People tell me all the time, their main goal in life is to go to heaven when they die. In fact, I’m quite certain I’ve said the exact same thing before. I’ve always thought that was the very best goal a person could have, but I’ve changed my mind. The more I think about that phrase, and especially the context in which it is usually stated, the more I think it often reveals a misunderstanding deep in our hearts. Here are a few thoughts on having heaven as a our main goal in life.
Making it to Heaven
What exactly do we mean when we talk about our goal of making it to heaven? When we have a goal, we must have some way we hope to achieve that goal, right? If I told you that my goal was to lose 15 pounds, then you might ask me, “How do you hope to achieve that goal?” And then I would answer with a list of all the good behaviors I was going to implement in order to try to accomplish my goal. Sadly, many of us think this way about going to heaven.
We tend to think of all of our good behaviors as an attempt to be good enough to make it to heaven. Which leaves some of us feeling pretty confident we’ve done all that God requires to make it to heaven. But more often, it leaves many of us in constant fear that because of our imperfection, we’ve not been good enough to make it to heaven. Some are trying to do the minimum and others are trying to do the impossible.
These are indications that many of us simply do not understand the Good News of Jesus Christ.
We live in a culture (thankfully) where if we want something, we can usually save up our money until we can afford to purchase it. But in biblical times, there were many things which the average person simply could not purchase. These things would be inaccessible to people on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
If the average person needed something which he could not purchase, he would ask for “favor” from a generous person in upper-class society. If this wealthy person chose to grant the request, he would become the man’s patron or benefactor. The favor he bestowed was known as “charis,” which is the Greek word we translate “grace.”
This favor that was granted, came with certain expectations. If someone showed you grace, it became your life-long duty to spread their fame and also loyally serve them whenever they needed you. This was NOT an attempt to repay the favor; it was simply the proper response of a grateful recipient.
The New Testament says, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4-5). This is how salvation works, God gives it as a gift (vs. 8). God is the unbelievably generous and wealthy benefactor who shows favor to sinners who desperately need what only He can give – pardon and forgiveness.
Understanding Good Works
In the first-century world, one of the worst things you could be was ungrateful. If you accepted someone’s “charis,” but you were not faithful to him, you would become a social outcast. No one would want to show you any additional favor, because you had proved yourself to be an ungrateful recipient.
The idea of grace and gratitude are inextricably linked. In fact, it’s not hard to see that even in modern English, the words “grace” and “grateful” have the root. This is because “grace” used to be not only the word for the gift that was given, but also for the proper response to the gift. We still sometimes call praying before a meal, “saying grace.” And in Spanish, the word for “thank you” is “gracias.” When someone shows you grace, you respond gratefully.
That is what our obedience to God is all about. That is why we do good works. That is why we sing His praises. That is why we tell our neighbors about the Gospel. We are NOT trying to make it to heaven. We are showing our gratitude, because he has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
Doing the will of God must NEVER be seen as an attempt to make it to heaven, but should be seen as works of gratitude because he has given us a seat in heaven by grace. We should want to do whatever God wants us to do, because we are incredibly grateful for what He has given us.
Don’t Be an Ingrate
An “ingrate” is someone who does not show gratitude for the things he has been given. An ingrate is someone who either lives in a way that dishonors his benefactor or he boasts as if he has earned the things he has. Ingrates will find themselves cut-off from God’s grace.
There were Christians in Galatia who showed themselves to be ingrates by accepting a false gospel, which taught that a person could justify themselves through law-keeping. Paul wrote, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). Rather than gratefully accepting the gift (of justification), they tried to earn it through their own efforts.
Similarly, the Hebrew writer said, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27). When we continue deliberately in sin, we proves ourselves to be ingrates, unworthy to receive the gifts God has promised to His children.
If we have – in repentant faith – put Christ on in baptism (Galatians 3:27), then God has graciously given us a seat with Him in heaven (Ephesians 2:6). In Christ’s death, He has already accomplished what was necessary to get us to heaven; so we need to get a new goal! Our goal needs to be to show Him gratitude through undying praise and faithful service.
If we persevere in grateful service, we have nothing to worry about because we are saved by His merits…not ours.
I love you and God loves you,