Why do so many people believe in salvation by works?
There are many reasons the belief that salvation comes as the result of works is the most commonly held viewpoint.
First, many people expect God to evaluate us the same way we evaluate one another: as long as the good outweighs the bad, everything is okay; do enough good things and you will make God happy and make it into heaven. This misunderstanding is based on the idea that being "good enough" can grant a person access to God in heaven. However, as perfect God, His standard is perfection. Only through His Son Jesus can a person be made right with God and receive eternal life (John 1:12; Acts 4:12).
Second, many misunderstand the commands about doing good deeds in the Bible as the basis of salvation. However, the Bible is clear that doing good deeds is the result of salvation, not the basis of it. Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly states, "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."
Third, many people view God the Father as they do an earthly father. Many people have had performance-based relationships with their father that functioned with the perspective of doing good things to make their father happy and to stay out of trouble. Good behavior was to be rewarded and bad behavior punished. Those who view God in this way can easily misunderstand His role as Father as a Being to be pleased without understanding the importance of knowing God personally through faith in Jesus.
Fourth, many desire a sense of control regarding their afterlife. The idea of performing certain works that will help one reach heaven appeals to those who seek clear lists of rights and wrongs to achieve success. Unfortunately, those who take this approach miss out on two critical issues. First, no one can perform well enough to achieve perfect status before God (Romans 3:23). Second, God does not expect us to perform well enough and has provided Jesus to offer us salvation as a free gift (Romans 6:23).
The Bible does include many commands regarding righteous behaviors to embrace and sinful behaviors to oppose. However, a person does not enter heaven based on how well he or she performs or excels in these areas. Instead, salvation is provided as a free gift. John 3:16 states, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." Romans 6:23 adds, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Many today are similar to the woman at the well in John 4 when it comes to the gift of God's salvation. We see Jesus from a human perspective while He speaks of eternal life. When Jesus addressed her, He said, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10). Our focus must be to see life from His perspective rather than our limited, human view. When we do, we find that He already loves us and offers salvation freely to those who believe.
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