“He [God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.” Romans 2:6-11
Eternal life for those who do good work and seek honor, it’s pretty simple. The fact that God is just means that God must act justly, therefore all who do good will receive a just reward. Ultimately every religion in the world presents a variant of the same truth: do good get good, do bad get bad.
In short, most of us believe in karma. Statistically most of us- Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, Christian, unaffiliated, agnostic, or whatever else, functionally believe in karma. Don’t believe me? Just listen to what people say when someone they like gets diagnosed with cancer or prematurely loses their life in a car accident- “how could something like this happen to her?”, “he was such a good person!”, “she deserved so much better”. The underlying logic is the same, those that do good should get good, those who do bad get bad.
We don’t get to decide what good is, God does. The nature of good requires an objective standard beyond us, without this, good and bad are nothing more than arbitrary individual preferences. We can all be “good” according to our own personal standard but if our standards are different saying we are “good” has no meaning. Most of us will agree that “murder is morally bad”, but by what standard is it bad? On whose authority is it bad? Governments can dictate what is legal but not what is moral. We could perhaps try using “society” or “the majority” as a moral standard but those don’t work because majorities change and societies differ- some societies and majorities believe slavery or bride burning to be morally acceptable. Instead of these solutions we could try “whatever is best for human flourishing” to be the deciding factor in what we declare “good” but it still falls short; it has been argued by many over the ages that humankind would be better off if a certain portion of the population were eliminated- fewer leeches on the economy, fewer people using the precious resources we have etc. Therefore, good people can only go to heaven if an objective standard of good exists.
”God is not subject to our flawed conception of goodness.”
We don’t meet God’s standard of good. God is not subject to our flawed conception of goodness. “Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins.” Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is no one righteous, not even one” Romans 3:10.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23
In the Old Testament God gave Israel “the law”, which contained over 600 different standards regarding moral issues (which are timeless and pertain to all), civil issues (as Israel was a government and not just a faith), and others pertaining to sacrifice and ceremonial cleanliness (that all pointed forward to and were fulfilled by Jesus). The moral law is summarized in the 10 commandments, the first four deal with how we relate to and honor God, the last six deal with how we relate to and honor others. Jesus further summarized these ten into two- love God and love people (Matthew 22, Mark 12). In James 2 we are told that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” God’s law is kind of like a windshield, you may only have a small crack in one corner of it but the whole thing has to be replaced because the windshield is broken. Jesus also was very clear that sin, or breaking God’s moral law, is not just external but internal- if you hate someone you’re guilty of murder, if you lust for someone besides your spouse you are an adulterer. (Matthew 5). “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” John 8:34. The reality is we all sin both by nature and by choice. We sin both by commission (doing that which we should not) and omission (failing to do that which we should). Some sins are against others, some sins are against ourselves, but all sin is primarily against God. John Piper on the matter says:
“What is sin?
It is the glory of God not honored.
The holiness of God not reverenced.
The greatness of God not admired.
The power of God not praised.
The truth of God not sought.
The wisdom of God not esteemed.
The beauty of God not treasured.
The goodness of God not savored.
The faithfulness of God not trusted.
The commandments of God not obeyed.
The justice of God not respected.
The wrath of God not feared.
The grace of God not cherished.
The presence of God not prized.
The person of God not loved.
That is sin.”
”We might not think we actively hate God but if we’re honest we’d rather have our sin than God most of the time.”
Sure we may not like “ugly” sins like murder or rape but the reality is you and I sin because we love sin. We love to fornicate, we don’t care about holiness, we love pursuing that which exalts us rather than God, we love to feel superior to others, we love pornography, and we don’t really care if God is honored as long as we are honored. We might not think we actively hate God but if we’re honest we’d rather have our sin than God most of the time. Sure we may want God in our lives but only so long as he fits in with the plan we have for our life and doesn’t require us to sacrifice our desires. “They [we] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature [sex, wealth, self] rather than the Creator” Romans 1:21. So do good people go to heaven? Absolutely, but you don’t fit God’s definition of good and neither do I. This brings us to our final and most serious problem.
Problem 3: God is just.
It seems everybody today is comfortable with the idea that God is good or God is love, but it is much more uncomfortable and unpopular to talk about God’s holiness or justice. When we pick and choose which of God’s attributes are most important we in effect, place ourselves in authority over Him and define God not according to how He has revealed himself but how we, in our fallen minds, prefer him to be. God is just. We sin. God’s justice demands that sin be paid for. This is a catastrophic problem that religion comes up short in solving. Islam and Judaism bank on the idea that God is merciful and indeed he is but that doesn’t solve the problem, not even close. Imagine your child was brutally murdered, the murderer caught, and sufficient evidence to convict presented, but at the court ruling the judge says “this man is clearly guilty of first degree murder, however I like him, so I find him innocent”. Imagine the outrage! What injustice! What wickedness! Yet isn’t that exactly what we expect of God if we think our goodness gets us to heaven and our bad be overlooked? “Yeah you’ve broken the law but you’ve turned over a new leaf so I’ll let it slide.”
“He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination.” Proverbs 17:15
”God’s wrath is simply his love in action against sin.”
There it is. If God were to let us off the hook for even just the slightest of our sins he would be not only unjust (therefore ceasing to be God), but abominable by his own standard. Another extremely biblical yet wildly unpopular and countercultural concept is God’s wrath. God’s wrath is simply his love in action against sin. An imperfect analogy how a loving God is also wrathful could be my love for my children- I love my children dearly and someone sinning against them or hurting them would quickly stir me to wrath. My wrath exists because my love exists and someone sinned against the object of my affection. J.I. Packer summarizes: “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil” (Knowing God, 151).
The solution: substitution.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
If one player of a team scores the whole team is credited with his goal, likewise if that player commits a foul the whole team gets penalized. When a leader of a nation goes to war, the whole nation goes to war. When David defeated Goliath his victory was credited to all Israel even those who did not fight. When your senator votes on a bill you vote on that bill because they vote on behalf of you, thus the idea of representative democracy. In a similar way, when Adam sinned in the garden he represented you and sinned on your behalf. Romans 5 says “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men.” This representation is referred to as “Federal Headship”. Federal Headship is the how we got into the mess of sin and death and it is Federal Headship that can get us out.
“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” Romans 5:19
The word “Christian” appears only twice in the Bible, most often the term used to describe believers is “in Christ”, ultimately we all are either “in Adam” or “in Christ”. By birth and by nature we are in Adam, by faith those who believe are in Christ, meaning that Christ becomes their Federal Head instead of Adam. The central message of Christianity and the whole Bible is this, “at just the right time Christ died for the ungodly, he showed his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). Notice he died for the ungodly and the sinners and not the “good people”. Those who are in Christ by faith and by grace have Jesus as our representative, our stand in, our federal head. Not only did he keep God’s law perfectly (called the Active Obedience of Christ) and measure up to God’s standard of good in our place but he also died the death we deserve in our behalf (called Substitutionary Atonement). For those of us who are truly in Christ, Jesus lived in our stead and he died in our stead. A helpful analogy is a goaltender in hockey who commits a penalty; someone from his team must sit in the penalty box and serve his time or pay the penance that is owed on his behalf. That is what Jesus did for those who are in Christ. He served our sentence and absorbed the wrath due to us for our sin. This means that for the believer, God is not and cannot be angry with you nor will he or can he punish you because your debt has been paid in full. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden God shed the blood of an innocent animal and clothed them with it. When the wrath of God fell on Egypt those whose houses were covered in the blood of the innocent and perfect lamb were passed over. Similarly those in Christ are clothed in his righteousness and his blood justifies them, cleanses them, and protects them. When God looks upon the believing he sees not their sin and not their works but the works of Jesus.
”The believer is marked by a new heart with new desires, our desire to resist sin is not primarily out of fear of punishment but out of the realization that it is our sin that nailed our savior to the cross.”
What is the point of doing good or avoiding sin? The Bible is clear that we cannot in reality earn heaven but rather hell is what is earned by our sin. For the believer though, the purpose of our existence is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (Westminster Confession of Faith).
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Romans 6:1-2
The believer is marked by a new heart with new desires, our desire to resist sin is not primarily out of fear of punishment but out of the realization that it is our sin that nailed our savior to the cross. As John MacArthur put it “We should not be entertained by the sins for which Christ died.” One in Christ is one who acknowledges and is broken by their sin. Out of this realization springs their need for a Savior and their gratitude for the works and grace of God. To the unbeliever: God is incomprehensibly more holy than you can imagine, your sin is infinitely more serious than you can fathom, and his grace is inscrutably sweeter than you can comprehend. Turn from your sin and run toward God.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2
Romans (particularly chapters 1-8)
The Holiness of God by RC Sproul
Images from Adam4d.com