Mists in the Storm
For centuries, really millennia, the place and importance of good works has been debated. This is true not only in the world of philosophy, where ethics are an important discipline for discussion, but also in the world of religion. As long as it has been going on, you would think it resolved. It isn’t. Even people in the church get confused on the place and importance of good works.
If you ask your average person on the street how you get into heaven you would likely hear, “you have to be a good person.” There is this instinctive notion that heaven is for the good person. That, of course, can raise another important question, “how good do you have to be?” I remember struggling with this question in college as I felt more of a failure in it than a success. It was terrifying. The truth that finally set me free from that terror was the truth of Jesus. I had heard the message of the cross before—that Jesus died on the cross for people. But when I thought about who that death was for, I thought it was for good people.
The revelation that Jesus death was for bad people—people that were NOT good, was eye-opening. Paul wrote in Romans 5:8
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
As Peter puts it in his first letter.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God… (1 Peter 3:18)
It was this message that set me free! As Paul writes
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
If heaven is for the good person, that is the righteous, then this is the only way a person can become righteous. And that work of Christ has already been accomplished!
I was so moved by that truth, I wanted to let others know so I got involved in the campus ministry organization that had shared it with me. I spent the next summer on a beach in Florida with a bunch of other college students learning more about Jesus and telling others this same message. I remember explaining the gospel to coworker and I emphasized the truth about works that had set me free—that it was Christ’s work, not ours, that earns our righteousness. She asked me, “so then, it doesn’t matter what you do?”
How would you answer that question? On the one hand, that’s right. If we become the righteousness of God in Christ, then there is nothing left to earn. Christ is righteous. He lived the perfect life. He was obedient to the Father even going so far as to die on the cross. What else is left to accomplish? There is nothing left to accomplish.
On the other hand, to say “it doesn’t matter what you do; how you live” just doesn’t seem right. There is a reason for that. How you live does matter. This is why we have so much exhortation to live righteous lives in the Bible. Jesus dying on the cross for you does not set you free from living God’s commands. That is the mistake we too often make.
When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He meant what he said. If you know Jesus, then you know the truth and that truth sets you free. That’s another of Jesus statements.
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32 ESV)
But free from what, exactly? If it isn’t set from from living under the law, what is it? Let’s explore the context of that verse.
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:31–36)
Jesus sets you free from your slavery to sin. What is sin? Sin is our inability to keep God’s law. It is our inability to abide in Christ. More specifically, sin is being enslaved to another master; another lifestyle that you look to make you happy. The world offers lots of alternatives to the life that God calls you to live; promising that these alternatives will make you happy. For the most part, it says, “follow your heart” assuming that it is the only true guide to finding the particular lifestyle that will make you happy. But this mantra, “follow your heart” is dangerous. The heart is fickle. The heart is not a guide. So what is to be our guide?