After Jesus had fed the 5000 the crowds that followed Him understandably grew exponentially. He knew they just wanted Him to give them more bread. He warned them not to be so preoccupied with working for food that spoils but to work for food that endures to eternal life.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
There you have it, Mankind’s one rule. Believe in the One He has sent. It’s our equivalent to “Don’t eat from that tree.” It’s the only thing that God requires. If we disobey, nothing else matters. Those who deny Jesus go to eternal punishment according to Matt. 25:46 while the righteous go to eternal life. Isaiah 66:24, Daniel 12:2 & Mark 9:48 all agree.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I know we’re called to live lives that reflect our beliefs and are even promised additional rewards for doing so, and I’d be the last one to advise someone to profess their faith and then forget about it. But the simple fact is that faith is the only work that God requires and none of the other things we can do count for anything until we’ve taken that one required step. We’re saved because of what we believe, not because of how we behave. Nowhere in all of Scripture is there even a hint that an unbeliever’s destiny can be altered in the slightest by the “goodness” of his or her life. In fact, it would appear that where He’s concerned the Lord equates unbelief with disobedience. His existence is simply too obvious to be missed. If so, then unbelievers have disobeyed the one rule He gave us, and in response He’ll do exactly what He said.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
It bruises our egos to learn this, but none of our good works help God at all, just as none of our sins hurt Him. (Job 35:6-8) God only considers the works of believers good to the extent that they’re done out of gratitude, in an effort to please Him, because of what He’s done for us. (1 Cor. 4:5) It’s like when your 3 year old proudly hands you a barely recognizable drawing. It has no intrinsic value to you. But you know your child was trying hard to please you, and it’s the thought that counts.
Unbelievers aren’t trying to please God with their good works, they deny that He even exists. They’re only trying to make themselves feel better. If their good works don’t help God and are motivated by selfishness, where is the justification for considering them when determining their punishment for rejecting Him? This idea makes no more sense than the one allowing rich entertainers and politicians to purchase “carbon credits” to offset their huge carbon footprints. The checks they write don’t nullify the effects of their extravagant lifestyle, they’re just trying to make themselves feel better.
And so I think it’s just possible that when unbelievers are judged “according to their works”, only the work that God requires will be at issue. Have they done the one thing that He asked them to do, and that’s to believe in the One He has sent? Remember, in the absence of that one thing, there is nothing that man can do to be considered good according to God’s standards. Rev. 20:15 agrees. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire. You can only be written in the Book of Life by being 100% righteous. And you can only become that way by having the Lord’s righteousness imputed to you by faith (Romans 3:10 & 4:5). In other words, to believe in the One He has sent.