Rebuilding the Foundations
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As an evangelical, I was taught to answer this question with "no." Good people do not go to heaven; saved people do. Now that Jesus died, it is all about faith. Saved people go to heaven, no matter what they do, and people who do not believe in Jesus go to hell. Good or bad does not matter anymore.
It is easy to see how Protestants get that out of the New Testament. John 6:47, for example, says, "He that believes has eternal life." Plain and simple, right?
The problem is that the same person who wrote that also wrote:
One who says, “I know him,” and doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth isn’t in him. (1 Jn. 2:3-4)
Even more to the point, one chapter before Jesus said, "He that believes has eternal life," He said:
For the hour comes in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come out; those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. (Jn. 5:28-29)
I am using the WEB version, and I changed the last word of that quote to "condemnation" because I believe it as a better translation than "judgment."
The "do good and receive life" quotes are not just a few. Here are some examples:
I could go on and on and on, but let's pause here. Did you notice the "don't be deceived" and "know this for sure" and "let no one deceive you" among the bolded words about doing good?
There are also bolded words about what Jesus came to do. After you believe in Jesus, you were unrighteous, like those who have no inheritance in the kingdom of God. But after Jesus's washing, sanctification, and justification, you are not unrighteous.
Yes, saved people "go to heaven," but that is because saved people are good and righteous people. If you are not good and righteous, then John says you aren't really saved; i.e., you don't know God (1 Jn. 2:3-4). Paul and Peter do not say you are not saved; they say you will not inherit God's kingdom (above and 2 Pet. 1:5-11).
Some may ask, "If we still have to do good, then why did Jesus die?"
It takes training not to know the answer to this question. The untrained person would quickly conclude the right answer: "He died so that we can do good!"
I am going to talk about the atonement and grace in this section. The Scriptures lump those two things together often. Let's look at two places they are lumped together:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we would live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age; looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:11-14)
This paragraph is here just to convince you to read the passage I just quoted before moving on. Notice what it says about grace and about Jesus dying for us.
Okay, next passage:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)
It amazes how often people will hear me teach on this matter, then when I get to Ephesians 2:8, they say,"See! It's grace, not works!"
Let's look at the New Testament pattern:
Because of that New Testament pattern, we must receive saving grace apart from works. If we are slaves to sin until grace comes, then grace has to come apart from our own righteous deeds. We cannot do righteous deeds, at least not throughout our life, before grace comes. Once it comes, however, then we can do good works.
Jesus did not come to get us to heaven without good works. He came to get us to heaven by our good works.
That is why Paul told Titus to teach Titus 2:11-14 (see above) with all authority, not letting anyone give him a hard time (Tit. 2:15). He also told him to "affirm confidently" that God's people must be "careful" to maintain good works (Tit. 3:8).
If you are still struggling with this idea, read Romans 7. Then, when you are done, go immediately into Romans 8, and in the first four verses, notice what the difference is between being under the Law of Moses and having Jesus died for us. Under the Law, we sin. After Jesus dies for us, we fulfill the righteousness of the Law. The rest of chapter 8 tells us how to fulfill the righteousness of the Law (by the Holy Spirit).
It has always been true that those who live eternally are those who live a righteous life. Wicked people die. People who were righteous, then become wicked, also die. People who were wicked, then repent and become righteous, live. God considers this justice, and he defends that manner of judgment as just (Ezek. 18:20-30).
Jesus did not die to change that manner of judgment. As we see above it is still the same. He died so that we could do good and live eternally because of that manner of judgment.
Jesus marveled that people did not get that. "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord' and not do what I say?" (Luk. 6:46). In another place, he said, "Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
I hope this does not take away from anything I have written above, but I have to touch on this. The New Testament does not use the phrase "go to heaven." It talks about inheriting the kingdom of God (in the Gospel of Matthew, "kingdom of heaven"). The kingdom of God is coming to earth (Rev. 20), where we are going to live forever on a renewed earth (2 Pet. 3) with no tears or suffering or death (Rev. 21:4).