The other day, I was talking with one of my friends about what is required to go to heaven. His answer was probably normative for many people—religious or even non-religious—in our society: that the ‘good’ are rewarded and go to heaven, and the ‘bad’ are not allowed. This view just seems to make sense in light our conditional mindset. And while it does seem rational and even moral on the surface, I want to expose 12 deeper implications of why this view fundamentally is not as rational or even as moral as it is generally believed to be, and then show why Christianity’s gospel—salvation by Jesus’ righteousness—actually makes more sense on both a rational and moral level.
To make things easier, I’ll pose 12 points about salvation by good deeds, and then I’ll follow that with 12 respective points about salvation by Jesus’ righteousness.
Here we go:
If salvation could be achieved by our good deeds, then…
- There would be no reason for Jesus to die (Gal. 2:20-22).
- We are our own saviors, because essentially, our saving depends on how well we follow ‘the’ moral code, whatever it is.
- It will inevitably lead to self-righteousness and pride if you succeed, causing you to look down on and be judgmental of others who aren’t as good as you.
- Or it will lead to self-loathing despair, guilt, and shame if you constantly fail, or don’t do as well compared to other people you know. Based on your past mistakes, you’ll never measure up, never be able to outweigh your badness with goodness; there is no reason, resource, or motivation for hope.
- What is the standard for ‘good enough’ to reach salvation? How do you define the scales of good/bad? And who decides what is it after all? Ultimately, it’s a busted system, because it’s relatively based. Therefore, you can’t know what is ‘good enough’. And that leads to…
- You’ll never be able to have peace or assurance because you will never have absolute certainty about whether or not you’re saved, or whether you have right standing with God or not. You’ll always be working frantically to secure your spot, never knowing it’s ‘good enough’ after all. The inevitable fruit from this view is anxiety and fear—not love.
- Because you’ll only be focusing on the need to vertically set yourself right with God, you simply won’t have the mental or spiritual bandwidth to think about truly serving others horizontally. Sure, you can serve others as a means towards setting your standing with God right, but that’s fundamentally motivated by ulterior motives, which isn’t truly serving them (with no self-gain in mind).
- There is no need for missions or evangelism at all, but to appeal to ‘being good’, which people innately understand anyways.
- At the deepest level of motivation for doing anything good, it is being done out of a motivation of self-interest, self-preservation, and self-gain; at the deepest root level, it is selfishness—doing good so that you can get heaven. At the most foundational level, what you do for God, you’re really doing for yourself. So even your best ‘good work’ is stained with ‘bad intent’, thereby, making your good deeds not that ‘good’ after all.
- God isn’t as holy or loving or just as we might like to believe. If salvation is achieved by good works, then God just sweeps our other sin under the rug, or discounts it if you are ‘good enough’. He simply condones it, overlooks it, or ignores it. Therefore, He’s not that holy or just.
- God’s love and grace is based on how well you obey, which means his love is actually conditional.
- This view is actually very exclusive, because it only privileges the moral and upstanding and leaves no hope for those who have failed.
Conversely, if salvation cannot be achieved by our works but is given as a gift by Another, then…
- Jesus had to live a life of perfect righteousness and had to die in our place, so he could absorb the penalty of our sin on the cross and give us his standing of righteousness before God.
- We can never save ourselves and there is only one Savior, Jesus—because he accomplished for sinners what we could never accomplish for ourselves.
- It destroys all attitudes and inclinations towards self-righteousness. If your standing with God has been set in stone as ‘reconciled’ by Jesus and not by what you have done, then you had no part in your salvation, and thus, cannot boast in it. This means you aren’t any better than any others—this produces humility, but not despair. Humility (I’m no better than others), but no despair (you are maximally and unconditionally saved and loved).
- It destroys all notions of despair, guilt, and shame because you realize that at your worst, God gave you his best. The way God feels about you has forever been established in the gospel, not by what you have or haven’t done—this produces confidence, but not pride. (I’m fully loved and approved, but it’s not because of what I have done).
- You do know the standard for ‘good enough’ for salvation, and that is perfect holiness, which is God’s law and it’s perfect fulfillment in Jesus’ life. Only his righteousness is what will save us, and its given freely.
- You’ll finally be able to have peace because you can have absolute assurance in your salvation. If salvation is not based on your good deeds, but the righteousness of Jesus, then you can be assured of your salvation—He lived the life we couldn’t live, died in our place, and God raised him from the dead, an indication that his righteousness was sufficient for right standing with God. Because perfect righteousness is required, and because we know we have perfect righteousness in Christ, we can be assured that we will be saved, and therefore, stop fretting over not knowing if we’re saved, or worrying if we’re being good enough. The gospel replaces anxiety and fear with rest and peace.(Also, quick aside: if your salvation wasn’t gained by what you did, then it can’t be lost by what you do either–salvation is by associating ourselves with the righteousness of Jesus.)
- The gospel declares you set right with God, and because you are set right in your relationship with God vertically, you can finally stop being so preoccupied with your inward spiritual status, and finally be freed truly serve others horizontally, from the heart without any ‘so that’ or ‘as a means to’ motives—which is true morality anyways.
- If Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, then there is an urgent need for missions and to spread this news of the greatness of Jesus’ work to all peoples.
- Because God saved us completely in Christ, we can only respond in gratefulness and love. Our deepest motivations of self-interest are destroyed because God through Christ has already given us everything there is to possibly gain. We can’t be loved any more or any less or given anything more or less. And because there is nothing we can gain by our actions, we can only live in light of that in humble adoration and love. It’s just a sheer response.
- God is more holy and loving and just than we can ever realize. He is utterly holy because he requires perfection and nothing less—like a tissue paper touching the sun, anything less than perfect would immediately disintegrate in his presence. Yet, he is more just and loving than we can imagine because where there is punishment to be given, he gave himself and died for us. Therefore, God doesn’t comprise his characteristics of holiness, justice, and love by simply sweeping sin under the rug. His infinite qualities of holiness, justice, and love are all perfectly maintained in Jesus and his work for us. A perfect demand is required (holiness) because God is; we have all fallen short; there is a penalty, it can’t be swept under the rug or condoned (justice), but Jesus died in our place and gave us his righteous standing so we could live (love).
- God’s love and grace are not given to you because of your good deeds. They are given to you fully for your bad ones, which is the only thing that will truly produce a heart in us that sincerely loves God.
- The gospel is actually more inclusive than the “good deeds for salvation” approach because it offers salvation for all people, giving hope for even the moral outcast and failure.
Jesus is the only God, who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can fully forgive you. –Tim Keller*
*Keller, Timothy. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promise of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters. New York: Dutton (2009). p. 25.