If Only I Had Been Saved By Merit!

One of the hardest tasks for every Christian is to deeply believe and forever remember that we’ve been saved by grace. This is a lifelong challenge because our natural tendency is always to veer back to merit, to assume that we’ve been saved by something we are, something we’ve got, or something we’ve accomplished. Grace—unmerited favor—is too much for our sinful minds to accept and for our sinful hearts to embrace. The reason we need to hear the gospel again and again is to recalibrate ourselves according to the truth: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8). Maybe it is worth the challenge of asking this: How would I live if I had been saved by merit rather than grace?

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If I had been saved by merit, I could be proud of myself. I could be proud and perhaps even smug because to at least some degree my salvation would have depended upon me. It would have had its genesis somewhere within, in some little glimpse of grace or glimmer of goodness. I would have reason to boast as the owner of something that drew God’s attention and merited God’s favor. But since I’m saved by grace, I can only ever be humble, to acknowledge that I’ve done absolutely nothing to make myself worthy, and that all I’ve received has been apart from my efforts, apart from my actions, and even apart from my desires. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).

If I had been saved by merit, I could favorably compare myself to others. If I had earned salvation based on some little internal trace of goodness, I could rightly compare myself with others to wonder why they hadn’t been saved. Do I have some goodness intrinsic to me that they do not have? Or am I just sufficiently motivated to identify and exercise that bit of goodness? Either way, I could compare myself to them and win the comparison. I could set myself apart from the mass of humanity. But as it stands, I have no right to compare myself to others and if I do, will only see greater evidence of my deep sinfulness. We are all totally depraved, all equally helpless at the foot of the cross, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

If I had been saved by merit, I could demand merit of others. If I had merited the favor of God, it would be proof that we exist within a world of merit, a world in which good things are dispensed to those who deserve them according to the things they are, the things they’ve accomplished, or perhaps even the things they’ve promised to do or become. I could then make this demand of others, that just as I merited the favor of God, they must merit my favor. I could extend love and respect only to the few who prove themselves worthy of it. But I live in a world of grace and have been saved only because God chose to extend his grace to me. Therefore, I am obligated to extend grace to others. How could I withhold the very thing that has been given to me? “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you” (Matthew 18:32-33).

If I had been saved by merit, I could make demands. If I had earned my salvation, I could negotiate with God for more favor, for more privileges, for more benefits. I could hold up my list of accomplishments and demand fair compensation. I could compare what has been given to others and make the case for why I am deserving of all that God has given them and more besides. But since salvation is a gift, I can joyfully receive even the smallest benefit and the least privilege as a gift rather than a wage. I can know that even the smallest bit of favor is far more than I deserve and I can be content with only that. “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8).

One of the hardest tasks for every Christian is to deeply believe and forever remember that we’ve been saved by grace. One of the sweetest disciplines for every Christian is to meditate upon the grace that God extends to the undeserving. This is the grace in which we live, the grace upon which we stand. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoiced in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).