One of the basic doctrines of Scripture is that the entire human race is shut up under sin. The only way out is through the gospel, through the redemption that was accomplished fully and completely by the Lord Jesus. This redemption is grasped by faith alone.
The Bible is plain. No one is righteous, not even one. Everyone is in the same boat. At the same time, the Bible also teaches that men and women will be judged according to their works. God makes distinctions among the saved and among the damned.
Our carnal tendency is that we want those distinctions to bridge the gap between the saved and the lost, but they do not do so. The only thing that bridges the gap, the only one who bridges the gap, is the Lord Jesus. When it comes to evaluation of how we have lived our lives, there are two bell curves, and neither one stretches across the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man.
“And shall not he render to every man according to his works?” (Prov. 24:12).
“For the Son of man shall come . . . and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Matt. 16:27).
“Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:15).
Believers are not exempted from this, not at all.
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
So the way we live here on this earth does matter. It matters in the light of eternity, and matters in eternity. But our relative performance on a bell curve does not matter at all in the distinction between saved and lost. There will be murderers in Heaven and Sunday School superintendents in Hell.
The first cut distinguishes between those who have faith in Jesus, and those who do not—regardless of any performance whatever, entirely independent of works. The second cut, once the basic destination is settled, will be in line with how our lives are lived. Some will hear varying levels of “well done, good and faithful servant,” and others will hear varying levels of “depart from me, you workers of iniquity.”
As we meditate on these things, we must always therefore begin with faith.