A Cherokee proverb tells of a grandfather teaching his grandson the ways of life: “Within me rages a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is filled with pride, greed, violence, and hate. The other is filled with humility, peace, hope, and love. These two wolves are fighting for my spirit.”
The boy eagerly searches his grandfather’s eyes and asks, “Which wolf wins?”
His grandfather replies, “The one I feed.”
The Bible describes a similar battle we all face. We find it in Romans 7:18-24:
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Sin is a cruel taskmaster. It awakens evil desires that grow stronger the more we feed them. The longer we do this, the more calloused our hearts become. Some people have debased themselves for so long that they’ve become inhuman (2 Peter 2:12). Their hearts have grown cold and dark, and the desire for what is right no longer dwells within them. As with Sodom, no hope remains that these wayward people will ever turn from sin to God.
Though most of us haven’t fully extinguished our God-given desire to do right, we find that we lack the power to overcome our evil desires when tempted — even though we know our sins will condemn us. This problem leads us to the often-asked question “What must I do to be saved?”
Answering this question presents a challenge in our pluralistic society. In his video sermon The Uniqueness of Christianity, J. B. Nicholson recalls a story of a street preacher confronted by a bystander: “You Christians are arrogant because you think your way is the only way to God. There are thousands of religions in the world and many paths to God.”
To this, the preacher said, “Sir, there are only two religions in the world, not thousands. The first says that man saves himself, and the second says that man needs a Savior. Christianity alone is that second religion” (my paraphrase).
Those who believe we save ourselves believe God saves good people and condemns the wicked. To be a good person, our good deeds must outweigh our bad ones. In other words, you’re a good person if you’re bad less than half the time. Since that’s an easy standard to meet, most people feel secure in their own righteousness. They also feel a sense of goodness within themselves because of their desire to do right, even though they often choose to do otherwise.
But how can people regard themselves as good if they knowingly choose against these right desires? Since we often overrule them, isn’t it more likely that right desires come from God, while the choices come from us? Thus, people should judge themselves, not by their desires but by which wolf they choose to feed.
Jesus said, “No one is good but One, that is, God” (Luke 18:19). God is perfect and His standard of righteousness is perfection. So to be saved, you must be perfect. But this can’t happen. All sin is rebellion against God, and one sin is enough to condemn us. Christianity alone accepts this terrifying reality from God’s Word. We’ve all overruled the desire to do right and chosen to do wrong, sealing our fate. Having once fallen, we can do nothing to save ourselves. That’s why we need a Savior. Any hope for us must come from God himself, because God alone is good.
God loves us, not because we’re good but because He’s good. In His great love for humanity, God sent His Son that all who believe in Him might be saved. All who place their faith in Jesus are declared righteous by God. This is called justification.
Those justified are born again with a new nature and given the responsibility to put to death the old nature. As we choose to abide in Christ, His Holy Spirit empowers us to live holy lives. This process of growing in God’s grace and truth, by the power of His Spirit, is called sanctification.
To state it concisely, salvation is a two-step process: We’re first declared righteous through our faith in Jesus (justification), then the Holy Spirit empowers us to grow in righteousness through our faithfulness to Jesus (sanctification).
When we decide to follow Christ and mature in our faith, Satan doesn’t stand idly by. Well acquainted with human nature, he is a master of deception, often masquerading as an angel of light. The Bible refers to Satan as a ravenous lion seeking those he can devour. He lures his victims with the same lie he’s used from the beginning with Eve, that we can become our own gods. He offers humanity false hope and false security with counterfeit religions that replace a relationship with Christ with rituals, sacrifices, and spirituality.
Satan subtly reverses the two-step order of justification and sanctification. He gets people to mistakenly believe that they must first sanctify themselves so that they can justify themselves before God as independent, self-righteous beings — as their own gods. It’s a vain attempt to attain immortality while maintaining one’s independence from God. In Christianity, both the power to save and the power to sanctify come from God alone through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We fully depend on Him and trust in His goodness. God shares His divine immortal nature with us when we accept His covenant offer to become His children.
We all want to be changed. We’re eager to better ourselves, and we often pay people to help us develop healthy habits. Yet when it comes to our nature, most people are content with being human. We want to continue the lifestyle we’ve become addicted to. We rely on our own self-righteousness to assure us that we’re okay to stay the way we are.
God has given us a warning in the example of Israel. For generations, the Jews longed for the Messiah to come. They were God’s chosen people, and their entire lives centered on their religion. They revered God’s law and worshipped every Sabbath in their synagogues, but they also allowed sin to dwell in their lives. When Jesus came, the Jews were offended at His message of repentance of sins and turning to Him in faith. In their minds, the Gentiles, not the Jews, were unrighteous. Regarding their spiritual condition, Jesus quoted Isaiah: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).
Jesus healed the blind, deaf, lepers, and crippled, and even raised the dead. Many wondered if Jesus was the Messiah until they faced the choice of believing in Him or believing their religious leaders. A few placed their faith in Jesus, but most felt safer staying with their leaders, blind to their corruption and self-righteousness. Jesus loved His people and lamented their choice to reject Him:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate (Luke 13:34, 35, KJV).
Rather than repenting of their sins, the Israelites crucified the Son of God with these terrifying words: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). This is how blind, deaf, hard-hearted, and self-righteous our sins can make us when we feed the wrong wolf for too long.
Like the Jews before us, we’re faced with a choice between two eternal destinies. We can either remain unmoved, unchanged, and unredeemed by the love of God and the blood of Christ, or we can ask God to change our nature by turning from our sins and turning to Jesus.
Religion and rituals are no substitute for a relationship. God is a personal God. By sending His Son to save us from our sins, God has shown that He loves us unconditionally. Thus, the question we must ask ourselves is which wolf we’ll feed. Will we repent and believe or follow our own way?
Our response will determine our destiny.