In 2003 a research group discovered 64% of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die, but less than 1% think they might go to hell. I wonder what criteria they base this on.
Most people believe that heaven is for good people; that God grades on a curve. Many of these individuals believe if your good works outweigh your bad you make it. It seems people judge the “good line” that God draws for entrance into heaven is somewhere below them. They’ve made it but they don’t want to judge anyone else. Is this what the Bible teaches? How can we know if we are going to heaven?
Before looking further into the issue of hell I would like to Biblically answer the question, who goes to heaven? Can good works save someone? What are we being saved from?
The Bible is clear that works cannot earn heaven. In the book of Romans the Apostle Paul spent much of chapters 1-3 revealing the bad news of how we have turned our backs on God and how we are under His judgment. As a God of justice He is going pour out his wrath upon all who do moral wrongs. Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death…” What we earn from sin is death and separation from God for all eternity. And who commits sins? Romans 3:23 says, “We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” We are all condemned sinners under the wrath of God; we are all headed for hell.
However, in Romans chapter 3 Paul delivers great news! He writes in verses 21 & 22,“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction…” Clearly, Paul is teaching God’s righteousness, God’s forgiveness comes by faith and not by works. He says that in verse 22 “even the righteousness of God through faith.” Righteousness simply means to be right with God. We receive this righteousness through faith. Paul says the object of our faith is Jesus Christ. What he is saying is we can be right with God apart from trying to live by the law. Salvation is open to all who believe in His Son Jesus Christ. That’s it! No works, no trying to be good, but by faith alone!
Paul is now going to use Abraham as an example of how we can be right with God. What is interesting is Abraham would have been thought of by the Jews as the father of good works and not faith. This is probably why Paul uses him. We read in Romans 4:1-5 “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…”
Let’s define a few terms Paul uses:
- Justified – Legal act by God where our sins are forgiven and we receive Christ’s righteousness. Essentially, God gives us His righteousness.
- Works – Following God’s law. Earning our way to heaven.
- Righteousness – Being right with God.
- Reckoned – A banking term. God applies righteousness to our account.
Let’s break these verses down. Paul says, “What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather, according to the flesh. What has he found? If Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about, but not before God. The words justified by works simply mean a person can pay for his or her sins by following the law. Paul here is making a hypothetical statement. He is saying if Abraham could earn his way to heaven he could brag about it. However, Paul had already dealt with the boasting in Romans 3:27-28 “Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” If you could earn heaven by works you could tell God I don’t need you. However, Paul says boasting is excluded. Why? Justification comes from faith! We are forgiven by trusting in Jesus Christ and not by what we do.
Now Paul is going to reinforce what he said in chapter 3 by quoting from the Old Testament and utilizing Abraham. He writes, “…for what does the Scripture say?” He now quotes from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham was granted righteousness or forgiveness by belief and not by good works.
Paul goes on to say, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned him as a favor but what is due.” If you work for it, then God owes you forgiveness; he owes you heaven. Verse 5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Paul says God’s forgiveness cannot be earned! We cannot work our way heaven. Only by faith can we receive God’s righteousness.
Remember the word “reckoned” is a banking term. By believing in His Son Jesus Christ, God applies Christ’s righteousness to our account. We have an empty bank account and God puts cash in there. Don’t you wish you had friends like that? It's not our cash, it’s God’s cash; its God righteousness. He puts it into our account, and because the account is in our name, we can spend it. It becomes ours even though we didn't earn it. The cash put into our account is our sins are forgiven and we get credit for all the good Jesus represents. What a deal! Jesus pays for our moral wrongs on the cross and we receive all the good he did by faith.
The Apostle Paul the champion of salvation by grace through faith alone. It is central in his writings to the Church at Galatia and to the church at Ephesus. As Paul points out in Romans, salvation by faith alone was taught in the Old Testament. Abraham was right with God through faith and faith alone. Heaven cannot be earned.
 Greg Koukl, “The Bible Fast Forward,” Audio teaching from Stand to Reason