You and I were born into a grand love story. An eternal God—Who has always loved as Father, Son and Spirit—created a magnificent universe and then made humans to love Him and each other forever. Made in His image, we’ll never not exist. In order for us to love, the Father gave us choice, for love isn’t possible without it. Nor is evil, tragically. And with this precious gift of choice, we’ve turned from God, disregarded and disobeyed Him, choices both unloving and evil, a violation of both love and justice. Love demands a punishment for evil, a barricading of the offender from the beautiful, just kingdom and its King, the Father.
The Father determined that the love story was not finished. He planned for His eternal Son, Jesus, to be born as a human, walk in our suffering, announce the kingdom, and to die, taking the judgment of the Father for the sins of the created. Jesus joyfully embraced the plan, despite the horrific cost. The Father raised him back to life, ultimately breaking the power of selfishness, hate and death. He offers a pardon to all who will receive it—to those who return to the Father, believing His love, and trusting the work of the Son. Those who embrace the pardon enjoy life with the Father without end, and the love story goes on forever.
That’s an impossibly simple summary of the gospel or “good news” of the eternal life of love for which God made us. But how much of that story must one understand, believe, or even know in order to return home to the Father’s house, to enjoy the eternal love life for which they were made? Are there pieces of the story beyond my summary that they must know before they can enter?
What must you be right about?
No one is fully right about everything. No one fully understands God and the gospel. Every single person believes wrong things about God and the gospel. To deny that would be the ultimate arrogance. So, what is it that we must be right about? It’s perhaps the most precarious question I raise in this book, making this my most challenging chapter, the one in fact that I almost didn’t write, but God didn’t release me to do otherwise.
I speak as humbly and carefully as I can, knowing full well that I’m partly wrong, leaving it to God Himself to guide each reader to the truth. I will dare to share a few ideas drawn from the pages of the Bible, confident that God will correct my errors as necessary.
I’ll start with this observation. Our distance from God is an issue of our heart more than our mind. It’s less about what we know and more about what we love. It’s less about believing the wrong things as it is about loving and trusting the wrong things and persons. We haven’t loved God with all of our heart, if we have loved Him at all. We haven’t loved our neighbors as ourselves. Repentance is a change of heart—a change in what we both trust and love.
I’m saying first that entrance into the kingdom of heaven doesn’t hinge on acing a religion test. There’s not some designated number of facts one must be right about, as there might be for an attorney to enter the bar, for instance. This isn’t to say that facts are unimportant. Knowledge has a vital connection to what we love and trust. Flawed ideas matter, but entering the kingdom of heaven isn’t simply a matter of believing right facts. We enter through a change of heart.
Perhaps we can say it this way: We must know enough to move our hearts to love and trust God.
What’re the facts or realities that move us to love and trust God? Fundamentally, it starts with God, and so the Bible says,
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, NIV)
God exists. He’s personal. He wants us to seek Him, and He’s responsive. Again, these aren’t facts to memorize for an entrance exam. Without this core understanding of God and His heart, you have no idea how to approach him, that you need to, or that He longs for you to. He’s a Father who made you to love him and seek Him and speak to Him. He made you, and you’re accountable to Him.
What other good news must you know in order to seek Him, repent and move toward Him? The Apostle Paul gives a summary briefer than my earlier attempt.
“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:2-5, NIV)
Sins. Now there is a controversial word, but it’s part of the story. On two different occasions, Jesus is asked what one must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus never corrects the question to read: What must I know? It is rightly a “what must I do” question. In both cases, the Ten Commandments come up, and Jesus reveals to each how he fails to love God and his neighbor. Jesus gets at what they love and what they trust. God or money. God or themselves. So, what’s their sin and ours? We haven’t loved God with all of our heart nor have we loved our neighbors as ourselves. The Ten Commandments expose us as sinners, as runaways from the Father’s house.
But Jesus died for sinners.
The Jesus part of the story is essential. No one has ever gained entrance into the kingdom of heaven apart from the work of Jesus. Not Abraham. Not Rahab. Not Joshua. Not Ruth. Not David. Not Peter. Not Mary. Not Mother Teresa. Not me. Many have entered the kingdom of heaven without knowing the name of Jesus, but no one has entered without the work of Jesus. No one ever enters the kingdom of heaven apart from His payment for our sins and the Father raising Him from the dead.
We announce Jesus as the astounding love of God to embrace and trust. Jesus, the Son, dying for sinners is the climax of the great love story. Jesus lives out the greatest love ever, and it’s love that spurs love in return. And so the Bible says that “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4, NIV) We don’t need to hear the story of Jesus for information; We need to hear it for transformation. It’s what stirs our hearts to trust and love God, and so the Bible says, “we love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19, NIV) The amazing love of Jesus stirs a response. It’s why we share the Jesus story.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, NIV)
The response is trust. Believe him. Trust Him. Turn to Him. Come back home to the Father. What we must get right is a turn of heart to trust, love and obey God.
My brief summary isn’t all there is to the good news story, not even close. There’s much more we must learn in order to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18, NIV) There’s always more to learn about Jesus and salvation, but I hesitate to say there are more things someone must know and understand to take that first baby step into the kingdom of God.
What must one get right? In wrestling with the question, it may help to ask the question another way: What must a child understand in order to turn to God? Must a child know or understand that Jesus was born of a virgin? The trinity? (As if any of us fully understands the trinity anyway.) The Holy Spirit? The bodily resurrection of Jesus?
What names of God must one know? Jehovah. I Am? Immanuel? Christ? Must someone understand the concept of Messiah? Or the Jewish sacrificial system? Must someone initially understand that there’s no other way to God outside of Jesus? Might someone mistakenly believe that there’s some kind of good work they must do? Must someone understand that Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time?
I know that the posing of the questions may, for some, sound almost heretical, but I’m not suggesting that these realities are unimportant to the grand salvation story. I’m not saying they needn’t be taught over time. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t correct wrong ideas; that’s part of what it means to grow up in our salvation. I’m not saying that what one believes is inconsequential.
I am saying that the gospel is simple enough to be received by a child. I am saying that it’s possible to trust God and enter His kingdom even when some of what we believe about God and the gospel is mistaken. I am saying that God knows and responds to the posture of our hearts even when our knowledge is flawed. I am saying that there’s not a knowledge-based entrance exam for the kingdom of heaven. I am saying that what someone must have right is a change of heart toward God. I am saying that the only people who’ve ever entered the kingdom of heaven are partly wrong people who then need to be walking in community with other believers, learning each day other things they’ve been getting wrong. I am saying that you needn’t have every single thing right in order to come home to the Father’s house. Or no one ever could.
[Feature photo by skeeze at Pixabay.com]
For each weekday of the month of July (and Aug. 1-3), I am blogging a chapter from my book, Partly Wrong, to be published this fall. This blog is chapter nineteen. I welcome any feedback that will help to make it a better chapter.