No one is worthy of heaven. The Bible makes that clear. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).* The word “all” is inclusive because nowhere does the text add qualifiers such as “all except those who . . .” or “all but someone who has...” Yes, we can rest assured that none of us deserves—or has, in any way, earned the right—to occupy the new earth.
But then there’s this verse included in the Bible’s final book that greatly piques our curiosity. Describing scenes from the second coming of Christ, John identifies a particular group of people who aren’t pleading for the rocks to fall on them. He writes: “Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Rev. 14:12, KJV). These fortunate folk soon rise to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17).
Well, which is it? Is commandment keeping our key to heaven, or have we all sinned and fallen short? You can’t have it both ways. Or can you?
To find the answer to that question, let’s take the Ten Commandments, to which John is referring, along with everything else that Jesus taught us to obey (Matt. 28:20). For the sake of drawing a contrast, let’s turn the Ten Commandments into a “salvation checklist” of sorts. It may look something like this:
TO BE SAVED, YOU MUST:
John the Revelator seems to be saying, “Hey, if you’re keeping all of these commandments when Jesus returns, you’re golden!” So, as some might argue, we can place a checkmark on all of those items on the list, we can know that, without a doubt, we are saved—that heaven is ours for the taking. Then we can spend our days and nights filled with the satisfaction that comes from knowing that our room reservation in God’s heavenly mansion is secure.
And since we don’t know the hour that Christ will appear, we would really need to be keeping all of those commandments all of the time, without a break, 24/7/365. Isn’t that how we would assure our readiness for translation? That, and drawing confidence from the dead saints from times past who all lived flawlessly till the moment they breathed their last?
By now you may have concluded that, while being obedient to God’s law is admirable and something for which we should be endlessly striving, actually living that flawless life might be a bit of a challenge. Why? Because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God!
Which begs the question: Who exactly will be saved when Christ returns? How should we describe them?
When I was a child, I heard a preacher say that commandment keeping was so important that even one sin unrepented-of could ruin my chances for heaven. That’s quite a burden to place on the shoulders of an energetic and endlessly curious 9-year-old.
Soon after hearing that, I was playing with my toy cars in a field near my home in Tennessee when I happened to look up and see a small black cloud, about the size of a man’s hand, hovering in the eastern sky. I’d heard it said that this was the way the Second Coming would look when it began. I stood and stared at that cloud for a long moment. Then a great feeling of dread and fear filled my young heart. I was quite certain that I had at least one sin unrepented-of rattling around in my life—probably more—and that the God in the cloud knew about them all.
What did I do? I ran home, hurried to my bedroom, and pulled the curtains closed. I didn’t want Jesus to see me. I didn’t want Jesus to hurt me.
That’s where the law can sometimes take you. That’s where some sinful human beings end up when obedience to a set of rules and regulations is presented as salvation. The unvarnished, ugly truth is: we’re flawed. We’re broken vessels. We’re in the process of healing. We’re on an ardent and often painful journey to allow Jesus to change us into His likeness; to pick up the pieces of our sin-shattered lives. To expect perfection in this way at any given moment is both unrealistic and dangerous.
Christ understands. He was born into a culture built on obedience and fear. God’s laws ruled the day, the night, the Sabbath, and the workplace. Even sickness was considered a sign that you or someone in your family wasn’t keeping the law as you should. Misfortune followed lawbreaking. Success was the direct result of law keeping. That trusty salvation checklist was the standard by which everything and everyone was judged.
Christ came at the sin problem from a very different perspective. He didn’t preach that law keeping should be the primary goal of every sinner. He didn’t tell the woman taken in adultery, “Start obeying the seventh commandment!” He said, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). He wanted her to experience a new life, to stop causing herself pain, to stop making herself sad.
He didn’t tell the dying thief on the cross, “Thou shalt not steal.” He simply said, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
He didn’t tell crooked tax collector Zacchaeus, “You’re a hopeless commandment breaker!” He simply said, “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
What did those people see in Christ’s messages to them? Did they see condemnation, judgment, or hurt? No. They saw something very different.
One day, when asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36), Jesus identified two, which weren’t even written in the law—at least not in a form most people would recognize.
Here’s how He responded: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (verses 37-40).
What a shocker! The greatest commandment, according to the God who wrote them with His own finger . . . is love. And it seems that all the other Ten Commandments “hang” on love like ornaments on a Christmas tree. In other words, if you don’t love, that would be like removing the tree. The ornaments—those time-honored rules and regulations that so many hold as the gold standards for living a saved life—would fall flat.
Without love, God’s law is just a collection of arbitrary do’s and don’ts. But with love acting as the supporting structure, God’s law becomes a beautiful description of how we can live life with the least amount of heartache and strife. That’s right. Those laws are for our benefit. They don’t save us, but they can heal us when love is blended in.
Paul said it best: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
Keeping God’s law without love in the heart is like buying a new car and never purchasing a single drop of gasoline. You own the car. You can show it to people. You can sit in it and imagine beautiful scenery passing by, but you’re not going anywhere. You’ll never reach the destination you desire. You and your new car will just grow old together, parked there in your driveway.
The prophet Isaiah uses a different metaphor: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isa. 64:6, KJV).
While God’s laws aren’t the judge and jury that decide our fitness for heaven, they are of incredible value when love is present. Then they are our guardrail, our secure track, our clear indicator of how well we’re doing in our constant battle with sin.
They’re like God saying to us, “Oh, I see you’re having trouble with number nine? I can help. Number five causing you problems? Let Me show you what you need to do.” Empowered by the Spirit, we can get busy and work on solutions, a process that can take time. Lots of time. As a matter of fact, we may be working on a couple of those commandments when we see a small black cloud about the size of a man’s hand appear in the east. But this time it’s for real.
Knowing what we now understand, what should be our message to the world? Should we be saying, “God’s not going to save you, because you’re a sinner, because you’re a heathen, because you’re an adulterer, you’re gay, because you don’t keep all of His commandments, because you don’t believe in or worship Him as the Bible instructs”? And should we be trying to legislate our doctrines, working hard to place the power of the government behind our demands for obedience to God’s laws as we interpret them?
Or should we, instead, be following the example of Christ Himself ? One momentous day He stood before a gathering of people who, without a doubt, included liars, cheaters, adulterers, thieves, and possibly even a murderer or two on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The very first word out of His mouth that day—the very first word those struggling, sad, guilt-ridden people heard from God’s Son—was “blessed” (Matt. 5:3).
When Jesus returns the second time, He won’t be looking for law keepers—although they certainly will be there with happy smiles on their faces, because they’ve learned the uncountable value and far-reaching benefits of living by God’s commandments. They’ve also learned that nurturing an attitude of love in their hearts makes keeping His guidelines for life much easier and far more fulfilling. No, God’s salvation checklist will be much shorter. He’ll be searching for those who’ve taken the greatest commandment seriously; those who, in spite of their sinful nature and out-of-sync-with-God’s-ideal lifestyle, have learned—or are learning—to love.
*Unless noted, Bible texts are from the New International Version.
Charles Mills, author, radio show host, and media producer, has published several books, including Religion in the Real World, Refreshed Parables, and Surprising Nature.