The question of whether we get in to heaven based on what we do (works) or what we think (belief) is as old as the bible itself, and passages like today’s only help to muddy those waters.
in John 5:28ff, Jesus talks about the resurrection, and He says, “…a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” This small sentence is filled with assumptions that rock the typical evangelical worldview. First, the entire view of resurrection throws our “getting in to heaven” idea for a loop. Notice the dead are not raised to heaven or hell, but to life or condemnation. Unless “life” is a code word for heaven, which it is not anywhere else in scripture (though “eternal life” is assumed to be), our resurrection doesn’t take us to heaven but to a renewed, perfected, sanctified life here on earth.
Second, the idea that our entrance into heaven is based solely on our belief in Jesus Christ gets rocked here as well. Jesus doesn’t define Good and Bad people based on what they believe but on what they have done. “Those who have done what is good” is hard to misinterpret, and even harder to interpret as just a relationship. So, do we get in to heaven because of what we’ve done or because of Who we know?
I believe the problem with this thought is not about how we get into heaven, but about our preoccupation with our own eternity. If we are only doing good, only avoiding doing evil, or building a relationship with Jesus solely because we want to get in to heaven, then we are doing these things for the wrong reason. I’ve asked before whether you would follow Jesus is you could be convinced that He taught that life ends at death. In other words, would you still follow Jesus if you weren’t promised a great reward (heaven) if you did? Here is where bearing your cross becomes difficult. Here is where self-sacrifice for Jesus’ sake becomes costly. Here is where the rubber hits the road.
Yes, we have been promised eternal life with Jesus if we follow Him. Yes, our following of Jesus is what determines if we live with Him forever or not. But is our faith ultimately self-serving (“I’ll do whatever it takes to get in to heaven”) or God-serving?