It’s been said, “addition to the work of Christ is the greatest subtraction of all.” J. Gresham Machen, in his book, Christianity & Liberalism, includes a pointed section on the supreme importance of clinging solely to the all-sufficient work of Christ in the gospel, and the great necessity of guarding against the abandonment of the true gospel by adding to it our own efforts. Speaking of the letter to the Galatians, and Paul’s fierce words against the Judaizers (a religious group who believed that circumcision was necessary, in addition to Christ’s work, for salvation), Machen writes:
“About many things the Judaizers were in perfect agreement with Paul. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah; there is not a shadow of evidence that they objected to Paul’s lofty view of the person of Christ. Without the slightest doubt, they believed that Jesus had really risen from the dead. They believed, moreover, that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation. But the trouble was, they believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer’s own effort to keep the Law. From the modern point of view the difference would have seemed to be very slight. Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that keeping the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected to faith. The difference concerned only the logical—not even, perhaps, the temporal—order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified….
…Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all” (emphases mine).
[Taken from J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (new ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 20-21.]
Ray Ortlund is quoted as saying, “self-justification is the deepest impulse in the fallen human heart.” So easy it is to slip into the place where we allow our confidence before the throne of God to be based on the work of Jesus and something we’ve done:
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I’ve been baptized.”
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I go to church.”
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I only read the KJV.”
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I haven’t committed any ‘really bad’ sins.”
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I don’t drink alcohol.”
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I responded to an altar call.”
“I’m saved because of what Jesus did, and I prayed the prayer.”
God help us to guard against the temptation of believing that our right position before him depends on anything other than the all-sufficient work of Jesus in our place! The good news of the gospel is that the sinner is saved completely by grace through faith in Christ alone. We are not called to add to his work, but helplessly receive it by faith. Simply stated, we’re saved by what Jesus has done, not what we do. Any other “gospel” that demands addition to the work of Christ is no gospel at all.