Most people today think that in order to go to heaven, you have to be a good person. We have an inner instinct that says bad people deserve punishment and good people deserve reward. Like most Americans, we tend to self-evaluate and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. “I haven’t committed a serious crime, so I must be a pretty good person” is one thing we might think. Especially if we have worked hard and have been successful up to this point in life, it’s easy for us to think that we have it all together—that we’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.
During Jesus’ ministry, a rich young ruler thought this very thing.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17–22)
This young ruler approached Jesus confident in his own ability to be righteous before God, confident that he had truly kept all of God’s commandments well enough to merit heaven. Jesus’ response, however, showed him (as it shows us) that he was not able to be righteous by his own efforts. Jesus pinpointed the young ruler’s greatest weakness—his wealth—to show him his sin. If the young ruler were truly able to attain the righteousness required, he would have willingly sold all his possessions and followed Jesus. Instead, he turned away, unable to give up his earthly treasure for heavenly treasure.
What Does It Mean to Be Good?
We can easily think like this rich young ruler. We might think we are rich in good works, or our material wealth lures us to an unrealistic self-confidence. As relatively wealthy Americans, we believe the American dream more than we believe God's Word. We come before Jesus and boast of how well we are doing, we read our Bibles making mental checklists of all the commandments we've kept and vow to keep all the ones we find particularly difficult and we give to charities and good causes. We imagine God to be someone who only cares that we tried hard. If we make enough of an effort, God will let us into heaven with a benevolent smile.
This shows us how deep-rooted sin is. It is impossible for us to use the law for salvation, because it means more than trying hard to be a good person (Matt. 5:27–30). The young ruler thought he could be good enough, but Jesus knew the secret things of his heart and showed him that his attachment to his wealth kept him from letting go of his self-reliance and comfort and following Jesus in full dependence upon him (Matt. 5:20, 22:38–39; 1 Tim. 6:17). As Jesus tells us through Paul elsewhere in his Word, "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Tim. 6:10).
Self-Reliance Paves the Way to Hell
The Bible tells us bluntly that anyone who tries to save themselves is in fact cursed (Gal. 3:13). This is because sin corrupts every thought, word, and action, making it impossible for our good works to ever be pure and holy enough to stand before God (Gal. 2:16; 3:10–11). Building up a stash of good works cannot save us from God’s judgment (Gal. 2:16, 3:11; Rom. 3:20).
If we cannot be good enough, how then can anyone be saved? Jesus’ disciples wondered this very question, for they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responded, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10: 26–27). Jesus came to give himself over to human courts and condemnation to die, to free us from sin and so that we might have the very perfection God requires (Matt. 5:17).
Jesus not only takes away our guilt and God’s wrath but also gives us his very own righteousness for us to wear as our own. Because he wants to live in communion with us, he did not leave us to perish in our sin but provided another way for us be made perfect. Furthermore, he gives us heavenly treasure that is far greater than we can imagine—and certainly far greater than anything we could obtain here on earth (Mark 10: 28–31).