Last week my wife received a letter from a girl she had visited in the county jail. The girl asked her thoughts on a few questions for a Bible study in their tank, one of which was this:
“If you were in front of God right now, and he asked you, ‘Why should I let you in my Kingdom of Heaven?’, what would your answer be?”
My wife mentioned this to me last Saturday, and after a few moments’ reflection I responded: “Because I want what you want.”
The usual answer is something like this: “Because of the blood of Jesus.” And that is undeniably true. It is only on that basis that we have any claim at all before God the Father. And yet something seemed missing in that response. Yes, I might respond thusly on the basis of Jesus’ blood, but does it follow that I want to? I am not so sure.
Sure, we all think we want to “go to heaven”, but I do not think it is as simple as that. Considering the Beatitudes as reflecting the ethic of the coming kingdom, if we want to live that way now we will be right at home then; if we do not want to live that way now, why do we think we will want to live that way then? Jesus indicated that many would choose not to live that way, and they will be shut out.
We have a choice to begin living now by the ethics of the coming kingdom: one, love God totally, and two, love others as myself. That entails living in forgiveness, humility and other such personal virtues, long a part of the broad Christian tradition.
Loving one’s neighbor as oneself also entails living with others in mind. When we see others oppressed or in dire need, how do we respond? Do we respond? Is this not what it means to hunger and thirst after justice (which is interpersonal, rather than the personalistic “righteousness”?)
John concluded succinctly: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (I John 3:17-20.)
Our ongoing responses here and now determine how much we choose to live, or deny, the love of God, the central ethic of the kingdom. Such love is motivated by the Spirit; if we refuse to respond in compassion, we refuse the Spirit who would change us to respond as God responded to us and wants to respond to the other. If we choose to respond to the promptings of the Spirit and act toward meeting the needs of another, we can take assurance that we are living as he would, that we “belong to the truth.” And the evidence of our changed lives is our assurance of becoming more like him.
The “eternal security of the believer” is not just a theological proposition; it emerges from a changed life, and without that as evidence that we are actualizing God’s love toward others, John concludes that we do not and cannot have that security.
James said something similar: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17.)
The faith that James discusses here requires more than the active acceptance of and alignment to a credal formulation of the nature of Jesus as God’s Son, born of the virgin Mary, killed for our sins, resurrected on the third day, ascended to the Father, who will come again to judge the living and the dead. It includes the understanding that we are to respond to others with the kindness shown to us by God; we are to actualize now what God wants done in the world, one act of love at a time, until he returns to completely fulfill it.
There are limits. Jesus rebuffed those on whom he had had compassion the day before (John 6:26-27.) Unconditional love does not mean that we do whatever others demand; it means responding to others as best we understand without conditions that they respond in any particular way.
One could doubtless rebut this as “works salvation;” I leave that squabble to others. What I want to do is hear what the Scriptures are saying and respond accordingly. Saved by grace alone? Absolutely—and changed by the same grace to actualize that grace toward others.
If we choose now to live the love of God, when asked why God should let us in we can truthfully respond that we want what he wants: to see the kingdom fulfilled in all the earth, and we desire to play an active part. He will be delighted to invite us in.