Can we be sure of heaven?
If you ask around, you will receive various answers. Some will say: ‘Be good; live a decent life; help others; live by the golden rule’ (do to others what you would want them to do to you). Others will take a different route: ‘Believe in God; go to church; read the Bible; pray; give to charity’.
But it might be better to let the apostle Paul answer the question. Defending his ministry before a certain king, he said: ‘So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds’ (Acts 26:19-20).
This is how Paul preached Christ. Notice that it was a consistent message to Jews and Gentiles. He always preached the same essential truth. So we need to inquire whether we measure up to the three points the apostle makes.
We must repent
Repentance means literally ‘a change of mind’ but in the Bible it means wholesale change. Change is something we don’t like, but without it we cannot go to heaven. If we didn’t need to change, Jesus didn’t need to come into this world.
We must change. John the Baptist said the same thing, and when Jesus began to preach he also called people to ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’ (Matthew 3:1; 4:17). Why must we change? Because we are sinners. God hates sin and won’t allow us into his presence unless it is dealt with.
The sceptic will ask, ‘Isn’t sin relative? In one country bigamy is a crime whereas other nations allow men to have several wives’. But unlike crime, sin is not measured by human standards but by God’s laws – which we have all broken. ‘Sin is lawlessness’ (1 John 3:4) .
The greatest sin
Which of us has never taken God’s name in vain? Which of us has never stolen or lied or coveted? But it gets worse. When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37). And if that is the greatest commandment, the greatest sin must surely be to fail to love God in that way. We are all guilty and need to repent.
How do we do that? We start by changing our thinking about sin. We need to acknowledge our sins, confess them before God and be truly sorry for them in our heart. How many people have we hurt? How many reputations have we damaged? And what about our sins against God?
But even that is not enough; repentance must involve not only the mind and the heart but also the will – we need to turn from our sin. I have known people who seemed sorry for their sins when they were in trouble, but when their trouble passed so did their sorrow. It is one thing to be sorry for the mess our sins have got us into, but a very different matter to be sorry that we have offended God.
Repentance is the first requirement for salvation. Have you repented?
We must believe
Paul also says we must ‘turn to God’. Faith is often misunderstood. Some say, ‘I believe in God’. That is a starting point but James observes that the demons also believe (James 2:19)!
Faith must be focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, but even here we can be deceived. Some who ‘believed’ in Jesus tried to kill him shortly afterwards (John 8:30, 59). What kind of faith was that? We need to make sure our faith is genuine. Let me suggest three things that are vital.
Faith must be in Christ alone. I have met people who said they believed in Jesus but when asked if they were sure of heaven replied, ‘I’m not sure I’m good enough’. Clearly, their faith was not in Christ alone but in Christ plus works. Paul says that we are made right with God by faith ‘apart from observing the law’ (Romans 3:28). Is your faith like that?
Faith must be focused on the cross. Paul determined to preach ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). There are many things we need to believe about Christ, such as his deity, his humanity and his sinless life. But especially we need to believe in his death and resurrection.
That was the essence of Paul’s gospel (1 Corinthians 15:4). Christ died for our sins. We deserved to die but Jesus took our place. As our substitute he endured our punishment upon the cross – and having finished his work he rose from the dead. Are you trusting in a crucified and risen Saviour?
Faith must involve the whole person. As with repentance, faith begins with the mind. We need to understand and accept what the Bible teaches about Christ and salvation – that the essence of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Faith also involves the heart. There is the danger of just believing in the head. Faith involves trust and love. We rest confidently on the work of the Saviour to secure our salvation.
It also involves the will. There must be total commitment to Christ. It is not about getting a free ticket to heaven, but rather about a personal relationship to the Lord. It is a matter of wholehearted, unconditional submission to Jesus Christ. Is your faith like that?
We must prove our repentance by our deeds
We don’t get to heaven by our good deeds but we don’t get there without them! Does that sound like a contradiction? Ephesians 2:8-10 says we are not saved by good works but we are saved to do good works. The works don’t earn our salvation but they are the evidence of true faith.
We can’t see into a person’s heart to know if their faith is genuine, but we can see the evidence of it in their behaviour. Let me suggest three signs of repentance.
Obedience to God’s Word. Jesus rebuked some who professed to be his disciples: ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?’ (Luke 6:46). Obedience is the sure mark of a Christian. It is absolutely essential, for ‘Without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Hebrews 12:14).
Love for other Christians. Jesus gave the disciples a ‘new commandment’ – ‘Love one another’, adding, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples’ (John 13:34-35). In the early church such love was proverbial – ‘Behold how these Christians love one another’.
How does it work out in practice? First, Christians love to be together. They are a family. Hospitality is not a burden but a privilege. The fellowship is sweet and they love to talk together about the things of God.
They also make sure that no one is in need. A welfare state may take care of many needs but believers help one another not only in practical ways but by love, understanding and sympathy. Anyone who does not love his fellow believer is not a child of God (1 John 3:10).
A healthy appetite is a mark of good health. Sadly, many professing believers don’t show any hunger for the things of God. Peter says that ‘like newborn babies’ we should ‘crave pure spiritual milk’ (1 Peter 2:2). He is referring to what we call the ‘means of grace’, particularly the Bible.
Are you hungry for God’s Word? Do you love to read it? Are you regular in setting aside time for Bible reading and prayer?
How about your love for the preaching of the Word? We should have such a love for this that we never miss an opportunity to learn from Scripture.
How about the prayer meeting? Do you love to meet with other Christians and pray with them? Of course, if you have little concern to pray by yourself, you won’t have a desire for public prayer.
Well, you be the judge – Have you repented? Have you trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation? Does your life give evidence of that change? If not, then do what Paul says – repent, turn to Christ and let your life prove the reality of your conversion.