What Makes A Person “Right With God”?


Recently I was having a conversation with a Muslim man I have known for several years. We don’t see each other often but when we do, we have interesting faith discussions. He is very devout.

At one point in our conversation, he shocked me when he said something like:

“I’m the best person I know.”

He went on to say how he faithfully practices sawm (fasting), salat (5 times a day prayer), zakat (alms giving for the poor), and so forth. I didn’t ask but he even told me how much money he gives a year to the poor of his country back in the Middle East!

I asked him why he works so hard this way to be “right with God.” He said with real compulsion and conviction:

“I have to!”

Underneath those words, I could hear him really saying:

“I can’t let up if I want to make it to paradise!”

It seems to me that this man is like a lot of people I have met who call themselves either “Muslims” or “Christians.” Their hope for paradise or heaven is largely based in their minds on what they do or don’t do. Their hope for a good afterlife is based on how well they keep the rules of their faith in this life.

I have noticed over the years – in myself and others – that living in that kind of religious “performance” mentality to become “right with God” creates one of two things. And neither one of them are good!

Here they are:

#1) Discouragement – this is the attitude of resignation. “I will never measure up. I have tried but I just can’t keep all the rules. So. . .why try? I just have to accept the fact that I will be in hell.” This person just goes on living as they please with no real heart repentance to God.

#2) Pride – this is the attitude of self-confidence that “If anyone is going to paradise, it should be me. I faithfully keep the rules of my faith. When I look around, I see that most people are not devout like I am. God will surely have mercy on me after all I have done for Him.” This person bridles their sinful desires as best they can but. . .they too live a life with no real heart repentance to God.

Isa al Masih – wonderful Jesus – told a story about what makes a person right with God. Here it is (from the Injil, the Good News of Luke, chapter 18, verses 9-14):


Jesus told a story to some people who were sure they were right with God. They looked down on everybody else. He said to them,

“Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee (a religious expert and leader). The other was a tax collector (a liar, a cheater). The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people,’ he said. ‘I am not like robbers or those who do other evil things. I am not like those who commit adultery. I am not even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. And I give a tenth of all I get.’


But the tax collector stood not very far away. He would not even look up to heaven. He beat his chest and said, ‘God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.’

I tell you, the tax collector went home accepted by God (right with God). But not the Pharisee. Everyone who lifts himself up will be brought down. And anyone who is brought down will be lifted up.”


What can we learn about being “right with God” from the story of Jesus?

While it is important to do our best to live a holy, pure life as we walk though this world, it is not our outer “religious performance” that most pleases God.

It is a heart broken before Him over our own sinfulness – an inner sorrow that leads to a new, holy life lived out of genuine love for Him.

This was the prayer of Dawud (David) in the Zabur (Psalms), chapter 51, verses 17:

“The way to please you
is to feel sorrow
deep in our hearts
(for our sins).
This. . .you won’t refuse.”

“. . .a humble spirit, O God;
you will not reject a humble and repentant heart.”

I believe this. . .this is the man or woman who is on the way to becoming “right with God.”

14 thoughts on “What Makes A Person “Right With God”?

    • Thanks, my friend!

      It reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a Catholic priest who is a friend and a tremendous man of God. We were having a spirited – but very respectful – conversation about his belief in “purgatory” which I hugely reject as non-Biblical.

      After exchanging our theologies about it, a final thought came to me which I expressed to him: “If purgatory is really true and if I have to go there for any amount of time, I have a great comfort: Jesus will be right there with me. Because he lives in me! “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).” I don’t think he knew quite what to do with one!

      Again, the point is not how righteous I am to become right with God but how righteous Jesus is who lives within me and is my Lord.

  1. Great message on the terrible burdens of moralism vs. the wonderful relief of the gospel.

    We need to be reminded daily lest we slip back under the burden … and despair.


  2. As a Muslim I think such a system is unjust and unforgiving.

    This means that the means of salvation is not the character or goodness of a person but a label. If you have the right religious label–you get Paradise! no matter what kind of person you are……..this is unjust
    For example—if the U.S. made a rule that all white people were exempt from jail because of the color of their skin—no matter what they did—and only people of color went to jail—–such a rule would be obviously unjust!!!!

    If salvation depends on some arbitrary criteria of “label” and everyone else is excluded from a possibility of Paradise simply because they are of a wrong label—then such a God is neither loving nor forgiving. If salvation is based on the character and goodness of a person and not on a label—then all humanity has access to Paradise. Such a God is both loving and Merciful.

    The Christian version of salvation portrays God as fickle and arbitrary.

    • Actually, the label that is put on those who follow Jesus is the name of Jesus is called over us in baptism. We identify with Jesus Christ.

      Now, if Jesus truly is God’s Son, then when God sees those who have identified with Jesus, God Himself sees his children, not labels. That is, God looks at us through the lens of Jesus.

      If Jesus is the Messiah, according to Isaiah 9:6, the merits we have in the Messiah / Christ are none other than the mercy of Mighty God, our Father Forever, the Prince of Peace.

      Jesus thus becomes the Wonderful Counselor for all who call on His name. He advises us in how we should live, yes; but even more, He is the Counselor who advocates for us before the court of God.

      If Jesus is God, as the Injeel maintains, then to reduce Jesus to a mere label is to reduce the name of God to a certificate.

      Does it not demonstrate the Lord God’s character & compassion to save all those who call on His name? Jesus bears that name, so all who call on Him are saved. This is nothing less than God maintaining integrity.

      If you gave your friend a check for $100, would you not be honorbound to fulfill that obligation? So in Christ, Jesus is the Treasure of Heaven and whoever wants to may cash in on the riches of God. Regardless of race, language, literacy, location, or level of education.

    • My Muslim friend,

      Forgive me for not responding earlier. It was not because your comments are not important to me. Believe me, they are. Very much. It was because I feel like you may have totally misunderstood part of my post about how to become right with God and I just found it hard to respond.

      Let me say that I never, ever meant to imply that having “the right religious label” gets you to Paradise. No way! Never! I just can’t understand where you got that from my writing – in this post or any other. If there is anyone against labels guaranteeing salvation, it is me. I agree with you. That would be unjust. . .for sure.

      This is why you never see me pushing “Christianity” or “being a Christian.”

      I don’t promote labels. They can’t save a person from the penalty of their sins. I just promote Jesus. He can save us!

      This is what I believe: any religious system that bases Paradise on the goodness of a person is neither loving or merciful at all. Why? Because I am convinced with all my heart that no one can be “good” enough to satisfy a totally holy God. Not you, not me, not anyone. No one in humanity has access to Paradise based on their character or goodness:

      “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 in the Bible).

      If goodness is truly God’s criteria, than all of us are without hope. That system would be cruel. That would be unfair to the extreme.

      The Good News is that the goodness of Jesus can be given to us as a gift. We just have to receive it by faith and follow him:

      “You get what is coming to you when you sin. It is death! But God’s free gift is life that lasts forever. It is given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:23 in the Bible).

      No one is excluded who puts their trust in Jesus – regardless of their label.

      This is not fickle or arbitrary but rather gloriously loving and merciful.

      God is personal, loving, and good!

      • ” I just promote Jesus. He can save us!”

        —A Muslim would say it is God that saves us!. That is why we put our trust in God.

        ” I am convinced with all my heart that no one can be “good” enough to satisfy a totally holy God. Not you, not me, not anyone. No one in humanity has access to Paradise based on their character or goodness:”

        —A Muslim would say God, who created us, is most compassionate, most merciful. most loving, and therefore has no problem accepting and loving ALL of his creations.
        Therefore, all creations that have been given limited free-will and Guidance will be accepted according to the Guidance they were given if they choose to willingly follow it.

        • My Muslim friend,

          I so appreciate your emphasis on God’s compassion, mercy, and love. Thank you!

          But. . .where does God’s justice come in regarding the sins of a forgiven person? If God can forgive arbitrarily, is his righteous anger over sin simply set aside?

          The Bible also teaches that God is full of compassion, mercy, and love. Praise His name! But when he forgives a guilty sinner, his wrath and justice are not set aside or forgotten. Not at all. Rather, through the sacrifice of Jesus, God’s immeasurable mercy is seen as well as His terrible wrath. Both are given full expression. Both are fully seen and accomplished.

          What do you think? I know Islam does not believe in the sacrifice of Jesus but the question remains: How is God’s justice – a trait essential to both of our views of God – satisfied by forgiveness without any form of punishment?

    • Mert, your humble comment reminds me of this great quote by Tim Keller:

      “The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope — at the very same time. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth.

      It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you.

      But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin.”

  3. @ Mert
    1)…those who follow Jesus Christ (pbuh)—-As a Muslim, I believe I am a follower of Jesus Christ (pbuh) as well as all the other Prophets (messengers) of God.

    2) God does not need any “lens”—he sees us for what we are—his creations—because he is the one that created us. He created us inherently good and gave us limited free-will so that we may, of our own accord. choose to honor his will or not.
    —God’s will = Right belief that promotes right intentions that leads to right actions for the benefit of all of God’s creations.

    3) The Quran calls Jesus Christ by the title of “Masih” (Messiah=annointed with oil/High Priest) Masih Isa son of Mary. This can be understood as the last Prophet sent to the Jews.

    4) Can agree that at Judgement Day, the Prophets may stand as witnesses or advocates as God wills.

    5) Muslims (and Quran) maintain Jesus Christ (pbuh) is not God/God-man/son of God.

    6) Those who call on God in repentance and ask for forgiveness will be forgiven—throughout time and geography and across all humanity.

    7) God is universal—his compassion and mercy extend to all humanity—no check necessary.

    8) Muslims have a direct relationship with God—no intermediary is required.

  4. “What do you think? I know Islam does not believe in the sacrifice of Jesus but the question remains: How is God’s justice – a trait essential to both of our views of God – satisfied by forgiveness without any form of punishment?”

    —very interesting question….thankyou for asking it as it made me reflect……..

    First, 3 clarifications need to be made…
    1) Islam sees (Divine) Justice as a concept balanced with Compassion and Mercy. Justice as a concept does not stand alone, but it is a concept/principle that is in balance (and in harmony) by the principles of compassion and mercy. (likewise, the principles of compassion and mercy (love) do not stand alone but are balanced and harmonized by justice)
    2) The Western model of justice is based on retributive justice in which a crime is punished to a commensurate degree —the main theme of (Islamic) Divine justice is restorative justice…in this model punishment is not the primary end that is sought but reconciliation.
    The primary concern of Divine justice is not the crime but the soul—and the restoration of the soul to healing peace (salam/Islam). When a person sins he causes a “Moral Injury” to his own soul and this needs to heal. (the key to this healing process is repentance)
    3) Divine Wrath/Anger—This too is a concept that does not stand alone—but is balanced with another concept. In Islamic terms this is understood as “flow” and “restriction”. The primary attribute of God is Compassion, Mercy, Love…etc…which “flow” to humanity (and creation) in the form of blessings such as sustenance, prosperity, safety and peace, abundance, nurturing, insights and knowledge, care and nurturing….and so on…..the other side of this is “restriction” of his love, compassion, mercy…etc which manifests itself in famines, hunger, wars…etc……
    Both flow and restriction are tests and not necessarily good/bad or reward/punishments….but can be used in some circumstances as rewards or punishments as God wills.

    to conclude……
    In the Islamic concept of Divine Justice, God most compassionate, most merciful seeks to heal rather than punish and where punishment is required for healing, there are means to conduct this within the framework of love, compassion and mercy…..and when all else fails and the human being rejects all attempts at healing and reconciliation….the judgement is hell.

    • My Muslim friend, thank you for responding. I so appreciate your comments and so agree with a great deal of them.

      I am especially appreciative of how you view God’s character in this response and wish you, my wife, and I could sit down and talk face to face. The subject of God is both inexhaustible and exhilarating!

      May we all continue to seek – not just an academic knowledge about God – but an intimate relationship with Him!

      “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jesus in the Good News According to John, chapter 17, verse 3).

      Thanks again.

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