Recently I had a conversation with two guests on the front patio of the restaurant where I work. You could say this conversation was by accident, or you could say God meant for me to be there at exactly that moment (often called a divine appointment). I delivered two dishes to the ladies and asked them if there was anything else I could do for them. One of the ladies said “I have lower back pain. Is there anything you can do about that?” I smiled and said, “I can pray for you in Jesus’ name that the back pain would cease.” My response brought up an entirely new topic. The woman’s friend, who wasn’t a Christian, said to me, “I don’t think God would turn me away when I got to the gates of Heaven. I am a good person.” I asked her, “Who defines what is good?”
Who does define good? Consider this verse: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). If being a good person gets us into Heaven, then why did Jesus have to offer himself as a ransom for all people? If being a good person saves us, then Christ died for no purpose, and we would all be able to save ourselves through our “good behavior.”
However, if Christ died to save us, then this implies something entirely different.
If Christ died to save us, our actions, no matter how good they seem, do not save us from eternal separation from God. Only Jesus can save us from that because, as the verse above says, “there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”
Think about the fall of man recorded in Genesis 3. Humans have always desired to be “like God” (the irony being that we actually were created in his image). It has always been the goal of people to resolve their own issues and rely on their own strength to do so. When someone says “I will go to Heaven because I am a good person,” that’s the same as saying, “What I do saves me. What I say saves me. Who I am is what saves me.” The teachings of the Bible directly oppose this and says this about the actions and intentions of the human heart: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12, ESV). That could be perceived as harsh, but think about it this way: If we are truly these kinds of people (and, face it, we are), what kind of God would save us? A very loving one! This sets the foundation and shows just how much and to what lengths God would go to save and restore us, to reconcile us back into right standing with him. That is amazing grace! That is unfailing love! That Jesus would take my place and punishment upon himself to save me from this type of rebellion and lifestyle convinces me how much God truly loves me, and how truly good God is.
There is a story in Mark 10 that I love. It touches a bit more on the perception people have about what is good.
And as he (Jesus) was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22, ESV)
There was an obvious quality about Jesus that this young man had identified as “good,” because he goes so far as to call Jesus “Good Teacher.” And I love Jesus’ response to the man, “Why do you call me good?”
One of my favorite things about Jesus is that he often responds to a question with a question. He does it, not because he is being coy, but because he wants the person asking to truly contemplate why he or she is asking the question. What did the man see in Jesus that was good? What had he heard about Jesus that prompted this heart response? Why did Jesus respond that, “No one is good except God alone?” Jesus wants us to realize our complete need for God. A dependence upon him for all things.
Jesus says that no person is good. So if being a good person is what gets us to Heaven, no one will be there—only God, because he alone is good. Though we have the outward appearance of being good, he knows our hearts are still prone to wander from the one true requirement needed for eternal life: to know and love God. To know God more deeply, we connect with him through prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and reading the Bible.
Even though the young man posing the question had “kept” the commandments since he was young, he wasn’t willing to give his whole heart and life to God. The young man was disheartened because Jesus was asking him to offer God the one thing that was most important to him: his wealth. Jesus looked compassionately at the young man and told him the truth he needed to hear: you lack true relationship with me if you hold something back from me.
The young man had kept the commandments and kept up the appearance of being a “good person,” but a relationship with Jesus is not summed up in a checklist of “do’s and don’ts.” God wants our whole lives to be his: our possessions, our hearts, our families, jobs, finances, thoughts, conversations, and the list continues. Counting on a checklist to accomplish a relationship with Jesus sets us up for immediate and everyday failure. And, even worse, it is a way for us to feel that we ourselves have accomplished “good” without the help of God.
In the beginning, our predecessors, Adam and Eve, ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is ironic to think that the knowledge that came from eating that fruit showed us just how much we truly need God and that we were created to be in perfect fellowship with him. God gave us exactly what we asked for: the knowledge of good and evil, knowledge that apart from God we can do nothing good. If we don’t have a perfect relationship with him, we are against him i.e. evil.
The good news is God wants to restore us to the original setting: perfect. God wants to reclaim what was lost, that is, us. He did (and does) that through Jesus. Jesus says in John 14:6 (ESV), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the only way of knowing God, the infallible truth of God, and the perfect picture of a life lived for God. Jesus is perfect.
Surrendering our hearts and lives to Jesus is what makes us whole.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19)
The Bible is clear: people are not capable of being good by God’s standard (which is perfection, and we all know we aren’t perfect people); we meet his standard by knowing Christ personally.
So being a good person does not save us from Hell (an eternal state of separation from God where there is no hope); God’s perfect plan does. It is a plan for relationship, reconciliation and restoration that has been laid out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For the grace of God has appeared in Jesus Christ, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
The Holy Spirit used me (and can use you in the same manner) to start the patio conversation off with a question: “Is there anything else I can do for you?” This question led into a conversation about whether or not being good can save us, which led into an even more important question: “Who defines what is good”? The truth is that God does, and he says that, “There is salvation in no one else but Jesus. There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).