Recently, an internationally recognized pastor observed that, “What you are is more important than what you do.” He was, of course, absolutely correct in his assessment. And though it might be easy to believe otherwise and consequently to behave as though what we do is of paramount importance, the Bible speaks clearly and consistently to the truth expressed by the minister I heard. Consider the following facts.
We are saved exclusively because of what we are not because of what we do. In the first place, our very salvation depends upon who we are rather than what we do. Nothing is more foundational to our entire spiritual existence than the doctrine of salvation. And in that regard, no one is saved by works. Paul gives the brief but definitive statement of this truth: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20a). The greatest philanthropist cannot earn salvation. The most zealous and faithful religious devotee cannot win salvation. The most self-sacrificing servant cannot merit salvation. The Word of God is unyielding on this point: “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (Isa. 64:6b).
Clearly, salvation does not result from what we do; rather, it is what we are that saves us. If we are regenerated, if we are cleansed, if we are justified, if we are sanctified—all by the doing of God, not man—then we are saved. If by faith and through the One who was “made . . . to be sin on our behalf,” we have “become the righteousness of God in Him” (II Cor. 5:21), then, and then only, we are saved. For “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:5-7).
We are blessed primarily because of what we are not because of what we do. This may sound strange, if not absolutely wrong. But the reality is that blessing from God depends first and foremost upon what we are rather than what we do. Consider, for example, two people of roughly equal means who each put $100 in the offering plate. The first man is a believer who loves the Lord and gives his offering out of love for the Lord and thankfulness for his salvation and the blessings he has received from the Lord. The second man is unsaved but puts $100 in the offering to salve his conscience and in hope of buying some favor from God. Both men have done the same thing, but only one will be blessed of the Lord. The prophet Amos makes clear that the Lord adamantly rejects external good works that fail to reflect a truly saved and submissive heart: “I [the Lord] hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps” (5:21-23).
Others are blessed primarily because of what we are not because of what we do. The operative word here is primarily. While it is true that $100 donated by a thief feeds as many mouths as $100 donated by a faithful saint, that benefit is temporal. Eternal blessing accrues only from the doing of a righteous man or woman. Anyone can give a cup of cold water, but when that water is given in the name of the Lord and for His honor, the believer who receives it rejoices in the Lord and the unbeliever who receives it may be open to the gospel. Martha served while Mary sat. We would be inclined to praise Martha’s diligence and look askance at Mary’s negligence, yet it was Mary who truly blessed the Lord and was commended for her behavior—not for what she did, but for who she was, namely, one who loved the Lord and wanted to fellowship in His presence.
We have been saved to serve, it’s true. But worthwhile service originates from a redeemed life and a thankful heart. What we are is foundational and determines the value of what we do: as a person “thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Pro. 23:7a; KJV). When we are what we ought to be, we will do what we ought to do.
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