In practically every area of life—school, sports, work—we are judged by our performance. The American work ethic is built on effort, sweat, competition, and hard work. Growing up, Americans are taught that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; you get what you pay for; if it’s to be, it’s up to me; if you want something done right, do it yourself; and God helps those who help themselves.
So when it comes to spiritual matters, many assume God relates to us on the same performance-based ethic. You may feel that you have to earn God’s approval, deserve God’s love, and work your way to heaven by doing good or trying to be perfect. If you’ve thought that, I’ve got good news for you: that’s not at all how it works! Here’s what the Bible says about what you must do to be saved: “The people asked Jesus, ‘What are the things God wants us to do?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work God wants you to do is this: Believe the One he sent.’”40 Salvation is not a matter of trying, but trusting. It’s not a matter of proving you deserve it, but accepting it by faith, knowing you don’t deserve it.
The idea of grace is so foreign and antithetical to the popular misconceptions about God and even other religions that when the Bible talks about salvation as a free gift of God’s grace, many people respond with a blank stare. There is a mental and emotional disconnect. We are so used to receiving conditional love (“I will love you if…” or “I love you because…”) that unconditional grace is an unfamiliar and even uncomfortable concept.
Religion is man’s attempt to please God. Grace is God reaching down to man. Every religion boils down to one word: “do!” Do our list of things, and you will earn God’s love. Each religion has its own unique list of rules, and if you compare the lists, you discover they are often contradictory. But the big idea behind all religions is that you must work, strive, and put forth great effort in order to get God to like you.
So God came to earth as Jesus essentially to say: “You guys have got it all wrong! Of course doing good things matters, but it doesn’t make me love you any more or any less. My love for you is unlimited, unconditional, unchanging, and undeserved. So let me teach you a new concept called grace. You can’t purchase it, work for it, or be good enough to merit it. It’s a gift that will cost me a lot, but it is free to you. Everything I do for you, to you, in you, and through you—every single blessing you have in life—is a gift of my grace. I’ve done it all for you.”
While religions are based on the word “do,” salvation is based on the word “done.” When Jesus died for you on the cross, he exclaimed, “It is finished!”41 It’s extremely important to note that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished,” because he wasn’t! He had more to do. Three days later, he came back to life, resurrected from death, and walked around Jerusalem for forty days. He met with individuals and groups of up to five hundred people before ascending back to heaven.
So what was finished? The payment for your salvation! The phrase “it is finished” is actually a single word in Hebrew that Jesus cried out. It was stamped on bills that had been paid off and on prison sentences that had been completed. It meant “paid in full!” Religion says, “do!” Jesus says, “done!” He has already taken care of the expense of your salvation. Years ago, a guy asked me, “What must I do to get to heaven?” I shocked him by replying, “You’re too late.” He didn’t expect that answer and anxiously responded, “What do you mean, it’s too late to do anything?” I said, “What needed to be done was done for you two thousand years ago by Jesus. All you need to do is accept what he’s already done for you!
There is nothing quite as potent as a focused life, one lived on purpose. The men and women who have made the greatest difference in history were the most focused. For instance, the apostle Paul almost single-handedly spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. His secret was a focused life. He said, “I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.
–Purpose of Christmas, The by Rick Warren