This past week, I had the privilege of engaging a fellow intern in a couple of conversations about the gospel. He’s Catholic, and attends Mass as frequently as he can. After speaking with him, I recalled something my friend Davin said when we shared the gospel together to a Catholic student on campus (and I’m paraphrasing here):
Saying that we can earn forgiveness with God is to say that the sacrifice of Christ is insufficient to cover all our sins.
If there’s a fundamental problem with righteousness by works, it’s that. My friend at work doesn’t hold that actions can earn forgiveness with God, but he said that we should display some measure of sorrow or repentance for sin before God forgives us. “Say I punched you in the face,” he said. “You would want to forgive me more if I came to you and said I was sorry, or let you punch me in the face.” And yes, perhaps I would! But that’s not the way it works with God.
If there’s anything that we can do to make God more likely to forgive us, or to desire to forgive us more, then that means that there is room after Christ’s death for God to like us more. Put another way, with Christ’s death, God is somewhat desirous to forgive me; with my contrition, God is more willing to forgive me. If this is the case, then Christ’s death is not enough to persuade God to forgive me, and I can contribute a little bit to God’s disposition of forgiveness towards me.
This is in direct contrast to what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, where he says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” There is nothing we can contribute, no way we can persuade God to be more inclined to forgive us. He does not look first to those who are sorriest for their sin. He extends salvation by His grace and His grace alone, so that He will receive all the glory for His redeemed. God is already supremely willing to forgive us, no matter what we do, because He has marked out our salvation from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and He has already sacrificed His Son for us.
This is the tragic and God-infuriating problem of works righteousness: it implies that Christ’s death is not enough for our salvation, and thus deprives Him of the glory that He deserves. In Isaiah, God says, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, / for how should my name be profaned? / My glory I will not give to another” (48:11). Ultimately, those who believe that they can, in some way, help God be more willing to forgive them, will not have their sins forgiven for two reasons: first, justice does not work that way–you can’t have the sentence erased for good behavior–and second, such a belief threatens to steal the glory of Christ.
One thing that my friend said stuck out to me, because he pretty much got it: “If that’s true, then it sounds like you don’t have to do anything for God to forgive you.” Then he continued: “But I don’t want that. I don’t want everything I did to be erased.” The beauty of the gospel is that we don’t have to do anything for God to forgive us! We can’t even be sorry for our sins without God regenerating our hearts to hate sinfulness. And there’s nothing good that we’ve done, so we don’t have to worry about that being erased. God offers to forget our sins and save us for good works so that He will get the glory (Eph. 2:1-10). That’s the gospel. It’s what we defend and preach. I wasn’t a perfect witness this week–for one, I waited until his last week to engage him on this topic. But I know that God is bigger than me, that He will work despite my failures, and that He will accomplish salvation in His elect for His glory.