Monday, February 22, 2010

Food for Thought

I would like to take the time, as food for thought, to discuss the idea of good works. I have recently heard scathing arguments on the side of atheists who tout that faith in Christ alone to save is absurd, seeing that anyone who claims salvation by faith can behave any way they wish, so long as they confessed this "faith." Conduct doesn't enter the equation, in their opinion, which enflames their belief that man’s good works should logically demonstrate his merit. I am sorry to confess that many who claim to be Christians fall into the category of being unrecognizable followers of Christ, bearing no fruit of the Spirit, as God‘s word calls it. The Bible addresses this spiritual barrenness in believers in great detail, but that is not what I presently desire to discuss.

This argument contends that atheists, who are apparently (by implication) all quite good at doing good works, would set the bar for entrance into Heaven/eternity/the afterlife here. After all, all human religions agree. Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, et al, in one form or another are working their way to Heaven. So the question is begged, “Are you a good person?”
Here we have quite the quandary, however. Based on the atheistic supposition, doing "good" should merit Heaven. But "good" is an extremely ambiguous word, as we shall strive to see by forming a logical counter argument and seeing how this notion stands...or falls.
To approach the word "good" we have to view it in the same light as our opponent; in this case an atheist argument. Good, then, would be someone who does something beneficial for another, and that likely without the hope of seeing reward. A good person should be thoughtful, selfless, and generous. But here I may be completely wrong, because "good's" definition changes from person to person. Take ten people and ask them what being a good person means, and find out what they say; then you will begin to appreciate the fatal flaw in this argument. The other definition of good may also imply, “using resources and circumstance to their utmost potential.” Basically, have you lived to your utmost potential, with opportunities available to you? This is the more ridiculous of the two ideas, since anyone from Ghengis Khan to Adolf Hitler would be in Heaven. Truly ambitious men certainly make the most of their circumstances; for good or evil. In fact it advances the old concept of “the ends justifies the means.” If feeding orphans elevates your status, it is good. If cutting throats elevates your status, it is good; after all, no man can judge what is right for another. This idea can be discarded as quickly as it has been considered.
That said, the first question to loom on the horizon would be: how good of an act must be performed to be coined, "good"? If it is material charity, what of the poor who cannot generously give? If it is time spent with the less fortunate, what of those who have little time to spare out of obligation, or happen to be infirmed with sickness, and cannot hope to perform such an act? How much time must be spent? How much money donated? How much energy expended, before one's philanthropy opens the gates of Heaven? How many such acts must be performed? And who do we designate judge and arbiter, that these aforementioned acts may be gauged by a fair assessment, to determine whether they are good or not? Because in reality anyone can call the most meager kindness "good", and add that to their account, so to speak. If we use our own measuring stick, we will always find ourselves approved.
Suppose the poor have nothing to give, and the sick have nothing to offer; where do their good works enter the picture? We are to do good unto these less fortunate ones, but at the same time, and with this same theory, the less fortunate will not go to Heaven/eternity/the afterlife while the charitable ones will, because we have earned it, while the poor/sick have only reaped the benefits of our beneficence. Will they then suffer Hell, or whatever the alternative to Heaven is in this hypothesis?
Likewise, how many good works must one do (and maintain) to have a good standing? Suppose someone were to say, "Just do as well as you can, in your situation or circumstance." How many others share a similar circumstance; and will those who do better than I in regards to good works prove more worthy of Heaven? Or will those beneath me be damned because my charity reveals their lack of worth? Who plays the arbiter? There must be a standard by which these things are gauged, or else we suffer hopeless incongruities. I cannot by any means judge my own works as good, because of course I will always side with myself. And good, in man's mercurial opinion, changes from mind to mind; so who among other men would be a fit judge to determine how worthy any single work is? This argument disintegrates under scrutiny because it is illogical to say the least. It is apparent that to enter Heaven via a works system is highly flawed, since some would have a terrible advantage over others, paying their way in, so to speak, while the very people who are the recipients of said works are in fact unfit for Heaven, because they have nothing to contribute comparatively speaking. The affluent, healthy and wealthy get the best of both worlds, while those who are less fortunate on earth go on to greater misfortune.
One makes the unspoken assumption by reason of this argument that when someone does something "good", they are doing something above and beyond what they should. They earn merit points, to coin a phrase. What if when one does good, it is not seen as good at all, but merely what you are supposed to, in fact obligated to do, and most times do not? It is like obeying the speed limit; do you boast that you follow the speed limit and expect a reward? Of course not. It is because the law expects you to obey it, and is only interested when you have broken that law, which is a different matter entirely. To do what is our obligation, to love our neighbor as our self, is not counted good, but mandatory; what should be done daily by every person with no credit to us. How many good deeds are done for the sake of notice in some form? If that is one's motivation, you may forget Heaven: you already have your reward in full right then. If someone’s sole purpose for altruism were to win their way into a happy afterlife, no one would ever know if they did not confess it outright. Would you honestly find it fair such a selfish person would enter Heaven? We need a judge who can see the heart, who can see beyond the actions of the person to their intent. Many good deeds, in this light, are not good at all.
One further point using the comparison of the speed limit: How many people always drive the speed limit? How many only tend to obey when the police are spied? No one is pulled over and rewarded for being a good driver, for doing what you are expected to do. When someone does what they ought to, should we be rewarded for doing “good,” in this case not speeding? This is flawed logic even in this simple case; how much more so when it is poorly applied to eternal matters?
Were the unfortunate even able to contribute, as it were, would their works be worth noting? The more wealthy, intelligent or influential surely outshine such people, and would guarantee their position in a happy afterlife. Besides, is Heaven based on a payment plan? Are these installments for our condos in Heaven? Works were meant to follow faith, not to replace it. One would need to continue earning in that sense for all of their lives, because no man alive could tell you how much "good" one had to do to be assured of the afterlife: no one knows! As it stands (under this hypothesis), no one may have met that goal since time began. If we look at one another and judge by the standards erected by our fellow men, some of us might have reason to hope and rejoice, while others might have cause to weep. But we are comparing ourselves with ourselves, making man the measure of all things. We conveniently forget that, unless there is Someone beyond man, a Creator , Heaven is pure fantasy. Surely this Maker of Heaven has His own criteria for entrance into His dominion.
Look to God and consider, just for a moment, what the standard of an infinite, holy and just God must be. His standard is assuredly no less than perfection. Since man is sinful, thinking and doing deeds unworthy of God, capable of thinking, feeling and performing great evil, we all know in our conscience that no single person on earth meets this standard. We aren't even close. The foundation of believing we are “good people” can stand only if we are innately good at our core. The Bible (not to mention 6000 years of recorded history) declares that man is innately evil. We cannot begin to bridge the chasm separating us from a holy God; this is the sole reason the cross was laid down. The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross was the greatest singular proof that there was no remedy for our condition, nothing we could offer and no payment we could make to satisfy the enormous debt of sin we owed our Creator. Jesus voluntarily suffered the cross to open the way to God, through faith in Him alone, divorced from our efforts.
Someone once wisely stated, "At the foot of the cross the ground is level." The great and affluent have no better hope for eternal life than the lowliest beggar on the street. Faith in Christ's atoning work; faith in the Person of Jesus Christ happens to be the criteria for entrance into Heaven. The Father has declared it plainly to men: Do you want to enter Heaven? God has told us the way, and it is good news to be given directions to a destination no living person has ever been to! Good works are out, so to speak, and faith in Christ alone saves a man. It is more simple than works, more humbling than works (it gives us no glory or boasting) and it glorifies God, who is far more worthy of praise than you or I. Which is a better package: to hope in "good" works, that they will be enough, of the right quality and for the duration needed to garner eternity? Or would you prefer to place your faith in the One who died on our behalf, performing the only good work the Father has ever found acceptable, and crediting that amazing feat to our account? When we believe in Christ, our debt with God is settled concerning our sin and guilt. Jesus paid that penalty for us. It is a question of surety verses man's pride. God has given His Son and can give no more; He cannot and will not believe for us. Our will hinders us from coming to Him; the only thing standing between men and God is unbelief.
Jesus plainly told the Jews of His day that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Only when we recognize our need of the salvation Christ offers can we avail ourselves of His atonement. A hand filled with our own works can’t receive what the Savior offers us freely; only an empty hand can accept His salvation. The rich young ruler approached Jesus in this manner, asking the Lord what good things he must do to enter Heaven. Jesus answered curtly, cautioning the young ruler that there was none good but God alone. If I may paraphrase the incident, Jesus was telling this young man that one would have to be as good as God to earn or merit their way into Heaven. The rich young ruler viewed Jesus in human terms, calling Him ‘good teacher.’ Jesus wanted it made clear that the flesh profits nothing, it is the Spirit who gives life. To that end He punctured the inflated opinion of this ruler about the innate goodness in himself.
Hell is a terrible place, in which the soul God created to have fellowship with Him will be separated from Him for eternity. Don't choose that way because you are angry that God designated how to approach Him: through His Son whom He loves. Instead realize that it was His amazing love that opened this door to walk through, when He owed us nothing. Salvation is free, and it is of faith, no matter the majority opinion which carries the day, or how many atheistic arguments are cleverly worded in an effort to derail God's eternal word. Please, if you are not saved, give up trying to be a "good" person in some vain and undefined hope of the hereafter. Trust in God, and place your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. His name alone saves, and it saves forever. Amen.

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