It is inherent within human nature to try to earn our way, to work hard physically, mentally, and spiritually. We like to contribute, create, and engage. There is a deep desire within our natural selves not only to earn man's approval, but also to merit God's favor, to work our way to Him, to earn salvation, and pay off our sin debt.
But this attitude of working hard, of trying to measure up, of earning our way to God and finding freedom from sin through self-effort can become a weighty burden. It can feel like we're trying to climb ever higher with an ever-increasing burden of sin, guilt, and shame.
The world we live in appeals to the natural spirit within us by offering their solution to our sin problems - work the program! 12-step groups and recovery groups abound, all of which have us taking one step after another to be free, attempting to climb higher with each one.
Jesus Christ, in answering a question the Jews asked Him, told them about a completely new way to be right with God:
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29).
Ah, this method is entirely different than what our natural selves want to do, what the world and what religion teaches us. There’s no more doing, no more stepping, no more trying, only believing. And this pierces our hearts and transforms our lives!
How radical Jesus’ answer must have been to those religious people who thought being right with God meant keeping God’s Law, measuring up to His requirements, working to please God. Now, we do the works of God by believing in Jesus, and this must have been utterly shocking to them, as it is to us.
But what is it that we are to believe about Jesus to do the work God requires? Muslims and Hindus believe Jesus was a prophet; many cults believe in the teachings of Jesus; most everyone today believes Jesus was a good person who loved children and did good deeds. Is it enough to believe in the teachings, good life, and the miracles of Jesus?
Certainly, those are good and true things to believe about Jesus, but they are entirely insufficient to either make us right with God or to free us from the power of sin.
What we must believe about Jesus is that He is God and that as God He left heaven for earth, was born of a virgin, grew up to manhood, lived a sinless life in the place of all believers, died on a cross for our sin and was buried, and rose on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
This message is simple, but if believed in the heart, it puts us to death with Jesus, and raises us to new life with Jesus, gives us a new heart, new passions, and new power. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Putting faith in the message of Christ crucified and risen saves us from God’s wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10). We no longer fear punishment and eternal separation from God, for Jesus’ death saved us from God’s wrath. So, now, our eternity will be spent in heaven, enjoying “eternal pleasures at God’s right hand” (Psalm 16:11).
Believing this message removes all guilt from our lives, showing us that Jesus was condemned in our place so we can never be (Romans 8:1). This removal of guilt lifts our spirits, puts a smile on our face, and enables us to walk free from shame. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high” (Leviticus 26:13).
This gospel message, when believed, makes us right with God, no matter how wrong we’ve lived in our past. “Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29). On Him, the Father has set His seal of approval, and when we believe in Jesus and His gospel, we are approved as well (Ephesians 1:6).
Believing this good news of Jesus’ finished work on the cross not only makes us right with God, saves us from God’s wrath, justifies us before God, removes our guilt and condemnation, it also breaks the power of canceled sin and sets the captives free! “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).
How does the gospel do all this?
Believing this message fills us with God’s Spirit, enabling us to walk by the Spirit so that we do not gratify the lusts of our flesh (Galatians 5:16). Paul asks the Galatians a rhetorical question to show that they received the Spirit by believing the good news: “So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:5).
The Spirit of God enables us to overcome sin where once we gave up trying. He provides divine power that lifts us out of the pit of sin, fills our hearts with love from God (Romans 5:5), teaches us a new way of living, and empowers us to do so!
Truly believing in Jesus, the message that He came from heaven to make atonement for your sin by His own blood, that He died and rose again for you, is the “work” that God requires. Believing this message makes you right with God, saves you from God’s upcoming wrath, removes your guilt and shame, AND sets you free from sin’s prison and power.