(The following is taken from the e-book, “How To Find Peace With God (Answers From The Book About Salvation).” If you missed the first part of this series, please Click Here. If you would like to receive the entire e-book (in PDF format), please write me at email@example.com)
Why We Cannot Save Ourselves
“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” (Romans 10:3)
We live in a world where independence, self-reliance, perseverance, and a tenacious determination are all virtuous attributes. We are taught early on that “only the strong survive” and that we must strive and work toward anything that we want to accomplish in life. Hard work is rewarded, or at least we like to believe so, and we are instructed that any success we are to enjoy must be won through our own efforts, the sweat of our own brow securing the good fortunes we desire.
On the other hand, a persistent dependence on others is viewed negatively, with those who rely too heavily on other people to provide for them being seen as lazy, unmotivated, and weak. Anything worth having, we are told, can only truly be appreciated when it comes by means of our own two hands and the ingenuity and creativity of our own minds. Wealthy entrepreneurs who began life with nothing, building their empires of industry through their own hard work and prodigious acumen, are applauded as heroes whose practices should be emulated; while the idle rich, the inheritors of large sums of wealth who acquired their vast fortunes for no other reason than the fact that they were born into a particular family, are commonly viewed with an unspoken disdain, though they are envied by the less affluent nonetheless. Those who live in a higher tax bracket tend to be judged based on the effort that they themselves put into acquiring their money.
Accepting gain from the efforts of another, being given something of great value that cost us nothing, goes against our sense of dignity and self-respect. Sure, we all would like to win the lottery, but we seldom hear much about any abiding happiness or satisfaction in the lives of those who have. We read stories about the “crazy” individual who wins millions of dollars, yet retains his employment, continuing to work a back-breaking job for paltry wages, though now all financial motivation for doing so is gone. Maybe he is crazy, or maybe he has an insight into human nature that many of us lack.
It is for this reason that the second step in receiving Salvation proves so difficult for so many people. Few will ever make it to the first step: recognizing that they are sinners and identifying their own sinfulness as a problem that must be solved before they will ever find peace with God. Fewer still will make it to this second step: admitting that they themselves are utterly powerless to do anything about it. Many cults and false religions concede that man is a depraved creature, but their approach to overcoming this obstacle is quite different from how the Bible counsels us to deal with our sinfulness. With the very same notions in mind that we mentioned about independence and self-reliance, they attempt to make themselves presentable to God by “pulling themselves up by the boot-straps”, seeking to conquer this problem of sin through their own efforts.
A Problem We Cannot Fix
We cannot reform ourselves through self-effort because it is simply impossible for us to change what we are. We are sinners, and though we might bridle our outward behavior, acting like what we think a good and moral person should, we are wholly incapable of changing the sinful nature that dwells inside us. Putting on appearances does not make us a good person; our heart, our inward thoughts, remain sinful and defiled. Jesus showed in the Sermon on the Mount that God sees beyond our words and actions, looking into our hearts, perceiving our thoughts and intentions. Our performance might be impeccable, but as the leopard attempting to erase his spots, so are we unable to erase our sin.
Changing our behavior, striving to do the right thing, and following the Ten Commandments might make us better citizens and more admirable people in the eyes of others, but doing so in no way cleanses us from our sin. As far as God is concerned, none of these things brings us one step closer to Salvation or being made right with Him. Our very nature is at odds with God. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans:
“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” (Romans 8:7)
The “carnal mind” is the unregenerate, natural, sinful mind that we are each born with. It is our default attitude and mindset toward the things of God that remains our compelling disposition unless God intervenes and gives us a new nature. This mind is simply incapable of being reformed, it is unable to will itself to become pure and holy. We might be able to change the way we speak and act, fooling those around us, but we will never be able to convince God that we are something which we are not. Our sin problem is not one that we can fix.
One of the most insidious spiritual sedatives known to man, numbing him to his condition before God and lulling him into a self-righteous stupor, is the notion of comparative morality. We all have the tendency to believe that, as long as we are not as bad as others, then we are all right in the eyes of God. For some reason, conventional wisdom seems to dictate that the Lord will only condemn the very worst of humanity, that He is “grading on a curve.” Interestingly enough, each of us will invariably put themselves on the “safe” side of that curve. Not many people ever consider anything that they have personally done as being severe enough to deserve punishment. We all have excuses, alibis, extenuating circumstances, and explanations which we feel alleviate our responsibility for even our worst offenses.
A liar considers himself morally superior to a thief. The thief feels that he is much more noble than the murderer, who in turn believes himself to be not nearly as detestable as the mass murderer or malevolent dictator. Most of us will always have someone else that we can point to whose actions are much more deplorable than our own. And even the worst of sinners are so often driven by a misguided, delusional perception of reality that they actually believe that they are justified in committing their heinous deeds. Few people honestly believe that they themselves are bad or immoral, feeling that as long as their own ethics are better than average they will be acquitted in the end.
While the courts of this world are at the mercy of time restraints, financial limitations, and the pressures of political expediency, we can be assured that the Judgment Seat of God Almighty is influenced by no such restrictions. It is true that many “lesser” criminals in our legal systems are let go in order to concentrate efforts on the prosecution of the bigger fish, the cutting of deals and solicitations of plea bargains being made in order to tighten the noose around the most culpable. Yet if we could imagine a court system unhindered by limited time, unrestricted by monetary budgets, and with a complete and perfect access to all existing evidence, we would begin to understand the resources with which an omniscient and omnipotent God is able to judge the sins of humanity.
The Rock Throwing Contest
Three young men entered a “Rock Throwing Contest” at a county fair. All three were quite strong and very athletic. Each felt capable of winning the top prize, certain that victory would be theirs. The first young man stepped up to the throwing line, selected a large stone from the pile, and began his wind-up. Having hurled the rock with all his might, the man beamed with pride as he soaked in the crowd’s approving adoration and waited for the results of his effort to be measured. Nearly 40 yards – a very impressive distance considering the weight of the rocks they were using that day.
Next, the second man, a barrel-chested strongman weighing 50 pounds more than the first competitor, stepped up to the mark to take his turn. This man decided to take a running start at the line and let out a thunderous yell when the rock left his outstretched hand. This time, the crowd stood to their feet and cheered loudly as this second rock landed some 20 yards beyond the first. Finally, the third man slowly made his way to the rock pile, selected the very largest stone from the bunch, and closed his eyes, drawing several long breaths deep into his lungs. This behemoth dwarfed both of the first two contestants, being much larger and more muscular than either of them. Starting even farther back behind the throwing line, he ran as fast as his powerful legs would carry him, his eyes fixed in a concentrated gaze, a gaze that focused far beyond where either of the first two rocks had landed.
A deafening cry of release escaped from this giant’s mouth as he sent his rock, which appeared to be no more than a pebble in his mighty grasp, sailing high overhead, appearing to gain altitude even as it flew far beyond the first two stones. When the boulder finally came crashing to the earth it felt as if the entire field shook under its mass. The onlookers cheered and applauded their admiration for their champion, the hulking man who panted breathlessly before them, his head held high as he basked in the pride of his feat. The contest judges asked the referee to please repeat the measurement, though all in attendance has clearly heard the astounding number. Nearly 80 yards of ground stood between the throwing line and where the rock had come to rest.
As the crowd cheered on, the clear victor of the contest made his way up to the platform to receive his recognition and accolade. But even as he walked toward the judges, one of them was already making an announcement to the spectators: “Unfortunately, none of the contestants has qualified this time, there will be no winner at this year’s event.”
Outraged by this new development, the “winner” demanded an explanation for why he was being denied what he had rightfully earned.
“You threw your rock 78 yards”, he was told, “but in order to win, you must throw it at least 1,000 miles.”
I give this fictional illustration in order to show the fallacy we make when we suppose that we are competing against one another in order to gain God’s favor. The three competitors in the contest all believed that their objective was only to do better than the other two, and as long as they did so, they would be victorious. But the standard to be reached in order to receive the prize had nothing at all to do with the distance anyone else achieved. Throw the rock 1,000 miles and the prize is yours. This was the only condition for victory. While the second man did significantly better than the first, and the third man did remarkably better than either of the first two, none of them was really very close to “winning” the contest at all. When we are talking about a thousand miles, ten or twenty yards really doesn’t make much difference whatsoever. In light of how short all three had really come, I am certain that the third man would not feel that he had much to boast about after all.
Romans 3:23 tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, not the glory of someone else. God’s perfect holiness is the standard against which we all are measured. If we are to engage in comparative morality, then the perfection of God is the morality with which we are to be compared. We are not judged by whether or not we can throw our rock a little farther than someone else, but whether or not we can throw it a thousand miles.
The Straws Are Brushed Away
“And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:26-27)
If the prospect of trying to live up to God’s perfect standard seems impossible, then you are right where God wants you to be. When God gave His Laws to man, it wasn’t His intention that we would be able to perfectly fulfill His holy requirements. God gave His Commandments to man so that we would recognize just how short we come and that recognition would lead us to cry out to Him. God didn’t set the “thousand mile” mark so that we would endlessly keep attempting to reach it, thinking that someday we would! The Lord has shown us just how unreachable His holiness is for us. God wants us to reach the point where we acknowledge the futility of trying to come to Him based on our own merits (which are no merits at all), we recognize the hopelessness of being justified by the works of our own hands, and we admit the absurdity of our belief that we are in any way able to satisfy the righteous expectations of an infinitely holy God.
The Bible’s summation of the heart of man apart from God is very forthright and extremely blunt. Rather than placate our ego, the Word of God gets down to the heart of the matter, candidly diagnosing our condition, revealing without minced words how far it is we have fallen. Our time is too short, our predicament too grave, and God’s love too strong for Him to allow us to hold out any hope of redeeming ourselves. No, He mercifully brushes away any and all straws at which we grasp, bringing us to the point of utter desperation, a desperation that can find no solace in the illusion of self-reformation.
It was not the Pharisee, practicing his own comparative morality, exalting himself above the tax collector toward whom he felt such contempt, who was justified with God, but the tax collector himself who with downcast eyes and a humble heart cried out to God: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:10-14). When we honestly believe that we are incapable of helping ourselves, who else can we turn to but the Lord? Fortunately, although we are unable to do anything to make ourselves right with God, He has done something. We may not be able to bridge the gap between ourselves and our Creator in order to be at peace with God, but He has bridged that gap and made the way. In the next chapter, we will look at what God has done so that we can be saved.