The most raging religious controversy the world has ever known has been between the do-it-yourself religions and the God-alone-can-save-you kind. Man has always been trying to save himself, to work his way to Heaven, with just a little help from God thrown in. That way he can give himself most of the credit and go his own way.

The first murder was committed by a religionist of the do-it-yourself kind, Cain (the oldest son of the first couple, Adam and Eve). Cain killed his brother Abel, a man who was trusting God (Genesis chapter 4). This was the beginning of the persecution of the true church by the false church. Cain was religious, very religious. He was trying very hard to save himself in his own way, even sacrificing to God and claiming to worship God. He was doing his best to ask God to help him earn his own salvation — but his best wasn’t good enough! His way was not God’s way, but was the way of all false religions.

Those who follow false religions are all dependent upon self-righteousness and their own way. Most of them claim to be worshipping God and seeking a little help from Him to make it, but because they work so hard at trying to earn it, they figure they deserve it-with or without His help-and are quite offended if He doesn’t seem to appreciate their goodness. They say, “Why, look at all we’ve done for You, God! You ought to give us a medal! We really deserve to be saved! If You’re ever going to save anybody, You should save us! If anybody’s going to make it to Heaven, we should certainly make it!”

On the other hand, Abel just did what God told him to do-and he “offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain” (Hebrews 11:4): the sacrifice of pure faith in what God told him to do. By sacrificing a lamb, which was a foreshadowing of Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world (John 1:29), Abel showed that he was trusting God alone to save him. He knew he had only God’s righteousness, and none of his own, and that salvation was purely a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Abel’s humble sacrifice made such a fool out of the hardworking Cain, the self-made man and devout religionist, devoted to his own form of worship, and it so totally exposed the futility and hypocrisy of Cain’s hard work, that Cain was furious. After all his labors of the flesh, his legalistic reasoning, and his demands for salvation in return for all he was doing, Cain was so humiliated that he tried to wipe out the awful truth that his religion had failed to save him — and he did so by killing the man whose simple faith in God’s grace had exposed him.

Thus began the battle royal between pride and humility, between the damned religionists and the saved sinners — the perpetual warfare that has been waged ever since between the false church and the true church, flesh and spirit, works and faith, law and grace, self and God.

This conflict has resulted in some of the greatest misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Scriptures that have ever existed. Most people have been trying to save themselves ever since, with as little thanks to God as possible, and they have twisted the Scriptures to try to prove they could do it! But God can’t help them to save themselves. He does not help those who think they can help themselves, but only those who know they can’t. They can’t save themselves, no matter how much they try to get His help to do it their way.

The religionists of ancient times wound up serving their do-it-yourself religions instead of God, and were destroyed in the flood of His judgments — and Noah and his family alone were saved by the grace of God in the ark. The very waters that destroyed the wicked, unbelieving world delivered the trusting believers (Genesis chapters 6 through 8).

But still the works religionists didn’t learn. As the German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831) observed, the only thing we ever learn from history is that we never learn from history. They were soon at it again, this time building themselves a tower to try to get to Heaven by their own works, to try to make a name for themselves and take credit for their greatness. But that didn’t work either. It only resulted in Babel, or total confusion, and we’ve been suffering from this confusion, this babbling of many languages, ever since (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even the patriarch Abraham tried to pull a few tricks to save himself and his posterity, until God had to show him that it was all by faith and the miracle-working power of God, not by his own efforts (Genesis 20).

When Moses tried to liberate the Hebrews his way, he fell flat on his face before God in the desert when he found out he couldn’t make it on his own.

The children of Israel tried to win battles their way, and were defeated many times when they thought they could save themselves by their military might. Even Samson discovered that he was a weakling without the power of God.

Kings Saul, David, and Solomon all found that they only made fools of themselves whenever they tried to go it on their own. They all learned that only God could save them.

This “grace versus works” debate was the biggest cause of division amongst the early Christians. Could one simply believe and be saved, or was it necessary to also keep some of the hundreds of Jewish religious laws? The Jewish Christians just couldn’t help but believe that Jews were a little bit better than Gentiles, even amongst Christians. “Sure, we believe that Jesus is the Messiah,” they said, “but we still have to help Him save us by keeping the Mosaic Law.” This obnoxious mixture of works and grace so nauseated the apostle Paul that he publicly bawled out Peter for it and spent years fighting it in epistle after epistle (Galatians 2:11-21).

As a young Christian, I too was deceived for a time by the delusive doctrine of off-again, on-again, gone-again eternal insecuritytaught by some churches and “works” religions. But then one day as a teenager, I was thrilled to discover the simple truth of John 3:36. After years of discouragement and defeat and lack of assurance of my own salvation, I found that all I had to do was believe. That was enough! Jesus said, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life” — right now! No ifs, ands, or buts about it! No “providing you’re a good boy or girl and go to church every Sunday,” and none of this “sinless perfection” business.

I just hadn’t been able to make it on my own, and I knew it. It seemed that the harder I tried to be good, the worse I got! As the apostle Paul lamented, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).

That was all there was to it. There was nothing else, no other way, no righteousness of my own, none of my own good works. None of these could keep me saved any more than they could save me in the first place! Only Jesus could do it! Not only had He needed to save me, but He also had to do the good works through me. It was all Jesus, and nothing of myself or my own goodness or self-righteousness — just Jesus. I was so relieved to learn that, as I knew I could never make it otherwise. It had to be God. I just couldn’t do it — so He did!

The trouble with many Christians today is that they’re still living in the Old Testament. Their Christianity is a works religion. Years ago I remember hearing about some missionaries who had gone to Japan. Upon arrival they were asked by the local people, “Are you Old Testament or New Testament Christians?” At first the missionaries didn’t understand what they meant, but they soon found out that “Old Testament Christians” referred to those who placed a great deal of importance on church buildings, ceremonies, formalism, and tradition — those whose religion was primarily a works religion. A “New Testament Christian” was one whose major emphasis was not on the things that are seen — buildings and ceremony and pomp — but rather on the unseen things of the spirit and the simplicity of everyday Christian living, like that of Jesus and His disciples. What a comparison, and how true!

Too many religions and religionists are still living in the past. They have inherited too many hangovers from pagan idolatry with its love and worship of buildings, sanctimonious priesthood, elaborate trappings, complicated ceremonies, and superstitious traditions. Their leaders have exerted a dictatorial stranglehold on the souls of men, making merchandise of them through their insistence on salvation by works — their kind of works, their particular religion, the special corner on God that they claim to have!

In the Old Testament, God had a hard time getting the children of Israel away from the idolatry of Egypt. He used the Mosaic Law as their schoolmaster to teach simple truths through object lessons and rituals: the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, and animal sacrifices. These were types and shadows, analogies, mere pictures of the spiritual realities and eternal truths He was trying to lead them into, almost like you would do with little children (Galatians 3:24-25). He had to take what they understood-the forms and ceremonies that they were familiar with in the religions of Egypt and other heathen nations around them — in a fatherly attempt to audio-visualize for them the genuine spiritual truths of the true mature worship of God Himself. As the apostle Paul says, these were all types of the true (Romans 5:14), mere visual likenesses or illustrations of the unseen realities of the spirit world.

Paul says, “When that which is perfect has come [Jesus’ Second Coming], then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:10-12 KJV).

Paul was saying that even the gifts of the Holy Spirit of this New Testament era are almost like toys, gifts from a loving Father to His simple little children, to help communicate understanding of Himself and His will.

How much more, then, were the material object lessons of the temple worship of the Old Testament childish toys for even tinier children spiritually, to help them understand their heavenly Father’s love? But “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

When Jesus came, He told the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). This is the spiritual era in which we are now living.

But Paul goes even further than this in his prediction to the early Christians of Corinth when he says that the time is coming when we shall see Jesus face to face and put away even these childlike gifts of communication in the spirit. For “whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Even what we have now is only a sample of the glorious realities to come!

In the Old Testament were the illustrations, and in the present New Testament era are the spiritual truths that we have now by faith alone (John 1:17). But when Jesus comes again, we shall see Him as He is and literally be like Him and actually experience the fullness of the realities of God and the world to come!

“Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Flesh or Spirit?, Copyright © 1998-2012, The Family International