You know the right thing to do, but you don’t do it. You could do good to your fellow man, but you hold back. You know what would benefit others, but you don’t do it because you think it is not in your interest to do so. This is what your Creator calls sin. There’s a lot more to it than whether you do bad things that you know are wrong. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”1
So to whom does this apply? Well, everybody knows what is right and what is wrong. Everybody will have to answer for how he lived his life. Man has no excuse.2 He was created to do good, and he knows the good to do as well as the evil not to do. Every culture knows the “golden rule” in some form — do to others as you would want them to do to you. But how quickly our thoughts race to defend ourselves when we are confronted with this universal standard. How easily we become consumed with self-justification.
Sin is self-centeredness. Every evil thing stems from this root. No one escapes the taint of self-concern, and many are concerned with nothing else. “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”3 Most fall a lot further. Even after the first human beings had fallen, their Creator said, “Man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”4 Even in his fallen state, man is still like God. He still knows what is good, even though he does not do it. And why doesn’t he do it? Self-regard makes it hard.
Fallen man cannot rise above his self-centered condition. Self-concern is so deep in mankind that it has become the foundation of the world’s economy. It drives the people of all nations to anxiously seek after their own food and clothing.5 It is so deeply rooted in man that he can hardly imagine anything greater than working to provide for himself and his family.
The Creator understands that men bear the responsibility of providing for their families, and will take it into account when He judges the world. If a person makes an effort to do the good he knows (remaining faithful to wife or husband, caring for children, treating others with fairness, etc.) and avoids doing evil, he will be granted a second life. After he has suffered in death to pay for his sins, he will be given the gift of a second (eternal, unending) life, because “the wages of the righteous is life.”6 The righteous will not suffer like the wicked, for God is just.7 This gift of eternal life will be based on the fact that the person struggled against sin and did not do the sins that are worthy of a second (eternal) death, such as are listed in Revelation 21:8:
But for the cowardly and untrustworthy and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
Some readers will be quick to reject this idea of eternal life being granted based on deeds, since it does not agree with the theological traditions of men such as Augustine and Calvin. These famous Christian thinkers painted a picture of humanity as so corrupted by sin that all men were born worthy of the second death, doomed to eternity in the lake of fire and brimstone, and that the only thing one could do to avoid this fate was to become a Christian. Their views have enjoyed wide acceptance for centuries because the fear of eternal torment persuades many people to become Christians, and the belief that the whole world, without exception, is headed for this horrible fate stimulates missionary zeal. The only trouble with their views is that they do not line up with the witness of the Bible in a number of very basic areas. For example:
“Man is destined (or appointed) to die once, and after that to face judgment.”8 The clear message of the Scriptures is that human beings, because of their self-centered condition, must die.9 And then there will be a judgment to determine whether they can have a second life or must face a second death.10 Notice that it does not say, “Man is destined to die twice, and therefore there is no need for a judgment.” So man is not automatically headed for eternal wrath (the second death), just because he was born in sin. Yes, all human beings are selfish to some degree, but not all are so selfish that they ruin the lives of others. All men alike have sinned, but not all men have sinned alike. Not all have done the detestable deeds mentioned in Revelation 21:8, which deserve a second death. Clearly God does not regard all sin the same, deserving of equal penalties. The one who covets his neighbor’s donkey does not merit the same eternal fate as one who commits premeditated murder.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a question asked of the Son of God four times in the New Testament.11 Each time His answer is the same: “Obey the commandments.” If a person’s deeds didn’t matter and the only way to have eternal life was to “say the sinner’s prayer” then surely He would have told these people so, for He came to save the world! And He wasn’t just being sarcastic, either, saying that people had to obey every jot and tittle of the Law without ever slipping once (which of course they couldn’t do) and that really they were all damned. If He had meant that, then when the young man responded, “Teacher, all these commands I have kept since I was a boy,” He would have told Him, “No, you didn’t.”
Christian theology puts heavy emphasis on the fact that God reckons some people as righteous apart from any deeds they have done. This Righteousness “apart from works of the law” is based solely on faith (or trust) in God. But some stretch the concept to say that this is the only way He regards a person as righteous (acceptable to Him). Over and over, however, He accepts people on the basis of their deeds:
[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life ... glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 2:6,7,10)
...in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him. (Acts 10:35)
But if a man is righteous, and practices justice and righteousness ... if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully — he is righteous and will surely live... (Ezekiel 18:5,9)
If you do well, surely you will be accepted. And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it. (Genesis 4:7)
One of the chief examples of righteousness in the Bible is Job. He was not a member of the nation of Israel, or justified by faith along with Abraham. He certainly knew nothing of the Son of God and His atoning sacrifice. He is simply described as:
...a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil. (Job 1:1)
Job is a good example of the kind of man who will be granted the gift of eternal life after paying for his sins in death. He was not sinless, but he feared God and turned away from evil (the kind of sins that take a person to eternal death). There are many, many people who, like Job, will be judged on what they did and didn’t do, for the vast majority of people lived their whole lives never even hearing of the Son of God or his atoning sacrifice.
The Creator of all things will judge the nations with equity.12 He will take into account every intention and every thought. He understands the self-seeking condition that we all were born with. “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.”13 He understands why men anxiously seek for their own food and clothing, even the righteous men of the nations. But He longs to deliver every human being from the sin (the self-concern) that takes people to death (even the first death). This is the bold and uncompromising call that Our Master Yahshua, the Son of God, utters:
If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. (Luke 9:23)
He came to establish a Holy Nation who do not seek first for their own food and clothing (like even the righteous people of the nations) but who seek first for His kingdom. His commandments teach His people how to be free from self-concern.
A divine appointment with death (the first death) and a judgment to follow is still the destiny of all men outside of the commonwealth of Israel, where His kingdom and His justice are the first priority.14 But His desire is no one would see the death that comes from a self-centered life. This is his promise:
Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death. (John 8:51)