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Going to heaven is a "main feature of modern belief in salvation." (Quote is from an email I received.) Did the apostles or the early Christians emphasize this like we do?
No, the apostles did not talk about "going to heaven." At least, they did not use those words. They talked about the kingdom of God. After the judgment, the saints will "enter the kingdom of God," "inherit the kingdom of God," or "receive eternal life."
In the Gospel of Matthew, the kingdom of God is called the kingdom of heaven. Matthew is the only place that the phrase "kingdom of heaven" occurs, and this is almost certainly because the Gospel is written for a Jewish audience. Jews would have used "heaven" in the place of "God" as a matter of habit.
The apostles also talked about eternal life. We will talk about eternal life below. For now, let's go step by step and limit our discussion to the kingdom of God.
Jesus and the apostles used the phrase "enter the kingdom of God" or "inherit the kingdom of God" rather than "go to heaven." Examples include:
The next verse begins with, "Many will say to me in that day ... " "That day" is always a reference to the future judgment, the "last day" (Jn. 6:39-40; 11:24; 12:48). So Jesus, when he talks about entering the kingdom of heaven, is talking about what we think of as "going to heaven." He is talking about entering the kingdom of God after the final judgment.
Jesus describes this future judgment ...
When you read about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, you are reading what Jesus and the apostles have to say about where we will be for eternity.
These are just a few examples. The word "kingdom" is used 150 times in the Gospels and the apostles' letters, mostly to refer to the future kingdom of God, either directly or in parable.
Perhaps the reason that Jesus and the apostles refer to the eternal kingdom of God rather than going to heaven is because the prophecies of Scripture seem to indicate that in eternity, heaven will come to earth rather than us going to heaven.
The eternal kingdom, it appears, is going to be here on the earth.
The eternal kingdom is a heavenly kingdom in that it comes from heaven, but Revelation, and some comments through the rest of the Scriptures, make it clear that it will be established eternally here on earth.
The apostles also talk about the kingdom of God here in the current age.
Most of the time, it is easy to tell the difference between references to the kingdom of heaven that we will inherit after the judgment (as described in Matt. 25:31-46) and references to the kingdom as revealed here on earth through Jesus and now through us.
The references that say so abound.
Do you notice the "do not be deceived" in two of those verses? It's as though Paul knew that people would come along saying that heaven is a free gift, and he wanted to protect us from it.
Worthy? Can we really be worthy? And is this worthiness a requirement for entering the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus told the church in Sardis:
Revelation 3:4 is a very direct statement that we must be worthy of the eternal kingdom, just in case we were unable to draw that conclusion from 1 Cor. 6:9-11, Gal. 5:19-21, and 1 Cor. 6:9-11.
Today, we like to teach that we cannot be worthy of salvation or of the kingdom of God. We cannot earn our salvation, nor can we earn our entrance into the kingdom of God. However, we can and we must be worthy of that entrance.
There is a difference, and it is an important one.
This year I gave all my employees a Christmas bonus. I wish I had enough money to have given them more. They did not earn their Christmas bonus. They earned their wages, which I promised them in exchange for labor that helps the company earn money, but they did not earn their Christmas bonus. The Christmas bonus was a gift from a grateful employer who has an exceptional and reliable crew.
But while they did not earn that bonus, they were worthy of it. I gave the gift because they deserved it. Because of their hard work, we had exceptional profit two months in a row. I gave them all the excess profit over the amount I needed to keep the business stable.
They did not earn that gift, but they were worthy of it. They did deserve it.
The Gospels and the apostles letters are replete with commands to be worthy:
Don't let anyone tell you that you are not or cannot be worthy. None of us are truly worthy of the great love and sacrifice he has shown to us because it was while we were yet sinners that Jesus died for us. Nonetheless, he has determined that there is a reward, abundant entrance into his everlasting kingdom, that he has determined to give to those who are worthy, who have not defiled their garments, and who have pursued holiness and peace, without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
We don't like to face those things. Most churches find ways to explain those verses away, thus violating what all churches believed throughout the early centuries of Christianity.
We prefer the verses that say that justification or salvation is apart from works.
But wait! Why would the Bible says that we have to be worthy in order to inherit the kingdom of God, yet also say that we are saved by faith apart from works?
Paul's Gospel was being challenged by Judaizers from Jerusalem, men who taught that even Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, keep the Sabbath, and eat kosher to be saved. Because of this, Paul had to carefully explain his Gospel, more carefully than was required of Peter, John, or even Jesus.
Thus Paul carefully outlined what his Gospel meant. I am not going to take the time to prove that the outline I am about to give you accurately reflects Paul's outline. I don't believe I need to. I am confident that anyone who reads Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians will see the truth of what I am saying the next time they read those books.
Admittedly, Paul's explanation of the Gospel is far deeper and more nuanced than this simple outline, but the outline is visible in his writings.
As you look at this outline and compare it with Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, I ask you to notice the tenses used. When Paul says "not of works," he is always speaking in the past tense. He is talking about being born again, that moment in the past when we were transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son. This is the time of our justification, our deliverance from sin, and our entrance into the life of our King. That salvation really is a gift given to those who repent.
If you look through the context of that verse, both in chapter 3 and 4, you will see that Paul is talking about being born again, of our deliverance from sin.
When he talks about our entrance into King Jesus and our deliverance from the world, he always talks about faith, and he always says that becoming a new creature happens apart from works.
There are some who say that Paul only means the works of the law, but that does not ring true to me. When he says "not of works" in Ephesians 2:9, he does not mention the Law of Moses. In fact, in Titus 3:5, Paul says, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he has saved us." No mention of the Law there, but only a mention of our own works of righteousness.
But notice the past tense in Titus 3:5, as well as in Ephesians 2:8-9. Paul is talking about being born again, not "going to heaven" or, as Paul would have said, entering the kingdom of God.
When Paul talks about inheriting the kingdom, he always speaks in the future tense because that kingdom, though it is revealed on earth through us, is yet to come. And when he speaks of entering that kingdom he speaks of works, consistently and repeatedly.
We have already looked at the verses about the kingdom that is to come. So you already know that each and every time, the issue is works.
It is true that works are the product of our faith, as taught by all the apostles. Nonetheless, it is our works which will be judged, not our faith. Perhaps another way of expressing this would be, "Our faith will be judged by our works." We will not be able to justify our evil works by an appeal to faith. Instead, our works will prove at the judgment whether we had a worthwhile faith at all.
Paul has an surprisingly clear description of this process in Romans 5:9-10 ...
Notice the startling differences here. We were justified and reconciled. This happened by his blood and by his death. We shall be saved from wrath. This will happen through him and by his life.
Jesus died to purchase us for God. By faith, we obtain grace which delivers us from the power of sin (Rom. 6:14), teaches us to live godly (Tit. 2:11-12), and makes us a new creation (Eph. 2:8-10).
Once we are born again, by his blood and by his death, we rise to newness of life (Rom. 6:3-11). That life is his life, and it saves us, every day on an ongoing basis, as long as we walk in the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-14; Gal. 5:16-23) and in the light (1 Jn. 1:7). To people like this, the Lord will not impute sin (Rom. 4:4-8).
I know that's frightening to some. It ought to be. Peter tells us that the judgment should cause us to fear throughout our life (1 Pet. 1:17). The fear, however, should be a godly fear, not a foolish one. I will now give you Paul's outline and add a couple statements 1 John 1:7-2:2. Assuming you are a born-again Christian walking in repentance and obedience before God, this should allay any foolish fears and leave you only with the godly fear that Proverbs calls the beginning of wisdom...
This is all easier to understand if we correct the terrible habit we have of interpreting "grace" as "mercy." We often say, "I was really angry at that person, but I chose to give them grace."
No, you didn't. You gave them mercy. Only God can give grace because grace is the power of God that transforms men into sons of God. You can make sure that your words are God's words, communicating grace to the hearers, but grace comes from God because it is power.
When you forgive someone, that is mercy, not grace.
There are four passages that define grace all by themselves ...
In case these don't just speak for themselves, let me simply reiterate. Grace ...
A proper definition of grace is important because it helps us understand the Scriptures. Difficult verses begin to melt away, and the words of Jesus, the letters of Paul, and even James' letter slide right into place.
As an example, note how well and how concisely Ephesians 2:8-10 describes the outline of Paul's teaching on salvation once we have properly defined grace as the power of God for salvation, for life, and our works of service.
"Are you saved" is an interesting construction. "Are" is in the present tense, but "saved" is in the "perfect" tense. That means something "done in the past with present results" (ref). The way I have heard this explained to me by pastors and Greek teachers is: "By grace you are in a state of having been saved."
It is grace which saves us. Grace is what we obtain by faith (here and Rom. 5:2). The grace that brings salvation, when it appears, "teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly, looking for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, King Jesus, who have himself for us, so that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works" (Tit. 2:11-14).
All of this process is gift of God, not of works, but now that he has equipped us by grace, he expects us to walk in the good works which he has prepared for us to do. (The word "it" in "it is the gift of God" cannot refer back to grace or faith because "it" is the wrong gender for either word. It can only refer to the whole process of salvation.)
We are empowered to do exactly that. We have everything we need. We have became partakers of his divine nature, and we have "great and precious promises," so that through these we might be escape the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
It does not, however, happen automatically. Paul tells us that it is our choice to sow to the flesh or to sow to the Spirit (Gal. 6:7-8; Rom. 8:12-13). One will produce corruption, and the other will allow us to reap eternal life.
Those of us who are used to talking about the Kingdom of God here on earth will be a little surprised that the early Christians exclusively spoke of God's kingdom as something to be inherited in the future. The kingdom on earth is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
I know I was surprised by this. Most of the references to the kingdom in Scripture concern the eternal kingdom as well, but there are several references to our being in the kingdom already on earth (e.g., Luke 11:20; 17:21; Col. 1:13).
This second part of Polycarp's quote would be prone to be questioned by modern Christians, but is it not almost exactly what Jesus says in John 5:28-29?
I could go on and on. If I did, you would find that the early Christians spoke of the kingdom of God exclusively in the future, as a kingdom to be entered after the judgment. You would also find that, like Jesus and the apostles, they spoke consistently of doing the will of the Father and turning away from unrighteousness as requirements for entering that kingdom.
People like to talk about what "the Bible" says, but sometimes it matters what Paul or John or Peter or Jesus said.
As an example, we discussed above how Paul carefully analyzed and took apart the plan of salvation. He divided it into steps, speaking of our justification and being born again as being by faith, and speaking of our going to heaven, or entering the kingdom of God, as being by the works that are produced from a grace-inspired life.
James, on the other hand, was not being attacked by Judaizers. He was not on the defense. He did not have to carefully explain the steps of salvation, peeling them apart to expose them to his detractors. Instead, he spoke straightforward and generally to his hearers. He said, in no uncertain terms, that justification is by faith and works.
No matter how much we moderns try to change that into "we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone," James is saying that the whole course of salvation is not by faith alone. It is by faith plus works.
This is no different than Peter telling us that we need to add to our faith in order to enter the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:5-11). Yes, he tells us in verses 3-4 of that chapter that the power to add virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love to our faith comes from God's "great and precious promises" and the grace that has made us "partakers of his divine nature." Nonetheless, Peter outlines a path of faith plus works because he is not carefully dissecting the Gospel the way Paul was forced to.
The same is true of apostolic use of "eternal life."
We need to address this because "eternal life" is another way that Jesus and the apostles sometimes speak of going to heaven.
These all clearly reference to life in eternity after death, or at least after the judgment.
There are also references to our having eternal life right now, before we ever depart this earth.
I know that last one is a negative reference, but the description gives us a picture of John's thought. Those that do have eternal life have it "abiding" in them, or living in them.
John explains this by saying, "This is the testimony, that God has given us eternal life, and that life is in his Son. He that has the Son has the life. He that does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (1 Jn. 5:11-12).
To the apostle John, we can have eternal life already because we have Jesus living in us.
We like to use his terminology, and we should feel free to do so. It is important that we speak as the apostles spoke. Saying what they say is a key to overthrowing traditions of men that we have built up over the centuries.
However, we should also know that John is the only apostle who uses "eternal life" this way. For all the other apostles, eternal life is something that will be given to us after the judgment.
For example, Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel:
This is at the end of the judgment of the sheep and the goats. You will never find Jesus saying we already have eternal life except in John's Gospel.
The same is true of Paul. We tend to put John's meaning in Paul's words, but we should avoid doing so. There are several places where Paul's use of eternal life is not clear, but wherever it is clear, he is always referring to a reward we receive at the judgment, not something we possess now.
John, too, does not consistently use eternal life as a current possession. He sometimes speaks of it concerning the next age in the kingdom of God:
Why would Paul and John use eternal life differently (and Peter, James, & Jude not at all)?
When Paul talked about the life of Jesus being in us now, he simply used "life." He did not call it eternal life. The life of Jesus was nonetheless at the center of his message:
John spoke of eternal life being in us because the Son of God is in us (1 Jn. 5:11-12)
I have always interpreted it this way. We can have eternal life on this earth, the life of Jesus, inside of us by having Jesus inside of us. After the judgment, however, God is going to give eternal life to us as well. Eternal life will be in us, just like it is in Jesus. We will become immortal.
We don't tend to think of immortality as a promise of the Gospel, but it Paul mentions it several times (Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:53-54; 2 Tim. 1:10).
The early Christians mention it even more:
Again, I could go on and on, but I will spare you. Starting with the quotes on this page, I will add an immortality quotes page and a kingdom of God quotes page to the site. I will give a bigger set of quotes there.
No, but as you can see, they did talk about the kingdom of God, which will some day rule the earth. They also talked about eternal life, a reward which will be given to us at the judgment.
On another page, coming soon, I will talk about what the apostles and the early Christians said about what happens to us between our death and the final resurrection and judgment.
I do have a short explanation of that early Christian belief on the Purgatory page.