Thus far we have considered the teachings of Jesus concerning those who would profess to be his followers and found that he knew and expected that the majority of them would be false. We have also looked at the reasons that led Paul to write what he did in the scripture quoted above. There are plenty of other scriptures in the New Testament that bear directly on the subject but I believe it would be profitable at this point to consider some of the reasons people have for believing they are bound for heaven.
Earlier we focused on what Jesus had to say about the wide gate and the broad way that leads to destruction in Matthew 7. Consider with me for a moment those who travel that way. I believe you would have to agree with me that none of them expect to be destroyed! To the contrary, they are people who have been presented with a spiritual “gate” and told that it was the way to heaven. This accounts for their utter shock at being rejected.
It should be very obvious that, although they are deceived in their expectations, they nonetheless, in their own minds, have some reason for believing as they do. Indeed, many are very zealous in their religious efforts, even sacrificial. It is clear that, whatever their ground for hope, it is convincing to them.
I have, at various times, heard some amazing statistics as to the percentages of those in American society who not only believe in heaven, but who expect to go there. Especially is this true in the south where I live. Rarely could you attend a funeral in which it would not be clearly conveyed that the deceased had gone to heaven. But is it so? Why do they think so? Oh, I know that a funeral is a deeply emotional time in which the family grasps any source of comfort, but still, there are reasons why people have these expectations. How tragic would it be if those reasons turned out to be false. If Jesus is to be believed then we had best consider these issues while there is time.
There are, of course, many and varied reasons why people expect to go to heaven and I would like, with the Lord’s help to try to examine some of these.
There are many people in the world who associate salvation with a particular church or movement. Something — or someone — has convinced them that their church alone holds the keys to heaven and eternal life. It is their faith in their church rather than a true personal heart faith in Christ that is the foundation of their spiritual life. It could also be that their faith is centered in a particular minister or “prophet” whom they believe has some special or even exclusive revelation from God.
In either case their faith is actually in man in one form or another and that is a dangerous thing. Jesus warned of the blind leading the blind and both falling into the ditch. God isn’t looking for “blind” followers who abdicate their personal spiritual responsibility to seek God and be persuaded by Him.
When most of the crowd in John 6 turned back from following Jesus he didn’t get upset or try to intimidate his disciples into obedience. He simply turned to them and said, “Will you also go away?” KJV. He trusted his Father. He understood that it was his Father’s job to reveal to men who he was that they might believe. Peter and the others didn’t need any outward convincing. Though they didn’t understand WHAT Jesus had said any more than those who had turned away did yet they remained convinced in their hearts just WHO Jesus was. They knew and believed that he had the words of eternal life.
To the unbelieving religious leaders who questioned the source of his message Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” John 7:17. He knew that if their hearts were truly seeking God and the reason for their wanting to know was SO THAT THEY MIGHT DO HIS WILL, God would bear witness concerning His Son.
That is a key point. Many people inquire intellectually into the things of God but unless their motivation is a genuine desire to do His will what good does their inquiry do? In fact, Jesus actually thanked his Father for hiding truth from “the wise and the prudent” and revealing it unto “babes.” Matt. 11:25-26, KJV. God, Who can see into the utmost depths of our hearts, responds only to true seekers. He is not in the business of satisfying intellectual curiosity and pride.
Paul commended the members of the synagogue in Berea for their willingness to search the scriptures to see whether the things Paul was telling them were so. He didn’t want anyone believing something just because he said it. Any true minister of God desires that people search the Word and seek God about what he preaches. He knows that he is but an instrument and that the God that has sent him will be faithful to confirm the message to those for whom it is intended.
But there are many movements and preachers that rely heavily on convincing their followers that “they are the only ones.” There are many means used to achieve this. One of these might be a long and impressive tradition coupled with great numbers of followers. How could so many be wrong? Another related way that some people become convinced is for a movement to point to its rapid growth and success as though that were a sign of divine approval. Yet clearly, in Matt. 7, Jesus said that “many” would be on the wrong road and “few” on the right one! Think about that!
Some religious leaders even seize on this and build small and sometimes fanatical movements around some offbeat doctrine or principle. One example of this that comes to mind are those who lay great stress on using the correct “divine names” for the Father and Son as though the Father wouldn’t receive them unless they used precisely the right name! There are a number of such groups and they don’t even agree among themselves as to exactly what those names are! I’ve seen many variations of the Son’s name, for example, such as Yashua, Yehoshua, and so forth, each one claiming that their version of the name is the only one that will be respected. One thing they generally have in common, though, is the belief that those of us who worship “God” and “Jesus” are on the road to hell and it is their mission to straighten us out!
There are people who are attracted to such offbeat and exclusive beliefs as this and their hope is in their adherence to their special “revelation” and to the group that promotes it. We frequently have people write to us to try and straighten us out regarding their pet doctrine — as though God would send us to hell unless we saw and accepted it!
I’ve had people write to me trying earnestly to warn about the curse of observing Christmas. I’ve had others really strive to convince me that it was necessary to adopt a certain lifestyle — like not owning property, for instance — to be considered a true follower of Christ. Others — and this applies to some large movements — lay great stress on what day of the week is set aside for spiritual observance and worship. Others are just as fixated on a particular doctrine of the Godhead.
There is a spirit behind this kind of thing and it is not God’s Spirit. It is one that seeks to bring people into spiritual captivity and false hope through error and misplaced emphasis. “Christ and him crucified” is not the center of their message. “Evangelism” is pretty much an effort to convince people of the special doctrine as though that were the key to everything. They are among a favored few headed for heaven — and you could be too if you would only embrace their doctrine and church or become a follower of their prophet!
Often a human personality is at the center of such things. By whatever means, intimidation often being one of them, the followers are convinced that their spiritual destiny lies in obeying and following without question. Their place is not to question, not to pray, not to search the Word, not to honestly seek God from their hearts, but simply to believe and do as the leader says. A cult-like devotion to that kind of leader is just another of Satan’s devices to lead men astray that they might ultimately be destroyed. This kind of leadership is a twisted counterfeit of the genuine heaven-sent kind that loves and serves and encourages people to seek God for themselves. It perverts the character of real spiritual authority.
These are but a few examples of this kind of “faith” but the common denominator is simply this: the person’s “faith” and hope are in their church, their movement, their denomination, their pastor or prophet, their adherence to some special doctrine, etc. At its best it is a “second-hand” faith, a human persuasion to follow another’s conviction. This violates completely what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 13:5 when he exhorted us to “examine yourselves” and “test yourselves.” Pointing to someone else and saying, “He led me astray,” will not be a defense on the judgment day. What God wants is to bring people into a personal living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When that happens there is not only a vital relationship with the Father and His Son but also with every other genuine believer in the world, whatever label they may wear.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that any and everything that calls itself Christian is OK. Not by a long shot! The world is full of error and apostasy. Yet at the present time there is a true remnant of believers scattered throughout the many religious systems. Among them you will no doubt find a great variety of belief depending on their religious exposure but the absolutely necessary common denominator is a living personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I believe doctrine is important and that the Lord desires to teach us and to deliver us from the traditions of men but I don’t believe the Lord will ask anyone on the judgment day whether they are Calvinist or Arminian, or whether they worshipped on Saturday or Sunday, and so forth. The burning issue will be whether they bowed the knee to Jesus Christ, trusting in His death alone for their righteousness and the gift of eternal life.
There is a particular variety of “second-hand” faith that is, I fear, all too common. This occurs in places where there is some true faith and is most manifest in following generations. It is often found in those who grow up in the church and “learn to be Christians” without ever being born again. They learn what to say and do. They learn how to act. They grow up to embrace — mentally at least — the doctrines to which they are exposed. They engage in religious activity — even ministry. They respond to gospel appeals and are baptized. They may even express their religion with great emotion. To all outward appearances they are Christians.
But are they? As it has often been said, “God has no grandchildren.” Mama’s faith won’t take you to heaven. Real Christianity is not a lifestyle to be learned and practiced. I don’t care who your preacher is or what great Christians your parents or grandparents are. Unless you are personally born of God’s Spirit you are on the road to hell.
That is clearly one of the central points that Jesus made in the parable of the ten virgins of Matthew 25. Each one needed his own oil. A mere lamp of religious profession wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter that the foolish virgins were outwardly living a “virgin” lifestyle, appearing to onlookers to be real believers. What mattered was what they didn’t have on the inside. And the great tragedy is the warning of Jesus that many will only wake up to their lost condition when it is too late to do anything about it.
There are a number of causes of this kind of condition. One of the most common is a careless presumption on the part of the true believers. The relative prosperity and ease of American society tends to beget a spiritual laziness. We tend to think that “good services” and “good Bible preaching” are enough. After all our kids “come forward” and “profess Christ” and live reasonably moral lives. What’s the problem?
Unfortunately this is a perfect description of the kind of spiritual slumber of which the scriptures warn. There is no real sense of the spiritual warfare to which we have been called. I Timothy 6:12. There is a failure to appreciate what it takes to see people truly come to Christ in saving faith. It is only when Zion travails that she brings forth.
Listen to how Paul describes salvation in Col. 1:13: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Satan’s power is real and being born into a Christian home or a Bible-believing church does not exempt people from his dominion. Such people need to be rescued just as much as drug addicts, adulterers, and murderers — perhaps more!
In 2 Cor. 10:4 Paul said, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” Paul was referring to such weapons as persevering prayer and anointed preaching. It is through anointed preaching that God saves sinners but preaching that is not solidly backed with prayer is not enough. There is demonic power that holds sinners captive, including sinners that have been brought up in the church. Nowhere in the scriptures are we led to believe that we can sit back and let the preacher save our kids.
Another great factor in second-hand faith is that people who grow up in church do not really know they are sinners. They grow up to some degree in an atmosphere of moral principle and thus avoid much of the more obvious moral corruption of the surrounding world. Satan takes advantage of this to hide from their eyes their true condition.
They come forward to “accept Christ” without ever really being sinners in their own eyes and having a true understanding of their peril and why they need a Savior in the first place. One has only to compare the modern gospel with, say, the memoirs of Charles G. Finney to see the difference. There was such an anointing, such an atmosphere of travailing prayer in his work that sinners were brought to a state of deep conviction, groaning, weeping, and crying out to God for mercy. Often, they couldn’t even lift up their eyes, so conscious were they of their utter sinfulness before a holy God. It was only when they were brought to such a state that they were introduced to the Savior and the blessed hope of the gospel. How perfectly prepared were they then to gladly bow at His feet!
Christ did not die to cover your mistakes and fill in the gaps in your righteousness. You have no righteousness. He died to save sinners. And God doesn’t make a difference between “good” sinners and “bad” sinners. There is no such thing. Romans 3:22b-23 says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Until we see that without Christ we are just as deserving of hell as the worst sinner we can think of we just haven’t got the picture.
I’m sure that Isaiah had a reasonably good “self-image” before his vision in chapter 6. After all, he was a prophet of God, warning of sin and judgment and promoting righteousness. But when he saw that great vision of the glory of God every illusion of self-righteousness was completely shattered. Then he understood. Isaiah 6:5 says, “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’”
Just telling someone that they fall short of the glory of God doesn’t really convey much unless they have some sense of just how incredibly pure and holy that glory is. Heaven will not suffer the least taint of so much as one impure thought, one wrong motive or action. God means to eradicate sin from His universe. Multitudes who expect to go to heaven have not the least clue of their unfitness to go there.
In most places today the preachers are afraid to preach about sin, judgment, hell, the cross, and the blood of Christ as the only atonement for our sins. It does not fit in with their “seeker-friendly” view of things. But even where the truth is preached, unless people are brought to a true conviction of their lost condition where they see that unless they fall at the feet of Jesus in heart surrender they will be justly cast into hell by a holy God, their “faith” will be superficial and false. I’m not suggesting that everyone must be brought to a certain state of emotional upheaval, that is, have exactly the same experience, to be saved. What I am saying, however, is that these truths cannot be bypassed. I am also saying that for these truths to be pressed home to people’s hearts by the Spirit of God there must be heaven-sent, anointed preaching, backed up by prevailing prayer. Nothing less will break Satan’s power.
Unless these conditions prevail two things will result — and I’m not sure which one is worse. Some will grow up, appear to be Christians, only to be drawn away by the world. Others will remain in the church, some even joining the ministry, until the handful of older members who have real faith will wake up one day and wonder what happened. What happened is that while the true remnant slept the devil took over. Second, third, and fourth-generation “Christians” are now running things and those who come in from the outside have been converted to their empty faith. This tragedy has been repeated countless times in our land. How the devil must be rejoicing.
What about you? Do you have “second-hand faith”? Has God really changed you on the inside? Read Hebrews, chapter 11. Do you have the kind of faith recorded there? Are God and His kingdom so real to you that the world, and sin, and even your own life have lost their hold on your heart?
Real faith is fundamentally a choice. It begins when God reveals Himself to our hearts. He brings His truth and will to bear on our lives, not as something merely intellectual, but in a way that confronts our wills. We are brought to a clear fork in the road. In one direction lies the path of continued self-will and rebellion that leads to destruction. In the other lies the path of surrender and faith that leads to eternal life.
We must choose and that choice affects everything thereafter. If we serve God we cannot do as we have done, live as we have lived, serve what we have served. That choice sets us forever at variance with the world and its ways. We cannot say yes to God without saying no to the world. Through the very act of believing God we are joining in His condemnation of the world and all it stands for.
Noah expressed his faith through building an ark, ignoring the ridicule of the unbelieving, soon-to-perish world. The word says, “By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Heb. 11:7.
Abraham’s faith impelled him to abandon homeland and family and to live his life as a stranger in a foreign country. It brought him to the very brink of offering the son of promise as a sacrifice, God intervening as Abraham held the knife above his son. He saw a reality to which others around him were blind. His trust in God’s Person and His promises was complete.
Moses, raised in the luxury and privilege of the courts of Egypt was brought to a choice. Hebrews 11:25-26 tells us, “He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”
Throughout the remainder of Hebrews 11 you will see what it cost people to serve God in a hostile world as they made clear choices to serve Him against the pull of every earthly desire and the threat of every earthly danger. Think of Daniel. Think of the three Hebrew children cast into the fiery furnace. Think of all the others described in verses 32-40.
Contrast them with the rich young ruler. With divine wisdom, Jesus touched the very center of the man’s earthly affection and he chose to go away sadly.
Consider the Israelites who perished in the wilderness. They had a kind of faith for a time. They saw the miracles. They danced on the far shore of the Red Sea when they saw the pursuing Egyptian army destroyed in the sea. They followed Moses. Yet, at best, their faith was of the “second-hand” variety. They were outwardly convinced by the miracles and by the conviction of Moses and glad to leave a life of slavery. However, at heart, they were unbelievers and their second-hand faith couldn’t stand up to the tests to which God subjected them.
Nothing short of the real thing will keep us in this world and take us to heaven. And no one is more interested in our coming into possession of real faith than God.
Another class of people on the broad road are those who “had an experience.” They saw something. They heard something. They felt something. They had a vision. They spoke in tongues. And so forth. Their “faith” is heavily dependent on a God they can detect in some way with their senses.
Such people can often be found among those who emphasize the experiential side of religion. Their services tend to be measured by the level of emotion and by the “manifestations” produced. Real religion to them is something they can see and feel. Often they are disdainful of those who emphasize the Word and doctrine. I remember many years ago visiting this kind of church and hearing the minister say, “You’ve got the doctrine, but I’ve got the experience!” There may be an element of truth in what he said but the fact remains that there are plenty of lost church members in both categories!
I remember a woman many years who was strongly attracted to this kind of religion. She lived a life of awful spiritual bondage yet clung to a profession of salvation. It seems that some forty years earlier she had been in one these churches and had had an experience in which she said, in her words, “I saw a light.” That was her testimony. That, to her, was proof positive that she had been “saved.” She loved religious services where people’s emotions were worked up into a deep fervor. Away from that kind of atmosphere her life was nothing but bondage and defeat. God alone knows but her evident lack of any real faith did not exactly encourage confidence in the reality of her experience.
Paul described this kind of “experience” mentality in I Cor. 1:22 where he said, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom.” Actually, this verse describes two different false approaches to real faith in Christ. The mentality of the Greeks caused them to approach faith through their intellects, trying to understand the things of God through human reason. Of course, Paul, being himself a Jew, understood how the Jews in general thought. They couldn’t be convinced of anything in the spiritual realm unless it was accompanied by something they could see or feel — something that they believed was a supernatural “sign” from God. Thus Greeks had to understand their religion while Jews had to feel it.
Of course, God is indeed a God of miracles and He can and does sometimes invade people’s lives in ways that affect their physical senses. The trouble is that Satan can and does do the same things! In fact there are many warnings in scripture concerning Satan’s efforts to deceive through signs and lying wonders. Matthew 24:24 is just one example. In view of such warnings, how do you know your experience was really from God? Experience is no foundation for faith. Faith that rests on experiences and feelings is no faith at all. It has no real spiritual substance. It can come and go as feelings rise and fall.
I am not saved because I “feel” saved. In fact my feelings are often just the opposite. Real believers are called to “walk by faith” and to “live by faith.” 2 Cor. 5:7, Hebrews 10:38. Real faith can express itself through our emotions but emotions are no proof — one way or the other — of the reality of faith. Genuine believers may struggle through seasons of darkness and doubt as God allows their faith to be tried. On the other hand religious people may ride waves of emotion and supposed divine manifestation, appearing outwardly to be deeply spiritual and yet have nothing of real spiritual substance.
I am persuaded that many people in this religious category are not really any different from drug addicts! The addict uses his drug to get “high.” Then he comes down from that high, often to a terrible low, and is driven to use more drugs to restore the high he has come to crave. A lot of religious people are like that. Their religion consists of participating in highly emotional services and coming away all pumped up—in other words, high. They “feel” full of faith and victory. Then the high wears off, the feelings sink, and they must pursue another religious “fix.” They are convinced that all that positive emotion is evidence of God’s Spirit at work and furthermore that they are very spiritual for having experienced it. Yet they have no real anchor for their souls, no stability, and no ability to walk by faith alone because they have no real faith!
Saving faith is not a human thing at all, but is supernatural. It is a gift of God bestowed on undeserving sinners who repent and believe the gospel. It is based solely on the grace of God and not on anything we do in the way of righteous works. Eph. 2:8-9. It resides deep on the inside, in our spirits, far deeper than the realm of mere emotions and sensations and is independent of them. It is the fruit of a Divine work in the heart and causes us to trust in Christ and Christ alone. As the old song says, “All other ground is sinking sand.”
Closely related to those who lean on experience and feeling are those who major on the miraculous, of whom we spoke earlier. Their spiritual world centers on signs, wonders, and miracles. They gravitate to those who produce them or else they may themselves perform miracles. Clearly, from the teachings of Jesus, none of these things is any evidence of saving faith. Don’t forget the “evildoers” of Matt. 7:21-23 who will say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?”
Satan uses the natural attraction of human beings to the miraculous to serve his own evil ends. If he can convince people that his miracles actually come from God then he can work to convince those who follow them that they are true followers of God.
The love of the miraculous is a misplaced emphasis. Signs and wonders are not the pinnacle of spirituality. Jesus didn’t perform miraculous signs to entertain, nor were they an end in themselves. A sign — assuming that it is a genuine sign of Divine origin — is just that — a “sign.” The job of a sign is to point to something. Suppose you wanted to go to New York and as you approached the city you came upon a sign that said, “New York, 10 miles.” Would you stop and jump up and down with glee at the sign? Would you treat the sign as your destination? Of course, not! The function of the sign is to help direct you to your destination, New York.
It is true that many of the miracles of Jesus expressed the compassion of God towards a needy people but their true function was to bear witness to who he was. Why was that important? It was important because of the message he preached. The MESSAGE, the WORD OF GOD was the thing God wanted people to receive. The thing that held the disciples when so many went back in John 6 was not the miracles but their conviction that Jesus had “the words of eternal life.” Verse 68. Believing in the miracles was meaningless unless it led to heart faith in those words from God.
That’s why I have little confidence in those who glory in the miraculous, yet have little or no patience for the ministry of the Word of God. God gives birth to His children through His Word and in no other way. James 1:18, I Peter 1:23-25. Those born of that Word have an appetite for it. They can be thankful when God moves in an unusual way but they understand that man lives by “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matt. 4:4.
Mark 16:20 says, “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” That’s the function of the miraculous. It points to the message — the Word of life. That Word is the heart and center of God’s work in the earth. People may even become followers of genuine miracles and yet never really understand, never really embrace that Word from their hearts. That certainly was the case with multitudes of people who followed Jesus at various times.
Closely related to this is Christian service. What Jesus said in Matt. 7 applies to more than just a miracle-oriented ministry. It includes any kind of so-called Christian ministry carried out by the broad-road crowd, moved by zeal and religious self-will and not by Christ. It could include most anything from preaching to teaching Sunday school to leading or singing in the choir to working in a ministry office, and so forth.
Never before have there been so many large and outwardly impressive ministry organizations as we see in the land today. We see multi-million-dollar budgets, outreach that spans the globe, mega-churches, books on best-seller lists, movies, a thriving gospel music business. And on and on. Is Christ the author of all of it? He is the ultimate judge but I believe we would be shocked to see just how much modern religious activity will be disavowed on the judgment day.
“What do you mean you never knew me? Don’t you know I preached to millions? Don’t you remember how I sang for you in great concerts? Didn’t you see all the money we raised? how many orphans we supported? What about that ten million dollar church we built for your glory? And television! Don’t you remember all of our great television productions? the market share we achieved? Don’t you remember my dedicated sacrificial work in the office, mailing out literature, answering the phone? What do you mean you don’t know me? How can this be?
What were the folks in Matt. 7 trusting in? What was, to them, the evidence that they were the Lord’s and headed for heaven? It was what they did! It was their Christian service! Unfortunately — and especially so in this day — it is all too easy to rise to great popularity and achieve great things in the realm of religion without ever being born again! The modern gospel has opened the gates wide to all kinds of people, many of them very talented people, and God alone knows who among them really knows Him. Clearly, however, Christian service is no evidence of salvation.
The problem is that the kind of religious activity of which Jesus spoke is really a form of self-righteousness. Those people never were brought to the feet of Jesus as penitent broken sinners. Instead they come offering their services, in effect selling their services to Jesus in return for salvation. Of course, they would never conceive of it that way but that’s what is happening. What penitent broken sinner would actually argue with the Lord, pointing to their works? On the other hand what penitent broken sinner would the Lord ever despise or reject? No, the crowd Jesus describes are just lost sinners in religious clothes — or as he put it, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” And the worst thing is that they don’t even know it.
Another class of people who expect to go to heaven are those who think of themselves as “good” people. These are people who go to church, pay their bills, give to charity and are, in general, characterized by good moral principles. They pride themselves on good works and are very resistant to any attempt to show them their true sinful condition. Their optimistic self-evaluation is the result of comparing themselves with others. When someone else falls they may even harbor feelings of smug self-satisfaction on the inside, saying, “I’m glad I’m not like that.”
Jesus described this kind of person when he spoke of the two men who went up to the temple to pray. Of the first one Jesus said, “The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” Luke 18:11-12. What nauseating self-righteousness! And notice how he compared himself with the other man—very favorably, of course!
Many evangelicals will, naturally, declare that they know better than that. They know that we are not saved by works, but are sinners, saved by the grace of God—that is, they mentally acknowledge those doctrines. But I am persuaded that many people have never had their true condition exposed by a revelation of God’s holiness. If you were to ask one of them if he considered himself to be a “good person” he might well say yes. Of course, he might know enough not to say so yet still feel that way on the inside! That is totally contrary to the Word of God! Jesus said, “No one is good—except God alone.” Luke 18:19.
They make the tragic mistake of comparing themselves with other men instead of comparing themselves with God’s holiness. It is only when they can be brought to do the latter that they can be made to throw up their hands and feel their utter need of a Savior. There is so much pride in religion that it must make God sick.
We all battle pride but a true believer knows what he is. He would never claim to be “good.” Consider the words of Paul who said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” I Tim. 1:15. The message of the gospel is not to elevate people’s behavior so God will accept them; it is to shine the light of God’s holiness into the darkness of human hearts that they might fall in grateful surrender before the feet of an all-sufficient Savior.
Perhaps there is no category of “broad road” travelers more tragic than the multitudes whose hope of heaven is based upon a “decision” they made sometime in the past to “accept Christ.” I am by no means saying that God has not saved people who have “gone forward” during an “altar call” and “accepted Christ.” What I am saying is that this process has become overwhelmingly superficial and empty.
In far too many places the basic facts of the gospel have been distilled into an over-simplified formula that serves to do little more than to fill church rolls with members who have a false hope of heaven. We have touched on this before, but when preachers, moving by tradition and human ability, many of them not even saved themselves, preach a simple salvation “formula,” and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit is absent, people can make “decisions” and pray little formula prayers all they want to and nothing eternal will happen. The result of this propagation of “easy-believism” is, on the one hand, a lot of disillusioned people who become gospel-hardened, and on the other, deceived church members.
The worst thing is that in many places this method of producing converts is coupled with the Bible doctrine of the security of the believer. The result is that millions of church members have been indoctrinated to believe that because they came forward and “accepted Christ” they are eternally secure. On top of that many preachers are careful to divorce the “free gift” of salvation from any real obligation to live for God! Discipleship is optional! And so churches are filled with people whose hearts are unchanged yet believe they are Christians and bound for heaven when they die. In a real sense, those who remain professing Christians are just as gospel-hardened as those who go out in disillusionment. It is well-nigh impossible to awaken them to their true need. They “accepted Christ” and were “saved.” The preacher said so.
And the preachers who preach this kind of gospel are often fired with great zeal and fully believe that they are setting multitudes on the road to heaven. If they can just get people to “make a decision” then their eternal destiny will be secure. They tally up all the souls that have been “saved” and imagine that their reward will be great.
When I speak like this I am certainly not talking about a true preaching of the gospel where God is at work and people are brought to repentance and faith, but rather a superficial counterfeit. Preachers go to school to learn how to save souls like a mechanic learns how to fix car engines. No divine call or anointing required. I remember years ago encountering the teachings of a minister who had constructed a soul-winning script. He taught that if people sincerely took prospective converts through the script and they prayed the prayer at the end, they would be saved! It’s too bad the apostles didn’t know about his script! It would have made their work a lot easier! And poor Finney! Here he thought he needed the power of God’s Spirit and mighty prayer warriors!
There are many religious people who look with disdain at the promoters of easy-believism, who unfortunately go all the way over into the other ditch. What they emphasize is “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” Heb. 12:14. In many cases they are part of churches and religious movements whose roots go back to some real men of God. They were men who saw the error of empty profession and so were moved to emphasize the need for changed hearts and separated lives.
Unfortunately, as time passed, the tendency has been for “holiness” to be defined much as the Pharisees defined obedience to the law: in a lot of outward do’s and don’ts. Their religion is characterized by certain ways of dressing and wearing their hair and by a list of habits and activities they avoid. This to them constitutes holy living and makes them acceptable to God. Like the Pharisees they are able to mask wicked hearts with external behavior that conforms to their particular concept of holiness. Attitudes of the heart all-too-often go unchallenged.
Another reaction to those in the other ditch is a rejection of the security of the believer. They rightly see the error of easy-believism, yet reject the truth that believers are “sealed for the day of redemption.” Eph. 4:30. In effect, they are saved by grace, but kept through holy living—as they have come to define it, of course. As long as they “walk the straight and narrow” they consider themselves to be on the road to heaven, yet they are taught that they can fall away and go to hell. Some even teach that they can be saved, lost, saved again, and so forth.
The religion of many of these people is just prideful self-righteousness. God hates it. Whereas some make the mistake of divorcing salvation from works altogether, they make the mistake of believing that their own works are part of their spiritual foundation. They are depending on them to get to heaven. But you cannot mix grace and works, not in the foundation. If you are on any foundation other than Christ then you have no foundation.
The grace of God is not extended to those who work but to those who believe. Rom. 4:5. Yet it is not faith WITHOUT works but a faith THAT works. James 2:14-26, Gal. 5:6. Saving faith is life-changing. Yet the change it produces is one of the heart. It is from the inside out, not one of outward conformity to a religious standard of “holiness.”
Another category of religious people often found on the broad road are those who try to approach the things of God through their own intellects. We have already referred to Paul’s assessment of the Greeks who “look for wisdom.” Certainly God does not bypass our minds but the error of these people is they elevate their own ability to think and reason to a place of pride and presumption that God never intended.
They have no idea what it means to receive and enter into the kingdom “as a little child.” Luke 18:17. They seem not to grasp the truth that God has “hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Matt. 11:25. They miss what Paul said in I Cor. 8:2 that “Knowledge puffs up.” Unlike Paul they value “eloquence” and “superior wisdom.” I Cor. 2:1.
I have met many people who were obviously very proud of their efforts to study the Bible. They loved to read the scholars, the theologians. They loved doctrinal debate, relying on their scholarly efforts to establish their superior knowledge of truth. They felt very superior to “ordinary” Christians who didn’t dig into the Greek and the Hebrew as they did. Yet these are the very kinds of people that God hides truth from.
It’s not that Bible study is bad but there is a great difference in a prideful reliance on one’s own intellect and in humbly looking to God. How many of these know enough to just wait on God with the attitude, “Lord, I don’t know anything as I ought to know it. I can’t know anything at all unless you show me. Please open my eyes to the things you want me to see and if it pleases you not to show me something then I’m willing to trust you and remain ignorant”? And beyond that, WHY do you want to know? Is it so you can love and serve Him better? Is it out of a genuine and humble desire to help the Lord’s sheep? As we said earlier, God’s truth is not for the intellectually curious, nor is it available to those who desire to possess it for any other prideful, selfish reason such as to be known and praised for their knowledge.
But the man who doesn’t understand and relies on his own mind will try to figure it out anyway! He thinks that God has placed spiritual knowledge within the reach of man’s natural intellect and all that is required is a diligent effort to obtain it. Jesus spoke to some of this type in his day: “You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39-40.
In spite of all their study of the very scriptures that spoke of Jesus, they were completely unable to recognize him when he came. I have met a lot of people in whom I detected no real spiritual understanding, yet who exhibited great pride in all they “knew.” I’ve known people, for example, who just love to dig into obscure passages of the Old Testament prophets to try to figure out the next thing that’s supposed to happen in the Middle East. That’s another subject, but to many such things are largely an intellectual game. They love study and debate yet show little or no evidence of the grace of God at work in their lives.
This is not so much a category of religious types as it is a facet of the modern church world that bears comment. In modern church culture “worship” is a certain kind of music, a style of singing (and performing), and, in many places, a popular activity. People go away to schools and seminars to learn how to be “worship leaders.” They learn the techniques that enable them to guide people through an emotional time of musical expression they call worship.
Now I want to hasten to say that there are no doubt people involved who are genuinely worshipping God. Praise God! He knows who you are. But I’m afraid that much of it feels more like technique and religious culture than it does real worship. You say, “How can you say that? Don’t you hear the words? Can’t you feel the deep emotions being expressed?” Of course I do but like so much that is religious a lot of it feels more human and natural than it does spiritual.
Consider the scriptures. King David, among his many qualities and abilities, was a fine musician who loved to worship God. His love of music dated from his youth when he would play and sing to the Lord while tending his father’s sheep. Of course, we know him best as the author of most of the Psalms, which were the hymns of his day. After he became king he established many worship activities which became an ongoing part of the religious life of the Jews. They had choirs and musicians of all sorts. Read I Chronicles 15 and 16. From time to we see later references to these activities such as during the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chronicles 5 and 6.
Yet look at the prophecies of Amos later on during a time of great apostasy in Israel. The songs were still being sung. The instruments were still being played. Had you asked the people what they were doing they would no doubt have said that they were worshipping God. But how did God feel about it? In Amos 5:23 He said, “Away with the noise of your songs? I will not listen to the music of your harps.” In chapter 6 there is a prophecy of woe to those who are “complacent” in Zion. In verse 5 the Lord says, “You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments.”
Obviously, there is a lot more to worship than certain kinds of music and emotional expression. Such things can be done on a purely human level and enjoyed by great throngs of people. Does that necessarily mean that God recognizes all of that expression as worship? I’ve seen things classified as worship that felt more like entertainment to me. And you don’t have to be a Christian to love to sing and to be stirred emotionally. The point is that it is all too easy to enjoy and participate in such activities and to feel really good afterwards and not necessarily know the Lord. I’m sure that there will be people who will be very upset with me for saying so but it needs to be said. Too much is at stake.
No doubt a lot more could be said to set forth things that people wrongly rely on as evidence they are headed for heaven but perhaps this will be enough to provoke thought and prayer. As I said earlier, no one is more interested than God is in you having genuine faith and a solid hope of heaven. He is not looking to keep people out of heaven on “technicalities.” But there is no substitute for the real thing and Satan has promoted so many would-be substitutes that there is a need for truth in this area.
Recently, I obtained an interesting book by George Barna. He is the Directing Leader of the Barna Research Group, Ltd., a research company that studies, among other things, religion in America. The particular book was “The State of the Church 2002” and was a summary of quite a bit of polling conducted throughout 2002 on such subjects as the churchgoing habits of Americans, their beliefs about God, Christ, the Bible, salvation, and so forth. At the end of the book the author wrote a chapter entitled, “Challenges to the Church” based on the research.
I found Challenge #5 to contain some particularly interesting observations on the modern church world. With their permission I would like to quote the section entitled
“Americans know all about Jesus but surprisingly few know Him. Can you imagine really knowing Him and being merely lukewarm about being His disciple? That’s exactly what we have in the U.S., though, as evidenced by the preponderance of notional Christians — and even the lackadaisical spirituality of millions of non-evangelical born again Christians.
“My interpretation of this condition is that we have simply made it too easy to be part of the Church. Christianity has no cost in America. In fact, we’ve made it way too easy to be ‘born again’ — perhaps much easier than Jesus intended.
“Consider this: in the 1960s, Boomers” [people born in the years immediately following World War II] “were angry about the hypocrisy of religious institutions and individuals, and shunned the church world. Today, nearly half of the born again adults and a majority of Protestant pastors are Boomers. What happened? It has less to do with Boomers having children and wanting their offspring to have religion than it has to do with savvy consumerism. Boomers, after all, are the wealthiest, best-educated and the most consumption-oriented generation in the nation’s history. So when it came to the faith arena, what happened? They played Let’s Make A Deal.
“Boomers were exposed to faith-based marketing pitches that offered them eternal salvation as a free gift if they would simply say the required prayer. ‘God loves you, humankind blew the relationship, but He has a plan for your life; just saying the magic words triggers the contract’ was the essential message of the offer. Boomers studied the offer and realized it was a no-lose proposition: eternal security at nothing down, no future payments, just simple verbal assent. The deal specified nothing about life change — sure, there were some vague promises about this being the best decision one could ever make and how it would change a person’s life forever, but there were no detailed requirements or sacrifices demanded.
“The result has been a transaction consummated with tens of millions of Americans in which the ‘free gift’ of salvation was claimed with no substantive reciprocation — no commitment, no change, no responsibility. In essence, we lost sight of the fact that to truly embrace this precious gift of God’s Son, we must be like Him in personal brokenness. But our research shows that few ‘born again’ Christians, despite having some appropriate doctrinal notions and having said the requisite prayer, never experienced the deep spiritual brokenness that enabled them to realize Jesus Christ was, is and will forever be their only hope of experiencing genuine meaning, purpose and salvation. Instead of broken people eternally grateful for the sacrifice and grace extended to them, we have millions of people who have simply tried to exploit God — people for whom salvation is little more than a fire insurance policy they won’t think about until the Devil comes knockin’. In the interim we witness a ‘born again’ population that is indistinguishable from the rest of the nation — and has very limited credibility when it comes to promoting genuine Christianity.
“The American Church is the world’s primary exporter of cheap grace. At some point, though, poor products come back to haunt the producer. Welcome to the haunting time.
“At what stage do we bite the bullet and acknowledge that God does not need a majority to accomplish His will, instead He seeks people who will surrender their own grand plans in order to live for Him? When do we get to the point at which we accept smaller numbers of intensely devoted people rather than feverishly investing in filling auditoriums and stadiums with massive numbers of the lukewarm ‘Christians’ that Jesus promised to spew from His mouth (Rev. 3:16)? What might cause us to acknowledge that, yes, faith in God is good, but even the demons believe in God — and that it takes more than a naive, inch-deep faith in Christ to become part of a Church that truly honors God?”
Ouch! But I believe that he is exactly right. Is it not time to examine ourselves? But how do we do that? Can we have spiritual rest? Can we have confidence toward God? Can we know?