“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Verses like this one are a big part of why protestants tend to be so radically committed to salvation by faith alone. Look at what Paul is saying here closely because this is really important. If we could somehow get ourselves into a right relationship with God by means other than the grace of God as mediated through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then His death was without purpose. It was entirely pointless.
This is the problem with every single argument that we can somehow do something ourselves to affect our standing before God. If our work plays into our salvation in even the slightest amount, then salvation is wholly a response to something we’ve done.
Now, that’s a big statement so let me justify it. Let’s say that Jesus’ death accounted for 99.99% of our salvation. That’s pretty complete, yes? You can add a few more nines after the decimal if it makes you feel better. That’s practically all of it. But, it’s not really all of it. There is some component, however slight, that depends on something else. Let’s say further that this something else is a good deed. Just one. After receiving the 99.99% from Jesus, we need to do just one good deed and then we’re in. It’s almost like an entrance exam. But, without this good deed, you can’t get in.
In this wildly hypothetical situation, our salvation would ultimately come because of what we did. Jesus didn’t get us all the way there. Salvation would thus be something this one good deed merited. Do you know what else we call something given in response to work done? A wage. If you do work for your employer, that employer is legally obligated to pay you the previously agreed upon wages for your labor. If salvation were to come in response to our one good deed, no matter how much of it Jesus won for us on the cross, then salvation is ultimately a wage. It is something owed to us by God.
“But wait!” someone might argue. “God did most of the work for us. In fact, He did practically all of it. All we contributed is one tiny, little bit.” Yes, but without that tiny, little bit, it wouldn’t have been possible. Thus, it all depends on that tiny, little bit. This would mean, ultimately, that salvation wasn’t determined by God, but rather by us. What’s more, if we are the ones to determine our salvation, then God isn’t really greater than us. We are greater than God. We may be grateful that He did most of the work for us, but if some amount of work could get the job done, then we didn’t really need Him for any of it. Jesus’ death was wholly in vain. It’s convenient for us, but not more than that. Any God who would put anyone through an experience like the cross, much less His only Son, as a matter of convenience for someone else isn’t a good God who is worthy of our worship.
Now, make no mistake, good works follow naturally on the heels of our salvation as the overflow of our gratitude for what we have been given in Christ. We naturally love someone who gives us a huge, lifesaving, sacrificial gift, and the way to express our love to God is to love the people around us who are made in Him image (that is, all of them). Thus our natural gratitude to God for the incredible gift of salvation is loving the people around us through good deeds. But, this all comes necessarily after our salvation.
Our salvation comes wholly as a gift of grace from God in response to our submitting ourselves in humble obedience to Jesus as Lord. We contribute not a single thing to it; no amount of work or effort on our part adds to or hastens along the process. Jesus’ death was not in vain. Let us respond to this good news with exceedingly great joy. This means we have a God who is indeed worthy of our worship. He is indeed radically committed to our being in a relationship with Him even when we’re not. He is indeed God and we are indeed not. This is the world as it was intended to be. This is the world that is worthy of being a part.