There are a lot of good people in the world. A lot. Personally, I think the overwhelming majority of people are kind, humane, and tenderhearted. There are people who will do things for someone else – even a total stranger – people who will stop to help a stranded motorist, who will give a few bucks for a meal for a homeless person, and who will donate their time, money, and resources to help those who are less fortunate. Many will do much, much more. And this is a good thing. Jesus said, after all,
“For you always have the poor with you…” – Mark 14.7a
There is a lot of misery in the world – all of it the direct or indirect result of man’s failure – and it is not going to go away. So the world needs good people. And so many are doing this as a result of understanding that this is what Jesus did, and what he taught. As he said,
“The greatest among you shall be your servant.” – Matthew 23.11
So, how does one balance what is easily observable – that there are a lot of good people in the world – with what Jesus said about the paths that people will choose?
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7.13-14
“Many” and “few” stand in stark contrast to each other. If applied to the whole of humankind, it would seem that Jesus is saying that the majority (“many”) will be lost, and that the minority (“few”) will be saved. I’ve thought about this a lot recently with the passing of some people of notoriety who left indelible impressions in this world for various reasons, such as musical or acting talent, but also for their charitable efforts in time, money and resources to help those less fortunate. At their passing, the world heaped praise on them, and many remarked that heaven welcomed their arrival. From a personal standpoint, I would rejoice with them if their eternal rest is heavenly – I hope it is. But the fact is, I have no idea, and fortunately (for them and me) it is not my decision. But are we fooling ourselves? Are we putting the best face on the lives of notorious people – people who were kind and good to others, yes, but who also lived lives that clearly did not observe simple Bible teaching about how one is to live? Many would say their kindness and empathy toward the needy, their love of humankind, would “outweigh” failings measured against what are obviously fairly strict moral codes given by God in the Bible. And besides, I might add, we’re saved by grace, not works, right?
The irony of being “good”
Let me reiterate before proceeding. I am not suggesting that any human being is in a position to make a judgment about the eternal fate of another. That is God’s realm, and we’re better off avoiding it. At the same time, God’s word teaches in many places(!) that the faithful have a duty to warn the unfaithful about their conduct and its eternal consequences. It started with the prophets and continued unabated (Ezekiel 3.17-19, 33.7-9; John 5.14; Acts 2.40; 1 Corinthians 6.9-10; 2 Thessalonians 1.8-9; 2 Peter 3.17; Matthew 10.32-33; Titus 1.10-11). I mean, what is the point of so much teaching about ungodliness and its terrible consequences if we are to simply ignore the behavior of others and never speak a word of dissent about anyone’s conduct? That’s simply absurd. Of course we are to present positively the saving message of the gospel. But inherent in that is the presumption that hearers are lost people – that’s the very reason any evangelist tries to preach truth: to save souls.
But there is also a rich irony to this mindset that “good” people needn’t worry about how they live – that their “goodness” will put them in God’s favor. The irony here is that such a proposition contends that the good works of a person will outweigh their sinful behavior. And that this is something opponents of “organized religion” (whatever that means) – who loudly and proudly condemn “works salvation” – constantly profess. But you can’t have it both ways: the good works of religious people are their downfall, while the good works of irreligious people will save them? Seriously?
The scriptures teach we are saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2.8). There are several things of note here that put lie to the notion that people who do good deeds – even while living hedonistic lives – will be favored by God over anyone. First, it is by grace – and only by grace – that anyone will end up in heaven. Paul goes on in Ephesians 2 to say that no one’s works will save them. Presumably this means both the devout adherent to strict Bible teaching (those works won’t save him or her), as well as the “good” person who is kind and merciful (those works won’t save him or her, either). That leaves us with the key to salvation by grace: it is “through faith”. This is in keeping with the constant teaching of scripture – both OT and NT – that those who are justified (made right by God) will be so by faith (Habakkuk 2.4, Hebrews 10.38).
Faith is the channel through which God extends His grace
The Hebrew writer clarifies the nature of this component of man’s conduct: faith. He writes:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11.6
Coupled with the teaching of Paul…
So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. – Romans 10.17
Grasping the relationship of these two passage – that faith is man’s response to God’s grace, and that faith is directed by God’s word – and then coupling these with teaching like James 2.14-26, we can very simply piece together a pretty consistent idea of how man properly responds to God’s grace. It is this: through heart-felt appreciation for the death of Jesus in our place, we obey God’s word (faith!), and thus accept the grace he extends for salvation that is totally unearned. That’s “by grace through faith.”
So for the devout believer the message is this: don’t get on your high horse thinking that strict adherence to Biblical doctrine will do anything to pay the price for your sins, because it won’t. And your good works – a faithful response to God’s grace – are merely the appropriate, faithful response to God’s boundless love and mercy; they don’t “balance out” your sins.
And to the “good” person who despises religion in its many manifestations and has no interest in living a morally strict life but lives by desire and indulgence – but who also loves people and is kind, merciful, and philanthropic nearly to a fault (good works all): don’t get on your high horse thinking that good deeds and kindness toward others is a substitute for faithfully seeking God and obeying his word in response to his boundless love and mercy.
Neither of these approaches works because both are wrapped up in the idea of salvation by works. And that ain’t gonna happen.
May grace reign through righteousness in your life.
– Bo Couchman