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Bible Study

You don’t get to heaven by being good! - by Dave Sweetman.

Does my title shock you?

People will often say you get to heaven by being good. Or, they may say I’m going to heaven because: 

  • I’m basically a good person even if I’ve made the odd mistake 
  • I’ve always tried to treat others the way I would like to be treated 
  • I’ve not done the really bad things like murder or rape or breaking into a home to steal 
  • I’ve been fairly honest with my business expenses and the taxman
  • On balance I’ve done more good things than bad
  • I’ve lived a lot better life than some other people I can think of
  • I go to church regularly, been confirmed or baptised
  • I live in a Christian Country


If you think any of the above are good reasons for going to heaven, beware!

Would you like to read the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the Taxman in Luke 18:9-14?

Did you notice who Jesus told the story to?

Yes, people who were confident they were good enough for heaven and looked down on everyone else. The story that Jesus told is about two men who went to church to pray. It’s called a parable, a story about ordinary people or ordinary things which has a spiritual message.

Did you notice how different these two men were from each other?

The crowd who were listening to Jesus would have thought the Pharisee was the hero and the Taxman the baddie.

The Pharisee was a religious leader who was honoured by society. He lived his life trying to do everything by the book, everything that was set out in the Bible. Society treated him with great respect. He would fast twice a week and give a tenth of all his income to the church. He even tithed his mint and dill and cumin that grew in his garden. He made sure people saw him in prayer, he stood on the street corners and uttered his prayers out loud so everyone could see how pious he was. He considered himself to be a cut above the rest. He felt he was a certainty for a ticket to heaven.

The tax collectors were hated by everyone because they collected taxes for the Romans, the enemy. They were also hated because they charged more than they should to put in their own pockets. They were called sinners. No-one thought they should go to heaven. No-one who wanted to go to heaven would have anything to do with sinners like him. Both of these men went to the temple to pray. Jesus tells us what he thought of their prayers.

Who does he say the Pharisee prayed about in verse 11? Do you think people like him got up Jesus’ nose? He certainly gets up mine!

What is the Taxman’s attitude to God?

How different was the tax collector? He stood at a distance. He didn’t think he was worthy to be in God’s house and he certainly didn’t dare to look up to heaven. He beat his breast, a sign of mourning, and simply said “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. He knew he had done things wrong, and he was honest about it. He also knew that there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t reverse the past and turn all those bad things into good things. He was guilty as charged. The only thing he could do was throw himself on God’s mercy.

What is Jesus’ conclusion in verse 14?

The Tax Collector, the person everyone looked down on as a sinner went home justified before God. The Pharisee wasn’t. The sinner found forgiveness. The Pharisee didn’t.

Who are you most like in the story? What does this story teach us about how you and I should approach God? How can it be that Jesus declares the Taxman finds forgiveness?

The Bible teaches us that no-one deserves or can earn a place in heaven. We can’t, indeed we mustn’t take heaven for granted. The Bible tells us we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, who fail to live up to what God created us to be. We fail to live up to our own standards, let alone God’s standard of perfection. We are all like this tax collector. Before the judge of all men, before the King of Kings we stand condemned. Guilty. All we can do is throw ourselves at God’s mercy.

So what’s the good news?

The wonderful news is that the Tax Collector went home forgiven. He found mercy. In his mercy, God has created an escape from his judgement. We read in John’s gospel (John 3:16) “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him need not perish but have eternal life.” 

God loves you, and in his great mercy Jesus, the Son of God, took the punishment for your sins in your place. God judged them on the cross and, since they have been judged once, they can’t be judged again.

Don’t let us be like the Pharisee and act as if we are OK without needing God’s mercy. If God has done so much for us in giving up his own son to an awful death on a cross, so that we can be forgiven, how dare we say, “Oh, I’m alright without the gospel, I don’t need God’s mercy, he’ll accept me as I am.” _The only way to heaven is through Jesus’ _goodness, not ours. We must put our trust entirely in him and what he did for us at the first Easter. The Bible calls this God’s grace, God’s unmerited favour.

While you have your Bible open, look up Ephesians 2 v 8 and 9. It expresses God’s grace like this. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.” _So, you don’t get to heaven by good works.

Does this mean that it is not important to go about doing good? Can we just live a selfish life, because God has saved us anyway?

Let’s read the next verse in Ephesians chapter 2 i.e. verse 10, which says; “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We don’t get to heaven by doing good, but when we come into God’s kingdom, we have the enormous privilege of doing good works for the King. This is our chance to respond to God’s love and grace.

God declares we are his workmanship. The result of the work of Jesus on the cross. And God doesn’t make junk! We have been created to do good works.

Who does Ephesians 4: 24 say we have been created to be like?

What a turn round comes about when we find God’s mercy.

The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 describes what God the Father does for those who ask him for mercy. The Father welcomes the returning son and gives him the best robe, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet and organises a feast for him. That’s the way you are treated if you put your faith in God’s mercy.

Good works are things the King of Glory gives us to do when we become a Christian. But before we can do them, we must humble ourselves and admit that we are sinners in need of mercy.

Thank you to Dave Sweetman for this thought provoking Bible Study.

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