Why will God let you into heaven?
Have you ever thought about that question? Over the past twelve or so years in ministry, I have asked that question of dozens of people. Common responses include:
Tim Keller illustrates it like this. Imagine a poor widow with an only son. She teaches him how she wants him to live: to be generous, to work hard, and be kind to people. She makes very little money, but with her meager savings, she is able to put him through college. What if, after he graduates from college, he hardly ever speaks to her again. He occasionally sends her a Christmas card, but he never visits, never returns her calls, and almost completely ignores her. But he lives just like she taught him. He's generous. He works hard. He's kind to people. Would you say this is acceptable? Of course not! Why? Wouldn't you say that by living a "good life" but ignoring a relationship with the one to whom he owed everything, he was actually doing something despicable?
In the same way, living a "good life" won't work. We must give ourselves completely to the One to whom we owe everything. Jesus must be the epicenter of our existence.
Atheist illusionist Penn Jillette once said, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
I remember watching him say this on a YouTube video a few years ago and thinking to myself, “Why does it take an atheist to convict me, a Christian, about my lack of interest in telling people about Jesus, heaven, and hell?” It was humbling.
One of the implications of calling ourselves ‘Christians’ is that we agree to believe what Jesus believes. After all, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to disagree with Jesus and still call myself a Christian. Jesus believes there’s a hell (Matt. 5:21-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33). Jesus believes there’s a heaven (Matt. 5:3; 5:10; 5:12; 5:20; 6:19-20; 7:21). So which one are you heading towards? Since none of us have ever received a guarantee of how many years we’ll have, it’s probably worth thinking about.
How would I know if I’m heading for hell?
There are numerous responses one could give to this question. Let me list a few:
1) If I believe being a good person will get me into heaven, I’m heading for hell.
Why? Question: how good is good enough? Can you take me to a place in God’s Word where it gives us a quantifiable measure of “goodness” we have to reach in order to get into heaven? How would you know you’ve reached that milestone? Can you point me to a place in God’s Word where it says “as long as you’re a good person, you’ll go to heaven?” It actually says the opposite.
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-11).
Every one of us is much worse than we imagine ourselves to be. In fact, Jesus himself says, “no one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). I’m not even good…at all!
2) If my life is largely characterized by sin, I’m heading for hell.
The apostle Paul writes, "Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
I look at this list and think, "no one is going to heaven! I’m guilty of idolatry! I’ve battled lust! I’m prone to be greedy!” When reading these two verses within the context of the entire letter of 1 Corinthians, it becomes clearer. This isn’t just a matter of whether or not I’m guilty of doing one of these things in my life at some point. The issue is whether or not there has been change in my life since becoming a Christ-follower. In the very next verse, Paul goes on to say this list described what they once were. But something has changed. One sign of being a genuine Christian is that you’re seeing progress in your growth in holiness. Growth in holiness is evidence of being on a heavenward path.
3) If my attitude towards Jesus is indifferent, I’m heading for hell.
Definitions are important. The word “indifferent” means: having no particular interest. It’s a stretch for someone to be indifferent towards Jesus and be a Christian. In fact, it’s not a stretch. It’s flat out impossible. Why?
Let’s do a quick thought-experiment. Let’s say you’re married. If your spouse was “indifferent” to you what would that look like? If I had no particular interest in my wife, conversation would likely be sparse. I probably wouldn’t think too often about her. I likely wouldn’t look for ways to help her or serve her. I would also have no desire to know her better than I already do.
Translate this to indifference towards Jesus. Having no particular interest in Jesus would lead to little or no prayer life. My thoughts wouldn’t drift towards contemplating Jesus. I likely wouldn’t look for ways to serve like Jesus served nor would I have much of a desire to know him more than I already do.
Being a Christian and being indifferent towards Jesus doesn’t mesh. Part of being a genuine Christian means Jesus is second to nothing (Luke 18:18-30). Not only would I not be indifferent towards Jesus, I actually would be quite consumed with Jesus.
How would I know if I’m heading for heaven?
1) If I believe I’m deeply sinful and can be saved only by God’s grace, I might be headed for heaven.
The reason for the change of verbiage is simple. Any one of the above puts us on the road to hell. Meanwhile, all of the following need to be true to put us on the road to heaven.
A lot of people believe that if at the end of their lives the good outweighs the bad, they’ll make it into heaven. I’ve already shown why that’s not the case. But here is more:
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). We are not saved by our good deeds. We aren’t capable of having enough of them.
I might be heading for heaven, if I believe my “good life” is insufficient to merit salvation.
2) If I believe Jesus’ life and death are the grounds for salvation, I might be headed for heaven.
The following verse is very important to understand what Christianity is really about: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
To put it differently, “Jesus lived the life I should have lived and died the death I should have died.” Let’s break this down:
“Jesus lived the life I should have lived.” That is, Jesus lived a perfect life. The standard to get into heaven is a perfect life, not a good life. Obviously, I have failed to live a perfect life.
“Jesus died the death I should have died.” Because I failed to live a perfect life, justice must be done. I should pay the consequences for failing to live a perfect life. But Jesus did that for me on the cross.
If my faith and trust is NOT in the “good” life I’m trying to live, but in the perfect life Jesus did live and the death he died for me, I might be headed for heaven.
3) If my behavior demonstrates supreme love for Jesus, I might be headed for heaven.
In the New Testament book of Luke, there’s a story of a wealthy man who asks Jesus the “million dollar” question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to obey the Ten Commandments. The man says, “I have.” Then Jesus tells this man he still lacks one thing. He needs to sell his possessions, give them to the poor, then come follow him. When the man heard this, he walked away from Jesus very sad. He couldn’t do it.
Not every belief and practice is compatible with being a genuine Christian. There are some beliefs and practices Jesus will ask us to leave behind if we want to get on the road that leads to heaven. In other words, there is a cost to being a genuine Christian. The passage from 1 Corinthians 6 above outlines some beliefs and practices that aren’t compatible with being a genuine Christian.
However, when we see evidence that Jesus has become our supreme love, we can certainly be encouraged, we are on the narrow road that leads to eternal life.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s enough to get a lot of us thinking deeply about a very important subject.
A church’s culture will be shaped by the beliefs and convictions the people in that church have. Some of our beliefs are known to us, but some aren't, at least not immediately. Why? We hold to beliefs and convictions that lie underneath the surface and we may not even be aware of them. It’s those beliefs that lie underneath the surface that are the most powerful beliefs you have. And it’s those beliefs underneath the surface that exert the most influence on a church’s culture. I want to expose those today, but I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. The apostle Paul already did the heavy lifting for us in a letter he wrote to a church in the city of Corinth, which is in modern day Greece.
This church possessed anti-gospel culture. The culture in the church in Corinth was anything but gospel culture. They had divisions, disunity, quarrels, disagreement, schisms; it was not a harbinger of the new heavens and the new earth. Throughout his letter to them, Paul makes appeal after appeal for them to change course and his climactic appeal comes to us in one of the most popular Scriptures passages know to us today: 1 Corinthians 13 (The "Love" Chapter).
In order for gospel culture to take root in us, we need to…
1) Identify the hidden belief
The church in Corinth had anti-gospel culture. It was characterized by impressive outward religious performance. They speak in tongues, they prophesy, they have faith that the impossible can happen, they generously give their money to the poor. Some of them have been martyred. This is an impressive list of visible religious performances. But for each of them Paul says they are without love. He’s exposing their hidden belief.
The church in Corinth serves a provocative example of why our visible, stated beliefs and practices may be impotent to shape a church’s culture. Instead, it’s our invisible, unstated beliefs and practices that exert the most influence on a church’s culture.
What was that hidden belief in this church in Corinth? They are without love. Look at the repetition. “If I can do this, but don’t have love I’m nothing. If I can do that, but don’t have love, I’m nothing.”
What does it mean to be without love? What does it mean to be loveless? There’s a little phrase in v. 3 where Paul cracks open the curtain to let a little light in so we can see what lovelessness is: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast…”
There it is: “that I may boast.” This is the core of lovelessness. This is the hidden belief lying underneath the surface that is destroying any shot the Corinthians have of fostering gospel culture.
What does it mean to boast? Boasting says, “Look at what I’ve done now give me your praise. Look at what I’ve done, now stand in awe of me. Look at what I’ve done and give me your gratitude.” This is the hidden belief that destroys any shot a church may have of fostering gospel culture.
Do you see that at the core of boasting, at the core of lovelessness, is an attitude that approaches giving in order to get something? Lovelessness is giving in order to get something. Just a couple of verses later Paul describes lovelessness as “self-seeking.” The hidden belief is this: we give in order to get.
2) Detect the hidden belief in ourselves
Surely, that’s not me. I don’t have this hidden belief. This “give to get” belief isn’t something I struggle with. Maybe not. But let's see.
In vv. 4-8a, Paul paints a picture of love for us. Notice the places where love is portrayed in emotional terms: love doesn’t dishonor others, love is not easily-angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Do you hear the emotions in these descriptions? Look at the descriptors: dishonoring others, easily-angered, keeping a record of wrongs. Do you hear the emotions of resentment, irritability, and bitterness in there?
Can we just talk turkey for a minute here? You know why we're irritable all the time? You know why we're irritable with God and others? We're irritable with God and others because we feel God owes us. We've worked hard, we've been kind people and now God, life, and the universe owe us. This is why we're irritable, demanding, and critical. This is why we're chronically unhappy. We have paid your dues, now God, life, and the universe owe us. We're unhappy because the “give to get” belief is the organizing principle of our lives.
This characterized the church in Corinth. They had an anti-gospel culture of divisions, factions, and conflict because they operated under the hidden belief of “give to get.”
Those who are most prone to being chronically unhappy, critical, demanding, and irritable are those whose lives are governed by the “give to get” belief. If that’s you, if you look at your life and see a history of being chronically unhappy, critical, demanding, and irritable, you are living a loveless life. You are living a self-seeking life. You are being governed by the “give to get” belief and you’re probably not even aware of it.
3) Destroy and replace our hidden belief
Gospel doctrine is the only antidote to the poison of a loveless life. The gospel is the only antidote to the “give to get” belief. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to set up a purely fictional scenario and then we’ll rub the gospel into it.
Joe gives generously to his church. Like the church in Corinth, this looks really good on the outside. The surface belief and practice is admirable. But let’s say he’s operating under the “give to get” belief. He’s giving large sums of money to his church directed by his “give to get” belief. If he’s giving in order to get something, the million dollar question is: what does he want? Maybe he wants to put the church in his debt so if he ever wants something to be done at the church, the leaders will have to listen to him because they will fear losing his financial support. Or maybe he’s giving generously so that if the church leaders decide to do something he doesn’t like, he can threaten them by drawing attention to the ramifications of not having his financial support. So Joe is operating under the “give to get” belief. How do we work gospel doctrine into this to destroy this hidden belief and replace it.
How does that happen? Joe needs to preach the gospel to himself daily. In order for your life to be characterized by love, you need to preach the gospel to yourself daily. In order for you to become a harbinger of the new heavens and the new earth, you need multiple exposures to the gospel. That means preaching the gospel to yourself daily.
The definition of the gospel we looked at last week is this:
We are created by and accountable to God. Our problem is our sin against him. God’s solution is salvation through Jesus Christ. We come to be included in that salvation by repentance and faith.
I’m going to give you a shortened version of this. Here’s what I want you to do with it. Every day look in the mirror and preach this to yourself. Here’s what I want you to preach. Look in the mirror and say, “I’m a totally loved, moral failure.” That’s the gospel in it’s shortest form.
So let’s work this into Joe’s life...
Joe needs to preach to himself, “I’m a totally loved moral failure.” So on the one hand, he’s a moral failure. Which means anything less than hell he enjoys today is only by God’s mercy. For his church not to give him something he wants or to withhold something he does want is a blip on the radar compared to what he deserves. He’s not owed anything. This would alter Joe’s use of money and reasons he’s using the money the way he is.
Joe isn’t only a moral failure. He’s a totally loved moral failure. Because Joe is more loved, valued, and cherished than he ever dared dream, there’s a limit to how much life circumstances impact his joy. So his church doesn’t do something he wanted them to do or they do something he doesn’t want them to do, big deal! He’s more loved, valued, and cherished than he ever dared dream, how much more joy can adding a fixture to the church or another ministry in the church give him?
I’m a totally loved moral failure.
The Church in Corinth possessed anti-gospel culture because it was a self-seeking church. People in that church had admirable surface beliefs and practices, but the hidden belief they possessed was killing them. This hidden belief was lovelessness. This hidden belief was that they would do all these great, nice, and kind things for each other, but it was fueled by “giving in order to get something.” This led to disunity and conflict in the church. It was an ugly church. There wasn’t anything beautiful about it. The only solution to it is to saturate the church in the gospel. It’s only through gospel-saturation that a church can be transformed from a self-seeking church into a truly loving church.