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Salvation Impossible by Good Works

In our daily meditations over the next two or three weeks, we will take a look at Christ's teaching. We know many of the things Jesus did, but what did He teach? One of the most important things Jesus taught was that salvation was impossible for a human to attain in his sinful condition. The apostle John records Christ's conversation with a ruler of Israel, a man called Nicodemus. This man came to Jesus at night with questions on his mind. As a ruler, teacher, and a Pharisee, Nicodemus had the kind of righteousness the whole nation envied, but something was missing. He had no assurance that he was good enough! Jesus taught that something was needed more than just keeping a system of good works:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law [of which Nicodemus was both], you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20. Note in parenthesis mine).

The Lord Jesus knew the question on the mind of Nicodemus. He said to him, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). The Greek word translated into English as born "again" is the word anōthen, a word that can mean two different things. It can mean again in the sense of a second time, or it can mean from above in the sense that God has to do a work in our soul before we can begin to perceive the Kingdom of God. Both terms are correct. Jesus' words came as a shock to Nicodemus, for religious Jews thought that because they were children of Abraham and kept the law, they would all enter the kingdom of God. They dressed up the outside, but inside they were full of hypocrisy:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean (Matthew 23:27).

There has to be an imputed moral character (ascribed righteousness to one’s spiritual account) on the inside of every man. Without an inner change, our lives remain the same. Change needs to come from the inside, and we are not sufficient to bring this change, i.e., this rebirth, all by ourselves. We need to connect to the power source! The inside of a man, the heart, has to be fixed. We have a theological term for this, it is called regeneration: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Becoming a Christian is not making a new start in life; it is receiving a new life with which to start. The writer, J. Sidlow Baxter, said, “Regeneration is the fountain; sanctification is the river.”

Jesus’ statement was challenging for Nicodemus. The Jewish people had a belief that, if one was rich, it was a good sign that he was well on his way to enter the kingdom of heaven. In another passage of teaching, Jesus told the disciples that it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom. The people were shocked by Christ’s statement.

23Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" 26Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:23-26. Emphasis mine).

Some teach that the eye of a needle refers to a gate of a city so small that, to get in with your camel loaded with "stuff," a person has to unload before they can enter the gate. I think, though, that this passage should be interpreted literally. I believe that Jesus is saying that, just as it is impossible to thread a camel through a sewing needle, in the same way, it is impossible for anyone, whether you are rich or poor, to enter into the eternal kingdom of God without being born-again or born from above. Without the regeneration work of God taking place at the center of one's life, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God. It is so critical for us to recognize this truth that three times in this passage alone, Christ states, "I tell you the truth" (Verses 3, 5, and 11), a statement designed to show the importance of His words. How about you, dear reader, have you been regenerated into a new life? If not, maybe today is your day to cry out to the Lord for this change of your inner being. The study linked below is of extreme importance for you to read. Keith Thomas

This meditation is a shortened version of the in-depth study: You Must Be Born Again


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