MORE THAN HEAVEN AND FORGIVENESS
Written by Doug Ponder on June 7, 2013
Bumper Sticker Theology
You’ve seen the bumper sticker before. “Christians aren’t perfect. Just forgiven.” Just forgiven? Is that the only difference between someone who follows Jesus and someone who doesn’t? Many think so. For decades we have been telling others that they can decide to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense while have nothing more to do with him. And a tragic number of people have believed what we told them.
We have created a society of what one author called “vampire Christians.” He writes, “One in effect says to Jesus, ‘I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven.’ But can we really imagine that this is an approach that Jesus finds acceptable?” (In case you are wondering, Jesus tells us the answer is “No.” See Matt. 7:21-23; 10:32-33.)
Don’t get me wrong. Forgiveness of sins and life forever with Jesus in the New Heavens and the New Earth are inconceivably great blessings. To spend eternity with our Creator and Savior in spite of the vileness of our own hearts is amazing grace indeed. But that’s not what we’re talking about. Rather, I’m asking why people who call themselves Christians have come to believe that the only thing God aims to give us in salvation is forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven? I think there are two reasons: we misunderstood the nature of God’s solution to our problem, and we misunderstand who Jesus really is.
What Do We Need to Be Made Right?
First, we misunderstand the nature of God’s solution to our problem. According to God, our problem is that we are sinful, both in nature and by choice. We hardly know right from wrong apart from being told, and even when we are told, we so often fail to do the right thing. These sinful thoughts, actions, and desires are both wrong and bad. They negatively affect things between us and God, between us and each other, and between us and God’s world. Sin grieves God, offends God, and betrays God—and not because God is touchy. God hates sin against himself and against his creation, because sin breaks the peace, both between the sinner and God and also between all who are affected. Sin interferes with the way God wants things to be. That is why he has commands against it. God is for the good of his creation, and therefore against sin.
So we need to be rescued from sin and all of its consequences, including judgment and death. To do that, God forgives us through the cross of Jesus and gives us life with him through his resurrection. In this way we are delivered from the penalty of sin, and we will one day be delivered from the presence of sin.
But what about the present? Does salvation only affect our past and our future? Hardly. Yet the present aspects of salvation are what so many Christians overlook. Jesus came to offer salvation that is more than heaven and forgiveness. As Paul explains, “Jesus died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Cor. 5:15).
God’s solution to our problem includes delivering us from our slavery to sinful, selfish desires. He does this through the work of the Spirit, who points us to Jesus and gives us the desire and the ability to obey what he commands (Phil. 2:12-13). As we obey Jesus we become “slaves of righteousness,” and the end result of that “slavery” is actually freedom and growth in Christ. By contrast, to disobey Jesus is to remain a slave to sin, which leads to death (Rom. 6:15-23).
This entire process is called “being conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom. 8:29), and it is a painful process because we are very selfish people. That’s why Jesus called said that following him involved ‘dying to self’ (Mark 8:34-35; Luke 14:27).
Now, here’s what all of this means: In addition to forgiving us and guaranteeing us life with God in heaven, Jesus came to make his followers less selfish and more focused on others than we otherwise would be. He said that the world would know us not by our claims to have been forgiven, but by our love for one another (John 13:35).
Is Jesus Better Than the Gifts He Gives?
The second reason we reduce salvation to heaven and forgiveness is that we misunderstand who Jesus really is. Many people think of Jesus as a cosmic soda machine, dispensing drinks to anyone who has the money and the desire for the products he offers. That’s a silly illustration, but it’s closer to the truth than we might like to think. Many approach Jesus for what they hope to get from him, instead for who he is in himself.
Why is that bad? Well, imagine if your significant other told you that they only loved you because you gave good presents. Now you’re seeing the picture.
Jesus won’t be used in that way. “Why not?” some wonder. “Couldn’t his love for us be so great that he even lets us come to him for the wrong reasons?” Perhaps. Then again, perhaps Jesus does not do this because he knows that there is nothing more precious and valuable than who he is in himself. He is not in the idol-giving business, in other words. He won’t give his people anything that pulls them away from the ultimate “gift” of himself. He is the source of all peace, comfort, happiness, joy, satisfaction, bliss, and goodness of every kind, so you cannot truly have these apart from him. (You may enjoy the shadows of those realities, but you will never know the real things until you go to the one who is the source of them all.)
Here is how one respected Christian pastor-theologian has put it: “Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. People who could be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. . . .The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God.” This author is, of course, just rephrasing 1 Peter 3:18, which says that Jesus died to bring people to God. God himself is the gift. He is the treasure that his people long for. Anyone who thinks that heaven and forgiveness are amazing, without having Jesus himself at the very center of it all, will have neither forgiveness nor heaven.
But, someone will say, can I not be saved—get into heaven when I die—without any of this? Perhaps you can. But you might wish to think about whether you really would be comfortable for eternity in the presence of One whose company you have not found desirable for the few years of your earthly existence.
And when you stop to think of it, how could anyone actually trust Jesus for forgiveness of sins and the promise of heaven while not trusting him for much more than that? It seems that you can’t really trust Jesus without believing that he was right about everything, and that he alone has the key to every aspect of our lives here on earth. But if you believe that, you will naturally want to stay just as close to him as you can, in every aspect of your life, listening to what he says and seeking to obey him all things.
Bumper Stickers Revisited
So instead of, “Christians aren’t perfect. Just forgiven,” we should make a bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect. But Jesus is, and God is making them more like Jesus than they otherwise would be.” That doesn’t make for a great bumper sticker, but it does make for good theology. Salvation is more than heaven and forgiveness. It also involves becoming like Christ, in the power of the Spirit, as we look toward the day when we will be with God. In other words, for the Christian this life means practicing (imperfectly!) the kind of life that we will live with God forever—a life of joy and peace and security and rest and obedience and worship and trust in Jesus.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.