Can we earn heaven?

I was recently asked this question: “What Jesus says in Matthew 7:21 unsettles me because it indicates that you can only get into heaven if you do God’s will. I thought we couldn’t earn heaven so this seems a bit confusing to me. I’m also very aware of my many faults and sins! Can you explain?”

Let me tell you what Jesus says in Matthew 7:21 so we’re all on the same page: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

In short, the person is correct when they say you can’t earn heaven. Having eternal peace and forgiveness with God is his gift to you. But you receive it through faith in Christ. This is summarized in Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” 

Let’s be clear. You are not made eternally right with God—“saved”—by being really, really nice. You are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ.

So what, then, was Jesus talking about? 

He is warning against false disciples. These are people who say they believe in and follow him, but who don’t. In verse 23 he says he “never knew” them. He’s warning against people who follow him in name only. These are the pretenders, the spiritual actors.

In contrast, when someone’s faith in Christ is genuine, God’s Spirit will live within them and start to work through them. God gives us at least one spiritual gift and starts to grow our character with the fruit listed in Galatians 5:22-23. 

That’s what is meant by doing God’s will. This is also emphasized by Jesus’ half-brother in James 2:26: “faith without deeds is dead.”

We are made right with God—and receive the blessings of knowing him and enjoying life forever with him—by his grace toward us and through faith in Christ.

If that faith is genuine we will start to live differently. We’ll still sin and make mistakes, but our lives will experience spiritual growth. In the context of Matthew 7, this is what is meant by doing God’s will. 

We live this way not to earn anything, but because we are thankful for what God has done for us, and because we want to be the faithful hands and feet of the one who has invited us to bless others and to get in on the ways he is bringing heaven to earth.

Truly trust God. Follow Jesus. Serve others. And be at peace. Forever.


NEW podcast. Today’s devotional is a condensed version of the answer I gave to the above question at a quarterly Q & A Forum. You can listen to or watch the full response here.

–Bible quotes are from the NIV.

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