August 21, 2021 - Grace and the Worthiness Curse

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Today we’re going to talk about grace and the curse we mentioned at the end of our last program. (I’ll call it the “worthiness curse.”) We find that curse in Galatians 3:10: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”

We are told by some that salvation is not the free gift of God. Grace (favor that we cannot earn or deserve) is not enough, we are told. We are told that good works are absolutely necessary. Let me try to put together all of the NT passages that are used to make this argument, and then let’s take a look at what all that means for how we can be saved.

How well are you obeying? And how can you know if and when you have done enough?

In Matthew 7:21, Jesus warns, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Hebrews 5:9 says that Jesus has become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Hebrews 10:26-27 also warns, “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Paul says in his sin list in Galatians 5:19-21 that whoever practices these sins “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul also tells us in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

James the brother of Jesus says three times (James 2:17, 2:24, 2:26) that faith without works is dead. In Revelation 2:23, Jesus announces from heaven that “I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.” Revelation 20:11-13 also tells us that in the final judgment, all will be judged “according their works” as recorded in the books, “according to what they had done.” They will be judged by the One “from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them.”

Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (The Greek verb here can also be a command rather than a statement.) Jesus says it again twice in verses 21-23: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, is the one who loves me… If a person loves me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” Jesus says it one more time in John 15:10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

John’s first epistle is enough to make anyone nervous. 1 John 3:6 says, “No one who abides in him [Christ] sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Verse 9 says, “The one who has been born of God does not sin, because God’s seed abides in him; he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” John goes on in 1 John 5:3 to say, “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

Several NT passages speak of the need to “endure to the end.” These include Matthew 10:22, Matthew 24:13 (= Mark 13:13), and Revelation 2:26. All four of these address situations of powerful persecution. So does Hebrews 3:14, which says, “For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.” Hebrews 6:4-6 warns that if a person falls away after have been “enlightened” (we’re not sure whether that means the person was actually saved or not), such a person is “impossible to restore to repentance.” Such verses give the impression (rightly or not) that it doesn’t matter how well a believer runs the race, if they fall away or stumble horribly before the finish line.

So which is it? Do we achieve worthiness to live with God forever based on our track record of good and bad deeds (by “works”), or are we saved by grace – the unmerited favor of God? The scriptures make it clear that both can’t be true.

Romans 11:5 says that God has chosen a remnant of believers, based on grace, not merit. Verse 6 says, “And if by grace, then it is no more (the Greek word here means literally “no longer”) of works, otherwise, grace is no more (no longer) grace.” In other words, grace and works are mutually exclusive. It’s either grace or works that save us; it cannot be both.

But a lot of folks believe that we are saved “by grace… after all we can do” (a famous line from outside the Bible). Think about that. How much is “all we can do”? How can we ever know that we have done enough? There lies the curse of Galatians 3:10.

If we are truly put right with God eternally by the unmerited, undeserved favor of God, then there is no longer anything we can do to earn it. If our status with God is based on our performance or worthiness, we no longer have a “standing in grace” with God (which Romans 5:2 says we have). In fact, we are then under the curse of Galatians 3:10.

Back when I was a teenager, before I came to saving faith in Christ, the only way I knew how to reach God is by earning my way to heaven through being good. Just like girls used to earn “Brownie points” in their Scouting program, I did my best to earn Brownie points with God. It was the only way I knew. That’s what I thought the Christian faith was all about: try to make sure that your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, and then maybe God will forgive your sins. Basically, that’s the way of all other religions.

But my conscience would not leave me alone. I was a reasonably good kid, but deep in my heart, I knew that I did not measure up to what God expects of us, which made me fearful about my status with God. I knew I wasn’t literally breaking commandments like “Thou shalt not kill / steal / commit adultery / worship idols,” but I knew that God expected more. I could still be breaking these laws non-literally, in my heart.

As long as my status with God depended on my performance, I could never have peace with God. I could never know that I was ready to meet God. That’s why Paul’s message about grace was such Good News to my ears. It was Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9 that gave me peace with God that I could find nowhere else: “For by grace you are saved, through faith, and that is not of yourselves, it’s the gift of God, not by works, lest anyone should boast.” That’s why I was so passionate to defend my belief in God’s grace. That’s why I was so passionate to oppose any claim that we must make ourselves “good enough” before God will save us.

Paul refutes any notion of a performance-based relationship with God. He writes in Galatians 2:16, “By works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.” Let me put that in plain English: “No one can be put right with God by obeying God’s law.” Paul gets even more blunt in Galatians 5:4: “You are cut off from Christ, you who would be justified by the Law; you have fallen away from grace.” If you try to earn your way to God, Paul says, God’s gonna say, “OK, if you’re not going to accept my mercy on my terms, have it your way! Good luck trying to save yourself! You can’t have it both ways.”

Salvation is either free, or it’s not. Either God is going to pay every penny of our debt, or God’s going to leave us to pay every penny ourselves.

Paul teaches his readers that all who rely on their performance or how well they obey God’s law as their ticket to heaven are under a curse. That curse is found in the Law itself, in Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law.” Ouch! That sounds like all of us have brought this curse upon ourselves, particularly if we’re counting on the Law to save us. That should make us think twice about passing up any way out of this curse.

The Good News, Paul says, is that Christ has freed us from this curse by taking that curse upon himself, on the cross. His proof is the line: “Cursed be everyone who hangs upon a tree.”

Christ has set us free from the curse of a Law we couldn’t obey, a Law we can never measure up to. Christ wants to set us free from any kind of performance-based relationship with God. If we firmly believe that Christ has made us holy in God’s sight, not by our own merit, not by anything good we’ve ever done, not by how well we’re performing at the moment, but because of God’s free mercy, then we no longer have to walk on eggshells around God.

If we try to achieve God’s celestial glory based on our own worthiness, Galatians 3:10 (quoting Deuteronomy 27:26) warns us that we must continue to do everything that is written in the book of God’s law. People who happily think they are living a worthy life that will get them into heaven are only fooling themselves, according to this curse.

Even James, who is famous for his line “Faith without works is dead,” writes, “For whosoever shall, save in one point, keep the whole law, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10) It only takes one weak spot to break a chain. It only takes one pinprick to pop a balloon. Likewise, all it takes is one sin to make anyone a lost outlaw in the eyes of God.

The Galatians 3:10 curse applies, even if we subtract the parts of God’s law that were just for Israel (see my book What’s on God’s Sin List for Today? to explore that issue). Take a close look at the NT sin lists, which summarize the parts of God’s law that are timeless and universal. Take a look at the Sermon on the Mount, the love commandment (John 13:34), and 1 Corinthians 13. Can you honestly say, “That’s me! That’s how I live”?

Jesus says that whoever calls his neighbor Raca (“emptyhead”) or a fool (literally “moron”) shall be in danger of the hell of fire (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus says in Matthew 5:27-28 that whoever looks at another person with lust (presumably to whom we are not married) has already committed adultery with that person in their heart. Jesus says in Matthew 6:15 that if we do not forgive others, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Have we truly forgiven everyone?) Jesus commands us to love one another “as I have loved you” (John 13:34 – that’s a tall order!). Jesus says in Matthew 25:45, “Inasmuch as you did it not to the one of least of these, you did it not to me.” (How many times have we failed?)

Do you still think you can do all of this? Jesus is trying to prove you wrong.

Grace and works are mutually exclusive, according to Romans 11:6; if we are saved by grace, then we cannot earn salvation by works. If we are saved by works, then grace goes out the window. If we are truly honest with ourselves, trying to reach God by living a worthy life is a burden no one can bear. We are under a curse if we try to do so. The only way to break that curse is by placing our faith, not in our own goodness, but in Jesus and what he has done to make us “holy and unblamable and unreprovable in [God’s] sight” (Colossians 1:22).

Through the cross of Christ alone we are justified (= “just if I’d never sinned”). “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified… I do not frustrate the grace of God; for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” (Galatians 2:16 and 21)

So how do we understand these passages that emphasize works and obedience? Here’s how. First, these scriptures stress the need to live a life that is consistent with what we claim to believe, a life of overwhelming gratitude for what Christ has done for us. That is Jesus’ point in John 14:15-23. It is John’s point in 1 John 3:6-9. It is Paul’s point in Romans 6:1-2: “What shall we say, then? Shall we continue in sin, so that grace may abound? May it never be! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?”

Second, these verses are a sobering reminder that without God’s free and undeserved gift, we are toast. You think you’re good enough for God? Don’t count on mercy. You will be judged by your works. You think you can earn your way to perfection? Don’t count on grace. (Galatians 5:4) All who rely on obedience to become worthy to spend forever with God must obey everything that God has commanded.

So, where do good works belong in the life of a believer? They are a logical response of gratitude. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” (John 14:15) You’re going to do that as a natural response! Good works are also diagnostic evidence that a person does have saving faith; that’s the point of James’s words, “Faith without works is dead.” Why would anyone want to trash the tremendous mercy of God shown to us in the cross of Christ?

To live a life of deliberate sin is a living contradiction: “Shall we continue in sin, so that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who have died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) A fornicating Christian is as much a contradiction as a Muslim hog roast. It doesn’t mean that sin cancels out the forgiveness we have through grace (grace is grace!), but who wants to live as bad advertising for the One who gave his life to save us from an eternity of hell?

Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers; only don’t use your freedom as an excuse for the flesh [as we would say, to “live like the devil”], but through love, be slaves to one another.” Avoiding sin is for our own good, to avoid the pain that goes with sin. Even when we fail, we know that forsaking sin is the only healthy way to live.

So the Gospel of God’s grace, if a soul truly believes, gives him/her a powerful desire to live a life that pleases God. But if we truly believe that we have been saved by grace and not by our own works, we must be careful not to add any additional requirements, like what church we must belong to, or the correctness of our beliefs about what is sin, or who is a true or false prophet. When we do add such requirements, we accidently undermine what we claim to believe. The most we can say about false beliefs or immorality in lifestyle is that they conflict with saving faith.

Not even faith is a meritorious act for which we can claim credit for being better than the next person. Ephesians 2:8-9 says that faith is the gift of God, which removes all grounds for credit or boasting. Faith is like grabbing the lifeline thrown to you to rescue you from a flood; the person who grabs the rope is no more “worthy” than the person who doesn’t.

So we have a choice. We have the way of grace: we can receive the free gift of God (Romans 6:23) and rejoice that Christ has made us “holy and unblamable and unreprovable” now and forever. Or we can take the way of law, and try to make ourselves worthy to enter heaven. But that way, according to Galatians 3:10, puts us under a curse: “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” Let Christ take away that curse and give you the joy of being put right with God, now and forever.

But some would say it’s not so simple. They would say it is impossible to be saved without repentance. They would say that we must repent of every sin, and that unless we never repeat our sin, we have not truly repented. Others would argue that repentance is actually the means by which we achieve perfection. But are either of these options what the Bible means by repentance? And does either of them truly fit the Gospel of salvation by grace? We’ll be talking about repentance next time on Biblical Words and World!

It’s time for me to invite you to send me questions for me to answer on the air. If I pick your question to answer on the air, I’ll let you know. (I record these programs several weeks in advance.) I would particularly like to know where you’re from. This week, if you are from Moroni or Snowville, I’d love to hear from you – I’ve been praying for you for a long time! Just email me at! Or use the link on either of our websites to reach me.