All of us have broken the law of God. The punishment for breaking God’s law is not a fine of $36, but death. There is no possibility for a violator of God’s law to atone for his transgression or to make amends for his mistake. Man is utterly unable to pay for his violation of God’s law, which prevents him from inheriting eternal life. Man cannot justify or save himself. Only death—eternal death—awaits the sinner who is relying on his own efforts. And all of us are sinners.

"Let no one take the limited, narrow position that any of the works of man can help in the least possible way to liquidate the debt of his transgression. This is a fatal deception."10

All of us are aware of personal shortcomings and sin by our going contrary to the known will of God. God’s perfect and holy law cannot justify us or put us into a right relationship to God. The purpose of the law is not to set us right with God; its purpose is to point out sin (see Rom. 3:20). After the law has made us aware of our sinfulness, it only condemns us to death (see 2 Cor. 3:7).

"Our dependence is not in what man can do; it is in what God can do for man through Christ. When we surrender ourselves wholly to God, and fully believe, the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin. The conscience can be freed from condemnation. Through faith in His blood, all may be made perfect in Christ Jesus. Thank God that we are not dealing with impossibilities."11

"By faith he [the sinner] can bring to God the merits of Christ, and the Lord places the obedience of His Son to the sinner’s account. Christ’s righteousness is accepted in place of man’s failure."12

This simple, beautiful way of attaining to righteousness appears difficult even for a converted person to fully accept. The Jews of old missed it. On the other hand, the Gentiles, who did not pursue it through their own works, "attained it, that is, righteousness through faith" (Rom. 9:30).

In his hymn "Rock of Ages," Augustus M. Toplady tells the truth:

Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress
Helpless, look to Thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Our only hope of salvation, of acceptance by God, rests on Jesus and His death for us on the cross. "Without the cross, man could have no connection with the Father. On it hangs our every hope."13

Salvation is not the work of man but of God. It is solely God’s initiative, not man’s. This is illustrated repeatedly in the Bible. Adam and Eve ran away from God, and He went in search of them. It was the father’s waiting and inviting love that prompted the prodigal to start on his trek back home. In the two parables depicting the lost sheep and the lost coin, it was the shepherd and the owner—both representing God—who went in search of the lost.

No one can earn salvation. We are both justified by faith and saved by grace through faith. Therefore with Paul we say, "Let us thank God for his priceless gift!" (2 Cor. 9:15, TEV)


1White, in Review and Herald, Sept. 3, 1889. [back]

2 _________, The Desire of Ages, pp. 35, 36. [back]

3 _________, in Review and Herald, Aug. 7, 1894. (Italics supplied.) [back]

4 Ellen G. White manuscript 15, 1886, in Olson, Through Crisis to Victory, p. 162. [back]

5 White, in Review and Herald, Oct. 16, 1888. [back]

6 _________, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 160. [back]

7 _________, Testimony to Ministers, p. 65. [back]

8 _________, Sons and Daughters of God (Washington, D. C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1955), p. 334. [back]

9 Quoted by Nathan Hatch in "Purging the Poisoned Well Within," Christianity Today, March 2,1979, p. 14. [back]

10 The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen C. White Comments, vol. 6, p. 1071. [back]

11 White, Selected Messages, book 2, pp. 32, 33. [back]

12 _________, in Review and Herald, Nov. 4, 1890. (Italics supplied.) [back]

13 The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 5, p. 1133. [back]

At Issue Index  Salvation Index  Justified Contents  Previous Next