GUILT-FREE CHRISTIANITY: Why good people don’t go to heaven and bad people don’t go to hell

THE LADDERGuilt Free

Many people view practicing Christianity a little like trying to climb a ladder to get to God. They believe that it offers them a way to earn God’s forgiveness and earn their way to heaven.

Some try and climb by living a good life. They figure that as long as they treat people well and genuinely try and do the right thing throughout their life, then God will forgive them and let them into heaven.

Others try and climb by being committed to God. They’ve made a promise to obey Jesus and live for Him. They believe that as long as they stay close to God and always try to obey Him, then God will forgive them and let them into heaven.

Many people believe that they can climb the ladder by having the right heart. They know that they fail to obey God, but as long as they never deliberately sin, and are always repentant when they do, then they believe that God will forgive them and let them into heaven.

Some climb their way through religious rituals. Some do it by making radical sacrifices. Some even climb by trying to accumulate a number of spiritual experiences. Regardless, the one thing that all these approaches have in common is that they are never able to get us to the top of the ladder.

The problem with the ladder

Trying to climb the ladder is a nightmare. It will either turn you off Christianity, or it will create people who will turn you off Christianity.

It will turn you off Christianity by making you feel like you can never do enough. No matter how hard you try, no matter how committed, how consistent, how good your intentions, you always feel guilt and shame. The reason that so many people walk away from God and the church is because they are tired of climbing a ladder that can’t be climbed.

It will create people who will turn you off Christianity by producing self-righteous, judgemental people who feel like they’ve got a right to look down on others because they’ve made their way up a few rungs. According to the Barna Group, there’s an alarming number of church attenders who are still trying to climb the ladder. They work hard, they live good lives, they pray, they read the bible, they give generously. But they aren’t humble. They don’t have peace. They aren’t driven by joy. They don’t live the kind of lives that make you want to be a Christian.

Diagram 1

All this leads us to ask if there is some other way…

The real purpose of the ladder

It’s often been said that God would never ask us to do something we’re not able to do. But actually, the complete opposite is true. All throughout the Bible we find God calling people to do things that aren’t humanly possible. The same is true with God’s commands. We naturally assume that because God has given us a command, that He expects us to be able to obey. But what if there is something else going on? What if God knew from the beginning that we wouldn’t be able to climb high enough? What if God gave us commands for an entirely different reason?

The  Apostle Paul explains why God gave us the law… “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (Romans 7:7-11).

God never expected us to be able to climb the ladder. The law was never given to make us holy. Rather the law was given so that we would realize that we are unholy. The law was given to condemn us, not to save us. The more we try and climb the ladder, the more we slip and we fall, the more we realize that we are sinful, the more we realize that we need a saviour.

So when we look at the ladder, there are really three responses. The first is to keep climbing. The second is to walk away from God altogether. But the third is to go running to Jesus.

Diagram 2

What Jesus wants to do for you

Once a person stops trying to climb the ladder and runs to Jesus as their saviour, God is faced with two very significant problems…

PROBLEM #1: THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIN

God has to punish our sin, but does not want to punish us.

SOLUTION #1: THE CROSS

In order to solve the first problem, God had to figure out a way to punish our sin without punishing us. So 2,000 years ago, He sent His Son Jesus to die on a cross.

A lot of people believe that Jesus’ death serves as an example of sacrifice for us to follow. Others see the cross and a great demonstration of God’s love for people. Although both these perspectives are true, the reason Jesus died on the cross was to cop the punishment for our sin.

The Bible says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Corinthians 5:21).

All our past sin, present sin, future sin, accidental sin, and deliberate sin was cast upon Jesus while He was on the cross. God poured out His wrath upon Jesus. Jesus was condemned so that we can become uncondemnable.

At the same time, all of Jesus’ righteousness was cast upon us. So that every good thing that Jesus ever did is credited into our account. So although we are still sinful, God now treats us as if we live the perfect, holy, and pure lives.

Cross Diagram

For this reason, we can be 100% sure that we are forgiven. We can be 100% sure that we are going to heaven. Not because we are good, or committed or have good intentions, but because Jesus paid for all our sin in full.

Diagram 3

So the obvious question is this: Can we go on sinning and still go to heaven? This brings us to God’s second problem…

PROBLEM #2: THE POWER OF SIN

God wants us to do good works, but telling us to be good doesn’t work

SOLUTION #2: THE HOLY SPIRIT

In order to solve the second problem, God had to figure out a way to transform us from the inside out. So when a person runs to Jesus to save them, they don’t just get all their sin paid for, they also receive the Holy Spirit.

Bill Bright said: “The Christian life is not difficult – it is impossible… Only one person has ever lived the Christian life, and that was Jesus Christ. Today He desires to go on living His life through Christians whom He indwells”.

In other words, the Spirit of Jesus, also known as the Holy Spirit, comes and lives in us and through us.

So, spiritually speaking, there are really three kinds of people in the world…

1. Unbeliever

Here we find a person who has not placed their faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit (H.S.) is not in their life, and the person sits on the throne (or driver’s seat) of their life.
Holy Spirit Diagram 3

2. Spirit-Controlled Christian

Here we find a person who has placed their faith in Jesus. Their life is no longer their own. They now belong to God. The Holy Spirit (H.S.) has come into their life and is on the throne (or driver’s seat). He is giving them the motivation and power to live like Jesus. They still stuggle with sin, but they are no longer dominated by it.

Holy Spirit Diagram 4

3. Self-Controlled Christian

Here we find a person who has placed their faith in Jesus. Their life is no longer their own. They now belong to God. But they are not experiencing all that God wants to do in their life. Although the Holy Spirit (H.S.) has come into their life, they have placed themselves back on the throne (or driver’s seat). God is definitely at work in their life, but their life is still dominated by sin.

Holy Spirit Diagram 5

SUMMARY

So for those of us who have STOPPED TRYING TO CLIMB THE LADDER and have RUN TO JESUS to save them, we can be confident of two things…

1. Because Jesus died on THE CROSS to PAY FOR OUR SINS, we have ETERNAL LIFE

2. Because the HOLY SPIRIT gives us the POWER TO OVERCOME SIN, we have a NEW LIFE

Diagram 4

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MISUNDERSTANDING: The relationship between faith and good works

One way to consider the relationship between faith and good works is to try and construct a maths equation.

SUPPOSE YOU ARE GIVEN THE FOLLOWING NINE CARDS TO USE…

Picture1

Each card can be used to construct the formula.
S stands for Salvation
F stands for Faith
GW stands for Good Works

MANY OF US WOULD NATURALLY CONSTRUCT THE FORMULA LIKE THIS…

FAITH plus GOOD WORKS leads to SALVATION.

Picture2

The problem with this equation is that the Bible explicitly states that we are saved by faith alone: “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” (Eph 2:8-9).

AS A RESULT, WE NEED TO ELIMINATE ‘GOOD WORKS’ FROM OUR EQUATION, AND BE LEFT WITH SOMETHING LIKE THIS…

FAITH (ALONE) leads to SALVATION

Picture3

Although this is correct, it doesn’t really give the full story. The Bible goes onto say that once we are saved, we will find that we have a desire to do good works: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10).

SO PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER, WE ARE NOT SAVED BY GOOD WORKS, BUT ONCE WE ARE SAVED, WE WILL HAVE A DESIRE TO DO GOOD WORKS. OUR EQUATION SHOULD LOOK LIKE THIS…

FAITH (ALONE) leads to SALVATION which leads to GOOD WORKS

Picture4

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ILLUSTRATION: Book of Sin

(This is based on an illustration from ‘Christianity Explained’ by Michael Bennett)

STEP #1 – Hold out your right hand with your palm facing upward towards the ceiling…

Book Illustration #1

Let your right hand represent yourself, and the ceiling represent God.

STEP #2 – Now take a book and place it on your right hand…

Book Illustration #2

Suppose this book contains a record of every sin you have ever committed, every sin you are committing now, and every sin you are going to commit in the future. It contains a record of every accidental sin, and every deliberate sin. All the sins you know you committed, all the sins you didn’t even realize you committed. So in effect, the book contains a record of you past, present, future, accidental, deliberate, known and unknown sins.

So now my sin stands between me and God. And the Bible teaches that because God is holy, there is something about Him that He can’t just ignore my sin. He can’t just turn a blind eye. He can’t overlook it. There is something in God that has to punish sin. And the punishment for sin is an eternity separated from Him.

So now God has a problem. He created me to live with Him forever. He doesn’t want to punish me, but He has to punish my sin. So how does God solve His problem? How does God punish my sin, without punishing me? 

STEP #3 – Now hold out your left hand with your palm facing upward towards the ceiling…

Book Illustration #3

Let your left hand represent Jesus. Because Jesus never sinned, there is nothing standing between Him and God.

Now because God has to punish my sin, but doesn’t want to punish me, Jesus offers to take my sin upon Himself.

STEP #4 – Transfer the book from your right hand to your left hand… 

Book Illustration #4

So if I allow Jesus to take my sin upon Himself, my sin now stands between Jesus and God. As a result, Jesus cops the punishment for my sin. This is what was happening to Jesus when He was on the cross. Jesus paid for all my past, present, future, accidental, deliberate, known and unknown sins. He was condemned so that I could become uncondemnable.

Because I allowed Jesus to pay for my sin, it no longer stands between me and God. I have escaped judgement. The Bible says that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). I am completely loved and accepted. I am free to enjoy a relationship with God. I can be 100% confident that I will spend eternity with Him.

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ILLUSTRATION: Exam Swap

642559_89524063Suppose that you are just a few weeks from completing your university degree. In order to graduate, you need to sit one final exam. So you clear your schedule, take leave from work, and study harder than you’ve ever studied in your life. The day arrives and you could not have been more prepared. But just a few minutes into the exam, you begin to feel extremely anxious. There is not single question that makes sense to you. You frantically work through the questions as best you possibly can, but it doesn’t look good. In fact, it is a complete disaster. You have not answered any of the questions correctly.

Now suppose you have a friend who is sitting beside you during the exam. For whatever reason, they have aced every question. They are on their way to achieving 100%. And they can tell that you have failed. So in some sort of crazy, unheard of, incredibly selfless move, just before the exams are handed in, they take your exam paper and swap it for theirs. They write their name on yours, and your name on theirs. As a result, you will be awarded a grade of 100%, they will be awarded a grade of 0%.

Now all this is incredibly unfair. But it is not unlike what Jesus did for us.

Our life is like one big exam. In order to become part of God’s family and be given a place in heaven, we need to get 100%. But the fact is, we all fail miserably. We do not love as we should love. We fail to forgive those who hurt us. We are often driven by greed and pride. Even when we do good to others, there is nearly always a hint of selfish motivation hidden beneath the surface. The Bible says: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 1:10-12).

The good news is that Jesus lived the perfect life. Though we completely fail the test, Jesus achieved 100%. Not only that, but He offers to swap his grade for ours. So that if a person places their faith in Jesus to save them, God treats them as if they received 100%. They are assured that they are part of God’s family and have a place in heaven because Jesus passed the exam on their behalf. At the same time, God treats Jesus as if He received 0%. Jesus copped the punishment that we deserved. This is what was happening when Jesus was dying on the cross.

Now again, none of this is at all fair. It is completely ridiculous for Jesus to do such a crazy, selfless thing. But this is how much He loves us.

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

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FAQ: Does God choose us or do we choose God?

Amongst Christians there is confusion and debate about how people come to faith in Jesus.

Some believe that we go searching for God. Others believe that God goes searching for us. Many believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Here are some things to consider…

1. MANY CHRISTIANS WOUD DESCRIBE THEMSELVES AS EITHER A ‘CALVINIST’ OR AN ‘ARMINIAN’. 

Calvinism vs Arminianism Table

Calvinism places the emphasis on God’s sovereign choice. It is often summarized by using the acronym ‘TULIP’…

T – TOTAL DEPRAVITY – We are so totally depraved that we are even unable to seek God.
U – UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION – God’s decision to elect us to be His children is not conditional upon anything He sees in us.
L – LIMITED ATONEMENT – Jesus died on the cross to atone for the sins of a limited number of people (i.e. those whom God elects)
I – IRRESISTABLE GRACE – God’s grace is so powerful it is impossible to resist when He chooses us
P – PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS – The people God chooses to be His children (also called His saints) will remain His children because God will give them the ability to persevere in the faith.

Arminianism places the emphasis on our decision to choose God…

TOTAL DEPRAVITY – We are so totally depraved that we are even unable to seek God.
PREVENIENT GRACE – The grace given by God that precedes the act of the sinner placing their faith in Jesus. This grace is given to all people and it allows them to see their need for Jesus to save them. 
ATONEMENT FOR ALL – Jesus died on the cross to atone for the sins of all people
RESISTABLE GRACE – God’s grace can be resisted by our free-will
SECURITY IN CHRIST – Our relationship with God is secure as long as we continue to have faith in Christ

2. BOTH CALVINISTS AND ARMINIANS BELIEVE IN ‘TOTAL DEPRAVITY’ 

The doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’ states that we are so depraved, we have become blind to the depth of our sin and our desperate need for a saviour. As a result, we would never go searching for God. God has to come searching for us.

This doctrine is taught in various places in the Bible…

ROMANS 3:10-12
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

1 CORINTHIANS 2:14
“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit”

2 CORINTHIANS 4:3-4
“Our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”

JOHN 6:44
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day”

It is also held by both ‘Calvinists’ and ‘Arminians’…

JOHN CALVIN
“Our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive. Everything in man, the understanding and will, the soul and body, is polluted”.

JACOBUS ARMINIUS
“The Free Will of man towards the True Good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost: And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace”

The main difference between the different views, is not whether or not ‘Total Depravity’ exists, but rather how God deals with ‘Total Depravity’, and how ‘free’ we are to accept or reject Jesus once God has dealt with our ‘Total Depravity’.

3. HOW DOES GOD DEAL WITH TOTAL DEPRAVITY? + HOW FREE ARE WE TO ACCEPT OR REJECT JESUS?

Consider the following diagrams…

Here we find that our sin has created a huge gulf between us and God…

General 1

Because God desperately wanted to be in a relationship with us, He sent His Son Jesus into the world in order to bridge the gap. So that anyone who places their faith in Jesus as their Saviour enters into an eternal relationship with God.

General 2

But because of ‘Total Depravity’, we do not see the depth of our sin and our need for a saviour. It’s as if some kind of mist has made us spiritually blind.

General 3

SO HOW DOES GOD REMOVE THE MIST? AND WHAT HAPPENS ONCE THE MIST IS REMOVED?

Here are five different views:

1. CALVINISM

God only removes the mist for some. The Bible refers to these people as the ‘Elect’.

Calvinism 1

Once the mist is removed, the ‘Elect’ automatically enter into a relationship with God. They do not have the free-will to reject God.

Calvinism 2

Those who were not chosen by God remain blind to the depth of their sin and their need for a saviour. They do not enter into a relationship with God.

2. ARMINIANISM

God removes the mist for all people.

Arminianism 1

Once the mist is removed, people have a choice as to whether they will accept God or reject God.

Arminianism 2

3. GOD CHOOSES BASED ON FOREKNOWLEDGE

Since God knows our hearts and He also knows the future, He already knows who would choose to become a Christian if they were given the opportunity. So God chooses to remove the mist for those He knows will accept Him.

Foreknowledge 1

Once the mist is removed, those people obviously decide to become Christians.

Foreknowledge 2

Those who don’t want to become Christians remain blind to the depth of their sin and their need for a saviour.

One way to think about this is to consider what might happen if a survey was conducted to determine the love interests of university students. Suppose a confidential questionnaire is filled out. One of the questions asks for specific names of people that the students would be willing to date. This data is then stored on computer. Now if one of the students was to hack into that computer and get access to the data, they would be able to find out who would be willing to date them. They then decide to only ask out people who they know will say yes.

4. GOD INVITES ALL, BUT HEADHUNTS SOME

God removes the mist for all people.

Headhunt 1

Once the mist is removed, some use their free-will to choose God. Some use their free-will to reject God. But some are chosen by God to come no matter what.

Headhunt 2

In some ways, this is similar to what might happen in a workplace environment. Suppose there is a new branch opening up, and the boss invites all employees to be part of a start-up team. The employees have a choice as to whether they will stay or go. But there might be a few particular employees that the boss decides just have to go no matter what. He needs them in the team and they don’t get a choice in the matter.

Some cite the Apostle Paul as an example of this. Paul was actively rejecting Jesus, but then God chose Paul to be an Apostle, almost against his will.

5. FREE WILL TO TURN AWAY, BUT NOT TURN TO GOD

God only removes the mist for some. The Bible refers to these people as the ‘Elect’.

Lutheran 1

Of those who can now see, some will choose to come to God. Some will choose to reject God.

Lutheran 2

This is similar to what happens to Will Smith’s character ‘Jay’ in the movie ‘Men in Black’. At the beginning of the movie Jay is a police officer. ‘MIB’, a secret organization dedicated to putting alien criminals in prison, decide to reveal themselves to Jay and ask him to join. Jay then has to decide if he will choose to join MIB.

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MISUNDERSTANDING: We are only forgiven for past, accidental & confessed sin

Suppose you had to participate in the following activity…

(A) USE THE TABLE BELOW TO WRITE OUT A LIST OF ALL YOUR PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE, ACCIDENTAL & DELIBERATE SINS… 

Lifetime of Sins

Obviously there will be lots of sins from your past that you’ve forgotten you committed. Obviously it’s impossible to predict what sins you are going to commit in the future. And obviously this table would not be large enough.

But for the sake of the activity, let’s imagine that you were able to fill in the table accurately.

(B) GO THROUGH AND CROSS OFF ALL THE SINS WHICH YOU HAVE CONFESSED TO GOD…

Lifetime of Sins Crossed out

Obviously there will still be many sins not crossed out. Some remain unconfessed because you forgot you committed them. Some remain unconfessed because you did not even realize they were sins. And some remain unconfessed simply because you did not find the time. But whatever the reason, all of us live with unconfessed sin on our record.

(C) DRAW A CIRCLE AROUND ALL THE SINS THAT JESUS HAS PAID FOR…

Possibility #1
Many people would only place a circle around their past, accidental, confessed sins.

Lifetime of Sins Crossed out & Circle 1

Possibility #2
Others would place a circle around all their past, present and future accidental sins.

Lifetime of Sins Crossed out & Circle 2

Possibility #3
Some would place a circle around all their past, present, future, deliberate & accidental sins.

Lifetime of Sins Crossed out & Circle 3

So which is correct?

If ‘Possibilitiy #1’ is correct, then no one would make it to heaven.

If ‘Possibility #2’ is correct, it also means that no one would make it to heaven because everybody deliberately sins. Despite what some people might think, nearly all sin is deliberate. We sin because we have a sinful nature which loves sin and craves sin.

Therefore, the only option that makes any sense is ‘Possibility #3’. Jesus died on the cross to pay for sin in full. He wants us to be sure that we are forgiven, sure that we are going to heaven and sure that we have escaped God’s condemnation. This can only happen if Jesus has paid for all our past, present, future, accidental & deliberate sin.

The Bible teaches that we are not forgiven because we avoid deliberate sin, or because we confess our sin. But rather we are forgiven if we place our life and eternity in Jesus hands, trusting Him to pay for our sin in full.

“God not only forgives the former sins you have committed; but looks through his fingers and forgives the sins you will yet commit” – Martin Luther

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ILLUSTRATION: Dog carrying a piece of meat

preview.aesops_dogSuppose there’s a dog carrying a piece of meat in his mouth as he walks alongside a lake. He turns to look at the lake’s surface, and he sees the reflection of the meat in the water. He opens his mouth and snaps at the reflection of the meat, losing both the meat and the reflection in the process.

In order to become a Christian, one needs to cling to ‘what Jesus has done’, just as the dog clings to the meat. And if they do, it will be reflected in their life, just as the meat was reflected in the lake.

However many misunderstand the message of Christianity, and rather than cling only to ‘what Jesus has done’ (the meat), they feel the need to cling also to their ‘good works’ (the reflection). And by trying to place their faith in ‘what Jesus had done’ as well as their ‘good works’, they lose both ‘what Jesus has done’ and their ‘good works’.

The key to becoming a Christian is to cling only to ‘what Jesus has done’ on our behalf. If we do, the Holy Spirit will come into our life and transform us from the inside out. So that when others see us they will see a reflection of Jesus.

(Based on an explanation by Martin Luther in his book ‘The Freedom of a Christian’. The story of the dog is one of Aesop’s Fables and is numbered 133 in the Perry Index)

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