“Shawn, it is absolutely false for you to say that I believe in salvation by works. That is a lie. I do not believe that,” the priest insisted. “All I say is you have to try to be good. If you’re not at least trying, you can’t be saved.”
What’s the difference between teaching (a) that you must be good to be saved and (b) that you must try to be good to be saved?
But it’s still salvation by works.
Adding the word “try” only modifies the necessity of works, but does not eliminate them from the condition of salvation.
When I tell my kids they have to at least try grandma’s chicken salad sandwich—with the bizarre mixture of grapes and nuts and raisins and celery and who knows what else—they actually have to take a bite, chew, and swallow. They don’t have to eat the whole sandwich, but they do have to eat a little to satisfy me.
Likewise, telling people they must at least try to do good works to be saved still involves making some behavior changes, some little acts of kindness, some attempts at piety. In other words, it involves actually doing some good works. Hence, it’s works salvation.
The gospel of “try to be good to be saved” is doubly false.
First, it’s false because works are not a condition of eternal salvation at all. It doesn’t matter if you try, or don’t try. Works are not a part of it in any way shape or form. As Paul insisted,
But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Rom 4:5).
Who does God justify? Those who don’t work, i.e., who don’t try, but who simply believe instead.
Second, it’s false because the Law does not preach “try to be good,” but “be perfect” (Matt 5:48). It does not say that God is satisfied with your best efforts, but it does say: “You shall be blameless before the LORD your God” (Deut 18:13). That priest might preach God is happy with your best efforts, but James said, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (Jas 2:10). Blameless. Perfect. No stumbling. That’s what the Law truly requires. “Try your best” is just a made-up religious standard meant to pacify people who are trying to be saved by their works, but whose sin-consciousness keeps getting in the way. They realize they aren’t doing very well, so the standard gets lowered to “Well, you gotta at least try.”
That’s what I call cheap law. Genuine law is expensive. It demands perfection. Cheap law only requires a little effort.
To paraphrase Yoda, when it comes to the saving message, “Believe. Or believe not. There is no try.”