Why We Cannot Earn Our Way to Heaven

There are many religions in the world all which are but man’s attempts to achieve a level of “righteousness” to earn his way into to presence of God, heaven, nirvana, or whatever a man believes to be the most desirable eternal state.  There is a common misconception, that if I’m good enough, if my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds, I’ll be ok in the end.  That is a lie from the pit of hell.

A number of years back, a Reformed pastor and theologian Lorraine Boettner wrote a book, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination in which, in addition to the main subject of predestination he covered other related subjects.  Among those was the subject of today’s blog.  Why man in his natural state, unregenerated by the Holy Spirit (i.e., not born again) cannot by his good deeds earn God’s approval and consequently earn his way to heaven.

In Boettner’s  book is what I have found to be the most profound, rational, and yet exquisitely clear explanation of why man’s righteousness is insufficient, or as God calls all of man’s righteousnesses, “filthy rags.”  That God says it, should be sufficient, but knowing our weakness and our inquisitiveness, He does graciously allow His people some insights into the hows and whys of some, not all, of His ways.

Following is Section 3 of Boettner’s work in its entirety:

Lorraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination

Chapter 10

§3. THE DEFECTS IN MAN’S COMMON VIRTUES pp37-39

 

The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he cannot give even a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Jesus. If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of love for God. All of his common virtues or good works have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God, — a defect so vital  that it throws any element of goodness as to man wholly into the shade. It matters not how good the works may be in themselves, for so long as the doer of them in out of harmony with God, none of his works are spiritually acceptable. Furthermore, the good works of the unregenerate have no stable foundation, for his nature is still unchanged: and as naturally and as certainly as the washed sow returns to her wallowing in the mire, so he sooner or later returns to his evil ways.

In the realm of morals it is a rule that the morality of the man must precede the morality of the action. One may speak with the tongues of men and of angels; yet if he Is lacking that inward principle of love toward God, he is become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. He may give all his goods to feed the poor, and may give his body to be burned; yet if he lacks that inward principle. it profits him nothing. As human beings we know that an act of service rendered to us (by whatever utilitarian motives prompted) by someone who is at heart our enemy, does not merit our love and approbation. The Scripture statement that “Without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto God,” finds Its explanation in this, that faith is the foundation of all the other virtues, and nothing is acceptable to God which does not flow from right feelings.

A moral act is to be judged by the standard of love to God, which love is, as it were, the soul of all other virtue, and which is bestowed upon us only through grace. Augustine did not deny the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, honesty, generosity, which constitute a certain merit among men; but be drew a broad line of distinction between these and the specific Christian graces (faith, love and gratitude to God, etc.), which alone are good in the strict sense of the word, and which alone have value before God. This distinction is very plainly illustrated in an example given by W. D. Smith. Says he: “In a gang of pirates we may find many things that are good in themselves. Though they are in wicked rebellion against the laws of the government, they have their own laws and regulations, which they obey strictly. We find among them courage and fidelity, with many other things that will recommend them as pirates. They may do many things, too, which the laws of the government require, but they are not done because the government has so required, but in obedience to their own regulations. For instance the government requires honesty and they may be strictly honest, one with another, In their transactions, and the division of all their spoil. Yet, as respects the government, and the general principle, their whole life is one of the most wicked dishonesty. Now, it is plain, that while they continue in their rebellion they can do nothing to recommend them to the government as citizens. Their first step must be to give up their rebellion, acknowledge their allegiance to the government, and sue for mercy. So all men, in their natural state, are rebels against God, and though they may do many things which the law of God requires, and which will recommend them as men, yet nothing is done with reference to God and His law. Instead, the regulations of society, respect for public opinion, self-interest, their own character in the sight of the world, or some other worldly or wicked motive, reigns supremely; and God, to whom they owe their heart and lives, is forgotten; or, if thought of at all, His claims are wickedly rejected, His counsels spurned, and the heart, in obstinate rebellion, refuses obedience. Now it is plain that while the heart continues in this state the man is a rebel against God, and can do nothing to recommend him to His favor. The first step is to give up his rebellion, repent of his sins, turn to God, and sue for pardon and reconciliation through the Savior. This he is unwilling to do, until he is made willing. He loves his sins, and will continue to love them, until his heart is changed.”

The good actions of unregenerate men, Smith continues, “are not positively sinful in themselves, but sinful from defect. They lack the principle which alone can make them righteous in the sight of God. In the case of the pirates it is easy to see that all their actions are sin against the government. While they continue pirates, their sailing, mending, or rigging the vessel and even their eating and drinking, are all sins in the eyes of the government, as they are only so many expedients to enable them to continue their piratical career, and are parts of their life of rebellion. So with sinners. While the heart is wrong, it vitiates everything in the sight of God, even their most ordinary occupations; for the plain, unequivocal language of God is, ‘Even the lamp of the wicked, is sin,’ Proverbs 21:4.”

It is this inability which the Scriptures teach when they declare that “They that are in the flesh cannot please God,” Romans 8:8; “Whatsoever Is not of faith in sin,” Romans 14:23; and “Without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing to Him,” Hebrews 11:6. Hence even the virtues of the unregenerate man are but as plucked and fading flowers. It was because of this that Jesus said to His disciples, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And because those virtues are of this nature, they are only temporary. The one who possesses them is like the seed which falls on the stony soil, which perhaps springs up with promise of fruitage, but soon withers in the sun because it has no root in itself.

It follows also from what has been said that salvation to ABSOLUTELY AND SOLELY OF GRACE,—that God Is free, in consistency with the infinite perfections of His nature, to save none, few, many, or all, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His will. It also follows that salvation is not based on any merits in the creature, and that it depends on God, and not on men, who are, and who are not, to be made partakers of eternal life. God acts as a sovereign in saving some and passing by others who are left to the just recompense of their sins. Sinners are compared to dead men, or even to dry bones in their entire helplessness. In this they are all alike. The choice of some to eternal life is as sovereign as if Christ were to pass through a graveyard and bid one here and another there to come forth, the reason for restoring one to life and leaving another in his grave could be found only in His good pleasure, and not in the dead themselves. Hence the statement that we are foreordained according to the good pleasure of His will, and not after the good inclinations of our own; and in order that we might be holy, not because we were holy (Ephesians 1:4, 5). “Since all men alike deserved only God’s wrath and curse the gift of His only begotten Son to die in the stead of malefactors, as the only possible method of expiating their guilt, is the most stupendous exhibition of undeserved favor and personal love that the universe has ever witnessed.”33

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/boettner/predest.html

Print Basis: Eerdmans, 1932 (copyright not renewed during 1959-61 and has expired)
Language: English
Rights: Public Domain
CCEL Subjects: All; Theology
LC Call no: BT810.B66
LC Subjects: Doctrinal theologySalvation
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