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Being a nice/good person does not get you to Heaven?

Have you ever played the board game, Monopoly? It’s a pretty fun game – each player chooses a token to use and rolls the die to move around the board. Most spaces represent a property, and there are other events that occur as well. Each property is assigned a color, and multiple properties all belong to the same color. When you land on unowned properties, you can purchase them if you can afford them. If you purchase all the properties of the same color you have a “monopoly”, and can begin building houses, and eventually hotels, on those properties. If you land on a property owned by another player, then you owe them rent. The more houses the property has on it, the higher the rent. If the property has a hotel on it, then the rent is the highest amount for that property – Boardwalk, the most lucrative property on the board, has a staggering $2,000 rent with a hotel!

In order to win the game, your goal is to outlast all the other players by owning the most property, houses, and hotels possible and never running out of cash. When a player lands on a property and is unable to pay the rent after selling all their houses and mortgaging all their properties, that player is BANKRUPT – all their remaining money, property, and other items go to the player whose property they landed on, and they are out of the game.

A player getting bankrupted and ousted from a game of Monopoly is a very good picture of our position before God. Last week we talked about the damaging reality of sin – how it spreads like cancer, creating destruction and death in its wake. We also discussed how all of our sin is deserving of death, and ultimately hell. The bad news is that we are in a hopeless position before God – He’s holy, and we’re sinful; He’s perfectly just, and we are all guilty before Him; He wants us to be in heaven with Him forever, but we’re all headed for hell. So what do we do about this?

It is common for people to see problems in their lives and then come up with a solution to fix them – this is a very good thing! It’s amazing how we are able to brainstorm ideas, work hard, and solve problems. While we as humans are able to fix many problems this way, we are not always able to fix “every” problem we come across. It’s a pretty common stereotype for men to never ask for help with anything. We will drive around aimlessly for hours because we refuse to ask for directions. We’ll break the entire kitchen in our attempts to fix a clogged sink because who needs a plumber? But, what do we as humanity do in the face of sin and the reality of judgment day, and heaven and hell? Here are a few things we’ve tried to do:

1. Ignore it. This is a big problem, especially in America. Many people just choose not to think about death or what comes after. It’s a lot more comfortable to quiet our consciences, allow ourselves to do whatever we want and live however we want, and choose not to worry about what happens next. You may as well try to pretend like you’re not bleeding if you were to get shot in the leg! Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away; refusing to face the truth doesn’t make it a lie. We can’t ignore this problem because it’s the biggest problem every person on the planet faces. We need to tackle it head on and figure out the solution.

2. Reject it. Another pretty common strategy to deal with sin and the idea of God as judge over all things is to decide you don’t believe it’s true. Maybe instead you convince yourself that the theory of the big bang and evolution is what is true – there’s no accountability to anyone or anything at all if you believe this way, so therefore there is no sin and it isn’t a problem. Or perhaps you follow a different religion that has something else to say about this. Many religions do not speak of sin or hell. They may teach morality as something important for humanity, but at the end of the day, everything will work out okay for everyone. I would argue that, in both cases, you would be rejecting truth and accepting a lie. I can say all day that there is no gravity – it does not cease to hold me to the ground just because I refuse to believe it. I know this is a bold claim, but it is the claim of Jesus and of the Bible. In the coming weeks, I will be presenting a good deal of evidence that these claims are much more trustworthy than the claims of any other theory, philosophy, or religion.

3. Try to fix it ourselves. This is probably the most common strategy that people employ. Just like the man who drives around, refusing to ask for directions, it can be so easy to work really hard to try and fix our problem of sin without asking for help. The line of thinking is typically that we can be a good enough person to earn heaven. From my observation, the vast majority of people in this category go to church every week, have a Bible on their nightstand, maybe have a prayer that they recite every morning or night, smile a lot, and are very nice people to everyone, for the most part. Alternatively, there are many people who are not religious at all will do lots of service projects and humanitarian work, and also strive to be nice and get along with everyone as best they can. This is the category I want to focus on because I think it is the most dangerous.

Good deeds don’t get rid of bad deeds

Imagine that you are driving down the street and you come to a red stoplight. As most people do most of the time, you press on your brakes and stop before you reach the intersection. Now, say you do that eight more times. Nine red lights in a row (sad day), and you stop at all of them as you should. But let’s say you encounter a tenth red light, and you’ve had it! You put the pedal to the metal and screech through that last red light, narrowly avoiding getting hit by another car, their horn blaring as they swerve to the side of the road. Your heart is racing, adrenaline is pumping, and you exhale a sigh of relief. Until you see another red light. And a blue one. And hear the siren of the police car that’s now on your tail. You pull over and the officer approaches your car in what feels like over an hour. He lowers his sunglasses as you lower your car window, and he asks, “Did you see that red light back there? The one you sped right through?”

Do you think that if you were to explain to him that, while you did run that red light, you stopped at all the other nine red lights before it, he would be convinced not to give you a ticket? To let you go because, even though you broke the law once, you upheld it nine other times? Of course not! One good deed (or lots of good deeds) do not compensate for when you break the law – justice demands that all infractions of the law must be punished, regardless of the amount of good deeds surrounding it.

God is so happy when we choose to do good things. Every time we are kind to another person, patient and forgiving, generous, serve, or do any other number of good things for others, it brings God joy. But when we stand before Him in final judgment, He remains a perfectly just judge. No matter how much good we have done, we are all guilty of breaking God’s law, which requires payment. Disobeying the law of a perfect, holy, all-powerful God, and creator of all things, can only be paid for in one way – the death penalty. Separation, in hell, from Him and the heaven He will create for all of eternity.

But what about “good works” in the Bible?

This idea that we cannot earn our way to heaven can be somewhat tricky – there are a few bible verses that seem to say different things. For example:

“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not from works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?…faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself…You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14-17, 24)

These two passages seemingly contradict each other, and has produced much controversy. Additionally, there are many denominations which hold doctrine that states salvation requires works:
    Catholic doctrine teaches the requirement of the seven sacraments, works that a person must complete to be saved
    Mormonism teaches the requirement of having more good works than bad, the completion of a pilgrimage, and the requirement to be married, in order to be in heaven with God after death
    Jehovah’s Witnesses cite many biblical passages to support their statement, which is openly expressed on their website, jw.org, that belief in Jesus alone is not enough to be saved
    Some traditional Baptist churches preach that water immersion baptism is required to be saved
    Historically, many Catholic, Lutheran, and Methodist churches held to the belief that baptism with water was required to be saved, and so began infant baptisms to “ensure” these babies went to heaven in case they died in infancy

This makes things very confusing! So let’s dig into this a little bit. The Bible is very clear that faith alone is the only thing that can save us (Romans 3:28, Romans 5:1, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-9), which precludes that we can do enough good works, deeds, or anything to earn right standing with God.

What is James 2:14-17, 24 talking about then? While it seems like this is a contradiction, it is not. Let me use an analogy from Pastor Luke Hukee to help.

Imagine that I took a three-legged stool, and broke off all the legs. Then, I put the legs back on using clear Scotch tape. Now imagine that I asked you if you believed, or had faith, that the stool would hold you if you sat on it, and you said yes. Then, I followed up by asking you to sit on it, but you refused. Why are you refusing? If you genuinely believed that the stool would hold you, why would you not sit on it? But by not sitting on it, you demonstrate what you truly believe, which is that you don’t have faith the stool can hold you. Likewise, we can profess faith in something with our mouths, but it is truly our actions which display what we actually believe deep down. We may fool others, but we cannot fool God.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name?’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

From this passage, we see that works are not the solution – look at all the works these lawbreakers were able to cling to! But Jesus was not deceived – they didn’t actually know Him; they had not received the gift of His salvation, so their works were done in vain.

The passage from James 2 emphasizes that genuine faith is what saves, and that the genuineness is proven by the works of the person, which makes sense. If a person has truly come to faith in Christ and has made Him Lord of their life, their decisions, words, attitudes, how they spend their time and money, etc. will all change to align with what Jesus says. Jesus tells us something similar:

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

But what does it mean to believe in Him? Later in this same book, He says:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do…If you love Me, you will keep my commands.” (John 14:12, 15)

Believe in Jesus is the only thing we need to be saved, however, our belief will be tested and proven as either genuine or false by our actions. Genuine faith alone will save; false faith, or completing every good work under the sun, will not.

The reality is, when we stand before God it’s like we’re playing Monopoly, we landed on Boardwalk with a hotel on it, and we only have $1. We may have something to offer, but it’s not even close to enough to pay it off. We are spiritually bankrupt – unable to make up for the sin we have committed on our own. We need help. We need someone else to pay the bill. We cannot deceive ourselves into thinking we are “good enough”, or that we can do enough good to outweigh the bad. We are hopelessly guilty and in debt before the Lord, and there isn’t anything we can do to fix it ourselves.

This week is the “Bad News Part 2.” Sorry for a major downer two weeks in a row, but we have to understand the problem so we can then understand the solution. Next week, we will finally get to the Good News: the best news ever given! It is the solution that God has created in order to save us in the midst of the mess we are in.

For more information about this, check out these articles: