A Question of Heaven: Entering the Kingdom Means More Than Checking Off Boxes

People are an interesting lot.  I enjoy watching people, talking to people, being around people.  While I’m a person who needs time to be alone, at other times, I’m very much a people person.

So in my observations, I have seen people who are religious, and people who are not.  Of those who are religious, I have seen people of the broader Christian faith, and some who are not.  Of those in the Christian faith, I have seen those who are of one church, and some who are of a different church.  Pretty much anyone who espouses a form of Christianity believes in some form of afterlife, and I would imagine that they would want that afterlife to include Heaven. Some churches define who is going to heaven much more strictly than others, but most if not all of them are pretty sure that people of their particular heritage are going. 

But Jesus essentially said, “Not so fast.”

Going through the motions is one thing.  Really living the Way is a different thing altogether. That was one of the real take home messages from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  Near the close of his message in Matthew 7.21-23, Jesus drops a bombshell of a pronouncement.  21  “”Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

I’ve read that many times over the years and heard it expounded upon, and pounded into the heads and hearts of listeners by preachers who are trying to get them to see that it takes a specific set of conditions to meet the requirements of entry into Heaven. I can’t argue with that.  In my experience, this has usually been applied to those who are of a different religious background, faith heritage or denomination.  I think it reasonable to take issue with that, because there were no denominations at that point in time since the church itself had not formally come into existence.  Jesus was talking about people, their hearts and their behaviors.

But I can see some things that I think many of those preachers have missed.  Their focus is on getting the steps right: in the church of Christ tradition, that means a five-step “plan of salvation.”  In many of the sermons I have heard this in, that has been the focus: you can’t short cut the process.  You can’t just believe (which requires first hearing the message, which is usually focused more on what to do rather than why it is done), you must also repent, confess, and be baptized.  Five steps.

But Jesus wasn’t just talking about five steps.  Now, I will not dispute those steps.  I believe that the human response to grace is important.  But there is so much more that Jesus wanted his followers to know and do.  So many preachers stop at number five.  Some may add a sixth step, which is living faithfully until death, as in Revelation 2.10, but that often focuses more on not committing overt or covert moral sins and maintaining doctrinal purity. 

In my faith heritage, there is almost no attention paid to the essentiality of grace in salvation. But ignoring it does not make it go away.  Grace surrounds, strengthens and gives foundation to the other five (or six).  The first five (or six) place the responsibility squarely on man.  In fact, I recently heard a preacher say, and I quote, “Salvation is an individual responsibility.”  But grace gives God the final say.  

That pleading group of doomed “Christians” had gone through the motions.  They had prophesied, cast out demons, done mighty works all by using the name and authority of Jesus.  They had followed the program.  They had checked off the boxes.  They would have had all five (or six) steps in place.  They had surely earned admission to Heaven.

“Not so fast.”

When it comes to salvation, the bestowing (or withholding) of grace is the deciding factor that supersedes all others.  That Jesus would pointedly condemn these obviously religious people (who made a show of following him, no less) should show a disappointing contradiction to those who support a universal application of grace to save everyone.  Certainly, if God wanted to do that, he could.  However, this passage does not suggest it, nor does it support that overly optimistic doctrine.

Who, then, can enter the kingdom of Heaven?  Those who do the will of Jesus’ Father in Heaven.  Not just the father.  Jesus’ Father.  In this, he stressed his own divine nature.  He also emphasized more than box-checking.

But what else is there?  Surely the five (or six) steps must cover the admission requirements.

Matthew 5.20 really gets to the heart of the matter.  Law-keeping was, of course, good and expected of any righteous practicing Jew, and no one was better at rule keeping than the Pharisees.  But Jesus said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  There is more to getting it right than just getting some of the parts right. 

G.K. Chesterton admirably observed, “God is not a symbol of goodness.  Goodness is a symbol of God.” But that goodness does not merely depend on following a set of instructions.  For example, I have very limited musical ability.  But I understand that there is a difference between getting the notes on a page played correctly and making those same notes truly sing.  I can buy everything on the grocery list, but as long as the ingredients stay on the pantry shelf, there is no feast to enjoy.  In the same way, I can get some steps right, but getting the heart right is essential to entering the kingdom both now and forever.  When we do that, we will not pervert justice or fail to provide mercy.  Those are also key elements of doing God’s will, and have been since the very beginning.

To every person who may stumble upon these words as you search for one thing or another, I make a heart-felt plea: don’t just stop at checking off the boxes.  Let your commitment be deep and your actions selfless.  Let your mercy define you, not your dogmatism.  Let your humility be your lasting impression, not your arrogance.  Let yours be the goodness of God, not self-righteousness born of pride.  Be a living conduit of grace, not a barrier to it.

It takes more than just five (or six) steps to get into the kingdom of Heaven.  Not only must we humbly receive grace and demonstrate our faith by humbling ourselves symbolically in compliance with received directives, we must become beacons of that grace to others.  When people see us or hear our names, they must be able to consciously or subconsciously equate us with goodness, service and humility.  That is what Paul was getting at when he wrote of “putting on Christ”; unlike other garments, the mantle of Jesus comes in one size that really does fit all. 

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