For decades, the most well-known Bible verse was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV). Even those who have very little knowledge of Christianity or the Bible understand the basic premise of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ came to save mankind.
While this concept is often viewed from afar as an abstract concept, it’s much more than that. Jesus coming to save mankind is a spiritual reality and the greatest fact of life. His incarnation into the world is even the marker by which we determine what year it is in western culture. While this fact of Jesus coming to earth to save mankind is well-known in a vague sense, it’s not as well-known in a specific since. By specific I mean in detail. While many in the world understand that Jesus did come to save mankind, not as many understand why.
Perhaps the second most well-known Bible verse is Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Thus, two basic facts of Christianity are understood even from afar: 1) Jesus Christ came to save mankind, and 2) you cannot save yourself. If the question of John 3:16 is “Why did Jesus come to save mankind?” the answer is found in Ephesians 2:8-9: “Because you cannot save yourself.”
But why can’t I save myself? We can’t save ourselves because of the three following reasons.
We Are the Problem
It is a popular thought that good people will go to heaven. If you live a life full of good works and deeds, then you are good to go. There are a few things wrong with this thought. Firstly, we are not as good as we think we are. Secondly, good people don’t go to heaven; saved people go to heaven. One cannot earn a place in heaven by his good works: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5). Salvation is not offered through doing charitable works; it is offered through Jesus Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3).
Nothing we do is good enough to work our way to heaven. Beyond that, for all of the good we do; we do a lot of bad. And even a little bit of bad falls utterly short of the God who “is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). “Sin” is often seen as a bad word, but it literally means to “miss the mark” and is something we do when we break the rules that God has made (see 1 John 3:4).
Sinning is something that we choose to do (James 1:13-15) and the consequences of those actions are spiritual death and separation from God (Romans 6:23; Isaiah 59:1-2). Sin is universal in nature: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That is why Jesus Christ came to earth—to deal with sin—and essentially save us from ourselves.
“There Is a God, You Are Not Him”
God is infinitely superior to humans in both His moral and non-moral attributes. Yet, He seeks a relationship with each one of us. He is superior in every conceivable way and always will be: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isiah 55:9). Feeble humans cannot bridge the gap between themselves and God alone. They need help. They need a mediator. Job made this very same point describing his distance from God, and the lack of ways to fill the difference: “For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both” (Job 9:32-33). Job needed a go-between to make a defense to God. God’s magnitude is part of the reason why we cannot save ourselves, especially when we account the factor of our sin distancing us from God.
Jesus bridges this gap for us: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). He is the only mediator available to access God the Father: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
As Jesus said in John 14:6, nobody gets to the Father except through him. If Jesus were another man like myself, he couldn’t bridge the gap between me and God because he would be experiencing the same distance from God. But Jesus is not just a man, He is also fully God (see Colossians 1:19-20). If it weren’t for this fact, reconciliation to God would be impossible for man. Even the animal sacrifices of Judaism were looking forward to the perfect sacrifice of God in the flesh (see Hebrews 9:11-15).
Christ Would Have Died for no Reason
If salvation was possible for me to achieve based upon my own good deeds, then Jesus didn’t need to die. He didn’t need to leave heaven, live a life of poverty, volunteer to be spat on, mocked, beaten, and nailed to a piece of wood. This is the same point Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21). When we believe that we can somehow save ourselves through our own goodness, we make void God’s grace and empty Christ’s death of its meaning. Christ died because we can’t save ourselves—no matter how hard we try. Thus, “It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).
We cannot save ourselves, but such does not mean that there is nothing we have to do to accept the grace of God. Jesus is still “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). The fact that we cannot save ourselves did not keep the apostle Peter from telling those Jews on Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
We cannot save ourselves, but we can accept the gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ by doing what he has told us to do! Even when we submit to God and perform the good works that he has called us to do (see Ephesians 2:10), all we can say is “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10).
Thank God who saves us not because of our goodness, but in spite of our badness!