Tom likes to think of himself as a good person. He works hard, pays his taxes, and raises his family. People like him; he’s a good neighbor. Oh, he has his moral lapses. Doesn’t everybody? He lies on occasion—mostly little white lies. He swears like a sailor when he’s stressed—like last weekend when he hit his thumb with a hammer. But usually he watches his language around his kids. He’s honest, although he’d almost forgotten that time as a teenager when he shoplifted the cigarettes on a dare.
When Tom thinks about the bad things he’s done, he immediately reminds himself of the good things he’s done. He’s just not that bad. He is certain that his good deeds outweigh the bad. He has gone out of his way to help people. He’s even done some volunteer work and made charitable donations. Why last week he stopped and helped an elderly lady with a flat tire.
Tom isn’t into organized religion, although he still believes in God. Admittedly he’s never read the Bible—he really doesn’t know anyone who has. But he’s sure that some of the things in the Bible are true. Tom is just convinced that a good God couldn’t send him to hell. After all, his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds.
Tom isn’t alone. According to a Barna Research poll: “Half of all adults (50%) argue that anyone who ‘is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in Heaven.’”
Although this is a popular point of view, it underestimates the seriousness of sin. Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV). One sin separates us from God for eternity left untreated, and there is nothing that we can do to balance the scales in our favor by our own good deeds. Any sin avoided and any good deed done are simply what we should be doing. They can’t earn a good standing that has been lost by sin.
Thinking that good deeds outweigh bad deeds trivializes the death of Jesus. Why would Christ endure the cross, if it is only a matter of us balancing the scales? Part of the explanation for the cross is found in Romans 3:26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (ESV). Forgiveness places God’s own justice at risk if the penalty for sin is not taken seriously. We would not re-elect a judge who routinely frees criminals, because we would say he is unjust.
Jesus paid the penalty that was our due for sin. He did that so that God may be just and also justifier (one who forgives sinners). But note the condition: “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). We can’t balance the scales of justice for ourselves. Only Jesus can satisfy justice and bring forgiveness.