“Unattainable”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
Many people acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, but are mistaken about achieving salvation. Some look at forgiveness, righteousness, and salvation as within their own power to grasp. On the contrary, Paul tells us,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 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, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3.4-7)
He explains this further in the first several chapters of Romans, making it clear that we are unable to attain righteousness through our own will and actions. It’s not that we have no choice in the matter, but rather that we all have already forfeited any claim on the right to eternal life, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23). Just like Adam and Eve, we had our chance, and we blew it. Mercifully, while we can’t possibly achieve a standing of righteousness before the Lord, Jesus is able to give it to us, and through the blood of his sacrifice he offers us justification and salvation from certain condemnation.
On the other hand, some focus so much on what Jesus does, that they neglect their own role in becoming justified before God. The mistake on this side is to say that, because salvation is not something we can earn ourselves, our actions and decisions have no bearing on our eternal life or death. That’s an attractive idea to someone struggling against sin and falling under its power, but it’s just not what God said! First of all, the once-saved-always-saved assumption is utterly false, as demonstrated in Galatians 5.4, Hebrews 3.12 & 6.4-8, 2 Peter 2.20-22 & 3.17, 1 John 5.16, 2 John 8, Revelation 2 & 3, and many others. On top of that minor problem, God’s word makes it very clear that our manner of life must change—that we must imitate and embody the righteousness of Christ, not just wear it as a label.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2.8-10)
Paul also asks in Romans 6.2, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” These two, along with many other passages, make it abundantly clear that, although perfect righteousness is an unattainable goal for us in the physical world, it’s still one God expects us to pursue, with his help.
This twin misunderstanding also applies on a larger scale, to the salvation of the whole world. On the one hand, it’s quite plain from things Jesus says, things the Apostles say, and the visions God gave to John, that the world will never become one great, happy church, striving in unison to praise God and live righteously. For example,
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15.19-20)
all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3.12-13)
And finally, in the latter part of Revelation 19, Christ appears on a white horse, wearing a robe dipped in blood, and striking down the nations, treading “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (v15). Does that sound like the world has voluntarily submitted itself and confessed that Jesus is Lord? So, it’s pretty clear that no matter how hard we try, no matter how skillfully we preach the Gospel, no matter how many sacrifices we make, no matter how many hours we put in, no matter how tirelessly we plead, we will not convert the world to Christ.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Just as pursuing righteousness in our individual lives is not only worthwhile but compulsory, so is the pursuit of teaching the world about Jesus. He told his apostles to
“make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28.19-20)
Why should his followers chase an unattainable goal? Because he wants us to do so. Because it serves his purpose. Because even though we won’t ever get the world to serve Christ, we will convince some. Our job is to plant and water, but God gives the growth (1Co 3.6). “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him,” (He 2.8), but we look forward to the time when God finishes putting all his enemies under Christ’s feet, when we can finally shout with the angels in heaven, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Re 11.15). We aren’t able to bring about that end ourselves, but God can. And God wants your hands to contribute to the work.