Why Do ‘Good’ People Need to Believe in God for Salvation? (Tough Questions Teenagers Ask)

As we present the need for salvation in Jesus to teenagers in our youth ministries, students will often testify that they know many atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, who are some of the nicest and most morally ethical people they know. The question then arises, if these friends do not believe in Jesus but are still morally good people, why is belief in Jesus necessary to go to heaven? If people are already loving, good, and righteous, then why do they need Jesus? What do they need to be saved from?

These questions make a few assumptions and misinterpretations about the nature of goodness and salvation. We must help teenagers unpack these underlying assumptions in order to address their broader question.

Why Do You Call Me Good? 

The first reason “good” people need to believe in God is because in God’s eyes, no one is truly good. In Mark 10:18, Jesus responds to the rich young ruler with a provocative statement. After the young man addresses Jesus as the “good teacher” and asks him how to inherit eternal life, Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” 

Contrary to some Muslims and skeptics who use this verse as an example of Jesus denying his deity, he was doing nothing of the sort. Rather, he was making a theological statement about the standard of goodness: Only God is good. This means that God is the perfect standard of goodness because goodness is part of his nature and flows from his very being. Therefore, anything less than God’s perfect nature is by definition, not good and is evil.

No matter how morally and ethically a person may live, according to the definition of goodness (God’s holy character and nature), he or she is not “good” in God’s eyes. God is the ultimate judge who determines moral goodness, not human beings. In God’s eyes, we all fall short of his perfection and glory, no matter how many good deeds each of us performs. 

Salvation Is By Grace Through Faith, Not By Works

The second reason “good” people need to believe in God is because our works do not save us. We receive salvation by grace through faith. Throughout the biblical narrative, salvation occurs by God’s imparting grace to undeserving sinners, and we receive this grace through faith in God and his promises (Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4). Human performance cannot earn us forgiveness; we need a perfect substitutionary sacrifice who dies in our place (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul and the other apostles declare that salvation does not come by any works that we can do but as a gift of God’s grace, received through faith in Jesus (John 6:29; Rom. 3:21-30; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-10; Heb. 11; 1 Pet. 1:3-7). 

What’s more, due to the infectious and depraved nature of sin, even our good deeds are tainted with evil (Is. 64:6). Apart from faith in Christ, it is impossible to obey or please God (Rom. 8:7-8; Heb. 11:6). Therefore, even if a person performs good deeds such as feeding the poor, adopting an orphan, or being kind and compassionate to others, none of these things can save him or her. It is only by receiving the righteousness of Jesus Christ through repentance and faith in him that we receive salvation and that God declares “good” in his eyes.

Christianity is Not About Being a Good Person (Per Se) But About Following Jesus

The last reason “good” people need to believe in God is because Christianity is not solely about being a good person, but about following Jesus. Oftentimes, skeptical students who raise this question argue that all religions, including Christianity, are generally the same because they teach us to be good people. More than believing the basic tenants of Christianity, our students frequently believe something more along the lines of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—that God simply wants us to be good people and to be happy.

To be sure, the Christian life should be characterized by doing good to others. Christians are created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10; Jas. 2:12-25). Still, good deeds accomplished by human merit are not what defines a Christian. Instead, the Bible teaches that a Christian is a person who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord for salvation, which is a gift of God’s grace.

Based on God’s loving acceptance in Christ, Christians seek to obey his commands, follow Jesus’ example, and call others to follow him as well. It is Christ who transforms our hearts and gives us the ability by his Spirit to do good works and to love and serve others. As Paul says about our sanctification in Philippians 2:12-13, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

We cannot earn forgiveness and eternal life through our actions. Instead, Jesus teaches that he alone is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one (not even a “good” person) comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6).

Lean into Students’ Questions

So, does the “good” person need a savior? Absolutely, because as Jesus said, “No one is good, but God alone. ” The only way any of us can be good in God’s eyes is by receiving Jesus’ perfect goodness through repentance and faith in him. 

Questions like this one challenge us as pastors and ministry leaders who are seeking to raise up disciples in Gen Z and Alpha. But please don’t shy away or push away these questions! Instead, take heart that your students are contemplating deep ethical questions of what it means to live out the gospel in the real world with conflicting faith systems and ideologies.

And know this: you may not know all the answers, but you serve a God who does (Is. 46:10). In times of questioning, doubts, and inadequacies, run to the throne of grace where you will find mercy and grace to help you in your time of need from our faithful and merciful High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16).

If you’re looking for more gospel-centered resources and friendships for youth ministry, join us at Rooted’s annual conference October 24-26, 2024.

Andrew Slay

Andrew serves as the Pastor of Students and Families at Westwood Baptist Church in Cleveland, TN. He is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, with a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Apologetics and Culture from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, Andrew earned his bachelor’s degree in RTVF and a master’s degree in Exercise Science from Auburn University. Andrew is passionate about discipleship, biblical fellowship, evangelism, and world missions. He seeks to spur the body of Christ on to walk in obedience to Jesus by fulfilling Great Commission. He and his wife, Ashley, have two daughters, Graysen Elyse and Emersyn Leigh.

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