There are certain questions which fall in a class all by themselves. They are asked of every age and culture, springing from the human spirit as naturally as our breath, and will be with us for as long as there are thoughtful people to ask them.
One such question has been very difficult to answer, plaguing the minds of our brightest scholars, and the souls of countless seekers, for centuries. The question itself stirs most all of us to uneasiness and concern. The more thoughtfully we consider this question the more desperately we are driven to look for answers.
I have taken my place in its debate many … hundreds … of times. And though it may seem to be presumption, I think I have finally found a train of thought that may help thoughtful souls to rest when they consider it.
The question is this: How can I be sure that I will go to heaven?
Long ago, a fine young man had the privilege of asking Jesus Christ this question, and so he did. “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Mat 19:16-17) In asking, the young man seems to assume an affirmative answer to a similar, precursory, more fundamental question: Can I be sure of going to Heaven? and so continues with the obvious How? In doing so he takes a perfectly natural step; for to obtain an answer to Can and then ignore the How is merely troublesome. In order to live in peace, we must eventually answer both; we cannot ultimately separate the two and retain our integrity.
In His characteristic manner, Christ answers directly: “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” Plain enough.
Now, ever since Christ spoke it, this simple response has become both a trouble and a blessing. It has brought us together to challenge each other. It has driven us to think and to reason. And though we may not be able to rest in Christ’s answer, at least He has provoked us all to grapple with the eternal importance of the question.
Perhaps this was His purpose in answering as He did, to provide us a clue, an initial direction to pursue in our search. Perhaps it is only in struggling deeply with this kind of answer that we prepare ourselves to receive a much more comprehensive one, not one that contradicts, but one that completes Christ’s answer in a way that allows us to finally rest in His peace.
Let us then thoughtfully consider this question, as well as Christ’s answer. Let it spark in us again our struggle and hunger to answer the matter well … and then let us do so correctly, with absolute finality.
All we need assume in our quest is that the Bible is true, that the God of the Bible is good, and that He intends for us to live sincerely, thoughtfully, and joyfully in this life. Nothing more.
First let us observe that while the Can I know portion of our question has many, many variations, it has only two possible answers: Yes and No. A third response, Maybe, is merely an I don’t know, and therefore not an answer at all. Either we can be, in this life, absolutely sure of eternal life … or we can not be absolutely sure. It is an all or nothing kind of question.
Let us also note that Christ, in His response, refrained from correcting the young man’s presumption of an affirmative answer to Can I know. Christ, in providing an answer to How without correcting him, seems to suggest that, yes, in fact, we can know — in this life — that we have eternal life.
In contrast however, from my personal experience in this debate, most of us will interpret Christ as follows: “No, we can’t be absolutely sure of Heaven until we get there.” The reasoning that produces this response is plain enough: as Christ has said, if salvation depends upon keeping the commandments, which implies that salvation depends upon choices I have not yet made, then I may make choices before I die that will exclude me from Heaven. This seems so obviously conclusive that one might think it should end the debate. Not so.
There are, in spite of Christ’s response, a few intelligent souls who claim to have discovered a way to obtain an unconditional guarantee of personal salvation regardless of any subsequent choice or experience. They insist that we can be eternally safe while still alive on Earth, and that remaining in this condition is not dependent upon our will or future choices. They assert that there is absolutely nothing one can do to forfeit Heaven after attaining this state. This is often called a Once Saved Always Saved (OSAS) position.
Now, in light of Christ’s plain response, one might protest, “How can any thoughtful person believe such a thing?” The answer is surprisingly simple. Certainly, Christ did reveal a way to enter into life, but there is nothing about His answer that is exclusive or exhaustive. Christ did not say that keeping the commandments is the only way to get into Heaven. Further, we cannot overlook the fact that the young man’s question implies that eternal life can be earned. So it should be no surprise that Christ answered his question exactly as it was presented, and told him how to do so — how to earn his way to Heaven: be perfect. Yet let us be clear that Christ does not suggest in His response that this is even possible for the young man himself, or that it is the only way for him to obtain eternal life. In fact, if one thinks about the matter in earnest, keeping the commandments had better not be the only way … for it is, in truth, no way for a sinner at all. Honestly now, who has kept the commandments? Who can?
This trend in the discussion is inevitable. When given such an answer as, “Keep the commandments,” we will all quite naturally ask, as the young man did, “Which?” (Mat 16:17-19) We are disarmed with the simplicity and the impossibility of the standard as Christ initially presents it, and so we immediately seek to qualify it in some way. We are aware of our inadequacy, and God’s holy standard in its raw form allows for none. We must find a way to clarify, to lower the bar, to lessen the degree.
Christ understands our concern and replies, mentioning several commandments which seem at first glance easy enough to keep: “Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.” So far, so good … at least for some of us. There are no surprises here; Christ has merely listed those of the Ten Commandments with a horizontal perspective which seem on the surface the easiest to keep, those which tell us how to treat our fellow mortals. These commandments seem reasonable: they can be understood to govern our more external nature. They don’t at first appear to deal directly with our impregnable selfishness. We might possibly qualify for Heaven with such a standard … if that were all Christ said.
It is no coincidence that Christ ends with, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” As feared, at the last, the Master has taken a sharp turn. This last requirement is not one of the Ten, but one of the Two on which the Ten hang. (Mat 22:36-40) In fact, this one particular commandment is the very root of the entire horizontal scope of the Law. It deals with our selfishness directly, comprehensively, completely and exhaustively. Any thoughtful person, if they had yet harbored any faint hope of meriting Heaven by keeping the Law, has given up now. There is no escape … we are, in fact, doomed if this is the only way to Heaven.
The proper response to God at this point is to fall down on our knees and beg Him to save us from ourselves. Anyone being honest with God must cry out for deliverance from sin. So few will do so.
Most of us, like the young man in our story, simply refuse to deal with our brokenness honestly. We will not acknowledge the impossibility of keeping this simple command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The young man, as if completely missing its import, persists in false hope: “All these things have I kept from my youth up.” (Mat 16:20) And though he boasts in shallow self-justification, he must still confess that he lacks assurance of eternal life, saying, “What lack I yet?” Every legalist finds the same end: uncertainty and fear. We must have something more. What does Jesus Christ offer this young man?
“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Mat 16:21) Do we find any comfort here?
Our friend did not: “When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” (Mat 16:22) Ah! The disappointment is acute, wrenching! Give up all! Give up everything you hold dear … Nay! Give your very self away to Christ!
In answering as He does, Christ does not lower the standard for any of us. Rather, He presses it to the full. “If thou wilt be perfect … ” complete, whole. Christ does not offer us a partial solution, partial healing. There is no compromise in His tone, no softness in His cues, no release from the divine standard. Sin and selfishness are repulsive to Him and He will have us completely free of both. Christ’s claim is simple: to have Heaven on our own merit we must be perfect – completely free of selfishness; that is, our interest in others must be as our interest in ourselves in every respect. It is to love to the point of giving our entire selves to Christ, joining Him in His ministry to the poor and broken souls He came to save.
But many of us will not retreat so easily as this young man did as he walked away in sorrow. We inherently seek a way to be justified that does not require absolute perfection: we want to believe that we can play a role in our own salvation, to have some control of it. We either want to merit it, at least partly, or to believe we must hang on to it once we have it.
Yet when pressed to define the exact nature of the kind of obedience required to obtain or keep salvation we must eventually fall quiet. There is no scripture to support us here, only conjecture. And to base one’s eternal welfare on naked conjecture is … well … unwise, to say the least.
To press the matter intelligently, we ask the inevitable questions, “How good do we have to be to obtain salvation? Once we have salvation, exactly how good do we have to be to keep it?” What is the absolute minimum standard of obedience required to maintain personal eternal safety once salvation is obtained? Not generally, not vaguely … but exactly! When we are dealing with consequences of this magnitude, we must be precise. We must be certain if we are to live in joy. How can we possibly define, with certainty, any other standard than absolute perfection?
The ultimate problem in departing from perfection is that we must have some reliable way to measure goodness as a matter of degree in comparison to perfection. We must consider motive; we must determine what constitutes real Goodness and real Badness as God would measure it. These kinds of tools are not provided for us … in the Bible, or anywhere else … and so we must invent them for ourselves. In doing so, we are on our own.
Dare we presume to measure ourselves fairly and accurately when even the best of men, face to face with Absolute Perfection, fell prostrate in abject terror? Consider Job’s, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes!” (Job 42:6) Consider Isaiah’s “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Is 6:5) What hope have mere mortals under the scrutinizing, penetrating gaze of absolute holiness? There is none, my friend, there is absolutely none.
Evidently, there is no lower standard. If we wish to enter Heaven depending on our own merit in any fashion … we must be found absolutely perfect. Do not miss this. Make no mistake about it; even the disciples, in hearing this, were shocked. “When His disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” (Mat 16:25)
Well, if we cannot lower the standard, and if we have no reliable measure to determine how terribly we have violated it, and we persist in our pride, refusing to fall at God’s feet and beg Him to deliver us from any dependency on ourselves … then we are left with only two options. We may either live every waking moment in absolute dread of spending eternity in the Lake of Fire, or we may live thoughtlessly and carelessly in spite of such danger. In either case, we must live in a manner which we initially assumed could never be God’s intention for us.
This is what mathematicians call Proof by Contradiction. If we, through careful consideration of what it means to reject OSAS, are logically forced into a position where we cannot ever know for certain that we have eternal life, then we have violated the few simple axioms with which we began. This is actually a precise and conclusive proof that will withstand any legitimate analysis. It has a completeness and a thoroughness that can satisfy any and all inspection. You are invited to do so, for as long as you like.
Notwithstanding the logic of this proof, there are certainly several texts in the Bible which may be interpreted to suggest that we can lose our salvation, and many do interpret these texts in this way. There are none, in my view, that can only be interpreted in this manner. On the other hand, there are certain scriptures which cannot be interpreted thusly, and the forcefulness of the above proof would encourage us to interpret the less definitive texts in light of those that are more clear.
As we do search the scriptures, lest we think that eternal security is a change of subject from Can I know, please note that we are trying to actually get to Heaven. We seek to finally arrive there in actuality, not find some theoretical, meaningless place where if we happened to die “at this instant” that we would go. Such an improbable event really has no bearing on the matter, for we are not “dying this instant.” If, in actuality, we do finally end up in Hell, then it is quite a stretch to say that we ever did find in this life something properly called salvation or eternal life. It is a contradiction of terms.
The conflict we find here is that the Scripture is replete with clear indications that our eternal safety is related to our behavior. This cannot be denied. It is true that we are saved apart from works, but it is also true that those who live lives of rebellion against God are damned. In this, we must be careful to distinguish between behavior as an expression of belief, which in turn is the basis of salvation, and behavior itself being the basis of salvation. Wrong behavior springs from wrong beliefs, but a careful study of Scripture will reveal that it is the wrong beliefs that damn and not the wrong behaviors. A wicked person may show evidence of being condemned by means of their works, but only God observes the heart; no other mortal can do so. The basis of salvation and damnation lies ultimately in the refusal to believe on the Son, not upon the works that give evidence of this unbelief. (Jn 3:18) Works are important then as an expression of belief, but they are not the formal basis of salvation.
Indeed, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are seeking to know how to finally and actually enter the pearly gates, and we must settle for nothing less. Until we find a place where we are secure, a place where finally ending up in Hell is highly improbable, nay impossible, we are not safe. And we must not only know how to get to Heaven at present, we must also know how to continue in this knowledge along the way. Therefore eternal security, this OSAS concept, cannot be decoupled from salvation itself in any meaningful way.
In other words, if we reject OSAS, claiming we have a salvation that can be lost, we actually have nothing. To “be saved” at any particular point in time and yet finally end up in the Lake of Fire is to have nothing of any substance in this so-called “salvation.” It is an emptiness, absolutely nothing. The two concepts Can I have salvation? and Can I lose it? are thus in essence one and the same. This fact must be firmly grasped and understood.
Further, in order to be practically helpful, whatever we accept as an answer to these questions, whatever we finally trust as a personal guarantee of eternal life, it must produce in our souls an actual confidence and assurance that is consistent with the claim. It is simply unacceptable to live with doubt and uncertainty with respect to our own personal eternal fate. When we hear, “Don’t rely on your feelings,” we must resist. We cannot sanely relinquish real assurance of eternal life as a perfectly natural consequence of being human, or of being under spiritual attack. If our answer does not bring with it an accompanying, persistent internal witness that is consistent with the claim of eternal safety, we may rightly ask, “What good is that?”
The reason we must be so insistent in this matter is quite simple: no one can afford to be wrong about eternal life. If there is a way to be sure of going to Heaven and we are not sure, at any time, then this cannot be a good thing by any measure. As the great mathematician Blaise Pascal proposed in his famous Wager, if there is any positive probability that Hell exists as it is described in the Bible … if there is any chance at all that it is there, however remote, this possibility must be soberly considered. The loss experienced if one finds an eternal home in such a place is evidently boundless in two degrees: we cannot measure how miserable each moment will be, nor can we measure how long the whole entire experience will last.
Consider the following texts: “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men?” (2 Cor 5:11) “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear Him, which after He hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him.” (Luke 12:5) “Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken, but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.” (Luke 20:18) “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29)
To say it plainly, to live thoughtfully and honestly with any prospect at all of going to Hell is to live in debilitating, paralyzing fear. To refuse this, to live happily and joyfully without absolute assurance of eternal life, is to live in thoughtless carelessness; it is as if, while sitting in pitch blackness and being warned that we are on the edge of a great precipice, we might consider frolicking about in a game of tag. To play carelessly on the edge of eternal damnation … this is insane, if anything is. To scoff, to ridicule, to dismiss, to wave the hand and turn the head away … we do not do this in any other realm. When presented with any real potential of danger, every sane soul takes sincere precaution, explores, tests, seeks … in all honesty and integrity … to ensure our physical safety.
We have now only one reasonable course: find a way to live such that the probability of finding our eternal home in Hell is zero. This can be done, theoretically, in two ways. The first is to prove that such a place does not exist at all. The second is to obtain an absolute assurance that one is safe from it, safe both now at present and in the future, if it does happen to exist.
The first option is implausible. One cannot prove that something does not exist unless one is able to explore and search out every possible location, or prove by some logical deduction that conditions required for such a place to exist are impossible to construct. This is clearly not an option. If there is a God, He can certainly make such a place as we describe. We would be left to prove that He does not exist, but this is another impossibility since God could easily be beyond and outside the realm of any algorithm proposed to locate Him. Philosophically, the atheist is stuck here. Regardless of the tact, the probability of the existence of an eternal Hell will always be positive. It does not matter how small the probability is, so long as it is not zero. Any positive number multiplied by infinity is … well, infinity.
We are forced then by logical argument to our only remaining option: prove that our probability of landing in Hell is absolutely zero. Otherwise, we find ourselves living every moment face to face with infinite loss, and this is unacceptable. We are therefore obliged to search out and avoid this end with all diligence. The exact requirements for finally obtaining and entering into eternal life will be understood and met at any cost, if in fact these conditions can be understood and met. In other words, one must be of the mind that one will do all within one’s power to establish and ensure eternal safety at all times. It is, by definition, the most important personal consideration in which one may be employed.
Now, if there is a Hell and a Creator, then it is pointless to pursue the answer to our question if the Creator is malevolent. If God is not good, then we may be sure that we can never be safe from Hell. It is then reasonable, at least for the purposes of our present discussion, to presume as we have that the Creator is benevolent, and that He does not require every living human being to endure every waking moment in absolute dread of eternal punishment. If He has created us to live sanely, yea even joyfully, then He has made a way for us to know for sure that we are safe from Hell. In other words, the character of God implies that we can live life knowing that we are safe from Hell and assured of Heaven. The only remaining question is, How?
Christ Himself, at the end of our story of the young man above, does in the end provide some real encouragement for us here. “But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Mat 19:26) He also encourages us in another place, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Mat 7:7-8)
To find all else but the answer to our question is, in comparison, to find nothing worth finding. In encouraging us to seek anything at all, Christ is encouraging us to find eternal life. He is telling us that there actually is a way to know that we are eternally safe. He is also telling us that the answer is not found in ourselves but in God. The How? facet of our question addresses this concern directly.
First, we may review and reinforce our earlier observation: being in a state of eternal safety need not depend upon our choices or behavior. We have shown this with reasonable certainty. If eternal safety does not depend upon our choices, then it must depend upon God alone, as Christ has just affirmed. We have arrived at a place where OSAS is the only sane possibility. We have shown that obtaining such a state is not based upon any attempt to earn or maintain a worthiness to enter Heaven on our own. It must be the work of God, and it must be available to those who seek it.
To say things plainly from another angle, we are talking about the Gospel itself in this matter. Each of the two answers to the question, “Can I be sure of eternal life?” implies a fundamental difference in the Gospel. To say, “No,” is to believe one gospel, which implicitly requires a dependence on human will and works to obtain the final salvation of the soul. As we have seen, this cannot be rightly called a gospel, for there is nothing but horror in it. To answer, “No,” as we have carefully established, is to live in constant uncertainty concerning eternity, with no indication of salvation at all. To live in such uncertainty is to live either in debilitating fear or in blind, careless ignorance. Neither option is reasonable.
So let us turn now to a plain statement in the book of 1 John that begins to answer our question: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life.” (1Jn 5:13)
We are told here that we may know that we have eternal life if we are among those that “believe on the name of the Son of God.” Knowing that we have eternal life can be a present reality. This is a clear statement proving OSAS: salvation cannot be lost if we can ever know that we have, as a present possession, a life that is eternal. If this life can be lost, then it is not eternal. Whatever this means, “believing on the name of the Son of God” is central in this matter of salvation, and it is central in having a personal assurance and knowledge of this salvation. This text clearly reveals two key concepts.
First, it is possible to believe on the name of the Son of God in a way that implies we are eternally safe. John wrote to people who were in this condition for the purpose of verifying and establishing in them a real and personal knowledge that they actually had eternal life as a present possession in this life. This is the clear meaning of the text.
Second, we must be able to discern when we are believing on the name of the Son of God and when we are not believing. This is implied from the text in that we may know that we have eternal life if we also know that we are among those that believe on the name of the Son of God. We may prove this again by contradiction: if one cannot certainly know that one is believing on the name of the Son of God, then John’s words are spoken in vain, for no one can personally receive them. However, John wrote for the express purpose that as believers in Christ we might know that we have eternal life. By implication then we have, of necessity, that we are able to discern whether or not we are actually believing on the name of the Son of God. If we do believe on His name, we are assured by being in this condition that we are eternally safe. This is God’s goal for us in the text.
In putting the two concepts together, we find the definitive answer to our question: Yes! It is possible in this life to know that we have assurance of eternal life. It is not only possible, this is God’s intent and provision for every one of us. The way we attain this state is not by works, but by believing on the name of Jesus Christ.
There is real substance and reality to God’s words here; they do not leave us floating helplessly in the clouds. Believers are able to discern their own state reliably and accurately, to know from this that they are eternally safe, and in this knowledge to live joyfully as a manner of life. This is clearly God’s goal in 1 John: “And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.” (1Jn 1:4)
If we do not yet know what this means, to believe on the name of the Son of God, we may seek God until we do understand what it means and begin to enjoy its practical reality in our lives. God intends for us to seek this state, to seek Him, until we find Him … and find ourselves safely in Him. We may be sure, knowledge of eternal life will bring a deep and lasting joy to everyone who finds it.
To believe on the name of the Son of God must be nothing more or less than this: to acknowledge and receive the Son’s authority to speak on eternal matters, to agree with Him concerning what He has said and done, and to be aligned with Him in what these things imply. We must become convinced, deep down in the bedrock our souls that, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Jn 3:16) We must be convinced, unto joy, that “Christ died for the ungodly… for us…” such that, “being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Rom 5:6-9) It includes a belief and trust in the atoning work of the Son on our behalf. This is not, as we have shown, the work of the human spirit; it is the gift of God. (Eph 2:8) It is also mysterious in its nature and its scope. For further reading here, please see Limited Atonement for All.
If we do not know this, if we do not know that we are as safe from the wrath of God as Jesus Christ Himself, based solely on what Christ has done on our behalf, then it is indeed our own fault. God gives good gifts to every soul who pursues Him, to those who refuse to finally accept any other response from Him. “He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” (Heb 11:6)
There is only one thing that will keep us out of Heaven, and that is to be content to call God a liar, to fail to live as though what He has spoken is true. If you want to believe Him, even this is the work of God, and an encouragement to you to seek Him with all of your heart.