Does God require anything of us for us to receive eternal life? In John 3:16, perhaps the best-known scripture in the Bible, God says He will grant eternal life to those people who have faith in Jesus Christ. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
What a wonderful, inspiring offer from our Creator-to freely give eternal life to anyone who believes in His Son.
But is that all there is to it? Based on this scripture, many believe that all one must do for salvation is to "accept Jesus," and, at that point of acceptance, one's eternal life will be assured. Is this what the Bible says?
It is clear that God gives us eternal life out of His deep love for humanity. As the apostle Paul explains: "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins," but "God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . ." (Ephesians. 2:1, 4, 5).
Later in the same chapter, Paul further explains the way we receive eternal life: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8, 9). Eternal life comes as a result of God's grace. It is His gift, unearned and undeserved on our part, freely imparted to us.
No one can earn eternal life
These scriptures make it plain that eternal life is by the grace of God through faith in Jesus, not by our own efforts or works of obedience. No one will ever be able to boast that he has earned or that he deserves the gift of eternal life. Salvation is God's to give, not ours to demand.
But back to our question. Is anything required on the part of the ones receiving God's wonderful gift of eternal life?
If there is an authority on receiving eternal life, it has to be Jesus Christ. After all, He is the one through whom we receive it.
Christ is called the author of our salvation: ". . . Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:8, 9).
Since salvation comes by faith, what does this scripture mean when it speaks of "eternal salvation to all who obey Him?" If Christ's saving us is a gift we cannot possibly earn, what does obedience have to do with eternal life? If we must do something to receive God's promise, how can it be a gift?
Christ the authority on eternal life
Since Jesus is the author of our salvation, let's examine a few of His statements that tell us how we can receive that gift.
During Jesus Christ's ministry on earth, He involved Himself in many disagreements with Pharisees, the religious leaders who demanded strict, legalistic obedience to their interpretations of God's law. But, although Jesus had many sharp disagreements with them, He never said that obedience to God's law was unnecessary or wrong. In fact, He said that, if we expect to enter God's Kingdom, we must be even more righteousness than the Pharisees were (Matthew 5:20).
The Pharisees' problem was that they didn't understand the reason for obeying God's laws. Notice Jesus' comments to them in Matthew 23:23: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone."
Jesus commended the scribes and Pharisees for their obedience, but said they had missed something: They had failed to learn the far more important lessons that should have resulted from obedience to God's law and the very purpose for it. Christ's point is that obedience is important, not just for the exercise of doing what we're told to do, but because through obedience we can learn the godly traits of sound judgment, loving mercy and steadfast faith.
In Matthew 7:21 Jesus made another striking statement: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven."
He made it clear that merely acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord and Master-saying "Lord, Lord"-is not sufficient. To inherit the Kingdom, we must do something. We must do the will of the Father, as He clearly stated.
But, if we must do something to receive eternal life, doesn't that contradict the notion that it is indeed a gift? Aren't we saved just because we believe in Jesus Christ?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "belief" as: "1. The mental act, condition or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing. 2. Mental acceptance of or conviction in the truth or actuality of something."
Jesus wants us to understand that there is more to receiving eternal life than just a mental act or mental acceptance. Our conviction that He is our Savior must be more than just a warm, comforting thought or intellectual concept. Jesus warns that simply calling on His name or recognizing Him as "Lord" is not enough. Jesus taught that God requires us to demonstrate our faith by obediently doing the will of the Father.
Salvation is just the beginning
Jesus Christ emphasized that following Him requires a great deal of effort and sacrifice from those who would be His disciples. The acceptance of Jesus as Savior leads to challenges, choices and difficult decisions: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 16:24, 25).
This level of effort involves much more than mere mental or intellectual acceptance. Acceptance of and faith in Jesus requires that our priorities change, as He made clear. Our lives are no longer just our own, but are dedicated to following Christ. If we do what we want, He said we will lose our lives. We are required instead to do what Jesus commands.
This demands living, active, deeply committed obedience, which demonstrates our faith in His sacrifice for us and in His leadership over our lives.
The principle is illustrated in an example recorded in Luke 19:11-27. In a parable, Jesus compares Himself to a wealthy nobleman who leaves on a long trip. As the nobleman departs, he gives his servants money and instructs them to invest it during his absence.
Upon his return, the nobleman demands to know what each servant has accomplished. He rewards two of his servants because they increased what he had given them. The third servant claimed he was so afraid of losing the initial amount that he didn't even try to invest it.
That servant's fear and subsequent lack of obedience proved he was unfaithful. In the parable, Jesus Christ Himself, represented as the nobleman, judges the unfaithful servant to be an enemy and condemns him (verse 27).
The parable illustrates that obedience, works and spiritual growth prove our faithfulness. It also illustrates that obedience produces the results and accomplishments God expects us to achieve.
On the other hand, refusal to obey demonstrates a lack of faith and will result in condemnation.
Beginning of lifelong commitment
Another lesson we learn from this parable is that being chosen for eternal life isn't the end; it is only the beginning.
As Paul expressed it, "And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy and blameless, and above reproach in His sight-if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel . . ." (Colossians 1:21-23).
Notice that the chance to receive eternal life is conditional. To remain holy and blameless before God, we must "continue in the faith." We must put forth effort. We must produce.
Conversion is only the beginning of God's work in your life. Not only that, it is also the beginning of your work for God. More is involved in receiving eternal life than sitting by and passively expecting God to hand it over to us. We know it is a gift and that obedience to God doesn't earn what He freely gives us, but we also are required to put that gift to work. We must demonstrate our faith by obedience.
In Ephesians 2, quoted earlier, Paul states that we are saved by God's grace and not by any works we can do. However, he then concludes his comments on receiving eternal life through grace by stating, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (verse 10, emphasis added throughout).
Paul says the purpose of our receiving eternal life is that we can begin a life of good works.
Rewards according to works
A wealthy young man approached Jesus and asked Him how he could receive eternal life. "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" the man asked (Matthew 19:16). Christ's reply, in verse 17, might shock some who think obedience to God's law is unnecessary: "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments."
Jesus didn't answer that nothing is required other than believing in God. He told the young man that he must obey the commandments of God to receive the gift of eternal life. Jesus didn't say obedience would earn eternal life (in fact, nothing can earn it), but He did make it plain that it is required.
When the young man was unwilling to sacrifice his physical wealth to dedicate himself to Christ, the disciples were confused. They apparently thought that, with all his talent and ability, this impressive young man was the kind of person who deserved eternal life. "When His disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, 'Who then can be saved?' But Jesus looked at them and said to them, 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'" (verses 25, 26).
Jesus reemphasizes that, although obedience to God's commandments is required, it does not earn eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn eternal life by his own efforts.
For one thing, our efforts will always fall short, as illustrated by this young man's lack of commitment. And, no matter what we give up or do, our actions cannot earn God's gift to us (verses 27-29). Eternal life is impossible except by the grace of God, but that reality does not relieve us of the requirement of obedience.
Free but not cheap
You may have heard the expression, "Salvation is free, but it isn't cheap." Our gift of life cost Christ His life. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, willingly surrendered His life that we might enjoy the gift of eternal life. In turn, He expects us to surrender our lives for salvation, as well. "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26, 27).
Our love for and commitment to Jesus Christ and God the Father must be more important to us than any other relationship. Each of us must be willing to bear his "cross," to faithfully follow Jesus even through life's most difficult challenges.
Verses 28-33 carry that thought, warning us to consider carefully that accepting the gift of eternal life comes at the highest cost we can imagine. "... Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple" (verse 33). As Jesus gave His life for us, we must be willing to give our lives to follow Him.
Obedience earns us nothing
Jesus used a story to illustrate that we can earn nothing through obedience. "And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come at once and sit down to eat'? But will he not rather say to him, 'Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink'? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Luke 17:7-10).
When a servant meets a minimum standard required of him by his master, he has simply done his duty, according to Jesus Christ. We must realize that obedience earns nothing; obeying is our duty and is required for us to receive the gift of eternal life.
In Matthew 16:27 Jesus makes a vital point about the relationship between works and eternal life: "For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works." When Jesus Christ returns, He will judge and reward us according to our efforts, works and obedience.
Notice that Jesus will be looking for something when He returns: "And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last. Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter through the gates into the city" (Revelation 22:12-14).
When He returns, Jesus Christ will reward each of us according to our works. Those who have kept His commandments can claim the right to the gift of eternal life!
Obedience is the evidence of faith
But, if God wants to freely give us eternal life based on our faith in Jesus, what does obedience have to do with anything?
Obedience is not an attempt to make ourselves righteous or to earn God's favor and eternal life. Instead, obedience is an expression of our deep, abiding faith in His promises. Even though we realize God requires us to obey, we learn that obedience is not something we do reluctantly or begrudgingly.
Instead, obedience is a willing expression of our love and gratitude for all He is willing to give. It is a confident and enthusiastic expression of our faith in God's promise of the gift, for "without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).
The apostle John confirms that there is no contradiction between faith and obedience. On the contrary, there is a clear connection between the two: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1 John 5:3-5).
Through obedience, we demonstrate our faith in Jesus, overcome the world and accomplish God's purpose. John also adds that obedience to God's commands is not an unreasonable burden.
How Abraham proved his faith
To emphasize the importance of faith, Paul said in Romans 4:13 that Abraham's righteousness was imputed to him and promises were made to him because of his faith, not his works of obedience to the law. But how did God know Abraham was faithful?
Remember Jesus' words in Matthew 7:21, quoted earlier: Belief is pointless unless it is proven by action and obedience.
The apostle James explains that faith and obedience go hand in hand: "But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
"And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works and not by faith only" (James 2:23, 24).
The point is made again that works do not make us righteous, justify us or earn us eternal life, but the works of obedience provide the evidence and proof that we have faith, by which we are saved.
Eternal life is free, and obedience is a requirement. At first those two statements may seem contradictory. Yet, as Jesus Christ Himself clearly taught, there are things we must do if we want to inherit eternal life. He specifically mentioned God's commandments in this regard, as we read earlier. At the time of the judgment, He will proclaim a stern message for those who have believed in Him, but whose belief never translated into loving submission to God's law: "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:23).
Jesus Christ and the writers of the Bible teach faithful commitment to God, demonstrated by obedience to His law. Obedience does not contradict or deny faith. In fact, obedience establishes faith. Obedience demonstrates faith. Obedience is based on faith. Obedience to God's law is required of those who will receive the gift of eternal life. GN