In many church circles, the standard question to determine whether someone is “saved” has historically been “If you should die tonight, how do you know you’d go to heaven?” Usually, when people ask this question, what they are really asking is “How do you know for sure that you have satisfied the minimum entrance requirements for getting into heaven when you die?” They might not use those exact words, but ultimately, that’s what they mean. “Have you done enough to push you over the boundary line from hell into heaven?”
“Saving faith” becomes the minimum amount you have to believe so that, if you believe it, God has to let you into heaven. Other beliefs then are optional as far as salvation is concerned.
Can you imagine Jesus himself teaching this? “Believing that all I teach is true—that’s optional. Believing that I can run your life and allowing me to do so—that’s optional. Intending to actually obey me—that’s optional. As long as you believe that my death paid for your sins, you don’t need to worry about doing what I’ve said as far as heaven is concerned.”
Or imagine Jesus tacking a salvation caveat onto the Sermon on the Mount: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. But just to be clear—you don’t have to worry about actually doing anything I say as long as you believe my death pays for your sins.”
It is unimaginable that Jesus would think or say this. The reason Jesus called for us to obey him is not so that we can earn our way into heaven. It is because, as George MacDonald put it, “to obey Jesus is to ascend to the pinnacle of my being.” Obedience—rightly understood—is what a saved life looks like from the inside. Saving faith is faith that allows me to engage in interactive, grace-powered life with him beginning here and now, which death will then be powerless to interrupt. It is faith that allows me to know union with Christ.
Rankin Wilbourne writes, “Union with Christ is not an idea to be understood, but a new reality to be lived, through faith.” If union is the ultimate goal of our life with Christ, and it is, of course it includes trusting that Jesus is right about everything. Of course it includes asking him to take over my little life.
Likewise, when we speak of “trusting Christ for our salvation,” what we often really mean is trusting an arrangement he made to get us into the good place when we die. Ironically, people sometimes believe they can trust in the arrangement Jesus made without actually trusting Jesus himself—everything he said about money and sex and anger and prayer and God. But we are not called to trust an arrangement. As George MacDonald writes, “Paul glories in the cross, but he does not trust in the cross: he trusts in the living Christ and his living father.”
To “trust Jesus” in the Gospels simply means to think he is right—about everything—and therefore to be ready to do what he says, not as a means of getting into the good place but as the best advice from the wisest person possible. In fact, it’s only as we seek to do what Jesus says—to be generous and forgiving and radically truthful—that we discover the Kingdom he talks about is real and can be trusted. This is the “Great Experiment” that Jesus himself invites us to run: “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).
Now we begin to understand why the “minimum entrance requirements” question is such a problematic approach to salvation. It speculates on the bare minimum someone could do or believe and still eke their way into heaven (information Jesus does not offer us). Imagine saying to Jesus, “I trust that you’ve deposited merit in my heavenly bank account, and I will consume your merit to get in, but I don’t trust you enough to actually do what you’ve said in my everyday life. I’ll use your blood to avoid hell, but I’d like to retain control of my own life.” That kind of trust would be both insulting and nonsensical.
Let’s consider another, more temporal example.
Let’s say I acquire elite status in an airline’s frequent flyers program and I ask, “What’s the bare minimum I have to do to maintain my status?” This is an altogether proper question, because there is no connection between the perks I desire and the person I’m becoming. Anyone would want better seats, nicer food, linen napkins, red carpets. It is an objective, forensic, legal status. The airline will even keep track of my miles to make sure I do satisfy the minimum requirements.
But imagine if I had said to Nancy on our wedding day, “I want to know: what’s the absolute least I can do to stay married to you? What’s the lowest level of commitment, the fewest affirmations, the smallest promises, the highest level of ignorance permissible? What are the minimum requirements for maintaining my husband status?”
It would have been a very short ceremony.
Marriage as God designed it is not just a legal status. It is a personal, spiritual, relational reality where the relationship itself is the “perk.” Not just anybody wants to be married. It requires fidelity, a hard limit on sexual partners, vulnerability, servanthood, commitment, and giving up the remote control.
Are there minimum requirements for remaining married? For sure. Marriages end every day. But these minimum requirements are not fully knowable in advance, and they depend upon the heart. If you really want the marriage, the minimum requirements will take care of themselves. And if you don’t really want the marriage, the minimum requirements won’t matter.
Ephesians 5:31-32 says, “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
Salvation as described in Scripture is much more like a marriage than it is like an airline status. We don’t need just the benefit of a future salvation; we need the perks of the relationship here and now.
Eternity is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place by John Ortberg
Something in us is waiting—for what, we don’t know. Something different? Something better?
For Christians, perhaps the deepest expression of what we’re waiting for is found in the phrase “eternal life.” But what is eternal life? Why do we want it? And how do we know if we have it?
In Eternity Is Now in Session, bestselling author John Ortberg dispels the myth that eternal life is something way out in outer space that we can only hope to experience after we die—and that being saved is merely about meeting the minimal entrance requirements for getting into heaven. Instead, John unpacks the reality that the moment we trust Christ, we are initiated into “eternal living” with God as a here and now reality, one that will continue beyond our life on this earth.
Jesus defined eternal life just once, in John 17:3: “. . . that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The kind of “knowing God” that is eternal life is an interactive relationship, not just an affirmation of certain facts about God. Once we begin the transformative journey of truly knowing God, we can start to experience His presence, favor, and resurrection power right here on this earth—in the details, tasks, and challenges of daily, ordinary life.
And as we begin to know God this way, we’ll realize each moment of our lives is a vehicle to the eternity we’ve been longing for all along.