The Life that Leads to Heaven
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 6, 1996

Readings:
Micah 6:1-8 What does the Lord require of you?
Matthew 5:14-19 The light of the world
Heaven and Hell #528 The life that leads to heaven is not so hard

Whoever breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

Our church interacts with the community and with the world in many ways. The renovations, including the landscaping we are now doing, are a way of saying to the community that this church is an active part of Bridgewater's Central Square. When we host groups such as the Tough Love group that meets here on Monday evenings, we are saying that we want our building to serve the moral and spiritual life of the community. Each one of us, as we go from church to our homes and workplaces, is a messenger of the beliefs and attitudes of our church--even if we don't say a word about them to anyone.

We also interact with the community and the world through a small slot with a brass cover located on the door that goes from the sidewalk into the Sunday School wing hallway. Through that slot each week comes a varied array of letters, flyers, bills, checks, catalogs, and other printed material, giving us a window on the world, and its people and activities. This week, something came through that slot that I would like to read to you. It is a small tract from one of the nearby Baptist churches.

I almost tossed this tract out, but I decided that I might as well read it and see what some of our neighboring churches are doing in the way of outreach. I'm glad I did. Not because I entirely agree with the beliefs that it represents, but because, by contrast, it brings our own church's teachings into a clearer focus.

Two weeks ago our sermon topic was the beliefs of our church about the Lord Jesus, and how those beliefs compare to traditional Christian beliefs outside our church. I am always a little nervous about doing that sort of comparison, because I figure that people who belong to other churches can probably do a better job of explaining their beliefs than I can. I have my own Swedenborgian bias. Whenever I speak about beliefs in the vicarious atonement, as I did two Sundays ago, I have a little voice in the back of my head saying, "Yes, but does anyone really believe that these days? Or was it just something that people believed in Swedenborg's day, but is now out of fashion?"

This time the Lord seems to have answered that voice in the form of this little tract in my hand that came through our mail slot. This tract shows that belief in the vicarious atonement--the belief that Christ saved us by dying to satisfy the death penalty that God the Father had put on our heads because of our sins--the tract showed that this belief is still very much alive and kicking. It also shows how that belief leads to a very different one than our own belief on today's topic: the life that leads to heaven. So I would like to read you most of the tract and comment about it along the way.

The cover of the tract asks the question, "Are You 100% Sure?" Sure of what? We are not left in suspense. The body of the tract starts by saying, "Here is how you can be 100% sure that you are going to Heaven..." There it is! Our topic for today! Let's take a look at how that Baptist Church thinks we can be 100% sure we are going to heaven. Along the way, we will talk about how our church can give... well... perhaps 95% assurance that we are going to heaven. That 5% uncertainty ought to keep us on our toes and growing spiritually!

The tract offers us six steps to be sure we are going to heaven.

Step 1:

Realize and acknowledge: "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," Romans 3:23.

Yes, all men, including you, have come short of Heaven because of sin.

Our church does not have any argument with this. All of us have sinned. However, we might recoil from this statement because "sin" is a loaded word these days. Why don't we put it in more common language and take a little poll. If any of you can honestly say that you have never in your entire life said or done anything that you knew was wrong--something that was hurtful to someone else or to yourself--please raise your hand now... No response? So much for getting the congregation involved in the sermon!

When we think about it, we all know that we have said and done things that we knew were wrong and hurtful. This is what "sin" means in our church's teachings. And as the tract says, we have all done it.

Step 2:

Realize and acknowledge: "the wages of sin is death," Romans 6:23.

All men die physically, but all men do not die spiritually. You can be born again through Jesus Christ and be saved from the penalty of sin which is an eternal hell, a place of "fire and brimstone, which is the second death," Revelation 21:8. (emphasis in the original)

Now we have some problems. First, we do not take the Biblical "fire and brimstone" literally. Instead, we see them as physical images of the fire of hatred and brimstone of self-centered love fueling that fire when we turn away from the Lord and toward our own selfishness and greed. Brimstone is an old word for sulfur, which, as in a match head, ignites with the slightest provocation and then burns fast and hot.

But there is another, more subtle problem in the tract's statement. After quoting Paul's letter to the Romans that "the wages of sin is death," instead of telling us how we can get rid of the sin itself so that we no longer draw that wage of death, it tells us that through Jesus Christ we can be saved from the penalty of sin. At first glance, there may not seem to be much of a difference. An example will make the difference clearer.

Let's say that one of us goes bad one day, and we decide that in addition to our day job, we are going to moonlight as a burglar in order to supplement our income. We study up a bit on the techniques of housebreaking, and soon we have a lucrative side business in stolen VCR's, jewelry, and such. Now this would be an obvious case of sin. Every one of us knows such actions are wrong.

For the first few months, nobody finds out who is doing it. The papers are reporting a string of break-ins with a similar modus operandi, but the police have no suspects yet. But as inevitably happens, we eventually trip up. One night the police get a tip-off. As we are running from a house with bag in hand, we are arrested, booked, and put in a cell.

The next day, two people visit us in our cell. One of them says, "I can save you from the penalty for your sin." The other says, "I can save you from your sin..." No, that's what they would have said if they had been reading religious tracts lately... Actually, one of them says, "Hey, I can help you beat the rap for this! You won't have to go to jail!" The other one says, "Look, you have a real problem. I can get you counseling for whatever it is that is causing you to resort to crime. You'll still have to pay the price for the crimes you have committed, but you won't get into any more trouble because we will help you straighten out your life."

This is the difference between being saved from the penalty of sin and being saved from the sin itself. Consider how the community that is the target of the string of crimes would react to each. If a skilled lawyer managed to get us off the hook, how would the community feel? It would feel not only cheated, but apprehensive that this criminal is on the loose and unpunished. But what if we were put through a rehabilitation program that actually worked for us, and we changed our mind and once again became an honest and hard-working member of our community? Then the community could relax and even rejoice that someone who was headed in the wrong direction has turned around.

Is the tract really saying that Christ came to pay for the penalty of our sin, rather than what the Bible says--that Christ died for the sins themselves? Now that we've discussed the difference between taking away sin and taking away the penalty for sin, the difference between the Biblical quote and the tract's explanation of it becomes more clear.

Step 3:

Realize and acknowledge: "Christ died for our sins," 1 Corinthians 15:3.

Jesus Christ paid the entire price on the cross for your sin. God set the price on sin, which was a perfect sacrifice, and then God himself gave his own Son to pay the price.

Notice that the quote from 1 Corinthians says that Christ died for our sins. Not to pay the penalty or price of our sin. What Paul said to the Corinthians points toward the person who wanted to take away the criminal's sin by focusing on correcting the sin itself. But the tract's commentary focuses on the price of sin, stating that God set that price, and then gave his son to pay it. By now, the difference between the two viewpoints should be clear. In our church, we like to focus on correcting the sin. If we can do this, the price of sin becomes irrelevant because we are no longer buying.

The next two steps are similar, so we will consider them together. We are now coming to a focus on just what it is that leads us toward heaven. As I read these next two steps, consider this question: Are we saved by what we believe or by what we do?

Step 4:

Realize and acknowledge: "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord," Romans 6:23.

God offers you freely His gift of eternal life. This gift is yours by believing in a risen Christ who arose on the third day and is alive forever more.

Step 5:

Realize and acknowledge: "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved," Romans 10:13.

Whosoever means you. If you by simple faith will trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your soul's salvation, you can be 100% sure that you are going to Heaven. Nothing else will do... not church membership, not baptism, not confirmation, not communion. None of these things can save us from sin. Only Jesus Christ.

(Step 6 is a prayer for salvation, which we will pass over for our present purposes)

The focus in the tract's commentary is on belief--even though the passages quoted from the Bible do not particularly specify belief as the way to be saved. One simply says, "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"--a statement that we agree with, though differently than many Christians. The other says, "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." This sounds more like prayer than simple belief.

However, why don't we give the tract writers a bit of slack. After all, even in our church's teachings, belief is a first step toward being saved. It is just that we do not stop there. Instead of taking our theology largely from the letters of Paul as this tract does, we turn to the entire Word of God. There we find that belief is only one part of the life that leads to heaven. The other parts are loving the truth that we believe and showing that love by doing good things for other people according to our belief.

This is put so beautifully in our reading from Micah. After calling us to listen to what the Lord has to say, the chapter tells about all the good things the Lord did for the children of Israel. Bringing them out of Egyptian slavery; giving them inspired leaders; saving them from those who would lay a curse on them. Spiritually, these are the good things the Lord does for us--the way he saves us from the curse of slavery to our own selfish desires and leads us to a happier and more fulfilling life. Notice, that the focus is on action... On the good things that the Lord does for us.

Then the chapter asks what we should bring to the Lord in return. After all that the Lord has done for us, will we come back with "burnt offerings, with calves a year old?" Will we come back with empty belief and ritual but no good actions? And then the Lord through Micah asks a question that should forever lay to rest the idea that Christ's death on the cross could, in itself, save us from sin: "Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

No physical death--even the physical death of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ--can take away our sin. Only showing our belief in the Lord by a life of active, loving service toward others can take away the wrong and hurtful things that we do when we turn away from the Lord and follow our own selfish tendencies.

Yes, we are Christians and we do need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But that is so that we will follow the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives. In the words of our text:

Whoever breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

Or, to finish our chapter in Micah,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Amen.

Read this sermon's prequel: 
The Bible that was Lost and is Found



Music: How I Love You
1999 Bruce DeBoer