A superficial reading of scattered bits from the Bible, or, worse, carefully selected passages taken out of context, could lead to the erroneous idea that all God wants is good behaviour. This contributes to two common misunderstandings: the wrong idea that all “good people” go to heaven, and the equally wrong idea that we can do good things to earn God’s approval. To have an accurate idea of what God wants requires a pretty comprehensive understanding of the whole Bible, and specific passages always interpreted in the context of the whole teaching of the whole Bible.
Immediately after the Bible’s creation narrative, including the special creation in the image of God and placement in Eden of the first humans, we find the account of the fall, the choice of those first humans to disobey God, rebel against Him, seek equality with Him, stop trusting Him to provide the very best for them. In so doing, they brought sin and death to all humanity, and destroyed their special loving relationship to God. Even as God spelled out the consequences of their choice, death, He indicated His plan for a future solution to their problem.
The rest of the Old Testament tells how God chose and developed a special people with a special relationship to Him governed by a special set of commands, laws, and religious rituals known as God’s law. On the one hand, God’s law defined the total life of worship and the resulting special culture that God required from His special people. On the other hand, God’s law set out the standards for daily living and cleanliness that would provide the healthiest and best quality of life for any and all people who followed His laws. Throughout the Old Testament, there is a repeated cycle of God’s special people, the Israelites, falling away from obeying His laws by adopting the pagan worship of idols from the surrounding cultures, reaping the consequences, and returning in repentance to God’s ways. Included are the honest accounts of many people showing their place in God’s plan, their greatness, their holiness, their sins, and their repentance. God’s miraculous powers are displayed in big and smaller ways. As time passed, God gave more and more information about His coming solution to the problem of sin.
The New Testament opens with the arrival of God’s solution to human sin and estrangement from God. Jesus, God the Son incarnate, is born, as prophesied, in Bethlehem. His birth, life, death, and resurrection fulfil the prophesies of the Messiah coming as a suffering servant. Jesus, living a perfect and sinless life as the human image of Himself, shows us how God thinks human lives should be lived. By dying on the cross, Jesus, the sinless Son of God and Son of Man, took upon Himself the death for sin of all humanity, sacrificing Himself for you and for me. He rose again, assuring us that we, too, may rise again to eternal life in Heaven with Him if we repent of our wrong bent and sinful ways, turning to Him in obedience and faith and love, accepting His death in our place, and being consequently indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This process of salvation, regeneration, is a free gift from God by His grace. There is nothing we can do to earn it, nothing we can do to gain God’s approval or make ourselves more acceptable to Him. Good works are meaningless before we accept Jesus and all that He did for us through His death.
There are wonderful consequences when we accept Jesus and are reborn spiritually in Him. We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, receiving His wisdom and strength to live like Jesus, to be re-created in the image of God as He intended us to be. We are adopted as children of God into God’s family and as joint heirs with Jesus Christ. We live in loving relationship with God and want to live His way and do His will. This is where good works come in. Jesus half-brother, James, joined Jesus’ followers after the resurrection, and wrote, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:14b NIV).
As believers and followers of Jesus, out of our gratitude and love and trust in His good plans for us, we want to live and love in His way. To do this, we need to know God’s law, because God does not change. Jesus said that the greatest commands, the summary of all the commandments, was,”Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength….Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31 NIV) In His years of ministry, He made it clear that obedience to the law begins inside in the heart, in right thoughts and attitudes, as when He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in His heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28 NIV) If we are to live Jesus’ way, we will give ourselves fully to Him, rejecting idolatrous cultural values, changing from the inside out, thinking and doing good.