Can We Earn Our Way to Heaven?

Life revolves around a system of rewards and punishments. As children, we quickly learn that there are benefits to behaving, whereas being naughty can lead to unpleasantness. In school, we know we are more likely to get good grades if we study. In our career, hard work can lead to a promotion, while slacking off is a quick way to get fired. So it’s only natural to think that God deals with us in the same way. But our Creator is not like humans – he operates on a whole different level. The Bible is clear that we can never earn our salvation no matter how hard we try, which leads to two crucial questions: Why is that? And how, then, can we be saved?

The answer to the first question is pretty simple: to merit salvation, we need to be perfect. (1) Although conceivable in a theoretical sense, we all know it’s impossible. There is not a human being on the face of the earth who has never sinned. Even the smallest of transgressions is enough to close the door to heaven.

Even if God wanted to, he couldn’t have fellowship with imperfect beings; his nature won’t allow it. Just as it’s impossible for darkness and light to co-exist in the same place at the same time, so God can’t have anything to do with evil. (2) If we tried to approach him, his holiness would burn us up, as surely as the heat of the sun would annihilate us if we got too close. (3)

The problem with perfection is that once it’s ruined, it can never be restored. Let’s say I wanted to paint my room white, but I accidentally poured some red dye into the white paint – it would now be useless. Adding white color to my lovely shade of pink won’t make it white again, just lighter. In the same way, doing good works won’t ever take away the stain of sin. No matter how many good deeds we perform, we can never attain perfection. It’s like adding some light paint to a can of black in the hopes of making it completely white. Not going to happen.

The good news is that God understands our predicament and has provided a solution. Let us return to my paint illustration for a second. Once I’m stuck with the unwanted shade of pink, the only thing I can do is to replace it by rushing to the store to buy a new can of white. The same principle applies to what Jesus has done for us on the cross. He has taken our sins upon himself so that, in return, he can give us his perfection. (4)  He substitutes our sin with his righteousness. As a result, God can treat us as if we’re perfect, allowing us to enjoy fellowship with him, which is what salvation is all about. We can then approach him without fear of being burned up by his holiness.

There is only one way to receive this perfection that Jesus offers: by faith. (5) We certainly can’t earn it – that’s the whole point of why Jesus died. Amazingly, God is willing to take away our sin and exchange it for his righteousness, if only we will trust in Jesus. He went to such an extraordinary effort to reconcile humanity with himself. How can we not respond with open arms at such an incredible display of love?

(1) Mathew 5:48, Deuteronomy 18:13

(2) 1 John 1:5

(3) Exodus 33:20

(4) 2 Corinthians 5:21

(5) Romans 1:17

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Anna Bendell Anderson

    Thank you so much, Carol, for reminding us of the source and means of our salvation — from God, by faith alone. We are all plagued with pride that keeps us from seeing that we have nothing to offer God for our justification. We need faith, which is a gift to see our need and turn to Christ’s work apart, from which no one can be saved. Your paint analogy is so good. The only painted white lives that Christ talks about are the tombs of rotting dead men. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God? A. No mere man since the fall is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word and deed.”

    1. Carol

      Amen!

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