Is ‘Being Good’ Enough To Get To Heaven?

By Sean McDowell Published on December 9, 2017

Some time ago I had an in-depth discussion with a college student about the morality of hell. Even though I provided every philosophical and theological justification I could muster, he simply couldn’t accept that a loving and just God would send anyone to hell.

After about an hour it finally dawned on me. His main problem was that he believed in the essential goodness of mankind. From his perspective, hell seemed like total overkill for basically good people who commit a few small indiscretions.

In one sense, he’s right. If hell were the consequence for small missteps, it would seem remarkably unjust. As C. S. Lewis rightly observed in The Problem of Pain, however, “When we say that we are bad, the ‘wrath’ of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness.”

Human Nature in the Bible

We are deeply affected by sin.

The Bible has a very stark view of human nature (Ps. 14:3; Rom 7:18; Titus 1:15; Mark 7:20-23). While human beings are the most valuable creation of a loving God, we have utterly rebelled against our Creator. We are deeply affected by sin. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem explains:

“It is not just that some parts of us are sinful and others are pure. Rather, every part of our being is affected by sin — our intellects, our emotions and desires, our hearts (the center of our desires and decision-making processes), our goals and motives and even our physical bodies.”

Thus, from a biblical perspective, God doesn’t send good people to hell; there is no such thing as a good person. And that includes you and me.

Human Nature in History

This depiction of human nature can be confirmed by looking at the history of humanity. My colleague Clay Jones has spent decades studying the problem of evil. He’s closely examined the evil perpetrated in the twentieth century by Nazis in Germany, communists in Russia, China, and Cambodia, the Japanese in World War II and other nations including Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan and the United States. Jones came to this conclusion:

One day I was reading The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. In the course of reading about one sickening rape or torture or murder after another, suddenly I was struck by the fact that horrendous evil is human and that most books on theodicy didn’t go far enough. Those who do genocide are not inhuman monsters — they’re all too human. They are precisely human. Genocide is what the race of Adam does.

Human fallenness makes the gospel powerful: We can only appreciate the extent of the work of Christ when we understand the evil and corruption we and the world truly contain. This does not mean unbelievers cannot do some good in society — of course they can! However, sin has separated us so deeply from God that we have no power to save ourselves apart from God’s grace (Eph. 2:1, 2).

Why Jesus Came

This is why Jesus came, and this is ultimately what we are celebrating this Christmas season.

This is why Jesus came, and this is ultimately what we are celebrating this Christmas season. Although Jesus was (and is) fully God, he humbled himself to take on human flesh (Phil. 2:5–7) and experience the death that humans deserve. As a result, we can experience forgiveness for our sins and come to know God personally (John 17:1–5).

Jesus tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

So, is it enough to be a “good” person? It’s true that many people may live outwardly good lives, but for Jesus, evil is a matter of the heart. According to Jesus no one is good (Mark 10:18). Anyone who honestly reflects upon his life, and sincerely probes his heart, knows that this is true. Our only hope is found in Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).

*This article was adapted from the updated and expanded Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.

 

Originally published at SeanMcDowell.org. Used by permission.

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  • GPS Daddy

    Deciding that your “wrongs” are only minor and should not keep you out of heaven is stepping into God’s judgement seat.. this is the original sin that the devil tempted Adam and Eve with.

    • James

      My wrongs are major. What is the point of doing good if this cannot make up for my wrongs?

      • GPS Daddy

        I takes a good heart to want to make up for past wrongs. As I look at your interaction with Ken and thinking back to our past discussions if I have the right “James” I’d say you have a perpetual problem of not understanding. To answer your question I’d suggest reading Romans and then Philippians. If you can accurately answer why the Apostle Paul says what he says in Philippians 3 you will have found the answer to your question.

        Let me ask you thins: how do you know what amount of good makes up for the bad?

        • James

          You assume I am ignorant of what you believe. I am not. I am aware of what you believe (or what you claim to believe) and find that it is lacking because it denies the moral agency of man.

          If everything we do is terrible, then nothing that we do is appreciably better or worse than anything else we could do.

          I doubt you actually believe this. You and I both know that our actions matter and decisions can be moral or immoral. But why jump through hoops to reconcile your stated beliefs with your actual beliefs?

          • GPS Daddy

            Ah, yes, you are that “James”. Then my response to you is “OK”.

  • Trilemma

    His main problem was that he believed in the essential goodness of mankind.

    More like he believed in the essential goodness of God. A good god doesn’t send people, even evil people, to eternal conscious torment in a fiery hell. That’s what a narcissistic, sadistic monster does. If God is good, then there’s no hell. If there’s a hell, then God is not good.

    • Ken Abbott

      If God is not holy, then there is no hell. That God is both good and holy demands there be a hell.

      • Trilemma

        How does God being holy demand there be a hell?

        • Ken Abbott

          Here is a portion of an appropriate article by blogger Tim Challies:

          A sinner stands in the courtroom of God and God says, “You have been found guilty. You have committed a crime against an infinitely holy God.” What is the appropriate punishment? The just punishment is to face God’s holy wrath.

          What is wrath? Wrath is God’s intense hatred of sin. Charles Leiter says God’s wrath is his “holy, white-hot hatred of sin, the reaction and revulsion of His holy nature against all that is evil.” This is not just a feeling, as if sin just makes God feel angry, but it is full-out revulsion. God absolutely despises sin and responds to it in wrath.

          There are some who claim that they simply cannot believe in a God of wrath. But they need to be careful what they wish for. Let’s think about this: How else could God react to sin if not in wrath? He might react to sin with joy. He might be a God who delights in sin, a God who laughs when we hurt one another, who rejoices when we steal, who loves us more when we rape and murder and destroy. Is that the God you want? He might also be a God who is ambivalent toward our sin, he just doesn’t really care. Is that a God you want to a worship—a God who sees someone murder a child and says, “What do you want me to do about it?” We don’t want that God. Why? Because sin is worth hating! Sin is worthy of just punishment. Our very nature cries out for justice.

          If God did not respond to sin with wrath, he would be a God who is unworthy of our worship. He would be an unjust, unholy, unworthy God. He would not be God at all. So God did not react too strongly when he saw Uzzah’s sin; he was not the least bit unfair. He merely gave Uzzah the righteous sentence for his sin—the righteous sentence for any and every sin—immediate justice expressed in wrath. The only unusual thing about the punishment was the swiftness, the immediacy of it.

          God’s wrath is a holy wrath that is expressed against sin, which is to say, against sinners. That white-hot hatred of sin will be expressed against those who have defied God. Because the sinner has sinned consciously, he must face this punishment consciously. What is the right length of punishment for a crime of this magnitude? A month of facing God’s wrath? A year? Twenty years? Because of the eternal distance between God and the human sinner, he has committed an infinite, eternal offense and must face this punishment eternally. For God to come up with a sentence less than eternal would be to say that he is less than eternal. The eternality of the punishment is simply a realistic assessment of the never-ending vastness of the difference between us and God.

          Thus the just sentence for sinning against this holy, holy, holy God, is to be judged guilty and to eternally, consciously face the wrath of God against sin.

          ***
          Do you understand the holiness of God, Trilemma? It is vital to apprehend this concept in order to have right thoughts about the character of God.

          • James

            I don’t see how God can be both wrathful and merciful without God contradicting God.

          • Ken Abbott

            Why? They are not in any sense mutually exclusive.

            “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

          • James

            So God is capricious, then?

          • Ken Abbott

            Capricious: Governed or characterized by caprice (a sudden, impulsive, and seemingly unmotivated change of mind); apt to change suddenly or unpredictably.

            No, God is not capricious. For one thing, he is unchanging (e.g., Malachi 3:6). He is also not arbitrary. His reasons are his own, however, and he acts according to his good purposes to accomplish his will.

            We must always consider the full character of God in these discussions so as to avoid mistaken conclusions.

          • James

            Let’s go back to the quote “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

            On what principle does God decide on whom he has mercy and on whom he pours out his wrath?

          • Ken Abbott

            Let’s look at the context. The quote is originally from Exodus 33:19, in which Moses asks to see God’s glory. Paul used it in his discussion of God’s sovereignty in salvation in Romans 9. After establishing that God’s favor does not depend on biological descent from Abraham, Paul states further, “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” (Romans 9:10-18)

            Remember that all humans are rebellious sinners (Romans 3:9-18) justly under God’s righteous judgment. It would be right and proper and completely just for all of us to remain under condemnation. But God, in his mercy and his desire to create a people fit for his Son, has stayed his hand for some (a numberless multitude, according to Revelation). The reason why some are spared lies not in them but in God’s good purposes and love (Ephesians 1). Beyond that, he has not revealed his reasons to us and he is under no obligation to us to do so–the secret things belong to the Lord, whereas those that have been revealed belong to his people and his people’s children. So I cannot tell you what God’s deciding principle is, James, but I can tell you that it is wise and good and glorious, because he is all those things and much, much more.

          • James

            So basically, you are saying that we are all deserving of God’s wrath, yet some receive God’s mercy, is this correct?

            If this is the case, on what principle does God decide who will receive his mercy and who will not?

            Does God truly “harden hearts”, or is this simply a figure of speech? This implies that God is leading people astray. Do you believe that?

            If you cannot come up with a better answer than some variation of “The Lord works in mysterious ways”, then I am sorry, but such a system of belief is sorely lacking.

          • Ken Abbott

            “If this is the case, on what principle does God decide who will receive his mercy and who will not?”

            Asked and answered, counselor. Please refer back to my post above.

            To be blunt, James, the answer given in Scripture is basically “None of your business.” We are not told the reason why God chose Abram and not one of his relatives. We are told that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau had nothing to do with order of birth or whether either twin had done anything good or bad. Jacob was not in himself better than Esau. The basis for God’s choices lies in himself and he has not chosen to reveal this to us. But we rest assured that God’s choices are always right and altogether good.

            What is it that you are looking for? Some list of criteria by which you on your own can satisfy God? If so, stop your search. All of your righteousness or goodness or merit is as a used tampon in the sight of God. The purpose of the moral law is to drive you to your knees in despair, to acknowledge your inability to obey it, to save yourself, and instead to turn in repentance and faith to the One whom God has sent who alone can save you, even Jesus Christ.

          • James

            The purpose of the moral law is to keep us from destroying ourselves and each other. If religion inspires one to keep the moral law, all the better. If not, then it is useless superstition, no better than worshipping Zeus.

            I don’t know where you get the idea that I am trying to earn God’s favor. Please stop putting words in my mouth.

          • Ken Abbott

            The Bible disagrees with you, James. The moral law is a reflection of God’s perfect and holy character and is the standard that men must meet to be justified (declared righteous) in his sight. But no man can meet this standard, for all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. The law shows us how miserably we fail. It shows us our sin.

            “By the works of the law shall no man be justified in his sight, for by the works of the law comes the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20)

            But the law serves another purpose in this way. Paul speaks of the law as a schoolmaster, a pedagogue, that leads us to Christ by teaching us just how impossible is our circumstance if we seek to be righteous under our own power (see Galatians 3). Paul illustrated the despair this provoked in his own experience recounted in Romans 7.

          • James

            So the only purpose of the moral law is to show that it is impossible to follow it?

            What are your thoughts on Natural Law theory?

          • Ken Abbott

            Actually, according to Reformed thought, there are three purposes or uses of the law: as a revealer both of God’s perfect righteousness and our sinfulness and shortcomings (this is the sense in which it convicts us of our desperate inability to save ourselves and leads us to Christ); as a curb or restraint on evil; and as a guide to the regenerate man as to the good works God has prepared for him to do. Lutherans accept just the first two uses.

            I confess that I am insufficiently versed in natural law theory to provide you with a competent answer.

          • Ken Abbott

            “I don’t know where you get the idea that I am trying to earn God’s favor. Please stop putting words in my mouth.”

            My apologies if I have misread you. Perhaps it would help me understand if you explain exactly what it is that you are looking for in a religion or faith.

          • James

            What I seek is how to be a better person. On one level, this is selfish, but being a good person also benefits those around me.

            As for eternity, do the best you can and let the chips fall where they may. If I have not the gift of faith, which I can do nothing to acquire, then according to you, there is nothing I can do about it anyway. So what’s the use in worrying?

          • Ken Abbott

            For all his many gifts, Aurelius missed the boat on this one. Oh, no doubt he had wisdom pegged, at least as it is considered wise by pagan standards. But those are considerably lower than biblical standards. God doesn’t grade on a curve–the best human virtues are imperfect, and God demands moral perfection. This is the point of McDowell’s article. You cannot be good enough.

          • James

            If you cannot say on what principle God bases his choices, then I cannot say whether or not your God is just.

          • Ken Abbott

            Well, first of all, who are you to determine whether or not God is just? Who has made you judge over God? By what right does the creature demand of the Creator an accounting?

            Ah, Euthyphro! The “dilemma” assumes that the standard of justice or goodness exists apart from God and that he is either beholden to them or they are arbitrary because he makes them up and declares them just or good. But what Plato missed is that goodness and justice (among other things) are of the character of God himself. He does not make the definitions; he is the definitions.

          • James

            I believe you answered my question while trying to dodge it.

          • Ken Abbott

            I haven’t tried to dodge anything. You keep asking me to provide what I cannot. I have not been admitted into the secret counsels of God.

          • Trilemma

            Tim Challies describes God as being incredibly unjust as well as incredibly cruel. Justice demands that the punishment match the crime. Tim Challies argues that the punishment should match the victim. So his logic is that since God is eternal the punishment should be eternal. But humans are finite and can only commit finite crimes. Therefore, their punishment should be finite.

            Eternal conscious torment in a fiery hell is cruel and sadistic. It shows a total lack of compassion and mercy. If God is good, He would choose annihilation over eternal torment. The doctrine of hell blasphemes the character of God.

          • Ken Abbott

            So the real stick in your craw is the doctrine of hell. You don’t believe it comports with your idea of who God should be.

            You know who taught more on the subject of hell than anyone else in the Bible, don’t you?

            You didn’t answer my question about God’s holiness.

          • Trilemma

            The doctrine of hell doesn’t comport with who I believe God is. Nor does the doctrine of hell comport with who the Bible says God is.

            Nobody taught on the subject of hell in the Bible. The doctrine of hell was imposed on the Bible. Many Bibles don’t even use the word “hell” at all. Jesus mentioned Gehenna and Hades but never a place of eternal conscious torment.

            Here’s the definition of holy from the Merriam-Webster dictionary web page.

            1. : exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness

            There is nothing good or righteous about torturing people for all eternity in fire. Being perfect in goodness and righteousness demands there is no hell. Punishment for crimes committed is appropriate but for what purpose? If punishment isn’t for the purpose of correction and reconciliation then it’s pointless and sadistic. Annihilation would at least be merciful. If God can’t stand sin then why doesn’t He just annihilate it instead of keeping it around for all eternity?

          • Ken Abbott

            Well, annihilationism is a distinctly minority position in the history of Christian thought. Plenty of theologians and Bible scholars hold to the classic doctrine of hell not because it was “imposed” on the Bible but because they are convinced it is actually taught therein. An argument can easily be made, Trilemma, that it is annihilationists who have imposed their own thoughts and preferences on the text. The way to resolve the conflict is to consider soberly and honestly what the Bible actually says. But for that you’ll have to consult the published sources.

            But probably more central to your position is what you said in your first sentence: The doctrine of hell does not comport with *who you believe God is*. The natural question that follows is: From where do you obtain your beliefs about God? I hope not the dictionary; the definition quoted above is incomplete from a biblical perspective.

          • Trilemma

            ”From where do you obtain your beliefs about God?”

            From God.

            ” The way to resolve the conflict is to consider soberly and honestly what the Bible actually says.”

            That’s exactly what I did and God led me out of a belief in hell and showed me that the Bible actually teaches universal reconciliation. The doctrine of hell is based on intentionally mistranslating and misinterpreting the Bible. The fact that the doctrine of hell is so popular and dominant shows how much it appeals to human nature. Human nature is to lock up bad people and throw away the key. But God’s ways are not human ways.

          • Ken Abbott

            You obtain your beliefs about God from God. Mediately or immediately?

            As to your second paragraph, you implicitly impugn the spiritual and intellectual integrity of those who have made a careful study of the subject and have come to a different conclusion. And your argument can be turned around–the doctrine of annihilation clearly appeals to your preferences.

            No argument with the last sentence–on that much we agree.

          • Trilemma

            Mediately or immediately? Neither. Meditatively.

            And you implicitly impugn the spiritual and intellectual integrity of those who have made a careful study of the subject and have come to the conclusion that the Bible teaches universal reconciliation. What the Bible actually teaches should not be based on a majority vote. I have no preferences concerning what the Bible teaches.

  • James

    This is my entire problem with Christianity (at least the kind preached by Dr. McDowell): That it is more important to know the right doctrine than to do the right thing.

    • GPS Daddy

      Your missing the point of why Jesus had to come in the first place. The whole point is that man does not do the right thing. Jesus did it for us AND now because of grace we strive to do the right thing. Paul clearly lays this out in Romans.

      Hidden in your statement is two assumptions:
      1. That the bad you do is not that bad.
      2. The good you do overrides the bad.

      The problem is that both of these are false – for all of us. We don’t even allow that among ourselves. A man can live a life that is full of good deeds but if he rapes a woman he is tried and sent to jail… his good deeds does not erase the bad he did. But your expecting God to judge differently than we judge ourselves? If so then we should take all the good deeds into account and some should get out of jail.

      • James

        You are missing my point:

        If in what man does, the bad outweighs the good for all of us, and good deeds do not help our own cause, then is the point of doing the right thing?

        If one is condemned (or pardoned) for rape regardless of the good deeds one does, then what is the point of good deeds?

    • Ken Abbott

      Orthopraxis (right behavior) is founded on orthodoxy (right belief). As a man thinks in his heart, so he is. Both are important; it is a matter of precedence, however.

  • James

    Imagine a person spent their entire life trying to be as good as they could possibly be (Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we all agree on what “good” means).

    If they are doing the wrong thing by trying to be as good as they could possibly be, then what else should they be doing and why?

    • Ken Abbott

      Imagine an athlete training every day of his life to jump a hundred meters. The best he can ever manage is nine meters (slightly longer than the current world record, by the way). What else should he be doing?

      He should give it up as an impossibility. He will never be able to jump a hundred meters, no matter how hard he tries. He will have to find another way to make the distance.

      • James

        So we should give up being good because it is impossible?

        This seems far more like the doctrine of the devil than of a good God.

        • Ken Abbott

          No, you should give up trying to earn God’s approval by your own deeds. By the works of the law (good works, in other words) shall no man be justified. Even our best works done apart from faith in Christ are just “splendid sins,” to cite Charles Spurgeon. Yet a neglect of “good” works is even more sinful.

          James, it is a matter of the heart. Why do you want to do good?

          • James

            Why do I want to do good? Because doing evil tends to tends to backfire in the long run. Maybe it doesn’t, but I am too much of a coward to find out. If you can’t be a good person, being afraid of prison will have the same effect.

            If even our best works are splendid sins, then what is the point?

            And what of faith? If faith is an act of man, then how is this different from any other act? But one cannot have faith without an act of God, then what if God does not act?

          • Ken Abbott

            Thanks for your reply. Let’s take a look at this point by point:

            1) You want to do good “because doing evil tends to…backfire in the long run.” I take from that you are concerned about the adverse consequences of doing evil, for yourself and (presumably) for others. This is a justly placed concern.

            2) “If you can’t be a good person, being afraid of prison will have the same effect.” In other words, the consequences of wrongdoing act as deterrents. Adverse consequences, again.

            3) “If even our best works are splendid sins, then what is the point?” With this question, you’re jumping categories. Before you stated you were concerned about the earthly/temporal fallout from doing wrong. You’re not going to land in jail if you send a check to a worthy charity–far from it. But now consider these matters from a heavenly perspective. How pure is your motive? Do you give grudgingly from a sense of obligation? Are you looking mainly for a tax deduction? Are you hoping that God will give you a gold star that will somehow cancel out whatever black marks you have accumulated? Are you giving out of a singleminded, pure love and devotion to God, loving him with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, 100% and all the time? You see, James, this is how even our most glorious “righteousness” is befouled in the eyes of God. Would God prefer that you give imperfectly to a charity instead of robbing from that charity? Of course. There are gradations of sin–some wrongs are much worse than other wrongs. And it is far better to be guilty of lesser wrongs than of greater, more heinous wrongs.

            4) “And what of faith?” Indeed, what of faith? Anything done apart from faith is sin (Romans 14:23), for it is not clothed in the righteousness of Christ with whom we are united by faith. From where does faith come? Although exercised by regenerate humans, it is first the gift of God, all of grace (Ephesians 2:8). God gives faith to those on whom he has mercy or compassion (getting back to our other conversation). If God does not impart faith to a person, that person will not believe–he remains in his sin.

          • James

            “Before you stated you were concerned about the earthly/temporal fallout from doing wrong. You’re not going to land in jail if you send a check to a worthy charity–far from it.”

            The flip side of temporal fallout is temporal reward, which is what I skipped over, though it is easily inferred.

            Why should one give a check to a worthy charity if even our best rewards are splendid sins?

            “But now consider these matters from a heavenly perspective. How pure is your motive? Do you give grudgingly from a sense of obligation? Are you looking mainly for a tax deduction? Are you hoping that God will give you a gold star that will somehow cancel out whatever black marks you have accumulated? Are you giving out of a singleminded, pure love and devotion to God, loving him with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength, 100% and all the time?”

            The interior disposition of a person is of little importance compared to the acts they perform. Giving to charity grudgingly or for purely selfish reasons or out of superstition is better than the most pious thoughts that are unaccompanied by action. The former feeds the hungry, the latter does not.

            I know there are passages in the Bible that discuss charity. (James 2:15-16). Are these of secondary importance?

            It matters not what is in your head, it is what you do. I am not interested in any kind of Christianity that teaches that the head is more important.

            “If God does not impart faith to a person, that person will not believe–he remains in his sin.”

            If faith is a gift from God and God does not impart faith to a person, then whose fault is it that a person does not have faith? Why would God choose not to have mercy and compassion on someone?

          • Ken Abbott

            In reverse order: It remains the fault of the sinner, the unregenerate person. It is because of his sin that he lacks faith. You keep asking me why God would choose not to have mercy and compassion on someone, and I keep telling you that God acts according to his will and his good purposes and he does not (nor is he required to) reveal these things to us. Mercy is not obligatory, or else it would not be mercy. Justice is obligatory and God is just.

            Show me a person who acts with no regard to what is in his head or heart and I will show you an irrational person. Our inner person is who we are by nature and character and guides our choices and actions. No one says that it is only what is in the head that is important. Our actions, which reflect our character and our choices, are very important. As I said in another post, it is a matter of logical priority, not of importance. “For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”

            “The interior disposition of a person is of little importance compared to the acts they perform.” The whole counsel of Scripture is against you on this, James. Motive matters.

          • James

            If this is what Christianity teaches, then I am not interested in it.

          • Ken Abbott

            “If this is what Christianity teaches, then I am not interested in it.”

            Fair enough.

            “I see Christians talk a lot about their hearts, when they do what they want with their actions and proclaimed themselves ‘saved by grace’ while they do it.”

            Then you must see a lot of self-deluded or poorly discipled Christians. “By their fruits you shall know them”–it is legitimate to weigh the character of the man by his speech, his choices, and his deeds. The one who claims to be saved by grace yet has no evidence of a converted heart, whose life is not marked by growth in the manifestations of the fruits of the Spirit, has cause to examine himself carefully to see if he really is in Christ.

          • James

            How is this not the No True Scotsman fallacy?

          • Ken Abbott

            How do you tell the difference between a genuine bill and a counterfeit?

          • Ken Abbott

            Here’s a (relatively) short article by Patrick Collins of “Ratio Christi” on the No True Scotsman fallacy:

            The No True Scotsman fallacy occurs when one makes a claim that someone would never do a certain thing because they’re a certain classification of a person. The recognition of this fallacy originated with the example of a Scotsman reading the newspaper and saw that a horrible act was committed in his community. He responded by saying that, “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The implication is that certain types of people are incapable of doing certain bad things.

            Christians are often accused of using this fallacy when they are confronted with an example of a person who is said to be a Christian but did something immoral. In many Christian circles, upon hearing that someone did something horrible, they’ll say “they weren’t a true Christian, anyway.”

            The No True Scotsman fallacy exposes non-sequintar logic. It’s not logical to say that because someone did x, then therefore they’re not a Christian. A person is not a Christian based on their works, but their faith. However, a Christian’s works gives evidence for their faith.

            I have two thoughts on this. First, I think when someone says “They’re not a true Christian,” many times they really mean “They’re not living consistently with Christ’s (or the Bible’s) teachings.” So, in the sense that one meaning of “Christian” is “Christ-like,” it’s true that they’re not being like Christ.

            Second, before this issue can really be addressed, the question that must be answered is, “What is a true Christian?” Let’s look at an analogy that puts some light on this question. If Larry lives in Scotland, but isn’t a citizen and wasn’t born there, then he does not meet the qualifications of a Scotsman. Simply stated, Larry isn’t a true Scotsman! Likewise, there are many opinions on what a Christian is. The only real authority on this question, though, would be the Bible.

            The Bible says a true Christian is a person who:

            Places their faith in Christ alone for salvation

            Repents (turns) from their sins and toward pursuing God

            Does good to others (as an evidence of their faith, not as a way to earn salvation)

            Loves God

            Loves their neighbor

            The Bible acknowledges that Christians still sin (1 John 1:9), still struggle with their desires (Romans 7), and have growing to do. (Phil 1:6) However, Christians ought to sin less (Romans 6:1-2); live loving, selfless, and moral lives; and not pursue or continuously be in sinful behavior.

            So, while Christians are guilty of using the No True Scotsman fallacy, there are times the statement “They’re not a true Christian” is in fact true. This is especially true in America where cultural Christianity abounds. Cultural Christianity is when people assume they are a Christian solely because they go to church, like Jesus, or are moral – in other words, don’t meet the criteria of a “true Christian.” If they haven’t placed their faith in Christ alone for the remission of sins, they are not a Christian. It’s a matter of having the right understanding of what a Christian is.

            However, since this phrase is overused and in most cases it’s not clear whether someone is a Christian or not (especially when you don’t know they person and haven’t asked them to articulate what exactly they believe), I think it’s better to not use this phrase. It’s more divisive and confusing than anything, especially in our culture. Instead, saying something along the lines of “this person’s actions do not match what the Jesus (or the Bible) teaches” is a more clear and correct way of articulating the difference of a person’s actions and supposed beliefs.

          • James

            So declarations of Christianity are meaningless and one’s faith is shown in one’s actions?

            If so, I agree, although I still think that you put the cart before the horse.

          • Ken Abbott

            No, declarations of Christian faith are not meaningless, but if genuine they will manifest themselves in people’s lives. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, if you will.

            When potential new members present themselves to the elders of a Presbyterian church to join on profession of faith, for example, they are examined to determine if what they say matches up with who they are. This method is not foolproof–only God truly knows the heart–but it has demonstrated reliability through long experience. Another way to put it is: Walk the walk if you talk the talk.

          • James

            “It is because of his sin that he lacks faith. ”

            But if the best we can do is “splendid sin”, well, then that’s a big problem if God chooses not to have mercy and compassion on them.

          • Ken Abbott

            Yes, it is a big problem. They will remain in their sin and face judgment for it.

          • James

            And there is nothing they can do about it, correct?

          • Ken Abbott

            Is there anything they *want* to do about it? The last thing the unbeliever wants is God as he really is (Romans 1:18-32); he’ll take just about anything else to avoid having to deal with God. Oh, there may be a lot of talk about wanting “God” or being “spiritual,” but the god they want is the god of their own making, usually cast in the image of the self.

          • James

            One would want to avoid damnation for purely selfish reasons.

          • Ken Abbott

            Not always. There is the famous line in “Paradise Lost” that maintains it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Pride and the drive for autonomy can themselves be powerful motivators even though they lead to self-destruction.

    • Ken Abbott

      James: Are you familiar with the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector? The one was convinced of his own righteousness, and his prayer to God consisted of a litany of all the good he did, framed in an attitude of “thankfulness” to God for making him such an upstanding citizen. The other was convicted of his sinfulness and his complete lack of standing before God–all he could do was beat his breast in repentance and contrition and beg God’s mercy. Which of the two did Jesus say went back to his home justified before God?

      • James

        I do not think that story means what you think it means.

        In other parts of the Bible, Jesus lashes out against the Pharisees for essentially being frauds and hypocrites. They made a big show of their own righteousness while they were using their position to swindle others and enrich themselves.

        • Ken Abbott

          Really? Examine the text of Luke 18:9-14. At the conclusion, Jesus says, “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus clearly framed the contrast between the two men in terms of acceptability in the eyes of God.

          You are correct that Jesus had many criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees. But he also warned his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees they would not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

          • James

            I don’t think you can interpret Luke 18 out of the context of all the other things that he said about Pharisees.

          • Ken Abbott

            I’m not. Look at the text and what it says explicitly: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” The Pharisees excelled at outward displays of righteousness and meticulous keeping of the law (and then some–they added excessively to the law, making it a burden). But Jesus had a real problem with the attitudes of their hearts. He warned them that all their outward good works would not save them. Their “righteousness” would not gain them the kingdom of heaven.

          • James

            Jesus also said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

          • Ken Abbott

            And who is the one who does the will or work of God? The one who believes in the One (Jesus) whom God has sent (John 6:29).

            James, forgive me, but I get the sense across the several parts of this dialogue that you advocate a religion of morals and good works by which a man or woman may justify his- or herself in the eyes of God, who might gain God’s favor by right actions. That is not Christianity according to the Bible. It might be Islam, but it is not Christianity.

          • James

            Yes, I absolutely advocate a religion of morals and good works. What else is a religion for? If that is not Christianity, then so be it, although I find a religion that does not see morals and good works as being important as being little better than paganism. (If I said it would be little better than atheism, the atheists would be insulted.)

            You keep referring to “gaining God’s favor” and “justifying his or herself in the eyes of God”, but these are your words, not mine.

            As for Islam, my issues with Islam are what are considered “morals” and “good works” (which we have deliberately avoided in this conversation) as well as it being unlikely that the Koran was divinely inspired.

          • Ken Abbott

            In thinking over your latest reply, perhaps the best place I can go is back to Ephesians 2, starting with the first verse:

            “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

            The good works follow from faith, from the radically transformed heart of the person who has been made, by God’s Spirit, a new creature in Christ. But they are not premonitory to faith and they do not form the basis of salvation. Again, by the works of the law shall no man be justified (Romans 3:20). Biblical Christianity is not a religion of dos and don’ts, but a relationship with Jesus Christ, who alone is capable of saving us.

            Augustus Toplady, the 18th-century hymn writer, said it succinctly in “Rock of Ages”:

            “Not the labor of my hands
            Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
            Could my zeal no respite know,
            Could my tears forever flow,
            All for sin could not atone;
            Thou must save, and Thou alone.

            “Nothing in my hand I bring,
            Simply to Thy cross I cling;
            Naked, come to Thee for dress;
            Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
            Foul, I to the fountain fly;
            Wash me, Savior, or I die.”

            Apart from Jesus, we have no hope. With Jesus, we have everything.

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