Thursday, April 7, 2011

Life, the Universe, and Everything

As promised in my last installment, I am focusing this post on answering an important question, one posed (somewhat rhetorically) by author Rob Bell. The question has been asked countless times throughout human history by untold numbers of individuals.

The jailer of Acts 16 asked, "What must I do to be saved?"

The rich young ruler who approached Jesus in Luke 18, asked the specific question, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?"

Later the on-lookers in Luke 18 asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Bell, concerned with the apparent exclusivity of Biblical salvation, forms his question as, " do you become one of the few?" I think we can agree that each of these questions is soliciting the same information, but for the sake allowing a broader scope for this discuss I'd like to define the question in a more generic sense:

What does the Bible say a person must do in order to be allowed into heaven after one's death?

Hopefully, this phrasing covers the range of meanings that these questions imply, while providing enough specificity for us to examine the question in a meaningful manner. Let this be The Question for which we are trying to discover the answer.

There are numerous passages in the Bible where people clearly ask The Question, but there are even more passages which answer the question. However, not every passage is intended to be a comprehensive answer and each answer must be understood in the context of the passage.

As a student of the Bible, I've sometimes felt it troublesome that it is not always plainly evident to the casual observer what the full answer to The Question is. To wit, some false doctrines have arisen as a result of groups selecting partial answers from certain passages and running off half-cocked with them. ("Repent and be baptised" in Acts 2, comes to mind.)

All Christians should be familiar with the "Romans Road"(1), the sequence of verses from Paul's Epistle to the church at Rome that together form a road map of the steps necessary to answer The Question. More recently, Bill Bright of the organization Campus Crusade for Christ, published his pamphlet called "The Four Spiritual Laws"(2) which also uses a collection of scripture verses to logically move the reader from one Biblical principle to the next in answering The Question.

Both of these tools -- and that is what they are, tools -- are logical collections of scripture that when taken together form a comprehensive amalgam of the Biblical answer to The Question. These are two of the better known and easily teachable tools; however, there are many others. An adept student of the Bible can take you to any number of passages in innumerable combinations to provide an answer to our Question.

Until recently, however, I felt a sort of dismay that I could not find a passage in the Bible that I thought really encapsulated everything involved in answering The Question. (Okay, all you Christians out there, hold your fire. I'm not saying that it's not there, all I'm saying is that I personally hadn't found a passage in which I personally felt everything that I personally needed to know about salvation was comprehensively contained.)

Until now.

I recently had an encounter with the Book of Jonah, chapter three. You might recall Jonah from his association with a certain whale. However, chapters one and two which recount his misadventures in the deep are really an unfortunate diversion from the real point of the book -- that being Jonah's commissioning to preach to the city of Ninevah and their subsequent conversion. Regrettably, Jonah, upon being given this assignment, decided to avoid such and instead pulls the reader along on an abortive trip to Joppa and into the intestinal track of a large sea creature. Ultimately, he regrets his disobedience to the Lord and is forthwith deposited unceremoniously on a beach.

This brings us to chapter three. Herein have I found a synopsis of the answer we seek like no other place in scripture. God speaks to Jonah a second time, "Arise and go to Nineveh and preach..." In response, verse three tells us, "So Jonah arose and went unto Nineveh according to the word of the Lord." (It's a rather profound sermon in itself to think what if Jonah 3:2 had instead been in the place of Jonah 1:3, isn't it?)

Then, in verse four, we come to the crux of the matter. Jonah begins to preach to the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh, the people hear his admonition, and they respond positively to what he has to say. In the following verses, I find the message of the gospel enumerated point by doctrinal point in what I believe is one of the most beautiful and well documented conversions in all of the Bible. I shall elucidate:

Jonah 3

Preaching v4: Jonah preached God's message of judgment of sin. Clearly from the response of the people, his message was an effectual one. Roman 10:14-15 demonstrates the necessity of someone to carry the message to the lost.

Hearing v6: The people heard the message and it was carried all the way up to the king of Nineveh himself. Romans 10:14 implies the importance of hearing the message.

Believing/Faith v5: As a result of the message, the people believed God. This wasn't simply a tacit mental acceptance of the information provided, but a stirring faith that wrought a great change in them. Hebrews 11:6 declares that "without faith it is impossible to please Him..." Ephesians 2:8 tells us that we are "saved by grace through faith." Romans 10 repeatedly emphasizes the roll of faith in salvation (consider Rom 10:10 carefully). The faith of the Ninevites spurred them to action, demonstrating clearly the extent of their faith (James 2:17-18).

Contrition/Regret v5-6: Psalm 34:18 says, "The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit." James 4:6 says that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. How can one learn of one's sin, believe the message, and not be sorry for one's sinfulness? To sit in ashes wearing sackcloth was a sign of intense grief. (Job did the same in the midst of his trials.) This demonstration by the king and people of Nineveh clearly shows their genuine and admission of guilt and led them to the next steps.

Confession v8: Nineveh did not try to hide their guild. To the contrary, the king himself made no bones about proclaiming what they had done, openly voicing the facts of their "evil way" and the blood on their hands. Romans 10:10 "For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." I John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Matthew 3:6 tells how John the Baptist baptised those who confessed their sins. (Note that baptism followed salvation rather than caused it.)

Repentance v8: Thus far Ninevites have heard, believed, were ashamed, and confessed their sins. Now their faith took action in the form of Repentance, a crucial ingredient in salvation. Jesus Himself calls for people to repent (or perish) in Luke 13 not once but twice. In Matthew chapter 3, John the Baptist calls for people not only to repent, but to demonstrate in their actions their repentance. The king of Nineveh himself led this movement of repentence with his declaration to "turn every one from his evil way." Google says that the very definition of the word repent is "to turn away from sin."

Given the people's lack of knowing whether God would spare them, and particularly given the attitude Jonah strikes in chapter 4, I rather suspect that Jonah in his preaching left out the part that God loves them and "is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (II Peter 3:9). But God did not bring the judgment upon the city that He had warned was coming.

In this very same way, the judgment that we all deserve (Romans 6:23) can be replaced with the surety of eternal life in heaven (John 14:1-6). Thus, a Biblical response to The Question: What does the Bible say a person must do in order to be allowed into heaven after one's death?

Do what Nineveh did.

(1)The Roman's Road:
(2)The Four Spiritual Laws: