For all who believe in heaven and hell, it is important to know what you have to do to get into heaven. Protestants are often reminded of St Paul’s teaching in Romans, so important to Martin Luther, that people are justified by faith, not by works (Romans 3:28), that is not by simply keeping God’s law. Thanks to Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, we know that God is willing to suffer our sins yet forgive us, and offer us his friendship and Holy Spirit. The word “justified” implies “not guilty”: people who believe in God’s forgiveness discover that they are treated as friends by God, as though they were not guilty of sin. Of course they are guilty of sin, so “justified” is a slightly misleading term. I would say they are forgiven, rather than justified. God’s love is expressed in his forgiveness of sinners.
If people are justified by faith, that also suggests that they qualify for heaven. Surely only the truly guilty go to hell. But even Luther knew that more was needed for salvation, for example, baptism—of which more soon.
I prefer to talk about atonement rather than salvation, because it refers to being at one with God here and now, rather than being focussed on judgement in the hereafter. Forgiveness removes the barrier of guilt that keeps us from approaching God, but what about the barrier of sin that prevents us from accepting his will? To be at one with God we clearly need more than faith in His forgiveness. We need “sanctification”, which involves repentance: acknowledging our sinful nature and dedicating ourselves to the will of God. That is where adult baptism is so important: a public act of repentance followed by a symbolic act of cleansing and thus renewal, with the promise of grace to come. It commits one to a lifetime of repentance and renewal.
Will those who believe in God’s forgiveness but refuse to repent get into heaven? I have no idea. But if people reject the love and lordship of God, they would hardly be willing to worship him, so they would not be comfortable in heaven. So perhaps repentance as well as faith in God’s forgiveness is needed to enjoy heaven.
All this is quite familiar to most Christians. What is seldom explained are the verses in the Bible that say more is required. These are the verses that say God will not forgive people their sins unless they forgive those who sin against them. For instance Matthew 6: 14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Cp. Mark 11: 25) This teaching is supported by the parable of the unjust steward, who, having obtained forgiveness of his debt from his master, refused to forgive those who owed him money, so that his master changed his mind and put him in prison (Matthew 18: 21-35).
If God in his love forgives all sinners, only wishing them to turn from their sins and live well, will he not forgive those who fail to forgive others? Clearly the message here is that it is not enough to commit oneself to God, for example by and act of repentance or by saying the Lord’s Prayer. People must also obey his will to love others as themselves, and as much as possible, live by his Holy Spirit. The intention professed in an act of repentance must be followed by action, by seeking out God’s will for oneself and obeying it. In trying to obey God, Christians find themselves depending more and more upon the guidance and strength of his Holy Spirit. In that way they come to share in the life of God himself, and to express his will, his Word if you like, in their lives.
This interpretation of the challenging passages in Matthew is supported by other parables about who is admitted to heaven., the one about the sheep and the goats, and the other about Lazarus.(check)
So, if people fail to honour God in their deeds, they will perhaps act contrary to his will, causing more destruction and distress than God intended. Although God might forgive sinners, he would not be very happy with the behaviour of those who fail to do his will.
It looks as though admission to heaven depends on works after all, contrary to St Paul’s teaching. However, St Paul’s teaching on how to get to heaven is much more profound than some Protestant teachers have noticed. Entry to heaven depends upon being blessed with God’s life-giving Holy Spirit. He could not put it more plainly: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Çhrist from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8: 11)
So faith in God’s forgiveness is important, and repentance is important, but these are simply prerequisites for life in God’s Spirit. That is the grace that God most wants us to enjoy. St John interprets the sacrament of Holy Communion as an act of accepting Christ symbolically by receiving symbols of his flesh and blood, adding “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” (John 6: 63). His parable of the vine confirms his conviction that unless a person is “in Christ” and “bearing fruit”, he or she will be discarded (John 15: 1-17).
The Christian gospel is about the love of God and his forgiveness of people’s sins. But it is more than that: it is also, and essentially, about the possibility of spiritual transformation, of holiness, and an eternal life. It is about being swept up into the loving life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.