If you die tonight will you go to heaven? Why or why not?”
Those were the questions on the survey they passed out at my church recently.
The results of the anonymous survey revealed that most of the responses fell into one of two categories. Either people felt they would go to heaven because they were good people who were better than most of the other people around them, or they felt they would not go to heaven because they were terrible sinners. Some added that God was not done working on them yet, so they still had hope that they might make it.
The “overwhelming majority” of people, it seems, base their salvation on themselves. I call that a crying shame. For one thing, imagine the responsibility that puts on their shoulders. Can they be good enough to save themselves? Absolutely not! And how about the ones who feel that God isn’t finished with them yet? I can’t imagine the terror of going through life knowing on any given day that it could be my last and wondering whether or not God will be “finished” with me before my time is up, can you?
Not, mind you, that I’m unfamiliar with these thoughts myself. I’ve spent time walking both the “Yes” road and the “No” road, but ignorance saved me from too much mental anguish over my plight. It doesn’t matter what your state of mind is, whether troubled or in ignorance like I was; if you find yourself on either road, there’s one thing you need to know before you take another step: The only way— the only way—to God is through Jesus.
Having been a Christian all my life, I don’t have a problem with that statement. It’s been part of my theology forever. But Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Eat, Pray, Love says, “And while I do love that great Teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God.”
Getting in the boat
That statement is no surprise to God. He knew some people would find salvation through Christ and Christ alone a problem. Paul wrote, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24).
The thing is, Christians who think they are either “good enough” or “not good enough” are missing the boat just as surely as Gilbert is.
Being good enough or not good enough implies that we have some part in our salvation, as if we, with Christ, are rowing our salvation boat. In reality, Christ is the boat and He’s rowing the boat. By Himself. Our first decision is: do we want to get in the boat? If we do, we must ask ourselves, are we willing to sit there and let Christ take us wherever He sees fit? And if He asks us to do something, are we willing to do it?
We have to allow Jesus to set up shop in our life and change it. I always dreaded having to do that part. I thought it would be like trying to go on a diet. I thought God would ask me to give up all kinds of stuff I loved to do and through sheer willpower I’d have to muscle through and give it up. But what if I don’t want to?
In reality, God takes away the desire to do what doesn’t conform to His best intention for your life.
Imagine the ease with which smokers could kick the habit if they no longer desired another cigarette. Is it always easy? No, not always. Is it always possible? Absolutely. “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Change of heart
For years—years—I was under the impression that salvation was some sort of formula: Belief + works + spending time with God + denying yourself and considering the needs of everyone else to be more important than your own = salvation. Yet if you had asked me, I would have told you that salvation was belief in Jesus. Belief, in my version, was limited to a head experience: Is the sky blue? Yes. Is the grass green? Yes. Is Jesus the Son of God? Yes. Does He save me from my sins? Yes.
But mere mental assent is not a heart experience. Belief was acknowledging that “yes, Jesus is God’s Son.” I had no problem with that. But neither do demons, who “believe, and tremble” (James 2:19 KJV), but they are not saved.
Belief has to change us in some way. And the only way for that change to happen is for us to be willing to let it happen. It won’t happen overnight. It’s a constant thing, nurtured in part by actions like reading the Bible, praying, having and maintaining a relationship with God, and worshiping with other believers. As we grow in this relationship, we will begin to change. We will become more like Christ.
So, if you die tonight will you go to heaven? That depends on whether you want to get in the boat or stay on the shore, not on whether you’re good enough to get in the boat.
Jesus died to save us all. Not just the “good” ones.