This is the most common answer I have heard from non-Christians in response to the question, “Why should God allow you into heaven?”
But this answer actually has its root in original sin.
After Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they experienced guilt and attempted to hide from Him. They also experienced shame, and so they attempted to cover themselves through their own effort. Once Adam and Eve became corrupt, they couldn’t produce anything better than themselves, i.e., all they could produce was corruption. Each one of us is born into this world as a little fallen Adam and Eve. And like Adam and Eve, fallen humankind today attempts to hide and cover from God. But rather than sew fig leaves together, one of the most prevalent ways we attempt to cover our moral shame and guilt is by appealing to our own moral “goodness.” That is, we point to our “basic human goodness” and “good deeds” in an attempt to justify ourselves before God. Often this even becomes a rationalization as to why we don’t need God, e.g., “Why do I need God? I’m living a good enough life on my own.”
Ironically then, these “good deeds” performed by fallen human beings, when appealed to as evidence of one’s own goodness or as an excuse to ignore the need for God, are a testimony not to moral virtue and meritorious character but rather to a continued state of rebellion against God. It is an attempt to cover one’s own guilt and shame by the power of the flesh, i.e., our own hard work and self-effort, just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. This is moralism, the attempt to fix and perfect oneself in the power of self, and it is antithetical to the gospel of grace.
This is an important point to grasp. What I am saying is that man’s charade of “good deeds” is in reality often self-serving, and therefore not “good” at all! They allow unregenerate men and women to continue to hide and cover from God, suppressing the truth of their need for Him, while at the same time allowing them to point to their works and say, “See, look at all the good things I’ve done. I’m a good person.”
How then should we respond to those who reject the gospel of grace and attempt to hide and cover from God through good works?
First, Everyone Thinks They are “Basically Good”
If there is one thing I have learned while working in jail, it is that most everyone thinks they are “basically good,” murderers, rapists, and child molesters included. Inmates convicted of horrendous crimes still manage to find a way to justify themselves in the sight of God and man:
Sure officer, I made a mistake, who hasn’t? Maybe what I did could even be considered “wrong” (whatever that misused and misunderstood word means). But you know what? I’ve done a lot of good things too. I’m basically a good person.
Often when people say “I’m basically good” what they have in mind is comparing themselves with other people. They might say something like,
Well, I’ve done some bad things, but I’m not like that guy over there. Look at what he does. All in all, I think I’m pretty good.
Even among convicted criminals there is a “code among thieves,” a list of do’s and don’ts, even a moral hierarchicalism by which certain actions are judged more heinous than others and a rationalization of one’s own actions becomes possible. The petty thief points to the drug abuser and says, “I’m basically good.” The drug abuser points to the kidnapper and says, “I’m basically good.” The kidnapper points to the murderer and says, “I’m basically good.” The murderer points to the child molester and says, “I’m basically good.”
But it isn’t criminals alone who are plagued by this mentality. It is the average law-abiding citizen as well. And in my experience, this type of moralism even impacts police officers, often at an even deeper level. In fact, I think moralism in general is more perceptible (and can be a greater danger) among those who work in the criminal justice system due to the simple fact that we are confronted with a corrupt aspect of society every day that others only see on TV. In the face of daily evil it is easy for individuals involved in criminal justice to retreat to the state of mind which says,
Look at that guy over there. Look at his charges. Look at what he’s been convicted of. I’m not like him, that’s for sure. I could never do something like that. I’m basically a good person.
Moralism can be one of the biggest obstacles to the gospel.
The problem with all of these comparisons is that they do not take into account the universal corruption of sin that affects all of humankind. If fallen, unregenerate human beings are your standard of comparison, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that you are “basically good.” All you need to do is find someone a little bit worse off than you! Comparing one depraved human being with another depraved human being will always produce this result. But this type of comparison has the wrong reference point.
Jesus is our correct reference point, and Jesus said quite plainly, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Paul says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and “There is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10). In other words, there is none who are “basically good.” Basically good compared to whom? Certainly not God; and it is God who we will stand before on Judgment Day, not fallen unregenerate man.
Second, Niceness Isn’t Goodness.
Okay, so everyone thinks they’re basically good, and no one lives up to God’s standard of holiness. But there are a lot of nice people. What about them?
In short, niceness is not goodness and being nice is easy much of the time. C.S. Lewis stated, “Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment.” Isn’t this true? It is easy to be nice when there is money in the bank, food on the table, and sunshine on your face. But we often see the true nature of humankind emerge when things aren’t going so well. When the chips are down and times are tough, the “basic goodness” of humankind, more often than not, quickly vanishes.
Furthermore, basic human niceness doesn’t even qualify as goodness. Jesus Himself said,
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full (Luke 6:32-34).
True moral goodness is much closer to the teaching “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) which no fallen human being can do apart from God’s grace. Again, Jesus said quite plainly, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Niceness isn’t goodness, and we need to know the difference.
Third, Goodness Isn’t Even the Issue. Badness Is.
When someone says, “I’m basically a good person, my good deeds outweigh my bad,” they are assuming at least two things. First, they are assuming they have done more good than bad. Considering that we are guilty of numerous sins every day in thought, word, and deed, I don’t think this is true of anyone. Second, they are assuming that doing good works somehow counteracts all the bad things they’ve done. But this mentality completely misunderstands the concepts of law and justice.
To illustrate this, imagine I pull you over for running a red light. In an attempt to avoid a ticket, you explain to me, “Sir, you don’t understand. You see, before I ran that red light, I stopped legally for 100 red lights. And after you let me go here, I am planning on stopping legally for another 100 red lights. You see? My legal stops outweigh my illegal failures to stop. I’m basically a good driver. Therefore, I don’t deserve this ticket.”
Or what about the murderer who appears before a judge and says, “Your honor, I confess. I murdered that man. But you don’t understand. I let hundreds of other people live! You see your honor? My good deeds outweigh my bad. I’m basically a good person! Therefore, you should allow me to go free.”
We intuitively sense there is something wrong with these excuses. So what’s the problem? It’s this:
You cannot make up for breaking the law by keeping the law; keeping the law is what you are supposed to do.
In other words, you don’t get a check in the mail or a get out of jail free card for being a law-abiding citizen. That is the standard you are held to! The issue is not that we keep the law most of the time. The problem is that we break it on occasion! And when we do, we deserve to face the consequences of our actions.
The same goes for God’s law. Goodness is not the issue; badness is. The issue is not that we do what we are supposed to on occasion, the issue is that we have broken God’s law many times over and stand as condemned sinners before Him who deserve to be punished. In other words, we don’t get rewarded for keeping God’s law, keeping God’s law is what we are supposed to do. And justice requires that we be punished for when we don’t.
This, my friends, is why salvation must be by grace, and why any works-oriented salvific system is doomed to failure.
For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
You can’t make up for breaking the law by keeping the law. Keeping the law is what you are supposed to do. And when we appear before God on Judgment Day, the appropriate attitude before the most holy, most perfect, most wise, most just Creator and Savior will not be,
Well, you see God, you don’t understand. Let me tell you how this works. Check it out: my good deeds outweigh my bad. I’m basically a good person.
I imagine God would look at us the same way the judge might look at the murderer who said, “Yeah, but I let hundreds of other people live!” and would appropriately respond, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). Rather our attitude should be one of humility, reverence, and gratitude, one which says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 49 (emphasis his).
 Thanks to Clay Jones for this illustration.
 Thanks to Kevin Lewis and Jim Wallace for these illustrations.
 If anyone actually has the fortitude to attempt this excuse the next time they are pulled over, please let me know how the officer responds!