Salvation by works? Salvation by faith? Who’s right, Catholics or Evangelicals?
Neither one. We are judged by our conduct and we are saved by not being wicked, according to the Bible.
This may sound like “Salvation by Works” but it’s not. It’s “Salvation by Being Good”, and there is a difference. Someone who believes in Salvation by Works is someone who believes he isn’t already saved by virtue of him being a normal human being. He wakes up in the morning and asks himself what he should do today to merit salvation because he assumes he doesn’t have it to begin with.
I don’t make that assumption. I believe we are born saved, and it’s harder than the Church has been telling us to lose that salvation.
I’m not “working my way to heaven”. I’m just being what God made me, and everyone else, to be – a righteous soul. I don’t have to DO anything to EARN salvation because it’s been mine since I was born. I don’t start off with the idea that all men are either born separated from a holy God or will soon after birth fall into sin and thus loose whatever state of salvation they were born with. Yes, we do fall into sin, but not all sin causes us to forfeit the eternal life that God has given to all of us.
I didn’t come to this because I just don’t like the so-called “Biblical Gospel” – though I do find what the church, particularly the Evangelical and Reformed Church, preaches to be distasteful, to say the least. I came to this after 40+ years of biblical research, over six of which was full-time study while in Bible College.
What I present here I believe to be faithful to the Christian Scriptures, and the mindset of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest of the Apostles and biblical authors.
God’s Holy Standard
Let’s put this salvation issue as succinctly as possible:
If God judges based on a person’s faith, then a good non-believer goes to Hell.
If God judges based on conduct, then a good non-believer is saved.
If the latter is true, then heaven will be populated by more than just Christians. Christians might be sharing a room with atheists, Jews, Muslims, and God knows who else.
If you are that good non-believer you might take exception to the idea your goodness is not acceptable to God and resent your local Evangelical who believes it’s his job to convince you that your goodness will never be good enough for God and you need faith in Christ to be saved.
There’s a good reason why you might resent that message, and it’s not the reason you will hear from your Evangelical friend trying to get you saved. He will look at you and think, “Well, you’re a ‘natural man,’ of course you’re not going to understand this. It isn’t the message you want to hear, but I’m going to give it to you just in case God can penetrate your thick, dark skull.”
For the past 500 years us Protestants have been trying to convince Catholics that when God judges us at the end of our lives it will be based on our faith, not on whether our good works outweigh our bad works. The Bible only appears to be saying we will be judged by our conduct, according to Evangelicals, because the fact we do good works proves that we have accepted Jesus as our Savior but it’s still faith in Christ that is the final litmus test for acceptance into everlasting life.
Is that why it only appears that we are judged by conduct, or could it be we actually are judged by our conduct?
Man has always been judged by conduct and always will be, and this is the teaching of both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It’s not a standard used to disqualify those who we consider to be Christians in name only, it’s the standard for all. Yesterday, today, and forever.
The Plan of Salvation – As I Formerly Understood It
Early in my adult life as a new Christian I felt called to be a missionary. I still do, just in a different way. Back then one of my missions from God was to convince Catholics that being a good person and doing what his church told him to do was not good enough for God if he didn’t also put his trust in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to get him saved.
I had a clever way of testing a Catholic to show him whether he was saved or not and used this on numerous evangelistic outreaches from my Bible College in Seattle to the University of Washington where I had gotten my BA degree. I would ask Catholics when they die and go to stand before Peter at the Pearly Gates what will be their answer when Peter asks them why he should let them into heaven. If they said something like, “Because I am a good person,” or, “Because my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds,” or (and this was the most common answer), “I don’t know,” I would then try to convince them from the Bible they revered but rarely read that that’s the wrong answer and shows they aren’t saved and aren’t going to get past Peter at the gate. It was the wrong answer because they trusted in themselves or their church for their salvation. The right answer was, “Because I believe in Jesus Christ for my salvation.” That answer demonstrated, to me at least, genuine trust in God’s way of salvation. Without that affirmation of faith his life after death would not go well, according to me and the Evangelical churches I had been involved with.
Once I asked one of my high school classmates who was attending the U and who had attended church all his life if he was born again. He said, “Uh, you mean reincarnated?” I couldn’t believe you could grow up in a Christian church and not have heard a sermon from John chapter 3 about being born again or had not read it yourself. I am now just as incredulous that I had the hubris to think I could so narrowly define how a person is born again since the point of the passage is that the Spirit is doing things beyond what we can see in front of us that we know nothing about. We don’t know what the Spirit is doing any more than they used to know where the wind came from and where it went after they saw it rustle the leaves in front of them. “The wind blows wherever it pleases.” Jesus said, “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (Jn. 3:8) And yet we as Evangelicals equated “born again” with having a particular understanding about Jesus that only some Christians have, and so based on this and a couple of other sayings of Jesus that I discuss in another article we believe only Christians will go to heaven because, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (Jn. 3:3)
Fortunately for us the author picks up on this theme again in his epistle and explains: “Everyone who does what is right has been born of him.” (1 Jn. 2:29) Everyone who does what is right will see the Kingdom of God, John? Not just Christians? Seriously? That means those who don’t do what is right, like wicked people, are the only ones excluded?
I guess that’s what you get from a simple fisherman like John who hasn’t been to seminary. You get God having more grace than we’ve been led to believe in our day and age.
In my Bible College days and for some time afterwards I understood the Gospel like this:
All men are sinners. Nobody is good enough to deserve to go to heaven, but God has been actively involved in human history to redeem mankind without violating anyone’s free will. Over the centuries there has been an unfolding revelation of God’s redemptive nature through his loving redemptive involvement with mankind. Mankind got off on the wrong foot with Adam and Eve and only got worse to the point mankind was so wicked God hit the reset button at the Flood and started over with one family. He then later called Abraham to follow him, multiplied his seed in the earth, and then gave some of his descendants a Law to follow so they would know how to be pleasing to God. Except the Law was really to reiterate to them they could never on their own merits be good enough for a holy God, yet if they were a Pharisee, or thought like one, they thought they were good enough to merit God’s favor as long as they thought they were God’s chosen people and followed God’s Law to a T. Insert Jesus Christ and his apostles, and the Church, who taught, and still teaches, that the only solution to this mess is to have faith in Jesus Christ dying on the cross as God’s provision for man’s salvation. Everything that God did before Christ was to lead mankind to Christ. That, and the Passion of Christ, all show what lengths God would go to save human beings. Projecting this unfolding revelation into the future the saga of humanity reaches its culmination when mankind will enjoy the Millennium where men no longer go to war with each other and all mankind enjoys bountiful blessings with one government ruled by Jesus Christ.
That seemed like such a grand and glorious scheme – as long as you ignored a few things like the idea that God twice resorts to the genocide of most of the human race (the Flood and the Battle of Armageddon) to get things done.
If you go to most any Evangelical church today this is the Gospel that is presented, or at least understood in everything else that is said. In the minds of many Christians this is Christianity 101 and the foundation for the church’s doctrine of salvation and anything else is “another Gospel” that Paul condemns in Galatians. If you boil it down to one sentence it looks like this:
You are a sinner, your sin condemns you, and you have to have Jesus to be acceptable to God.
If there is a single verse in the Bible which appears to say this it would be the most famous verse in the Bible (to us Evangelicals at least), John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
After 40 years of Bible study I have concluded that John 3:16 is still true, if understood differently, but the indented paragraph above is not what the Bible teaches, it’s not the Gospel that was spread abroad by Jesus and his followers, and it’s not what the Church taught for the first several hundred years of its existence. I’m not sure why it took me 40 years to realize this, including 6 years of full-time Bible study and an accumulation of 3 years’ worth of Bible College credit, other than it shows the power of the indoctrination I received in Evangelical churches for the first 30 of those years, especially powerful considering I am not exactly one to never question what I am taught. I did my own research, did my own thinking, studied the Bible for myself, was always inclined to reject human tradition in favor of the Word as originally presented and intended by its God-inspired authors.
Or so I thought.
Salvation Before and After Christ: Turn From Your Wicked Ways
Let’s throw a monkey wrench in that grand scheme of redemptive history I laid out above by pointing out a few things in the Bible that you won’t hear from very many pulpits, and then straighten out the mess with more scriptures:
In the Old Testament you didn’t have to be Jewish and follow their Law to be saved. You just had to turn from your evil ways. Pagan Ninevites could be acceptable to God without following the Jewish Law, according to the Jewish prophet Jonah who was sent to them to get them to change their wicked ways:
The King [of Nineveh] said, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 3:8-4:2)
According to Evangelical theology today, God will NOT have compassion on someone who turns from his evil ways unless he has also believed in Jesus Christ. If that were true, then it’s harder for mankind to get saved after Christ than before, because before Christ all that was necessary for salvation was God’s merciful nature and man’s cooperation with one simple proposition:
If you are wicked, STOP!
That worked for everyone. Even pagans.
According to Evangelical theology, that simple proposition is not enough now that Christ has been sent. There are more hoops to jump through for one to get saved:
Repent of all your sins (not just your wickedness), and have faith in a story being told in much of the world about a man who lived 2000 years ago, whether you have been given any reason to believe this story or not.
More strings attached. More hoops to jump through to get saved. Simply turning from your wicked ways is no longer sufficient. The grace of God has been turned down a notch because there are now more conditions for salvation.
Yet our Bible tells us that the advent of Christ was to increase the grace of God and make God more accessible to mankind, not less:
For we all received from his fullness, even grace for grace, because the Law came by Moses, but grace and truth through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)
Was simple repentance from wickedness all one needed for right standing with God before the advent of Christ? According to Jonah, God is gracious so he has grace on people who do wickedness – if they turn from it. That’s why Jonah the reluctant prophet went the opposite direction from his calling. He didn’t want God to have mercy on his people’s sworn enemies so they would be blessed by God. Like any good Jewish Nationalist, he’d rather the Ninevites got the business end of a sledge hammer.
That’s a lot like many people I know today who actually want a theology that damns everyone but Christians and fight tooth and nail if you suggest God is more gracious than that.
God’s Merciful Nature Was Sufficient Before Christ
Regardless of what you have understood about this in the past, it makes a lot of good spiritual sense that a merciful God would be merciful and have mercy on a soul who has turned from wickedness to goodness, don’t you think?
God has mercy – because he is merciful. That’s simple enough for even a child to grasp.
Does God really need any other reason to forgive someone other than that? Is there really some cosmic law of justice which says God must have a reason other than his own forgiving nature to forgive a person who has turned from his evil ways? If so why wasn’t that cosmic law in operation before Christ and why does he expect us to forgive each other for no other reason than someone asking for forgiveness? Are we supposed to expect the person asking for our forgiveness to believe X, Y, or Z before we forgive him or are we just supposed to forgive with unconditional love? We are told it’s spiritually damaging to ourselves to be unforgiving yet we are also told God is unforgiving apart from faith in Christ.
Am I right?
We’ve been taught God provided for us a reason to forgive us. He didn’t leave us in our self-inflicted, sin-induced predicament but in his mercy gave us a way out. Like us having some knowledge of a historical event from 2000 years ago and believing it, with no real good way of verifying the accuracy of this report without gaining some more knowledge. Hit the books and look at the historical evidence, if you have questions about it. If you’re up on theology do you see a bit of Gnosticism in that approach?
Or since salvation is supposed to be dependent on a person’s faith in Christ or lack thereof, then we must ask a rather pertinent question about “believing in Jesus.”
Just what are we supposed to believe about Jesus in order to get saved? This is the primary question modern day Heresy Hunters and others are trying to answer because they recognize that not just any belief is good enough. After all, the Pharisees who opposed Jesus had some sort of belief about him since he stood right in front of them, but it wasn’t good enough to save them.
So they figure out what is the core teaching of the church, what is necessary belief for salvation, and everyone has different ideas about that, yet they all think they got it figured out. They are the learned ones possessing the Holy Spirit uniquely gifted to train others in what they should believe lest they fall into the error of the cults (or the Catholics, or the Liberals, or anyone else who has it wrong). They hold classes in seminary about this so future pastors can hold classes in their churches to make sure everyone has a saving faith, according to their own theological traditions, which differ from everyone else’s.
Sit at the feet of the learned ones to ensure your salvation. That’s what it boils down to. Gnosticism, in other words.
Another Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, wrote, “Say unto them, ‘As I live, said the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live,’” (33:11) and, “If a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life.” (18:27) Did you see that? Someone can save himself with no other savior or knowledge of a savior! He just needs to turn from his wickedness to save himself.
After King David committed adultery he certainly thought the forgiving nature of God would be enough to save him:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your lovingkindness: according to the multitude of your tender mercies blot out my transgressions. (Ps. 51:1)
Did any of this change when Jesus came on the scene? Did God add some new litmus test so you had to have both faith in Christ and repentance before you could be forgiven of your wicked ways? Are we to believe that a pagan before Christ just needed to repent of his wicked ways to be acceptable to God, as Paul explains in Romans, but that’s not good enough for a pagan after Christ?
I submit that faith in Jesus is not the measure by which all humans will be judged, but rather it’s the gift by which many will be set free of bondage to iniquity. So that they won’t be judged.
THAT’S the Gospel of Jesus Christ! That’s the message the Church should be preaching from the rooftops!
God’s Merciful Nature Is Sufficient After Christ
Being judged by our conduct and being eternally saved by not being wicked was not altered at the cross but continued to be affirmed in the New Testament as can be seen by:
Peter, who told someone he just needed to repent and made no mention of Christ: “You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray to God, if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven.” (Acts 8:21-22)
Peter also said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34-35)
James said works are necessary because faith by itself is useless: “Faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone.” (2:17)
John records what he saw in a vision: “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.” (Rev. 20:12)
John also said, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (1 Jn. 2:17)
And then, as if to clarify what John wrote about what Jesus said regarding being born again in the third chapter of John, he says, “Everyone who does what is right has been born of him (God). (1 Jn. 2:29)
Paul informs us the wrath of God is brought on by poor conduct, not lack of faith: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” (Rom. 1:18)
Paul taught you must prove your repentance by your deeds, not prove your faith by your works: “To the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20)
Paul, speaking to Christians, explains how Christians – and everyone else – will receive eternal life: “For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…” (Rom. 2:6-7)
Paul taught us that the heathen who never performed the outward acts of the Jewish Law such as circumcision or keeping the Sabbath would be counted as if they had if they fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law: “If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?” (Rom. 2:26)
Then Paul adds this doosey: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Php. 2:12) What? What’s there to work out and be afraid of when you have faith? Did Paul not get the memo that there is nothing to work out for those who have faith in Christ?
The writer of Hebrews said their salvation depends on their work and labor of love, not their faith: “But that which bears thorns and briers (evil works) is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned. But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak. For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which you have shewn toward his name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” (Heb. 6:8-10)
And finally, the words of Jesus. Have you seen the tract called The Romans Road to Salvation? Here’s the Matthew Road to Salvation.
The Matthew Road to Salvation
Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name have cast out devils? And in your name done many wonderful works?” And then will I profess unto them, “I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” (Mt. 7:22-23)
The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned. (Mt. 12:35-37)
He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. (Mt. 13:37-43)
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Mt. 16:27)
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Mt. 25:41-46)
That’s five times the writer of Matthew quotes Jesus in a way that does damage to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. It’s almost as if someone purposefully put all this in the very beginning of our New Testaments so we wouldn’t miss the fact God did not overturn his Old Covenant standard of salvation which was to not be an evil person.
And yet, Evangelicals like me missed that fact.
Not to be outdone by Matthew, the apostle John also quotes Jesus saying the same things:
Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (Jn. 5:28-29)
Look, I (Jesus) am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. (Rev. 22:12)
When Jesus comes back (or came back if you’re a Preterist) he’s going to be looking for orthopraxy (right living), not orthodoxy (right belief). No one will be judged by what he believes. Everyone will be judged by what he has done. Those who do wicked deeds need to turn from those deeds before it’s too late. It’s as simple as that. If you try to understand these sayings of Jesus in the light of 16th Century doctrinal developments you inevitably render the words of Jesus as null and void.
How to Receive Eternal Life
This is the story that had the most impact on me regarding what I had always believed as an Evangelical:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” (Lk. 10:25)
There you have it. From Jesus himself. Why didn’t he tell the lawyer to “Believe in me and you will be saved”? Could it be, “I am the Way, the Truth, and Life, no one comes to the Father except by me,” means a person can do what he just told the lawyer, love God and neighbor, and that IS following the Way, the Truth, and the Life? Could it be any person is coming to God through Jesus, even if he doesn’t know anything about Jesus? If coming to God through Jesus means only hearing and believing a story about Jesus’ death and resurrection then Jesus led the lawyer astray because there would be no guarantee that that lawyer would hear about this resurrection event that was yet to happen. He could have gotten run over by a drunken ox cart driver or he could have moved to Mongolia and died of old age before the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection reached that part of the world. Or, more likely, killed by an angry client in the interim. But Jesus never qualified his statement. He just reiterated how he had summed up the Old Testament message. “Love God and man and you will live,” is all he said.
Jesus gives further instructions about how to “get right” with God:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 3:5-10)
Jesus never said these blessings are for Christians only yet somehow we just assume that they are. Neither did he say these things with the intention of showing that nobody is capable of doing them, as I’ve been told by my Calvinist friends. The passage reads like he’s encouraging his followers to actually live according to what he said.
If the blessings in the Sermon on the Mount are for Christians only then a peacemaker like Gandhi who led a whole nation in peaceful resistance against British rule will be in hot water with God while our nation’s founding fathers who led their nation in a killing spree of 25,000 British soldiers so they wouldn’t have to pay their tax bill would be perfectly acceptable to God. Supposedly, “Blessed are the peacemakers” doesn’t apply to Gandhi. Unless he has faith in Christ to save his soul he won’t receive a blessing in the afterlife no matter how much God appreciated his leadership in peaceful resistance.
Both Gandhi and Jesus were peacemakers willing to suffer instead of kill others while the Colonists were unwilling to bear up under the rather light burden of Taxation Without Representation, a burden our country lays on the residents of Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and other US colonies today who are made to pay federal taxes while having no seats in Congress.
The Colonists did not adopt Jesus’ teachings at the Sermon on the Mount as their modus operandi while Gandhi did. The Colonists were war makers. Gandhi was a peacemaker. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.” Who are going to be called sons of God? The Christian Colonists or Gandhi and his followers? I’m putting my money on the peacemakers who didn’t commit wicked acts rather than the ones who refused to make peace with the Brits.
If there ever were any of Jesus’ teachings where he decides to out of the blue issue forth general maxims about salvation while he happened to have a crowd it would be the Sermon on the Mount. But since we don’t want to make it apply to everyone we say “blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be the children of God” only applies to Christians who are peacemakers. We do the same with John’s description of who is born from above in his epistles because we don’t want to include all humans in “everyone who does what is right has been born of God.” (1 Jn. 2:29) And then we have the temerity to apply statements like, “You must believe I am who I say I am or you will die in your sins,” to every person on the planet even though it was a response to those who stood right in front of him, saw his good works, heard his good words, and yet still accused him of being a demon. If THEY didn’t believe he was who he said he was – the Light of the World (as it states just a few verses prior) – THEY would die in their sins. Is there any reason to apply that to all of mankind, other than a warped human tendency to find a reason to exclude others from the blessings of God?
Are we biased toward a hermeneutic that makes God less gracious?
Are we like the Prodigal Son’s older brother who was surprised by his Father’s generosity, and protested arduously?
If so, why?
Speaking of being “born again”, that has got to be one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in our modern Christian lexicon. I’ll devote another post to how the Jews understood this term and apply that to what Jesus was getting at in John chapter 3. But for now:
Who Are These Wicked People Who Aren’t Accepted by God?
Right about here this question inevitably gets raised: “If it’s good conduct God is after and people will be judged for their bad conduct regardless of whether they have faith in Christ or not, then what conduct is good enough? How do we know if we are good enough for God?
The answer is, I’m not going to answer that. I’m not going to go the route of the Jewish spiritual leaders Jesus had issues with who created a long list of rules to follow in addition to the Law of Moses, or the way of Muslim Sharia scholars who have done the same to what Mohammad taught. I’m not going to go the route of the Catholic Church and draw up a list of mortal and venial sins so you can know which sins will cause you to lose acceptance with God and then define perfect contrition and absolution through the sacrament of penance to make you dependent on the church.
The question itself reveals an insatiable human need for certainty and a fear of mystery and ambiguity in matters of faith and practice, a need that God never meets and never asked his church or told his prophets to meet.
That’s the job of the Holy Spirit who convicts people of their sin. I’m not the Holy Spirit so I’m not going to try to get you to think you’re a wicked person.
Unless I think you actually are. If I were to run into someone like Adolph Hitler I’d definitely have something to say about God’s standard of “love your neighbor as yourself.”
If you want to know who I think is a wicked person who needs to repent of his wickedness, other than someone obvious like Hitler, go do some jail ministry or hang out with warring gang members or ISIS fighters and you’ll meet some people like that. I’d say that in a civilized society that kind of person spends a lot of time in jail.
Or he runs for office.
The apostle John helps us out with a profile of the wicked:
- “Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.” (1 Jn. 2:11)
- “Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” (1 Jn. 3:10)
- “Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1 Jn. 3:14)
- “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 Jn. 4:8)
- “Do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.” (3 Jn. 1:11)
It’s really simple. An evil person is one who does evil. A righteous person is one who lives righteously:
“Little children, let no man deceive you: he that does righteousness is righteous.” (1 Jn. 3:7)
Evangelical theology tries to deceive us into thinking a righteous person is one who has faith in Jesus. John is writing his epistles to Christians who think a righteous person is anyone other than someone who lives righteously. Evangelicals didn’t exist at the time but he sure seems to be writing to them to set them straight.
Righteousness and wickedness as portrayed in the Bible is pretty simple to understand and confirms the answer Jesus gave to the lawyer that in order to inherit eternal life you need to love God and love man.
Religious people, especially those who have the job of shepherding those who follow God’s prophets, will never be satisfied to leave it at that. They must define to the gnat’s eyebrow for all of humanity just exactly what it means to be acceptable to God, like the Pharisees who determined that to not labor on the Sabbath you could carry the weight of a dried fig but not the weight of a wet fig. They simply cannot leave it up to personal discretion or allow each individual to be guided by God differently than the religious leaders or the guy next to him. Religious people just can’t let the Holy Spirit do his job. They feel compelled to do it for him. That seems to be much of the synagogue, much of the church, and much of the mosque for much of their histories, yet all of our prophets emphasize that it’s all about loving God and your neighbor. Whatever laws they gave were just prescriptions for how best to do that in their particular societies at those particular times.
That said, I can get a little more specific about who the righteous are today:
Your sweet mother who couldn’t be bothered with all this religion stuff but sacrificed her sanity to raise you and your siblings and did her level best to keep you, God forbid, from becoming a Justin Bieber fan, does not have anything to worry about on Judgment Day.
Of course a newborn baby who couldn’t possibly have done anything to warrant God’s judgment doesn’t have anything to worry about either. A proper biblical view of God and salvation eliminates the need to rush a baby to the baptismal font before he dies or try to convince a youngster of the truth of the Gospel after they have reached the age of accountability, whenever that is. It even eliminates the need to figure out what age that might be. That’s convenient given that we have no answer to that in the Bible.
Understanding the justice and mercy of God will eliminate the burden you might have for the salvation of your loved ones who you know deep in your heart should not be punished in the afterlife. If you are an evangelist or have the burden of a soul-winner this will relieve some of your burden and give you a new lease on life and a reconstituted ministry knowing that the Good News is that God is not separated from his beloved creation due to something beyond our control such as sin, and he isn’t going to hold us responsible and damn us for that over which we have no control.
And everyone breathes a collective sigh of relief! God really is a just God, it turns out.
God is easy to figure out. How do you treat your kids? God is better than you.
Once we’ve come to accept that God will judge all men based on their conduct instead of their faith or lack of faith, the inevitable question will arise: “How good is good enough for God?” Answering that could require another blog post but let me give my Reader’s Digest version: It’s not our job to come up with a checklist for people to tick off to see if they “qualify” for heaven. It’s the job of the Holy Spirit to convict people of their sin. If God is telling you that you are wicked and you need to repent, then Brother (or Sister), you better repent!
Besides that, just figuring out what the “minimum requirements” are for entrance into a blessed afterlife and making sure we meet that standard is not what Jesus Christ is all about. That’s not the Good News of Jesus Christ. Jesus said he came to give life, and give it abundantly! Why settle for just enough to have a valid fire insurance policy on our shack by the swamp when we can upgrade to a mansion on the hill?
Jesus died so we can become like Christ, free of bondage to sin. Meeting a standard of conduct is only a first step to an abundant life in Christ. It’s not our goal and we sell ourselves and others short if all we are doing is trying to get people to be good enough to be saved. There’s way more to this Christian life than that!
If you’ve made it all the way to this point some of you might be thinking, “Wow, what a relief! It’s always been hard for me to think of God as one who would damn to Hell good people who just happened to be born in a Muslim or Buddhist nation and had little chance of becoming Christians. That just does NOT seem like a God of love to me. Now God to me actually is a God of love, even as I read my Bible.”
If you plan on sharing your new-found joy and freedom with other Christians be prepared for an onslaught of questions you haven’t thought of. Some more blog posts on this subject have been written and more are to come which will help you anticipate and answer those questions. Or if you have questions of your own that need to be answered before making this huge paradigm shift in salvation understanding I intend to address the vast majority of objections that arise. The following is a brief synopsis of what will be covered.
Reasons Why Evangelicals Preach Another Gospel
There are several reasons Evangelicals believe the Bible teaches that good non-believers go to Hell:
- Belief in Original Sin, Total Depravity, or other forms of Universal Condemnation which say that nobody is good enough to stand before God on judgment day and get a favorable hearing based on his own merits. If God judges based on conduct everyone stands condemned, therefor God must graciously provide another means for salvation for there to be any hope for mankind, it is alleged.
- Evangelicals believe it’s self-righteous to think one can generate within himself a righteousness that is acceptable to God while that’s not the problem of self-righteousness as addressed by Jesus or Paul. See this blog post to understand what self-righteousness is all about.
- Thinking anyone in the Old Testament who was deemed righteous because of his conduct wasn’t righteous because of his conduct but because of his faith.
- Statements by Paul, taken out of context, regarding salvation by faith and not by works, thinking Paul’s theology included proving nobody can stand before God on his own merits.
- Statements by Jesus, taken out of context, interpreted to mean that those without faith in him will be damned.
- Ignoring the many statements in the New Testament which say that others besides Christians are acceptable to God.
- Belief in Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) which means the purpose of the Cross was for Jesus to satisfy God’s justice by taking our punishment for our sins upon himself and God imputing Jesus’ righteousness to the believer so God can see the sinner as sinless.
- Reading PSA into the sacrifices of the Jews as laid out in the Old Testament.
- Thinking that justice, as it pertains to God’s nature, demands punishment for all sins.
- Misunderstanding the word “salvation” to mean “a ticket to heaven” rather than “restoration to wholeness”, thinking “grace” never means “graciousness”, and “faith” never means “faithfulness”.
- Statements of the Reformers like Martin Luther who said, “The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.”
- Failure of the church to discern the heart of God for his creation and understand this saying of Jesus: “You [fathers], being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more your Father which is in heaven?” (Mt. 7:11, Lk. 11:13) Jesus compares God to human fathers who would not think to harm their children, and states what should be the obvious Gospel – or Good News – that God is better than human fathers. Instead, the church, both Catholic and Protestant, has been preaching the Bad News that God is more evil than human fathers, and justified in being so – because He’s a Holy and Just God, as if his attributes of holiness and justice forces him to do what no human father would ever do to his children.
Each of those points requires its own blog post and I will link to them above once I have them written.
This is what I’ve posted so far: