Question: "Why is being a good person not enough to get you into heaven?"
Answer: This is the proverbial million-dollar question because, if you ask anyone on the street what you have to do to get into heaven (assuming they believe in heaven or an afterlife), the overwhelming response will be some form of “being a good person.” Most, if not all, religions and worldly philosophies are ethically based. Whether it’s Islam, Judaism, or secular humanism, most teach getting to heaven is a matter of being a good person—following the Ten Commandments or the precepts found in the Quran or the Golden Rule. But is this what Christianity teaches? Is Christianity just one of many world religions that teach that being a good person will get us into heaven? Let’s examine one of Jesus’ encounters found in the Gospels to help us get some answers. The story is found in Matthew 19:16–26; it is the story of the rich young ruler.
The first thing we note in this story is that the rich young ruler is asking the right question: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” In asking the question, he is acknowledging the fact that, despite all his efforts thus far, there is something lacking, and he wants to know what else must be done to obtain eternal life. However, even though he is asking the right question, he is asking it from the wrong worldview—that of merit (“What good deed must I do...”); he has failed to grasp the true meaning of the Law, as Jesus will point out to him, which was to serve as a tutor until the time of Christ (Galatians 3:24).
The second thing to note is Jesus’ response to his question. Jesus turns the tables by asking him why he is inquiring into what is good. In other words, Jesus is trying to get to the heart of the matter, namely, that no one is good and no one does good except God. As noted earlier, the man is operating under a false premise, that man is able to do that which is good and earn his way into heaven. To make His point, Jesus says to him that, if he wants eternal life, he should keep the commandments. In saying this, Jesus is not advocating for a works-righteousness program. Rather, Jesus is challenging his suppositions by showing the man’s shallow understanding of the Law and human ability.
The young man’s response is very telling. When told to keep the commandments, he asks Jesus, “Which ones?” If you or I were in Jesus’ shoes, we might be tempted to say, “Um, all of them! What a silly question.” But Jesus continues to gently show the man the error of his ways by giving him the second table of the Law, i.e., the commandments that deal with our relationships to other human beings. You can almost sense the frustration in the young man’s response to Jesus when he tells Him that he has kept all of these since his youth. Two things to point out here: first, the irony in the young man’s response. In saying he has kept all those commandments since his youth, he has broken the commandment regarding false witness. If he were truly being honest with himself, he would have said that, as hard as he has tried to keep the commandments, he fails on a daily basis. He has a shallow understanding of the Law and an inflated opinion of his own ability. Second, he still knows deep in his heart of hearts that he is not good enough; even his shallow Law-keeping isn’t satisfying his soul. He asks Jesus, “What do I still lack?”
Jesus now delivers the killing blow to this man’s self-righteousness. He tells him that, if he wishes to be perfect (i.e., complete), he must sell all that he has and come follow Him. Jesus has perfectly diagnosed the man’s “lack”—his great wealth. The man’s wealth has become an idol in his life, and if he truly knew the commandments, he would have known that the very first commandment says that we are to have no other gods before the one, true, and living God! This man’s god was his wealth. Furthermore, Jesus’ exhortation for the man to follow Him was a command to follow the very Son of God, who Himself is God. This young man was a slave to his great wealth. When told to give his wealth away and follow Jesus, he goes away saddened.
Jesus now turns to His disciples to teach them a principle. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” This was shocking to the disciples, who understood the commonly held idea that riches were a sign of God’s blessing. But Jesus points out the obstacle that riches often are, in their tendency to fuel self-sufficiency. His disciples ask essentially the same question the rich young ruler had asked, but they ask it from the right perspective: “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers by saying, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Who can be saved? If left up to man alone, no one! Why is being a good person not enough to get you into heaven? Because no one is a “good” person; there is only one who is good, and that is God Himself. The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Bible also says that the wages of our sin is death (Romans 6:23a). We learn that, while we were in our sinful state, Christ died for the unrighteous (Romans 5:8).
Finally, if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (Romans 10:9). This salvation in Christ is a precious gift and it is nothing that we can earn through our good works (Romans 6:23b; Ephesians 2:8–9). The message of the gospel is that we can never be good enough to get to heaven. We must recognize the fact that we are sinners who daily fall short of God’s glory, and we must obey the command to repent of our sins and place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who alone was good enough to earn heaven, and who gives that merit to those who believe in His name.