Most unredeemed sinners have nagging concerns about the afterlife. You see the evidence clearly when you ask unbelievers directly what would happen to them if they died. The most common responses all point to a subjective notion of relative goodness. I’m basically good; I certainly try to do more good than bad.
While the unbelieving world might find fleeting comfort in an imagined sliding scale of cosmic justice, those hopes hinge on an obvious lie. It’s tragic that so many unregenerate sinners have convinced themselves that the good will outweigh the bad in God’s (or “the universe’s”) final verdict on their lives.
Worse still, modern evangelicalism does little to quell such thinking. In fact, in many cases it actually encourages it!
The Gospel of Goodness
Larry King’s 2005 interview with Joel Osteen lives on in infamy. Many of us remember it for Osteen’s repeated use of the phrase “I don’t know” in response to many of King’s theological softballs. But there was one brief moment in the conversation that revealed Osteen had a problem far worse than his ignorance.
Larry King: You don’t call them sinners?
Joel Osteen: I don’t.
Larry King: Is that a word you don’t use?
Joel Osteen: I don’t use it. I never thought about it. But I probably don’t. But most people already know what they’re doing wrong (emphasis added).
Osteen—like most peddlers of cheap grace—does not see any value in talking about sin because he believes sinners “already know what they’re doing wrong.”
There’s no shortage of modern pulpits that spew forth similar sentiments every Sunday. That’s why they usually offer little more than a drive-by discussion that infers sinners are already familiar with the subject.
Rick Warren’s best-seller The Purpose Driven Life is a great case in point. Warren discusses sin and forgiveness in the broadest and briefest possible terms. “Believe that no matter what you’ve done, God wants to forgive you. . . . Receive His forgiveness for your sins”  Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 58. There is no attempt made to explain what sin is or why it is a problem.
It would seem that the status quo of modern evangelicalism is that sin isn’t really that big a deal. Little wonder then that many professing believers stake their eternities on the hope that they can do enough good to assuage God. In their eyes, the Day of Judgment involves a set of scales on which the Lord weighs our good deeds against our sins. But those professing believers have simply bought into a false gospel of self-righteousness, hoping that a lifetime of relative good can balance out their total depravity.
That view of God’s justice is fatally flawed for two glaring reasons. First, it fails to recognize that we have no good deeds to place on the scales. That’s why true salvation requires the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). We need an alien righteousness because, as Scripture teaches, “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” in God’s eyes (Isaiah 64:6). Even the efforts of unbelievers that may seem in conformity to God’s commandments are ultimately sinful because they are not done for the ultimate purpose of glorifying God (1 Corinthians 10:31). As Romans 14:23 tells us: “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” That means the good works sinful men hope to stack up against their sin are actually just more sin. Attempts at self-righteousness always lead to more sin.
God Is a Perfect Judge
The second fatal flaw in trying to outweigh our sins with good works is that justice does not work that way. There are no mitigating circumstances and no meritorious good works that can cancel out the crime already committed. The judge may commend someone for the good they’ve done, but he still has to pass sentence on every violation of the law. And he’s a sinful human judge! How much more serious when we stand to give account before the sovereign Judge of the universe—the One who keeps a perfect record of every sin we’ve ever committed?
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened . . . and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. (Revelation 20:11–15)
God sees everything done in secret (Luke 8:17), hears every word we utter (Matthew 12:36), and knows every thought we conceal (Matthew 5:27–28). God’s commitment to His perfect justice is never negotiable—“He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:7).
There is nowhere to hide from divine justice. It will always be meted out. The real dilemma facing all men is not whether they will “accept Christ,” but rather how can Christ possibly accept them. The resolution required, as John MacArthur points out, concerns how a holy God can accept sinful men without violating His justice.
Paul gives us the glorious answer in 2 Corinthians 5:21—just fifteen Greek words that sum up the entire gospel and encapsulate God’s ministry of reconciliation. Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” That is the doctrine of substitution, and that’s how God can be both our just Judge and merciful justifier.  John MacArthur, Good News (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2018), 92.
John goes on to explain the staggering divine transaction that took place on the cross.
So what is Paul saying when he tells us Christ “became sin on our behalf”? It means God treated Him as if He were a sinner. More than that, actually—God poured out on Him the full fury of His wrath against all the sins of all the people who would ever believe as if He had committed them. As a righteous Judge, He had no other choice. The just God of the universe had to punish sin justly—He had to pour out the full penalty on His Son to give forgiveness to His elect people. And His justice demands that every sin that has ever been committed, by every person who has ever lived, will be punished—either in the eternal torment of hell, or on Christ at the cross.
It’s a humbling and profound thought that God treated Jesus on the cross as if He lived my life, and punished Him for every sin I have ever or will ever commit, to the full satisfaction of His justice. And for all who were included in the atonement provided by the sacrifice of the Son called to be reconciled to God, by His glorious grace and mercy, the same is true.  MacArthur, Good News, 93–94.
God’s commitment to His justice is inviolable. We can’t make our sins go away. We can’t pretend they don’t exist. And we can’t delude ourselves into believing that they can be hidden beneath a pile of good compensatory works. They must be confessed by ourselves, and dealt with by God—through Christ’s penal substitutionary death.
That’s why the staggeringly drastic measures of Calvary were necessary. God made a way—when there was no humanly conceivable way—to vindicate His perfect justice while extending mercy to sinners like you and me.
Yet Christ’s punishment in our place, as glorious and unfathomable as that is, still leaves another half of the 2 Corinthians 5:21 equation to be grasped. John continues:
There’s more. Paul saves arguably the best news for last. Verse 21 concludes, “so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Not only has God imputed our sins to Christ, He has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us. God treated Jesus as a sinner, thought He was not, so that He could treat us as if we were righteous, though we are not. In the most personal terms, God treated Christ on the cross as if He had lived my life, so He could treat me as if I had lived His life. That’s the beautiful glory of the gospel. God sees us covered with the righteousness of His Son.  MacArthur, Good News, 95–96.
Be thankful there will be no scales weighing our good works versus our bad works on the Day of Judgment—God has mercifully spared us from the humiliation of what that would reveal. Be even more thankful for the alien righteousness God has provided, through His Son, to all who place their trust in Him. “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).