I wonder what you made of the theme question tonight. It’s a bit shocking, when you start to think about it. Being good won’t get me into heaven. It’s not what we expect to hear. Maybe especially for people in Northern Ireland, who have been brought up to think that heaven is for people who are good and who do good.
You see, some people genuinely believe that humans are good. All of us are good, and eventually we all become good, and God will let us into heaven because we tried to be good, at least sometimes. But it just doesn’t work like that. We quickly realise that we’re not good all the way through. We’re selfish and proud, and look out for ourselves.
For others, we think that it’s a matter of balance, like the scales of justice. We know that we do some bad things, but we hope that the good things we do outweigh the bad. So the good cancels out the bad, we’re in profit, and we get into heaven.
But again, as we’ll see, that doesn’t work. How could you ever be sure that your good was outweighing your bad? Life would turn into a constant guilt trip as you try to balance things, like a bad dieting phase where you have a chocolate bar one day and then starve yourself the rest of the week to make up for it.
Most of us perhaps fall into the relativity trap. It’s all relative, and while we recognise that we do bad things, well, at least we’re not as bad as yer man down the road – did you hear what he did last week? We’re all very skilled at making ourselves appear in a better light than others. So we compare ourselves to those who are worse offenders. It’s maybe even more of a temptation for you if you go to church every week – compared to the heathens who don’t come along.
You might even think of it in a scale like this: Right at the bottom, worst of the worst, someone like Hitler. Then coming up, not as bad but still bad you might put murderers, then robbers, then liars, and compared to all that bunch, you appear at the top of the class, gold star for you and a sure way into heaven – compared to all those bad people down the list…
But again, it just doesn’t work like that. You see, in trying to highlight the sins of others, you conveniently forget about the sins that you also commit. Now, you may not think them as important, or as scandalous or as wrong as others, but they are nonetheless still sins, and still wrong.
For a few minutes I want to share with you from Romans 3. As Paul outlines the good news of Jesus, he first has to knock down some barriers to the gospel. One of these major barriers was the thought that some Jews had about themselves. You see, they couldn’t see how they needed the salvation of Jesus, because they were God’s chosen people, and had God’s law (the Ten Commandments and all the rest), so surely they were all ok.
Paul takes some time and outlines first how the Gentiles, the non-Jews, were sinful, but then he extends what he is saying to the Jews as well. What about this for a comprehensive condemnation:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18)
As Romans 3 later says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ That falling short is the image of an arrow missing the target by not even making it to the target. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is the high jump bar. The bar is set so high that no one can make it. Everyone fails and falls.
The problem of sin is that the wages of sin is death. The proper result of our sin is death, and one day, each of us will die. So if sin is sin, then any sin is just as bad as any other – all are punished and end in death, so the comparisons with others fail. Similarly, the attempts to balance our good and bad just don’t wash. How do you make up for the wrong things you have already done, never mind trying to be good for the rest of your days?
Well, there are just two answers. We can try to save ourselves, or we can find that Jesus can save us. All those things that we talked about at the start – the balancing good and evil, the comparing ourselves with others – these are ways we try to justify ourselves. It can lead some people to try so very hard to be so very good, so that in the end, God has to say to them, yes you’re good enough.
As Tim Keller says, ‘Self-salvation through good works may produce a great deal of moral behaviour in your life, but inside you are miserable. You are always comparing yourself to other people, and you are never sure you are being good enough. You cannot therefore, deal with your hideousness and self-absorption through the moral law, by trying to be a good person through an act of the will. You need a complete transformation of the very motives of your heart.’ (The Reason For God, p. 177)
Being good won’t save us – expecting God to give us a pat on the back for our own achievements just doesn’t work, when we have rebelled against him the whole way.
But the good news is that Jesus can save us. Jesus is the one who can deal with our sin – who has dealt with our sin, and who offers full and free pardon. Jesus died the death that your sin deserved, in your place as your substitute, so that you don’t have to bear it yourself. That’s what Paul goes on to say: (Romans 3:23-25a)
We are justified by faith – as we trust in Jesus, then it is just as if I’d never sinned. As Jesus died on the cross, he took the punishment we deserved – this is what propitiation means – bearing God’s wrath on sin, and taking away that wrath. This is, then, the only way we can get to heaven – not by saving ourselves by our churchgoing or charity work or trying to be good. No, the only way to heaven is by trusting in Jesus, taking him as our Saviour, and sheltering under his cross, as the only ground of hope, and the only way to find peace.
It’s as if we have run up a huge debt on our credit cards – maxed them out, and can’t pay the bills. The debt I could not pay. Jesus comes, and takes the bill, and pays it himself so that we can go free. Or liked condemned people, we are in court, sentenced to death. Jesus comes, takes the sentence, and allows us to go free.
This talk was presented at Open House in Dundonald on Sunday 22nd February 2009.