Can We Be Good Enough?
Recently I read a book that repeated many ideas that are accepted without thought today. "Throughout Jesus' ministry he was confronting people who (like the Christians you've confronted) believed that they were righteous before God on the basis of how good they were. They didn't think they needed a Savior." The author adds, "No one can live the Christian life! No one has, does, or ever will (this side of heaven) perfectly live the Christian life!" He tells his unconverted listener, "Do you think for a moment that I'm any better at doing the 'holiness routine' than you?...It's as impossible for me as it is for you."
It is true, of course, that no Christian has ever perfectly lived the Christian life from the day of his conversion until the day of his death. John says, "If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us" (1 Jn 1:10, KJV). James says, "For in many things we all offend" (Jam 3:2, Living Oracles). However, do all the other statements this author, along with most other Christians, follow from this? If someone believes that their righteousness is affected by how good they are, does that mean they think they don't need a Savior? Because no one can be perfect from beginning to end of their Christian life, does that mean that no one can live it? Does it mean that Christians are no better at "doing the holiness routine" than the lost? Is it as impossible for them as it is for lost people?
Centuries ago, Minucius Felix, a Christian in Rome, recorded a debate between a Christian and a Roman. When the Roman marveled that Christians thought they were more righteous than the Romans, the Christian, Octavius, replied with, "If we Christians be compared with you, although in some things our discipline is inferior, yet we shall be found much better than you. For you forbid, and yet commit, adulteries; we are born men only for our own wives: you punish crimes when committed; with us, even to think of crimes is to sin: you are afraid of those who are aware of what you do; we are even afraid of our own conscience alone, without which we cannot exist: finally, from your numbers the prison boils over; but there is no Christian there, unless he is accused on account of his religion, or a deserter" (The Octavius of Minucius Felix 35, c. AD 130-230).
Felix was not unique among our forefathers. From the very beginning, the churches of the apostles thought the Christian life not only could be lived but must be lived. Origen, one of the most respected teachers of his day, wrote, "Who would not admit that even the inferior members of the Church, and those who in comparison with the better are less worthy, are nevertheless more excellent than many of those who belong to the assemblies in the different districts?" (Against Celsus III:29, c. AD 225). Athenagoras, defending Christianity to the emperor in the 2nd century, states the issue so clearly that it is worth reading carefully:
But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbours as themselves (A Plea for the Christians 11, AD 177).
It seems our forefathers in the faith thought the Christian life could be lived and that it could be lived much better by Christians than by those in the world. Does this mean that they thought they had no need of a Savior? Far from it, the Christian life can be lived by Christians specifically because they have a Savior! One very early writer, speaking of the difference between the Law and the grace given by Christ, wrote, "Being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able" (Anonymous, Letter to Diognetus 9, c. AD 80-130). It is because of the Savior and the power of God he provided that we are now "made able" to live the Christian life.
This is how our forefathers understood the faith, but is this what the Bible teaches? Most certainly and quite clearly. The very same letter that tells us that those who say they have not sinned are liars also says, "In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil; whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother" (1 Jn 3:10, KJV). In fact, he warns us not to be deceived about these things: "Little children, let no one deceive you: he that practices righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous" (1 Jn 3:71).
Grace is a greatly misunderstood concept in modern Christianity, but it is the grace of God that allows these things to be true. Paul writes, "Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace" (Rom 6:14). In the letter to Titus, he explains further: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world" (2:11,12)."
Judgment & Eternal Life
Ok, so we're supposed to live righteously, but does that have anything to do with going to heaven?
I don't know how much more clearly Paul could state the relationship between righteousness and going to heaven so that we could get it. He gives a long list of works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19-21 and then says that "those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." He even says that he's told it to them over and over again. To the Corinthians he says, "Don't you know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?" (1 Cor 6:9). Then he tells them not to be deceived about it. He warns the Ephesians, "No whoremonger, unclean person, nor covetous man—who is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph 5:5). He then immediately adds, "Let no man deceive you with vain words" (v. 6).
It amazes me that despite these repeated warnings, each of them emphasized with an "I've told you this already!" or a "Don't be deceived!," we 21st century Christians continue to ignore them. It is quite apparent that we would much more readily offend the apostle Paul and reject his teachings than reject those of Martin Luther and the other Reformers, who are the ones who invented the novel, and rather unbelievable, idea that the unrighteous can go to heaven.
What about Paul's statements that salvation is "the gift of God" and is "not according to works" (Eph 2:8,9)? It is grace that is the gift of God and which is received apart from works. That grace enables us to do the good works for which we will be judged. We will soon have a teaching up on this web site covering the letters of Paul in detail, but really it's not complicated. Once someone points out that it is the grace of God that transforms us that is apart from works, it becomes obvious in Paul's letters that this is so. I'll let you read that teaching separately; let's look at the judgment, which is more applicable here.
Just as modern Christians seem ignorant of Paul's warnings concerning inheriting the kingdom of heaven, they are also remarkably ignorant of the Bible's teachings on the judgment. Every verse on the judgment in the New Testament says it will be by works and there's not a hint that Christians won't be there. In fact, there are several direct statements that Christians will be there and will be judged by their works. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor 5:10). This aligns quite well with what Jesus said: "The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves shall hear his voice and shall come forth; they that have done good to the resurrection of life and they that have done evil to the resurrection of damnation" (Jn 5:28,29).
Jesus described that judgment pretty thoroughly in Matt 25:31-46. Somehow, though, despite the fact that there are "sheep" at that judgment, Christians today try to convince themselves they won't be there. It gets called a "judgment of the nations" despite the fact that it's clearly individuals being judged. Christians will be there. Paul told us so in 2 Corinthians 5:10, and they will be judged by how they have treated the naked, hungry, sick, and imprisoned. In other words, they will be judged by whether they have lived by the love shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
When I tell a Christian these things, I am almost invariably asked where the line is. Where will Jesus draw the line? How will I know I've been good enough? The answer to these things is found in a different objection Christians give me. "If I believed this, I'd be afraid all the time." Good! Great, in fact! About time you started obeying the Bible, because you are commanded to be afraid of the judgment!
And if you call on the Father, who without respect of persons judges according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear (1 Peter 1:17).
Amazing how clear that's stated, isn't it? You don't know where the line is. Peter adds, "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1 Pet 4:18). He doesn't seem very worried about leaving us afraid, does he?
Peter has more to say on the subject. He's very careful to explain how you should live now that you know there will be a judgment according to works:
Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things be in you and abound, they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacks these things is blind, cannot see far off, and has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Therefore rather, brothers, give diligence to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never fall. For so an entrance shall be ministered to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-11).
I hope you will be as astounded as I was how clearly these things are explained once you are told they are true. Add to your faith. It is not bad to add to your faith. It is commanded, and it is only by diligently adding to your faith that you will "make your calling and election sure" and obtain an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of Christ. Do you want assurance? Then diligently add to your faith virtue, knowledge, and the rest of the qualities Peter spoke of, because if you "do these things" you will never fall. It's not the assurance promised by the Reformers, but it is an assurance, and it's far more reliable because it's promised by apostles.
Wouldn't it be awesome if, on behalf of Christ and the incredible power of his grace, which breaks sins dominion over us, we could again say "among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works"? Isn't that far better than "it's as impossible for me as it is for you," which testifies that Christ cannot provide a grace "teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts"?
It is tempting to take you through Romans, chapters 5 through 8, and show you Paul's explanation of how Christ delivers us from the power of sin and to prove to you that it is that incredible grace, not heaven, that is apart from works, but I will leave that to a page devoted wholly to that subject. It will be in the same section of this web site. Stay tuned! And until then, I know this teaching is frightening, especially if you have heard something different your whole life, but I assure you the fear is worth it. It will lead you into a religion that is not talk but action, because "the kingdom of God is not in word but in power" (1 Cor 4:20).
A Final Note
I know the teaching given above will be new to most who are reading it, and to many of those it will seem like heresy. "Salvation by faith alone," interpreted to mean "going to heaven by faith alone," has been a central tenet of Protestant churches since the Reformation, because that is how the Reformers interpreted it. It was a novel idea in their time, however, and the Bible expressly rejects their doctrine repeatedly. I don't know if you realize this, but the only occurence of "faith alone" or "faith only" in the Bible is in James 2:24, where James writes "not by faith only."
The author I mentioned above, a respected and best-selling author, wrote in that same book, "There are certain small sectarian groups which distinguish themselves from traditional Christianity by interpreting the Bible in such a way that they deny some central tenets of the faith. But these are generally regarded as 'cults,' and their very uniqueness is an indintment on them. Anytime someone 'discovers' some new 'truth' in the Bible that no one else in church history has ever seen...one should immediately become suspicious. This is especially true if this 'discovery' concerns something central to the faith."
I agree with him on this. You should be suspicious. For that reason, I began this writing with some pretty thorough quotes from early church history. I did not "discover" these things on my own. I did discover that the doctrines I was taught in my modern denomination left all of us with numerous "difficult verses" that seemed to contradict what we taught. Many of those I have given above. But it wasn't until I began reading the earliest writings of the church, the many, many writings produced within a century of the completion of the New Testament, that I learned the things I am teaching you above. Far from being unique, the things I'm teaching above were the universal teachings of the early churches.
Your suspicion should be applied to all who teach unique things, even if they are made famous by their political achievements. The Reformers' teachings were unique, new to church history, and they produced churches as noted for unrighteousness as the Roman Catholic churches they replaced. The Reformers' churches used the power of the state to force conversions and to persecute "heretics" just as readily as the Roman Catholics did. If they could obtain such power in the United States, that persecution of heretics would happen in our day. Jesus said that a prophet would be known by his fruit. Let us return to the message of the apostles, that produced "uneducated persons, artisans, and old women" who endure persecution rather than give it and who "by their deeds exhibit the benefit" of belief in Christ.Home
1 I'm using a King James Version for the Bible quotes because that's what's at hand for me today. For the rest of this writing, I'll be updating the language as I quote it. If you have any doubts that the Bible says what I'm quoting, reference the translation of your choice. These are not questionable or difficult interpretations.