The following is based on the message I will preach at Emmanuel Ministries tomorrow morning.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Proverbs 14.12/16.25 ESV)
Common sense tells us that the way to get to heaven is obviously by being good. The logic would seem consistent: be good and earn what is good, namely heaven. However, the Bible tells us that the “way that seems right to a man... is the way to death.” What seems to be “common sense” is often misleading when related to heaven and hell conversations.
The reason is that man's wisdom and God's wisdom are separated by the limited understanding of man and the infinite understanding of God. In Isaiah 55.8-9 (ESV) the Bible says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” In other words, God's perspective gives Him a different outlook on what is sufficient for salvation. Accordingly, since God designed existence, His way will be the correct way.
Some people believe that we can earn heaven by keeping the Commandments. Jesus responded to this in an encounter with a rich young man as seen in Matthew 19.16-22 (ESV):
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" 17And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." 18He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20The young man said to him, "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?" 21Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
The point was- what this rich man missed- that salvation did not hinge on his keeping of the Commandments. Jesus requires whole-hearted devotion. Think of it this way: 'salvation is free, but it requires everything.'
Furthermore, we fail to keep the Commandments as they are defined by Jesus. Focusing on just the Commandments Jesus covered with the young rich man, we can look at the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not murder.” (Deuteronomy 5.17 ESV) Most look at that Commandment and say, “I have never killed anyone.” However, in Matthew 5.21-22 (ESV) Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” In other words, Jesus characterizes anyone “who is angry with his brother” to be guilty of murder as prohibited in the Sixth Commandment.
Another example is found in the Seventh Commandment (Deuteronomy 5.18 ESV): “you shall not commit adultery.” Again, in Matthew 5.27-28 (ESV) Jesus makes clear the definition for adultery used by God, “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That is right- the one who says, “I have never cheated on my wife” or even “I am a virgin” has, most likely, violated this Commandment at times in his or her life.
This all means that we are unable to earn heaven. Our attempts to do “good” fail to live up to God's requirements. In Isaiah 64.6 (ESV), it says, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Our “good” is miserably inadequate. All our efforts fail. When measured alongside God's standards our best is pitifully, even embarrassingly, unworthy.
Despite our inability and worthlessness, God has a plan to make us worth and acceptable to Him. The only way to heaven is Jesus. John 14.6 (ESV) says, “Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” The exclusivity of Christ as a means to salvation is also seen in Acts 4.12 (ESV), “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The name being spoken in this verse is, of course, Jesus.
God's plan was for Jesus, God the Son- God in human flesh- 100% God and 100% Man (in a way that only God can adequately comprehend), to come and live a perfectly sinless life to become an unblemished and perfect sacrifice for the evil sin committed by every human being. He was betrayed and gave Himself freely to be punished in our place. He came to pay a price we were unable to pay, to reach a God we were unable to reach by our own efforts.
When Jesus died upon the cross, it was not an accident. It was not a failure. In the days of the Old Testament, God required His people to sacrifice lambs to pay for their sins. It was a picture of what was to come. In fact, Hebrews 9.22 (ESV) puts it into perspective: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” So in the New Testament, a new covenant was made- a new contract- based on a new sacrifice: it was Jesus, the unblemished, perfect Lamb of God, who was being sacrificed for the sin of the world. He was paying the death penalty for those of us who sinned. 1 Corinthians 5.21 (ESV) says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Once Jesus completed the work of being killed upon the cross, He was buried and rose from the dead on the third day. Jesus alone demonstrated victory over death and the grave. His death and resurrection mean that we can have freedom and spiritual life in Him. When a person receives Christ, the sacrifice is applied to Him and he is seen as “righteous,” or “in right standing” with God. He no longer sees our wickedness, He sees us through the sacrifice of Christ and sees us as worthy. It is not by what we do or have done. It is solely a work of God.
To accept Jesus we must recognize ourselves as being sinful (Romans 3.23 [ESV] “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”); Recognize that Jesus is the Son of God who died a death penalty on our behalf, paying the wages for our sins giving us eternal life (Romans 6.23 [ESV] “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”); and Recognize that we are to call on Jesus for salvation and commit our lives to Him (Romans 10.13, Philippians 3.14 [ESV]), “For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” and “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”