Why “Good” Doesn’t Mean “Saved”

My children loved Veggie Tales. As parents, it was nice having a show for them to watch that we trusted, and they enjoyed. A few years ago, however, I was surprised to read Phil Vischer, the show’s creator, publicly criticizing his own wildly popular program. He said, “Wait a minute, did I just spend ten years persuading kids to behave Christianly without teaching them Christianity?” Vischer was noting the distinction between moral principles and saving faith and had concluded that his show focused on the former while ignoring the latter.

I like morality. If you give me a choice between a moral neighbor and an immoral neighbor, I’m going to choose the moral neighbor every single time. I’ve taught middle and high school students for five years. I’d much rather have a class full of moral students. Trust me, it makes life easier on everyone. But here’s something that may surprise you: morality doesn’t save.

In Acts 10, we meet a man named Cornelius. He’s a high-ranking Roman military officer and is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (v. 2). He’s a surprising figure—a Gentile who worshipped Israel’s God. Cornelius was the kind of dude you hoped would pick your kid to be on his Little League team. You would be happy if your kids hung out with his kids. You’d be thrilled if Cornelius lived next door.

But Cornelius wasn’t saved. In fact, that’s what Acts 10 is all about. While he was clearly seeking God based on the knowledge available to him, he still lacked salvation. Acts 10 documents the story of God sending Peter to tell Cornelius and his household about Christ. Peter preached the gospel—explaining how Christ came to die and be raised for his forgiveness—and Cornelius responded in faith. By the end of the chapter, Cornelius is a baptized, Spirit-filled follower of Christ. Cornelius was not forgiven until he believed the message Peter delivered. His morality was useless to save him.

This message about the uselessness of morality to save is one we struggle to grasp. But here’s the key truth that may help us understand it: the righteousness that God demands is always more than any sinful human being can achieve. We’re used to comparing ourselves to other people and gaining assurance that we’re not as bad as those folks. But the Bible calls us to a higher standard. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We were created to image God. The standard has never been the person standing next to us; it’s always been God.

I meet moral people all the time who are not Christians. Some of those folks are so moral that I feel insecure about my own character in comparison. But here’s the lesson Jesus keeps driving home: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). We need Jesus because Jesus is the only one who has ever met the standard of God’s righteousness. We need Jesus because Jesus is the only one who made atonement for all the times we failed to be righteous enough. Salvation never came by morality. Salvation comes through Christ alone.

A lot of us operate with what I call “funeral theology.” Whenever someone dies, we begin searching for something good to say. No one likes to entertain the possibility that the person we love who just passed away might not be where we want them to be. So, we take comfort in all the good things they’ve done. And to be honest, for most people, we can find some nice things to say. Bob sure loved his grandkids. Susan had the kindest heart. Terry worked hard for one company for fifty years!

God offers us a surer hope. You don’t have to leave people guessing at your funeral. If you have Christ, you have salvation. You have his righteousness, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection hope. Don’t trust morality. Trust Christ.

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