Identifying the citizens of heaven might require movement beyond cliches about those who “accept Jesus into their hearts.” Such cliches often conceal a truth that Jesus revealed.
The truth Jesus emphasized is…
Only the humble will be in heaven. I’m not sure how one could read the teaching of Jesus and reach any other conclusion. Heaven will be filled with humble people. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). The proud of heart will be excluded but the broken and contrite, God will not despise.
This should make those who strive to be religious more than a little nervous. It should warn those who are working their way “up” the structured ranks of orthodox Christianity to pause (as the apostle Paul did) over a ledger of gains and losses in Christ (Philippians 3:3-9).
How often did Jesus emphasize this truth?
Immersed in expectations of human culture, Jesus’ first disciples focused too often on position, place and power. This occasioned repeated emphasis on humility in the teaching of Jesus. But let’s not be too hard on these men because we all feel pulled toward self-validation. Have you ever tried to use God’s kingdom for personal kingdom-building? There’s a reason why Jesus had to say, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1).
How many means did Jesus use to teach that only the humble find favor with God? He referred to the poor in spirit, as well as those who are socio-economically poor. He exalted servants, sinners, children, the last, the least, the lost, the outcasts and the despised. He washed their feet to teach the priority of humility and he finally humbled himself to the point of death, even death by the degrading means of crucifixion – a death for their sins.
And how many contrasts did Jesus use to strengthen this truth?
What heaven rejects
The religious Pharisees provided the primary contrast with the citizens of heaven. They represented all that heaven rejects.
Jesus called these religious leaders blind guides, blind fools, blind men, hypocrites and blind Pharisees. Jesus said they were gnat-straining, camel-swallowing, whitewashed tombs. They were snakes and a brood of vipers. Could he have been any clearer?
These religious leaders “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus said, “You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. ….You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:14-15). Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).
Jesus praised the Father for hiding things from the wise and learned and revealing truth to little children. Then he invited all the weary and burdened to come to him (Matthew 11:25-30).
Jesus told scathing stories about those who were “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (Luke 18:9-14). He repeatedly exposed the self-justifying religious arrogance in man-pleasing, honor-seeking people. Heaven is shut to them. They shut themselves out.
Does this make you nervous?
It’s far too easy (and perhaps less disturbing) to attach our hearts to clichés. Many of us want to say, “Only those who accept Jesus as Savior go to heaven.” Or, “Only those who believe in the gospel go to heaven.” These are not necessarily wrong statements, but they possibly conceal what Jesus revealed.
We could possibly say, “Only the humble accept Jesus and believe the gospel. But this depends on an accurate presentation of the good news and a clear acceptance of the bad news that makes the good news so good.
What is the gospel?
The word gospel refers to good news about what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. But when the gospel is shaped by a therapeutic emphasis, it turns out to be so much less than the true gospel. The therapeutic gospel emphasizes a Jesus who meets my felt needs in a way that keeps me at the center of life? It’s a kind of Jesus who is there to serve you.
The worst display of sin
The true gospel will not reach us until “me at the center” is understood to be the problem.
I must acknowledge that my sin is on full display when I want the glory and honor that belongs to God. When I focus life on myself — on my feelings and desires as most important, I show the ugliest side of the sin Christ died for.
Jesus Christ died for my sin, for my willful preoccupation with myself. A gospel message that invites me to stay at the center is not the true gospel.
Which Jesus did you “accept”?
Listen closely to the emphasis when you hear someone invite people to follow Jesus. If it is on a Jesus who gives you peace and meaning; who gives you better relationships and takes away your feelings of guilt, you’re hearing a distortion of the gospel or a therapeutic gospel. You’re hearing a sales pitch for Jesus the personal therapist rather than Jesus the Savior who rescues me from my sin.
But wait! Doesn’t Jesus give peace, meaning and forgiveness? Doesn’t Scripture emphasize God’s love for us? “Yes” to both of these questions. Yet these are the benefits of the gospel, not the gospel.
Jesus Christ “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (II Corinthians 5:15).
The gospel reminds us that God’s love is so amazing because it is offered to sinners. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He died for undeserving, self-centered people like me.
When we say heaven is only for the humble, do we make salvation attainable by human effort? No. I don’t think humble people think they have anything to merit heaven as their eternal home. In fact, humble people will celebrate God’s salvation as a gift from God and not by human works? (see: Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
only by grace,