Often in debates with atheists, Christians are accused of doing good (being moral) merely to escape the judgment of God. Twice I have had an atheist tell me that they would fair okay if they were to face God’s judgment because, after all, their good works were done merely because they were good and not out of fear of punishment. Fear of judgment is to some an impure motive for morality.
At the heart of an accusation like this is a misunderstanding of the gospel itself. I want to show that the gospel frees us from having to search our motives, which are often impure, and live our lives for the God who made us. Along the way, I will express the main message of the Bible: the gospel.
Expressed simply, the gospel is the fact that God offers eternal life as a free gift. Eternal life is a right relationship with God, enjoyed now and in eternity. Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As a gift, eternal life is not earned or deserved.
The gospel is impossible to understand without first coming to grips with the law, God’s requirements for us. The law requires perfection. Jesus Himself said, “Be ye perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect.” Anyone who admits moral imperfection admits to have fallen short of this ideal. This leaves us under condemnation.
Get the force of this. All we have to do is commit one immoral act. All we have to do is one “good” work with an impure motive. That is all we need to violate the standard of perfection. The judgment is not a matter of “the good outweighing the bad.” It is a matter of meeting a perfect standard established by the God who created us.
No one obeys the law perfectly or obeys the law with perfect motives: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The saying that “nobody is perfect” is accepted as a cultural axiom.
The old prayer of confession in the Anglican Church reads, “We have sinned against [God] in thought, word and deed; by the things we have done and the things we have left undone.” Sin could be anything we do, anything we think, or anything we say. It could be what we fail to do, what we fail to thing, or what we fail to say.
This leaves all people inadequately prepared for the judgment in and of ourselves. We cannot rely on our own morality or motives because we are not perfect.
The idea is easier to understand when we realize what the Bible says about God. God is holy, or separate from sin. God is also just, that is, He is the perfect judge who must punish the sins of His creatures. The Old Testament reads, “... yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” God also loves: “God is love.” And since He loves us, He does not want to punish us.
In human terms, this leaves God with a “problem.” On the one hand, He loves us and does not want to punish us. One the other hand, He is just and must punish sin. God solved this “problem” in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is, in a manner of speaking, God who came to earth as a man. As a man, the perfect Christ was able to be perfectly moral. He always did what was right from perfectly good motives.
He also was able to take our sins upon Himself. He took credit for the things we have done wrong. He suffered a death He did not deserve as a substitute for us. He suffered the wrath of God for our sins. As Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each to his own way, but God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all … it pleased the Lord to bruise him, and he has put him to grief.” As Paul wrote, “For [God] made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
God has made it possible for Christ to take credit for our sins and suffer infinitely in His soul for them. God has made it possible for us to take credit for the perfect life morality requires. We do this by faith.
Faith does not just understand the facts of the law’s moral requirements and the gospel of God’s grace to us. It does not just believe that these facts are true. It is a confident trust that what Christ did He did for us. It is a resting in Him as the foundation of our morality. It trusts what He said about how to live our lives and what He said about having eternal life.
This is what the Bible means when it says, “Believe on [not just in, but “on”] the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” It is what Christians mean when they say that they accept the free gift of eternal life from Christ.
Why then do we do good works? If eternal life is a free gift, why should we strive to be moral? One answer for this is that we are grateful for the gift we have received. The Heidelberg Catechism has three main parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude. That is the general pattern of a Christian’s life.
There are other pure motives such as doing good because it is good in and of itself, doing good out of love for God, and even doing good out of what is in it for us. The last one does sound counter-intuitive.
God made us to live a moral life, and we should not be surprised that moral living gives us joy. This joy is at a profound level that can even motivate us to give our lives over to suffering and death on Christ’s behalf. The idea is not that our happiness is the greatest good; it is that God’s glory is what we are made for. Living for His glory gives us joy. (See this article)
But do not miss the main point mentioned above: the gospel frees us from having to search our motives, which are often impure, and live for the God who made us. We do not have to agonize over our motives because Christ died for impure motives as well as impure thoughts, words, and deeds.
Christians sometimes do things out of pure motives. They sometimes do not. They even sometimes doubt the faith. But they can rest all of their hope on Christ and what He has done on their behalf.
(The basic outline of this post is from Evangelism Explosion. The discussion on White Horse Inn and the writings of R. C. Sproul have clarified my thinking.)