Working My Way Into Heaven
Jesus said that the Pharisee prayed with himself, "God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers,…I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11-12). The man whom Jesus portrayed in this parable was typical of many of the Pharisees. He was confident in his salvation, assured that he was working his way right into heaven!
The apostle Paul argues in the book of Romans that "by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified" (3:20). The patriarchal law and the Mosaic law were both systems of justification by works, that is, under the provisions of those laws alone, a man could achieve righteousness only by means of his perfect obedience. The Mosaic law said, "You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 18:5). Both laws foreshadowed in their blood sacrifices the grace which would be available in the law of Christ, a system of justification by grace through faith.
The man who tried to work his way into heaven was intent upon doing the will of God…perfectly. It was not that he was making up his own "works," but that he was relying on his own ability to perform the commands of God flawlessly. His righteousness, as recognized by God, became then a matter of debt; it was merited by his personal accomplishment and he could then boast of what he had done (Romans 4:2, 4).
There were some individuals in the early church who had difficulty letting go of the Mosaic law despite its weakness and unprofitableness (Hebrews 7:18). The meeting which took place in Jerusalem (recorded in Acts 15) resulted from the teaching of some that Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law in addition to their obedience to the gospel (15:1, 5). Peter affirmed that the Mosaic law was a "yoke…which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" (vs. 10) and that the Gentiles would be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (vs. 11). Of those who wished to turn the gospel into a system of justification by law, Paul said that they had "fallen from grace," "estranged from Christ" who would "profit [them] nothing" (Galatians 5:2, 4).
Many Christians today who would not dream of going back to the Mosaic law to seek salvation do, in fact, attempt to make the gospel into a system of justification by works (law). They assiduously do their good deeds, hoping to "do enough" to make it into heaven. Paying lip service to grace, they are actually seeking their own righteousness (Romans 9:30) rather than the righteousness which comes through faith in God and reliance upon the grace of God. I do not minimize the need for obedience to the will of God, but I affirm with the apostle Paul that, apart from the grace of God, no man will be saved (Ephesians 2:8-10)!