“God doesn’t require people to keep Old Testament laws,” the man said. “He looks on the heart.”
That’s true—God does not require anyone to keep old covenant laws—but when he looks on the heart, what does he see? Does he see a perfect attitude, a heart that has never sinned? No. When the Bible says that God looks on the heart, it is not giving an easier standard for salvation—it is saying that salvation is a lot harder than the law ever made it out to be.
Jesus illustrated this in the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder…. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…. Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery” (Matthew 5:21-22, 28). In other words, if you think wrong thoughts, you have sinned—you are headed for judgment. If your heart is not totally clean, you’ve got heart trouble, because God looks on the heart.
Do you deserve eternal joy?
Suppose you are brought to the judge on judgment day, and he asks, “Where should I send you—the place for saints, or the place for sinners?” What will you say—“I have a saintly heart”? I don’t think so. As Paul says, “Everyone has sinned and fallen short.” It doesn’t matter whether you look on the outside, or look in the thoughts, or look on the heart—everyone has sinned and has a problem.
We can never plead for salvation on the basis of what we did, or what we are, or what our heart is like. No one ever deserves to go to a perfect place, a place where there is no more crying or tears, because none of us is the sort of person who never does anything wrong. We have all let God down; we have all failed to treat others rightly—in the heart if not also in words and deeds. Our hearts fall short every day.
The good news is that Jesus cleanses our hearts—changes our hearts—gives us new hearts (metaphors for the same thing). Even with our new hearts, we still have wrong thoughts, wrong attitudes. But our new heart is the heart of Jesus, and Jesus’ heart cannot be stained with sin. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Satan may accuse us of sin, but the charge doesn’t stick, because we have been forgiven, and our old self the sinner died with Christ. We are a new creation in Christ. “The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17)!
The gospel, the good news we have in Jesus, is not health and wealth in this age. Faith in Christ is sometimes accompanied by blessings—miraculous healings, financial blessings, better relationships. These blessings, although substantial, are not the good news that Jesus brought, because not every believer gets them. In some cases, faithful Christians experience poverty, sickness and early death because of their faith in Jesus. The time is not yet here when there will be “no more tears” and “no more death.” These sorrows still happen to us, just as they happened to Jesus.
Bad news, good news
Jesus brought both good news and bad news. The good news is that God sets the world right. There will be an eternity of joy and fellowship with God. The bad news is that no amount of doing good will ever qualify us to be part of that world. We’ve got heart trouble.
The good news is that eternal life is a gift. It cannot be earned—it must be given to us, based on what Christ has done for us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension to heaven. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). They don’t earn salvation by showing mercy—they still need mercy. The good news is that it will be given to them.
That is why sinners can enter the kingdom of God ahead of law-abiding religious leaders. Eternal joy is not based on self-made people who rely on themselves for moral strength. Rather, the ones who know their need for mercy are the ones who understand and embrace the mercy of God. If law-abiding, clean-living people recognize their need for Christ, that’s great. But sometimes such people don’t admit their need, because they believe they are doing fairly well on their own. But fairly well is not good enough. When we come to the day of judgment, “I did fairly well” is not a good excuse.
We have no excuse—but we do have a Savior. When we come to judgment, our only valid response will be to trust in the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. Our answer, our hope of salvation, can never rest in ourselves, can never rest in our own hearts. It must always rest in Jesus Christ. Our lives are hidden in him (Colossians 3:3) so that when God looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
It is good that wrongs will be righted, that evil will be eliminated, that an eternity of perfection will come. But that news will do me no good unless I listen to the gospel, the good news that tells me how I can participate in that wonderful world. Jesus has good news for people with heart trouble. He brings us grace, and he gives us everything we need for salvation, so we can live forever with him.
Author: Joseph Tkach