As an evangelical, I was taught that 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, the apostle John, 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:
- “who will pay back to everyone according to their works: to those who by perseverance in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, eternal life; but to those who are self-seeking, and don’t obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, will be wrath, indignation, oppression, and anguish on every soul of man who does evil, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Rom. 2:6-9)
- “God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let’s not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith.” (Gal. 6:7-10)
- “Or don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s Kingdom? Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor extortionists, will inherit God’s Kingdom. Some of you were such, but you were washed. But you were sanctified. But you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
- “Know this for sure, that no sexually immoral person, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words. For because of these things, the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience.” (Eph. 5:5-6)
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 don’t say you’re not really saved; they just say you’re not going to have a part in 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?
He died so that we can do good!
Jesus Died So We Can Do Good
I am not only going to talk about the atonement here, but also grace. The Scriptures lump those two things together a lot. 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, 9 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:
- We are slaves to sin and, as a result, we cannot live a life of ongoing good works, not even if God gives us a perfect law like the Law of Moses. (Rom. 3; Rom. 7; Eph. 2:1-3)
- Jesus died to rescue us from all this. That wonderful gift, that wonderful favor, we know as “grace.”
- After grace has come, teaching us that we should deny worldliness and lust (Tit. 2:11-12), we are re-created in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:10), and sin has no more power over us (Rom. 6:14). We can do good works and, in fact, we are zealous for them (Tit. 2:13-14).
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. 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).
Going to Heaven
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).