Will a good, moral life get me to heaven?’ The answer is no, and Probe’s Jimmy Williams spells out why, including how we CAN get to heaven.
Man: The Worshiping Animal
This essay is concerned with the often-asked question, “Won’t a good, moral life get me to heaven?”
We begin first with the nature of man himself. One of the most remarkable things about humans is that from the dawn of history, and no matter where we find them on this planet, they are worshipping animals. In fact, humans are the only animals in the world who worship. Homo Sapiens is incurably religious. Why is man so inclined? What are the reasons, and how do they bear on our question about having good morals and getting to heaven?
Let’s look briefly at some foundational elements that appear to be universals when it comes to human behavior. The first, as we stated above, is simply that humans do worship. Ethnic groups of all kinds and in all places, whether remote or close to other peoples, have their own history, folklore, deities, rituals, particular moral system and life-customs. All of these enable each culture to cope with the great issues of life and its passages–from childhood to maturity to old age, and to the ultimate passage through that dark gate, Death. Christians tie this human inclination to worship directly to the fact that God says man, and only man, is created in His divine image (imago dei).
Secondly, what is also curious is how and what humans worship. The most prominent feature of human worship from earliest beginnings has been a sacrifice of some sort, whether the sheep, goats or bulls of the early Mediterranean world, or the human beings hurled into the mouths of volcanos by the Polynesians, or the child sacrifices of the Canaanites, or the ritual slaughter practiced by the Aztecs, the Incas, and virtually all of the New World Indians. In all cases, it appears some kind of blood must flow. We can also add to this (in many cultures) the prominence of self-sacrifice through flagellation, severe asceticism, or acts of personal penance.
The centrality of sacrifice in all human religious thinking points to an unmistakable reality: that humans instinctively know, or at least suspect, that there exists One to whom they are accountable for their behavior. They also assume, or know, that they have fallen short of what that higher being (or beings) requires of them. There is a universal sense that “God is not pleased with me.” So a third feature of worship is universal guilt. People worship because they feel guilty. They feel this guilt because they perceive they have fallen short of the standard that God, others, and they themselves require.
The Great Global Heresy: Religion
“Good little boys go to heaven and bad little boys go to hell!” Probably most of us, at one time or another, have undergone the ordeal of having a parent or a teacher point a finger at us (or a neighboring miscreant) and warn of the ultimate outcome of unacceptable behavior.
This “Santa Claus” mentality suggests that God is “makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”
Everywhere we turn, we hear people speak of this religion: it is the most popular approach to God on the planet. We all know about the good little angel sitting on one shoulder and the bad little angel on the other. And we are very familiar with jokes about what happens to the person who dies and is immediately face to face with Saint Peter at the Golden Gates of Heaven. Peter stands there ready to evaluate and pass judgement on whether we’ve been good enough to be admitted and accepted inside. Saint Peter expects us to give moral account of ourselves before we can go inside.
The general, world-wide assumption is that, when we die, our good deeds and our bad deeds will be placed on the divine scales and weighed to determine if we go “up” or “down.” However, from Christianity’s viewpoint, this is a great, global heresy.
This is “religion,” but it is definitely not Christianity. In fact, Christianity is radically opposed to such an idea, teaching us that we are not to do something, but rather that something has already been done on our behalf. This global heresy, which we call “religion,” actually comes from Hinduism. It is the idea that God resides at the top of a great mountain, and it makes little difference which path a seeker chooses in his ascent up that mountain, since all paths lead to the God on top. And it is up to you to climb if you want to reach the summit–and God.
At the western end of the Forum in ancient Rome, there stood the Millenarium Aureum, the Golden Milestone, a gilded bronze column set up by Augustus Caesar to mark the junction and the origin of the major Roman roads spreading out like the spokes of a great wheel in every direction to distant destinations throughout the Empire. On this column were inscribed the major towns and their distances from Rome. From this came the popular saying, “All roads lead to Rome.”
This is what religionists believe about God. They say things like, “Well, it really doesn’t matter what you believe. What’s important is that you try to do your best and be sincere about it. After all, we’re all trying to get to the same place; we all worship the same God.”
But in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, we encounter something very different: in fact, we discover that there are two possible approaches to God, but only one is acceptable. After Adam and Eve had disobeyed God, they immediately hid in the bushes, took out needle and thread, and began sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves.
God came and found them in the bushes–flunking the first home economics course ever offered! God looked at the clusters of fig leaves they had hastily sewn together, and He was not pleased. In fact, He scolded their efforts and their conduct. Adam and Eve not only had to admit their guilt and disobedience, they also had to acknowledge their inability to make things right through their own efforts. They could not cover, or atone, for what they had done. The account goes on to say that God had to take the initiative to adequately clothe them. He killed some animals and made garments from their skins for a covering.
All philosophy, philanthropy, asceticism, religion, ethics, and all other systems which seek to gain the approval of God through human self-effort are the “fig-leaf” approach. This method is at the heart of what we call “religion,” man’s best effort to reach up and find God. But the problem every worshipper encounters when climbing the mountain is an impenetrable barrier which denies all further advance: it is the barrier of God’s holiness and perfection. Each individual’s personal sin and imperfection prevents him or her from coming any closer.
In his autobiography Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, speaks eloquently of his own struggle with this when he says: “Oh wretched man that I am. It is a constant source of torture to me that I am so far from the one I know to be my very life and being, and I know that it is my own sin and wretchedness that hides Him from me.”
The Problem of Sin
When the word “sin” comes up in a conversation, most people look as though someone just slipped them a mildewed fig! We do a lot of it; we just don’t like to talk about it! Many people do not know what sin or a sinner really is. What is sin? Sin is a violation of the law, the standard God requires of every human. A sinner is therefore someone who has broken that standard.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that there is no good at all in people. There is a great deal of good. Humans are not as bad as they could be. The point is simply this: if our premise is that to get to heaven one has to be good, then how good is good enough?
The Scriptures are quite clear about this. God is not demanding “goodness.” We saw above that Adam and Eve’s best efforts to cover themselves (fig leaves) were not enough. The good which is in man, all his moral achievement, is not acceptable to God–because God is not demanding goodness, He demands perfection!
Many will say they try to live by the Ten Commandments or by some other rule of life, such as the Golden Rule. And yet, if we are honest, each of us discovers we have violated our own standards at some point. This is what Paul meant when he said, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The Grand Canyon is 6 to 18 miles across, 276 miles long, and one mile deep. The world’s record in the long jump, set by Mike Powell at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo is 29′ 4 1/2″. Yet the chances of a person jumping from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other are greater than that of someone attempting to establish fellowship with God through his own efforts.
The standard man must meet is God’s perfection. Who can match that? It is a goal so far away that no one could ever reach it. To make matters worse, James tells us that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). This means if someone breaks just one of the commandments, he is as guilty as if he had broken all ten!
The purpose of giving the Ten Commandments in the first place was not because God knew human beings would keep them perfectly. The Bible tells us that these revealed standards were intended to be to us what an X-ray machine is to a broken arm. The machine reveals the condition of the arm, but it will not set and knit the bones, nor will it put the arm in a cast. By the same token, the Ten Commandments can only reveal to us the condition of our lives; they cannot heal us or cover our sin.
The Pharisees looked at the Law and then at their own lives and said, “I’m pretty good, really good.” Jesus had wanted them to come to the opposite conclusion. He even called them hypocrites! He said they were wrong to claim they were righteous enough and that all was well between them and their Maker. That is why he said, “Those who are well do not need a physician” (Matthew 9:12). When you are well, you don’t seek a doctor. The time to consult a physician is when you realize you are sick. Jesus was urging the Pharisees to be honest about themselves when He said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (v.13).
When my wife Carol and I travel, and I discover I’m lost, I really hate for her to make her classic statement, “You’re lost. Why don’t you ask for directions?” In my case, the issue is always my male pride! With the Pharisees, it was religious pride, as it is for all who would seek heaven on the basis of their own merits.
A wise old Baptist preacher once said, “It isn’t difficult to get people saved; it is difficult to get them lost!” This is man’s dilemma: like the Pharisees, people cling to the old fig leaves of self-effort instead of submitting to the covering God Himself has provided for all (Christ’s sacrificial death, the Cross). Each of us must choose one or the other (John 3:18, 36).
The Problem of Righteousness
While morality and human goodness are to be commended, God makes it clear from the very outset that no one, through his own efforts, possesses the ability to make himself presentable before God. It was Charles Haddon Spurgeon who said, “Man is basically a silkworm. A spinner and a weaver … trying to clothe himself … but the silkworm’s activity spins it a shroud. So it is with man.” Adam and Eve are classic examples.
Our problem is not only that we have fallen short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23), by sinning; we also lack something. We not only need the removal of personal sin through blood sacrifice to satisfy divine justice; we need something further to make us fit for heaven and the divine presence of God. In other words, Christ’s death in our place will keep us out of hell–but we still have the problem of getting into heaven. Isaiah spoke of this when he said, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6). Not our sins, but our good deeds! We need not only atonement for our sins, we also need righteousness to enter heaven! But it has to be a certain kind of righteousness.
The most righteous people of Jesus’ day were the Pharisees. They knew the Old Testament by heart. They went to the synagogue three times a day and prayed seven times a day. They were respected in the community. But Jesus looked right through their religious veneer and, in their presence, admonished the crowds that “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The crowds responded by staring at each other in bewilderment. “You mean the Pharisees aren’t righteous enough to go to heaven? If they can’t make it, who will?”
In the Garden of Eden we observe this conflict between two kinds of righteousness–human righteousness, which is clearly symbolized by the fig leaf garments Adam and Eve sewed together to make themselves presentable before God, and divine righteousness, which is symbolized by the adequate covering of the slain animals provided by God Himself. We find these two kinds of righteousness marching and clashing with each other all the way through both Testaments.
Paul referred to these same two righteousnesses when he said of his Jewish brethren, “I bear them witness, that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:1).
In the former Soviet Union, rubles are printed and circulated. With those rubles you can buy your dinner, pay your hotel bill, and purchase things in the shops. But if you brought those rubles back to America and tried to do the same thing, the rubles would not be honored. It would be futile to try to do business with rubles in America.
Let’s think of these two righteousnesses in mathematical terms. Let’s call God’s righteousness “+R” and human righteousness “-R.” The first righteousness is absolute, while the second is relative. Over a lifetme, a human being can accumulate a huge pile of -R, but added up, it still totals -R. To do business with God in heaven, we must deal with Him in the only “currency” honored and accepted by Him, and that is +R. It is futile to try to negotiate with God on the basis of relative, human goodness. We need +R.
Where do we get such “currency?” It is given to us as a gift if we will accept it–the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. The yardstick God uses to measure everyone is His Son. This +R righteousness is ours only in Christ: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
This gracious provision is a radical departure from all other religious ideas humans have ever conceived or set forth. It is so radical that human beings would never have thought of it.
The Uniqueness of Christian Grace
We have sought to arrive at a biblical answer to the question, “Will a good, moral life get me to heaven?” We have examined the bankruptcy of every attempt by people to reach that goal through any and every means of self-effort. We have discovered that the salvation offered by Christianity is uniquely opposed to all human efforts to secure it by working one’s way into God’s good graces. In fact, if God expected us to attain our salvation through good deeds, then God made a terrible mistake. He allowed His only-begotten Son to come to earth–robed in human flesh–and die a horrible death on a cross for our personal, eternal benefit. To choose a “good works” path to God is to negate the total significance of Christ’s death, making it meaningless and unnecessary.
What God has to offer is free. It is a gift that is not deserved by any of us, nor could we ever repay what the gift is worth. God has dealt with humankind in grace and love. The only thing that God has asked us to do is to humbly admit that we have broken His laws, acknowledge that He has indeed made things right through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross, and accept His forgiveness by faith. We are invited to lay aside our own “fig-leaf” costumes and freely submit to the covering God has provided for us, the blood-stained garment of His Son, the very righteousness of Christ.
This is what Jesus sought to communicate in Matthew 22:1-14, the parable about the wedding feast that a king was preparing to give his son: “So the servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all, as many as they found, both good and bad: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man who had not on a wedding garment. And he said unto him, ‘Friend, how came you here not having on a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth!'”
The text does not tell us whether this person was one of the “good” ones or the “bad” ones. Why? Because it is irrelevant to what Jesus wants us to understand. The important issue was proper attire for the occasion. God is telling us that the only acceptable attire for heaven is the righteousness of Christ.
As a gracious host, He stands holding out to humanity the most expensive, costly garment in the universe, and He eagerly desires to wrap us up in it–safe and warm and happy and secure:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God: for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10).
So how does this apply to you and me? Simply this: Everything that needed to be done for your salvation and mine was accomplished the moment Christ died on the cross. The penalty has been paid and God’s righteous demands satisfied. God is now free to extend eternal life as a free gift. He declares, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Gifts, of course, must be received. For that reason, Jesus said, “He who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). “Believe” means “to trust or depend on.” God is asking each person to come to Him as a sinner, recognize that His Son died on the cross of us, and trust His Son alone as our only hope of heaven.
This was the message, the good news which the first Christians took to the world: “Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
In reality, every human being is just a prayer away from receiving the grace and forgiveness of God and the promise of heaven. But it has to be the right prayer, based on the right facts: that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, not “Do-Gooders”: “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). You can begin to trust Christ for your salvation today instead of your own, futile efforts of trying to be a fairly nice person all your life. Obviously, your heart attitude, your sincerity, is what really counts. God knows your heart. But if the following suggested prayer will help to bring a sense of closure and certainty to your decision to believe in, to trust Christ, then please feel free to use it as a simple guide:
“Dear God, I admit that I am a sinner, and nothing I can do will ever get me to heaven. But I believe Jesus Christ died for me and rose from the grave to prove the validity of His claim to be my Savior. He took my place and my punishment. So right now, I place my trust in Christ alone to make me presentable and acceptable to you. Come into my life. I accept the gift of your Son. Thank you that you are now within me, not based upon my feelings, but upon your promise that if I open the door of my life and invite you to come live within me and be my Savior, you would (Rev. 3:20, John 1:12). Make me the kind of person you want me to be. Begin to show me that you really have entered my life and heart, and now give me the guidance I need to live a new life in fellowship with you. Amen.”
©1998 Probe Ministries.