One of the foundational verses for the entire Protestant Reformation is Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God- not the result of works so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
When I read this verse, I always think of Martin Luther, the Catholic priest/monk/Greet New Testament Scholar who founded the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Lutheran Church. He was, by any one else's standards, a good and holy guy. But he lived in continuing fear that no matter how much good he did, it was never enough to ensure he would go to heaven. He was even told by his priest in his monestary not to come back to confession until he actually had some sin to confess. Luther was known to go to confession multiple times in one day, so great was his fear that he was not doing enough good to go to heaven.
Ephesians changed his life. Literally, it was the watershed that freed him from his fear that he was not good enough. It has been important in my journey too. It is a verse which proclaims that salvation is not my own doing- it is a gift of God's grace given to me through faith. For me, even faith was difficult. Ultimately, I discovered that faith and grace have much in common: they are both given as gifts by God. Often, they are inexplicably given, wrapped up in mystery that must simply be accepted, for it cannot be reasoned with.
The correct order of things is not 1. do all the good you can do and 2. hope that is enough to earn yourself a spot in heaven. According to Ephesians it is 1. Accept the gift of God's grace and 2. spend your life writing thank you notes.
The order of things really makes a difference. In the first scenario, I am left with nagging doubts about whether I am is "good enough." The real answer is actually, no, I'm not good enough. But God loves me just the way I am! And out of gratitude for that awesome truth, I spend my life writing God thank you notes. They look like good works. Ephesians 2 goes onto to talk about these in the verses 9-10.
I think it's really really important to be clear about the order of things. It is the difference between bondage and freedom, fear and love, worry and joy. I come across SO MANY folks who really are plugging along, trying to work their way into heaven. And I believe that God honors folks who do good. But there is little joy in this way of living. Thank you note living is a different story. Thank you note living is living each day gratefully, thankful for the Joy that is Jesus. It provides purpose, and a desire to serve God in the ways God has equipped me to serve. I don't have to do things I am not particularly gifted for becuase it's not about doing anything and everything I can find to do to ensure myself a spot. It's about discovering how to travel with God on this journey in ways that bless others and ultimately myself. It's about using my God given gifts not for earning points but for the sheer joy of serving and loving.