When I graduated high school, there was a girl that I had gone out with a few times, but we hadn’t had that DTR  (“define the relationship”) conversation.

We should have. But we didn’t. (For the record, this is 100 percent on me.)

I was going to college in another state, so we tried writing and calling a few times. When Christmas rolled around, and I was coming home for the first time, things still felt up in the air.

It didn’t occur to me until I was driving to her house the week of Christmas, that she might think we were still an item. My mind began racing.

If she really is my girlfriend, I can’t show up at her house without a Christmas present. But I also don’t have any money. Plus, if she isn’t my girlfriend, it would be awkward to get her a present.

I decided to take a middle route.

Stopping at a mall near her house, I found a neck warmer at a sporting goods store. It had “Adidas” emblazoned across the side, and it was on sale for a sleek $7. I even had it gift wrapped at Nordstrom.

I thought, If she has something for me, then we’re all good—here’s her neck warmer. And if she doesn’t, well, I’m pretty sure I could use this. Not bad, J.D., not bad.

But then I got to her house.

The first thing she said was, “I got you a Christmas present!” But when I opened the box to reveal a brand new sweater, I immediately realized that she had outspent me. By at least $70.

I convinced her that her gift was not in my car—where the $7 Adidas neck warmer was conspicuously sitting on the passenger seat—but back at my parents’ house. To which she said, “Great! Let’s go!”

When we got to my house, I recruited my mother and we scrambled to slap a new gift tag on a beautiful sweater that was originally intended for my sister.

Mischief managed: She loved the gift, and I emerged the hero. (Sort of.)

I don’t know if she ever found out the truth, but if she had, do you think she still would have been flattered to receive my gift?

Of course not.

I didn’t give that sweater to her out of any love I had for her but instead to rescue myself from a bad situation and salvage my reputation.

It’s possible to do things that look really good on the surface but are done for entirely the wrong motivation and, in light of why you did them, they don’t actually look that good.

The Apostle Paul said that a lot of things done in the name of religion aren’t done out of love for God, either, even though they look good on the surface. And yet, “‘He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and anger to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth while obeying unrighteousness” (Romans 2:6–8 CSB).

In other words, God sees the heart, and when he evaluates us, what counts with him is not external conformity in religion but inward transformation from the heart expressed in good works.

That’s disorienting for a lot of Christians. It almost sounds like Paul changed his mind about the gospel. He just got done explaining in Romans 1 that salvation is not earned through good works but given as a gift through faith alone, and now it sounds like he’s saying in 2:6 that God will repay each of us according to our works.

Paul hasn’t changed his mind. Verse 6 is a quote from Psalm 62 in which the psalmist is complaining about a group of religious people who honor God with their mouths while their feet are quick to run after violence. They give an external show of religion, but internally they are still filled with wickedness.

In other words, they give sweaters of obligation, but their hearts aren’t in it.

External practices of religion do not equal inward transformation. And when it’s all said and done, on that final day, God is going to look at the inward working of the heart—beyond outward performance of religion to inward motivations.

Now you might ask, “So, am I going to be judged by my heart motivations? Will those determine whether I get into heaven?”

In one sense, no: “For by grace you have been saved through faith …” But in another sense, yes. Because your life is the best illustration of what you actually believe.

Faith, you see, is more than just words. Faith is a transformation of the heart.

Repentance is not walking an aisle or raising a hand; it is a heart change. Conversion is not joining a church or getting baptized; it is the Holy Spirit coming to take up residence in our hearts and making them new.

That means that when we have truly been saved, good works will always follow. When Jesus takes up residence in our lives, it should make a difference. Paul teaches that we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. Faith is always accompanied by good works.

Jerry Bridges says it like this: “Holiness is not a condition for salvation, but it is always part of salvation.”

In a sense, God could put us on trial in heaven and say, “Have this person’s works demonstrated the effects of true conversion?”

There are two testimonies to what we believe: the testimony of our life and the testimony of our mouth. If one of those disagrees with the other, then God takes the testimony of our life as a more reliable indication of what we actually believe.

What does your life declare about your belief in and your surrender to Jesus?