When I was in high school I had a part time job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. The job wasn’t bad, but it was tiring, and by the time I got off, I would be sore all over, aching, and smelling like an odd mix of soap and oily food residue. Some nights were very busy, some nights were slow, but every night that I worked, I stood the entire time.
Anyone who does dishes or laundry knows this very important fact: the job is never done. No matter how efficient you are with washing dishes, as long as you allow people to eat at your house, dishes will continue to get dirty. You can be a ninja with the family laundry—washing clothes like there’s no tomorrow but as long as you allow people to wear clothes at your house, laundry will continue to pile up.
The Levitical priests in the Old Testament also understood this concept; they had a job which was never done. Their job was to show up at the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, every day, accept the offerings of the people, perform the sacrifices, burn the incense, and petition God on behalf of the nation. Their singular focus was to intercede between the nation of Israel and God. And their job was never done. People continued to sin. Atonement continued to be made.
Hebrews 10:11 gives us a picture of this continual work: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”
But look at the next verse, “But when this priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
Did you catch that? He sat down.
This concept gets lost if you don’t understand that the priests never sat down. There were no chairs in the Tabernacle because the work was never done. It’s significant that when Jesus offers a sacrifice on our behalf, it is the final sacrifice. His sacrifice was enough to atone for every sin ever committed or ever to be committed.
So what does that mean for us? If the work is completed, then what do we do? Do we do anything? Can we do anything?
Yes and no.
No, we can’t do anything to add to the work Jesus did. Our sin is taken care of. The only part we play in salvation is to not reject the free gift of God.
But, yes, we are still expected to act on our faith. James tells us that “faith without works is useless” (James 2:20). He makes a case that works of righteousness flow out of our faith. Abraham and Rahab were considered righteous for their deeds. They didn’t do works to make themselves righteous. Their works that flowed out of their faith. James says your faith can’t be genuine if it doesn’t move you to help in practical ways when people are in need.
Paul tells us to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 2:12). What does that mean? Earn your own salvation? Not at all. The next verse clearly states that “it is God who works in you.” God does the work in our lives, indeed he has done the work. But we are still in the process of holy living. It means I surrender my struggle to God, but I’m still responsible to stay away from places where I know I will be tempted. It means God gives me the ability to resist temptation, but I still have to choose to resist it.
If we think of the Christian life as a checklist we will fall into one of two errors: either we will continue adding things to our to-do list, making sure we’re following enough rules to keep out of trouble, or we will think that because Jesus did the work, there’s nothing left to do except coast along through the rest of this life.
But the life of faith is not a checklist. It’s not a quota of good deeds or a passing of a certain entry point. The life of faith is a relationship with God. Like any relationship, it requires continual cultivation. Jesus has already done everything necessary for our salvation. But we are still living out life in a process of becoming more like Christ. We are still being shaped into his image, and we are still living out this faith in obedience.
So what is it? Work completed or work in progress? What is our responsibility in salvation? What do you think?