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What if we’re wrong about salvation?

The Bible states clearly that salvation is a free gift. Still, what if I'm wrong?


A girl I know says she believes she is going to go to heaven because she has done more good things than bad things. I explained to her that my salvation is a free gift. She asked, what if you’re wrong? What if we have to work for it? For a period in my life I did immoral and wrong things. If she’s right, then I am doomed to hell.

That’s not what I believe. The Bible states clearly that salvation is a free gift. Still, what if I’m wrong? What if we’re both wrong? Is it possible for us both to be right?


You and your friend can’t both be right, because your views are diametrically opposed. But your question is really two — first, why your friend was mistaken about earning our way into heaven, and second, how to answer the “What if?” question. I’ll take each question in turn.

About earning our way into heaven. Your friend’s view seems to be that her good deeds somehow make God not mind her less numerous bad ones. But love wants what is good for the beloved, and sin destroys us. If God loves us utterly, then in His utterly pure holiness He will inexorably hate what destroys us, and inexorably reject our sin. He will not tolerate even a speck of it in us. That means that we have to get rid of it completely — not only must we get rid of the guilt of it, we must get rid of the tendency to commit it. We have no power in ourselves to do this; it can be done only by repenting and giving ourselves up to the Rescuer, Jesus Christ. His sacrifice on the Cross paid the price for our guilt, and His Spirit cleanses and changes us so that by the time we are in Heaven we will no longer even desire to commit sin.

When people say they are good enough to please God already, they aren’t being honest with themselves. Once one of my students asked if he could talk about God with me. I said OK. He told me he didn’t see why he couldn’t be good without God. I asked him why he didn’t. He said, “Because I think I’m a decent person.” I replied, “If you think your decency is high enough for God, your idea of God must be pretty low.” At first he was shocked. But then I asked him whether he thought he could go a week without selfishness, without resentment, without lust. I asked whether he thought he could go a day, an hour, 10 minutes. He got the point, because he knew he couldn’t. By myself, neither can I. If that’s what it takes to get into heaven, nobody will get in. That’s why the Gospel is called the “Good News”: God has offered us a way back, a way which we could never have made for ourselves.

Now about the “What if?” question. The time to worry about a “What if” is when there is good reason to believe that the “What if” is true. To worry about a “What if” when there is no reason to believe that it is true makes no sense, because you can ask “What if” about anything. I can’t see any cars on the street, but what if there is one I haven’t noticed and I’ll be killed if I step off the curb? I think I’m sane, but what if I’m really crazy? I don’t believe in monsters in the closet, but what if they are in there after all? Fortunately, you have good reason to believe that your friend’s “What if” is not true. Consider Christ’s promises! See what He has already done in your life! You have experienced His forgiveness, and even your desire to sin has begun to change. Why would God do this for you if it was all a trick and you were doomed to Hell after all? Is our sin too strong for Almighty God to overcome?

A final thought. The fact that salvation is a free gift doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care what we do, and there is certainly a sense in which we do have to work for it. It may take sweat and tears to stay tuned in to the One who saves us from our sins, and to continue to trust and to follow Him. That’s why Paul told the Philippians, “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” But he didn’t mean that we save ourselves from our sins. On the one hand Paul writes to the Ephesians “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But in the very next verse he says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Get the point? God does care about our good works — we’re not saved by them, but we are certainly saved for them. He doesn’t say “Get clean, and then I’ll save you.” He saves us so that He can clean us up.

I think the reason you are torturing yourself with the “What if?” question is that your heart is condemning you for your former sins. But you can be freed from this distress. Is Christ developing His love in you? I can see from your letter that He is. John says “By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”

Grace and peace,


Copyright 2003 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

J. Budziszewski

Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

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