Our biggest temptation as humans is works righteousness – thinking that we can earn our salvation by own goodness. Ask the average nominal Christian in America how he knows he is saved and you’re likely to hear, “Well, I’m a pretty good person.” Even those who recognize that they are saved by grace alone often feel the temptation to believe they are “kept,” at least in part, by their good works. While we are certainly saved for good works (Eph 2:8-10; Tit 2:11-12), good works cannot save us or keep us saved. Our trust in Jesus alone saves us. Faith causes salvation – good works are the effect.

We could never do enough good works to be accepted by God because, in God’s economy, good works cannot cancel out evil works. And it’s our evil works that are the problem. They are an affront to God’s holiness. If we are to have a relationship with a holy God, our evil works have to be dealt with. The problem is that mankind has no ability to atone for his evil works. Only God can do that. And He did. He became a man and paid the penalty for our sin (death) on the cross. The sinless man died in the place of sinful man. The way we access the atonement God provided for us is by trusting in Jesus and what He did for us on the cross. Since God’s acceptance of us is based entirely on Jesus’ work rather than our own, God’s continued acceptance of us is also based on Jesus’ work rather than our own (Rom 5:8-11).

If righteousness was credited to us on the basis of our trust rather than our works (Rom 3:9-28; 4:1-8; 5:1-2; Gal 2:16; 3:21-22; 5:4), then that righteousness cannot be taken from us on the basis of our works. It can only be taken from us if we stop doing the thing that credited Christ’s righteousness to us in the first place, namely trusting in Jesus. Christ’s righteousness can only be lost by unbelief, not evil works. We tend to think that when we sin, we lose our righteousness with God, but we do not have any righteousness of our own to lose. The only righteousness we have is the righteousness God credited to our account when we placed our trust in Jesus. We can’t lose Christ’s righteousness when we sin because it is not ours to lose. It is His righteousness. He credited it to us on the basis of our faith, and thus it can only be withdrawn by Christ on the basis of our unbelief – not on the basis of our sin. His righteousness is not canceled by unrighteous behavior, but by unrighteous unbelief.

That’s not to say God is unconcerned when we sin or that good works don’t matter. He is concerned, and good works do matter. The reason God saved us is so that we could live a life of good works. But we have to understand that we do good works – not to get saved or stay saved – but to please the one who saves us by His mercy alone.

Someone can be lost, but it won’t be caused by their sin. It will be caused by their lack of trust in God. Hebrews 3:12-13 is particularly clear on this matter: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” It is an unbelieving heart that causes us to apostatize, but that unbelieving heart became unbelieving and hardened by sinning. Consistently choosing evil has an effect on our faith. The problem with intentional sin is not that God won’t forgive us, but rather than eventually we will stop seeking forgiveness because sin erodes our faith (and according to Matthew 24:12, it erodes our love as well, and love is tied to obedience – John 14:15,23).

Faith is not easy. Salvation by faith alone is so hard to believe. The human tendency is always toward works righteousness. Every non-Christian religion is based on personal merit. Not so for Christianity. We have to believe that God has forgiven us, despite the fact that we’ve done nothing to deserve it, and everything to forfeit it. It’s easy to believe we are saved when we feel we have earned it, but it’s hard to believe we are saved when we know we haven’t. No one could or has earned it. That is why Jesus is necessary, and that is why we must continue to put our trust in Him.