WHY DON’T GOOD PEOPLE GO TO HEAVEN?

good-person

The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. Even so, in Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

 

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Matthew #67 Matthew 19:13-22

Verses 13 through 15 record an incident with little children. This is similar to what came previously, in chapter 18, and we spoke about it then. Again, Jesus states that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children. In addition, we can see that Jesus does indeed value and love actual little children.

After this, Matthew records an incident that is also covered by Mark and Luke. I want to point out that we have here one of the “contradictions” that skeptics are always talking about. Matthew remembers that the young man asks “Teacher, what good must I do to inherit eternal life?” One the other hand, Mark and Luke record the shocking difference that the young man says: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You talk about a contradiction. Wow. People often say “the bible is full of contradictions.” They usually can’t give many specific examples (that is, they really don’t know what they are talking about), but this is one them. As you can see, the contradiction makes no difference. In fact, Matthew does not claim that the young man never called Jesus “good teacher,” so actually there is no necessary contradiction.

I believe that this is an incredibly relevant passage of Scripture, precisely because the discussion is about “goodness.” Goodness is at the heart of the point of this passage, and is also at the heart of the divide between Christianity and all other religions. It isn’t so much that we disagree about what goodness is (although there is a certain amount of disagreement there), but Christianity has a fundamentally different understanding of how to achieve goodness, and the role that goodness plays in our relationship to God.

I want to pause for a moment, and thank those of you who are praying for the ministry of Clear Bible and supporting us financially also. It’s easy to skip the piece I usually put in at the end about prayer and support, but we really do need your prayers, and we really do appreciate them. It’s not that we are in crisis, but we are in spiritual work, and spiritual work needs spiritual support – that is prayers. I am being honest when I say that we also need material support – that is, financial support. But I believe that if you join us in praying for that, as well as for the ministry in general, the Lord will provide what we need. If he leads you to be a part of that provision, you can use the donate button here on the blog, or you can send a check to New Joy Fellowship; 917 Canyon Creek Drive; Lebanon, TN 37087. Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

All right, let’s get back to the text. Virtually every other religion on earth besides Christianity has this basic proposition: “Your behavior will determine your eternal destiny. Behave well, and you will reach the goal you are seeking; behave badly, and you will fail.” What many people don’t notice about this, is that it means you are in control. If you just do certain things, you win the prize. Religion is humans trying, through their own efforts to become good, and then immortal (though in the case of Buddhism, humans are trying to become immortally nothing). It is about human effort and human goodness.

This is the attitude of the young man who approaches Jesus. His question is “What [good] must I do to enter eternal life?” In other words, his underlying assumption is that he is able to control his eternal future, if he just does the right things. Jesus’ response is very interesting.

17“Why do you ask Me about what is good? ” He said to him. “There is only One who is good.

Right away, Jesus is confronting the man’s assumption. The implication of what he is saying is that the young man can’t be good, since there is only One who is good – and that would be God. In other words, Jesus is already hinting that it isn’t about doing good, but rather, knowing the One who is good and giving your allegiance to Him. But Jesus’ next words seem almost like a contradiction, not only to his first sentence, but also to what Christians have believed and taught for 2000 years:

If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

It sounds like what Jesus is saying here is that you have to obey the commandments in order to get eternal life. However, I think Jesus is answering the young man’s question on the young man’s terms. In other words, he is saying: “If you wanted to get into heaven by being good, you have to obey all the commandments.” I don’t think Jesus means that we really can achieve eternal life that way. Paul talks about this in the book of Galatians:

1Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.2Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all.3Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law.4You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:1-5, HCSB)

In other words, theoretically, you could reach eternal life by being perfect. However, if you are going to go the route of trying to earn your salvation through your own goodness, then you must keep the law perfectly. I think that is what Jesus is saying to this young man.

But, as Paul points out in numerous places, nobody can actually do it in practice. Here are two references:

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

 

15We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”16know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16, HCSB)

So, it is clear that Jesus is engaging with this young man on a more or less theoretical level; but that is where the man starts the conversation, so Jesus meets him where he is. Next, the man asks a very interesting question: “which commandments do I have to follow?” This question is not as hypocritical as it might sound at first. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had developed a huge body of rules and regulations that they claimed needed to be followed. I’ve mentioned this in a number of sermons on the book of Matthew. So the Jewish religion was no longer simply based upon the Old Testament, but also on the collected teachings of various rabbis, and numerous traditions and regulations that have been handed down. Modern Jewish rabbis will readily admit that no one could possibly follow all of these things consistently. So the young man is probably thinking of many things besides simply the 10 Commandments. Jesus, as he always does in such situations, brings it back to God’s word as it was given in the Old Testament:

1 Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness;19honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 19:17-19, HCSB)

There is a fascinating subtext here. Do you notice anything missing? Jesus has left out every command that pertains to following, loving and obeying God. In the 10 Commandments, God told the people to have no other gods besides him; to neither create nor worship idols (things that represent God to us, but are not him); to honor, and not misuse the name of the Lord; and to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. These are the first four Commandments, and they all have to do with our relationship with God, and Jesus says nothing about them.

Why?

The commandments that Jesus told the young man to follow are quite similar to the basic moral code for Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and of course, Jews. Apart from the second one that he named, almost anyone in Western culture today, Christian or not, would be happy to agree with Jesus’ response. Even atheists are generally against murder, stealing, and lying for gain; and they are generally for being good to your family and loving others. This is the type of thing that leads people to ask: “Aren’t all religions the same?”

But Jesus is about to burst the bubble of the rich young man, and along with it, the bubble of those who think all religions are the same. He was a brilliant teacher, and part of his brilliance was helping people to come to the right conclusion through their own thought process. You can see it happening in this young man right before our eyes:

“I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack? ” (Matt 19:20, HCSB)

I don’t think we need to criticize the young man for saying that he is kept all the commandments the Jesus named – millions of people think they do this, at least, externally. But I want us to see what Jesus has done to him. This guy knows that there is another shoe that hasn’t dropped yet. If he was a good Jew, he certainly knew that Jesus had left out the first four Commandments. By leaving them out, Jesus has called his attention to the fact that he is missing something, and so he asks “What do I still lack? What am I still missing?”

21“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” (Matt 19:21, HCSB)

What is Jesus saying? First, he is saying that in order to have eternal life, the young man must be perfect. He is spelling out what I mentioned before: if you want to try to get eternal life in this way, you must be perfect. Second, Jesus is telling him to obey, in a practical way, those first four commands that he omitted to mention before. This young man was rich, and his money was both a God to him, and an idol. For this man to obey: “you shall not worship an idol,” he had to sell all of his possessions. For this man to have no other gods, he had to get rid of his wealth. For this man to honor the name of the Lord, to trust him above all, he had to become poor so that his wealth would not tempt him. For this man to worship, to honor the Sabbath and rest, he had to give to others, and free himself from the cares and worry that came from being rich. And above all, Jesus is claiming his ultimate allegiance: “Come and follow me.” This is yet one more place where Jesus claims to be the Lord, the God of the Old Testament. He is telling this young man that the command: “I am the Lord, you have no other gods before you,” is practically fulfilled in following Jesus. The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. Jesus makes that clear here.

What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. He needs to get rid of everything that is standing between him and following Jesus, and then follow.

This is an answer for those who ask: “What about the good Buddhist, who lives a moral life? How will he be kept from heaven?” First of all, if someone is a good Buddhist, he doesn’t want to go to heaven. He wants to eternally cease to exist. Seriously, that’s the goal, and when people ask that question, they are only revealing their ignorance of religion. But there is a valid point there, so let’s replace “a good Buddhist, with “a good Muslim.” I know Islam has a lot of negatives, but I have met many Muslim men who basically want to live good, moral lives. The commands that Jesus lists here not so different for Muslims. So, Jesus could be talking to a good Muslim in this passage. The one thing such a person lacks is total commitment to Jesus as Lord. And Jesus makes clear that that is the one thing necessary for eternal life.

So, to be clear, there are two answers in this text to the question: “Why can’t a good, moral person who does not believe in Jesus go to heaven?” The first, is that Jesus says only God himself can be good enough. If you want to get into heaven by your good works, the standard is perfection. I don’t care who you are, no “good moral person” is perfect, and Jesus says here that in fact no one is even good, except God.

Second, Jesus also makes it clear that the only way to eternal life is to give all of your allegiance to him. We must get rid of what comes in between us and following Jesus, and then follow him. When we do that, we are not judged based on our perfection, but rather on our faith in, and allegiance to, Jesus. This is the message of the entire New Testament, and in fact the entire Bible. Re-read Galatians 2:15-16 above. Here’s another from 1 John 5:10-13

10Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.11And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, ESV2011)

Though it isn’t spelled out in Matthew 19, the rest of the New Testament teaches true goodness is a gift from God that we receive when we trust Jesus Christ, and follow him. Trust in Jesus comes first, and what we call “morality,” or “doing good” comes about as a result of that faith. Doing good without faith will never be good enough, because, as Jesus said here “Only One is good.”

So, let’s makes this practical for us today. The rich young man was prepared to do good, but he was not prepared to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus. He was not prepared to give his ultimate allegiance to Jesus. It isn’t a command for all Christians to be poor, rather, it is an example of how we might be called to give something up for Jesus. So, what is it in your life that keeps you from following Jesus? What are the things that tempt you not to give your ultimate allegiance to him?

For some, it may be a relationship. You are afraid you might lose your spouse, or your lover, or your group of friends if you really gave your whole life to Jesus. For others it might be a lifestyle choice. You’d have to give up whatever Jesus wanted you to give up, and there are some things that, frankly, you are not willing to let go of, even for the sake of Jesus Christ. It might be alcohol, or drugs, or sex outside of marriage. It might be that you want to remain master of you own destiny, and if you follow Jesus you are afraid your life might be boring, or you might not get to do what you want in terms of your career. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sin. Kristen Powers, an anchor for Fox News, had an intense struggle before becoming a Christian, in part because she, and everyone in her circles, despised Evangelicals. She had to be willing to give up her reputation to follow Jesus. Wealth, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful, but that was what was keeping the young man in the text from following Jesus. Remember what Jesus said, at least twice already in the book of Matthew:

8If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.9And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire! (Matt 18:8-9, HCSB)

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

In essence, he is making these word practical, specifically for the rich young man: “get rid of your wealth, because it is keeping you from following Me, keeping you from having no gods before Me.”

I want to make something clear here. When we do give our trust and ultimate allegiance to Jesus, he meets the standard of perfection on our behalf. I mentioned a number of things above that might keep us from following Jesus. Even after we trust him and start to follow, some of those things may still be a problem for us. But if we are following, after we fail and fall down, we get back up with the help of Jesus, and continue on following him. In Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

With that in mind, hear Jesus’ call to surrender everything to him, and follow him.

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