Q&A: Good Works

Good Works

Question

In this answer, you said a person can never be free because "they have no way to earn positive merit that would earn them a place of eternal blessing." Why would someone need positive merit to enter into heaven. When Jesus said "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect," I have understood this verse to mean there are two ways to get to heaven: 1) be perfect 2) having Jesus' perfection imputed to you. Even though it is impossible, if someone was perfect, then they wouldn't have to do anything positive to enter heaven but since they have done nothing negative they would be allowed to go to heaven. Will you please explain any flaws in my thinking and why someone needs to do something positive to enter into heaven.

Answer

Yes, there are two ways to get to heaven: either you are righteous on your own (Jesus was the only one who ever did that, and who ever will do that), or you have Jesus' righteousness imputed to you. Christ earned his way to heaven by being righteous, that is, he earned positive merit that God rewarded by giving Jesus an inheritance in heaven. For the rest of us, when Christ's righteousness is credited to our account, we also have positive merit to enter heaven - we have Christ's merit. Positive merit is required because heaven (and later, the new earth where we will live forever) is a reward for good works. Without good works that merit such a reward, one cannot enter heaven.

The traditional Protestant doctrine of Christ's atonement contains two elements that we are talking about here: 1) the imputation of sin to Jesus; and 2) the imputation of Jesus' righteousness to sinners. Jesus died on the cross because our sin was imputed to him. By his death, atonement was made for that sin. Once a believer is forgiven on the basis of Christ's atonement, he or she can never go to hell-there is no sin debt remaining to be paid. However, having no sin debt only erases guilt; it does not add positive merit. Jesus' death as a substitute for sin was sufficient to keep sinners out of hell, but it was his righteous life and obedience to the Father in all things, including in his death, that earned a place in heaven for himself and for those who believe in him. Thus, fully paying for one's sin would be enough to get one out of hell, but it would not be sufficient to get one into heaven. That would require an additional step: the accrual of sufficient positive merit.

To put this specifically in the language of "perfection," one is not perfect simply because one has been punished for his or her sins. Consider the example of a criminal who is released from jail after serving a 20-year sentence for child molestation. His debt to society has been paid, but we do not thereby consider him righteous or perfect-he has not yet done anything good that would cause us to want to reward him. Far from being perfect, he is about the most despicable creature on the planet-even though his punishment has been meted out and he has thereby been absolved of his guilt in the eyes of society.

Now, consider the case of the sinner hypothetically released from hell because he has been sufficiently punished for his sins. He is not perfect either. He is still a fallen creature who hates God, and he is incapable of meritoriously good acts. Except for the fact that he currently is due no punishment from God, this sinner is, in fact, no different from the way he was before he went to hell. Far from being perfect, he is corrupt and depraved.

It may also help to think about the verse you mentioned (Lev. 19:2 // Matt. 5:48). The command was not simply "refrain from sin," but "be perfect." Perfection in God's Law is not achieved through inaction. It is not simply the state of avoiding sin; it is also the doing of the positive things the Law requires, such as loving God and neighbor (which are the greatest commandments of the Law). Love is not simply the absence of hate, but active caring and devotion. After all, we don't imagine that everyone in the world loves us simply because they have yet hate us.

To use an extreme example, imagine a young man who proposes to a woman he has just met. She refuses him, of course, and he responds by saying, "But I have proven my abounding love for you in many ways, and you have shown me that you love me with equal fervor!" She would be baffled, and ask, "What in the world are you talking about?" "Well," he would answer, "for one thing, I have never killed you. For another, I have never hurt you or had a bad thought about you. I have never stolen from you, and I have never shown you disrespect. I have never cursed your parents, or even acted inconsiderately toward your pet hamster! And you love me too, as proven by the fact that you have never done any of these things to me." Clearly, this young man has no real concept of love. In the same way, one cannot fulfill the commandment to love-or any commandment of the Law, for that matter, given that love is the essence of the Law (cf. Matt. 22:40)-unless that person does something positive. In short, the person who has done nothing wrong is not perfect; only the person who has done everything right is perfect.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.