The Question: Before I die, I can just ask God to forgive me and I’ll get into heaven, right? I don’t NEED to live a ‘good’ life really as long as I ask God to forgive me at the end of it. He is merciful and will forgive those who ask Him as the Bible says.
I’m not sure where this concept originated (like many other fairly common concepts regarding Christianity) but it does seem to be popular with people.
Before we look at this though, let’s address the underlying issue with the question/statement itself. First lets establish that if God is indeed God, then He knows our true heart and mind and motives, which means we cannot ‘fool’ or ‘trick’ God into anything, this includes ‘sneaking’ into heaven or ‘manipulating’ God’s ‘system’ in any kind of way to achieve our own desires.
With that in mind, lets logically examine this sequence of events that would take place based on the question/statement. Lets say you have a serial killer, who lives his life murdering and doing other ‘sinful’ things. Eventually he gets old, and is on his deathbed. He obviously doesn’t want to go to ‘Hell‘ because after all that sounds scary and bad, those ‘Christians’ always talk about fire and brimstone and eternal torture and the like… Heaven on the other hand sounds pretty good, so before he dies, he asks God for forgiveness. After all, the Bible says God forgives and is merciful, and that’s what those Christians say too, so God ‘has’ to forgive him, He can’t lie, right? And of course this is only just ‘in-case’ there actually IS a God and heaven/hell is real… Better safe than sorry!
So, do you think this individual will ‘make it’ into heaven? It seems ludicrous right? But why does it seem that way? Is it because he was ‘more’ sinful than the next person who maybe wasn’t a serial killer but just cheated on his wife a few times and lied occasionally or someone who practices homosexuality? The Bible says God views all sin as equal, so that isn’t it. What is it then? It’s because (at least I believe) this person wasn’t genuinely sorry first of all, secondly because they really weren’t interested in God at all or seeking to change their life. They only wanted ‘heaven insurance’.
Many people start their walk with God because they fear death and/or they desire heaven. Many begin their walk with God because they want an end to the emptiness in their lives and they want purpose or contentment or to know the truth or to find peace in a life of turmoil… So most if not all Christian’s begin for motives based on themselves (selfish), which doesn’t seem quite right. But, considering we start out in sin and ignorance it only makes sense.
The amazing thing that happens when a Christian pursues God and genuinely desires to know God and develop a relationship with Him is that this focus on themselves diminishes, and a focus on God and other people takes over their life. It doesn’t become about ‘getting into heaven’ or ‘finding peace’ or ‘being happy’ or any of those other things. Yes, those things are side-effects of following God, but they are not WHY we do it.
We do it because we’ve experienced God’s grace and mercy and because we know it’s right and want to serve. Because we recognize the amazing gifts that God has provided to us (contentment, purpose, heaven, healing, etc.) and while we know we cannot even begin to repay Him, serving Him with our lives is the only thing we have to offer, as pitiful as that may be, so how could we not do so?
If a complete stranger came along and saved your life right when you were about to die, the life of your children and/or loved ones, not only that, but they gave you a million dollars when you had absolutely nothing, no home or possessions, etc. This person had no need of wealth or material things, so there was literally no way you could repay them, but they DID ask you to be their friend, and heed their advice about how you lived your life and acted (which you knew would be in your best interest anyway), would you not do so? What could possibly be the reason you wouldn’t do so? I personally cannot think of one, and as such that is how I and other Christians feel (or should anyway) about God.
BUT, lets get back to the original question.
So, this concept of ‘ask forgiveness and you will be saved’ does indeed have some Biblical grounds if you look only at specific snippets and don’t read in context (1 John 1:9 for example), and there may have been eras in which many ‘Christians’ believed and taught that all people had to do was ask God to forgive them and then they were good to go as it were. HOWEVER, lets look a bit more in depth about what the Bible actually says and teaches on this topic.
Romans 10:9-10 talks about salvation, and it lists two distinct steps, first it says: “…declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord…” and secondly “…believe in your heart…”. It goes on further to explain, “…it is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” So those verses indicate that there is indeed a lot more to salvation than simply asking God’s forgiveness.
Matthew 7:21 states quite clearly that it’s not people who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ (ie, who just ask God to save them or for ‘forgiveness’), but those who do the will of the Father that will be saved.
John 14:12 also states very clearly that if you actually believe in God you will follow/mimic the actions/lifestyle of Jesus, so there is certainly more to it than just asking forgiveness or being ‘sorry’.
With genuine belief in God comes the realization that we are sinners and that God is good and we are not. With this realization comes genuine remorse and shame, and that is where I believe God’s forgiveness is asked for and His grace extended and felt most deeply.
So to be clear, I’m not saying forgiveness isn’t a key part of living as a follower of Christ, quite the contrary. I am however saying that this concept of the ‘salvation loophole’ as it were where you can just ask God for ‘forgiveness’ before you die and you’ll be enjoying heaven in no time really has no grounds if you actually look at what the Bible says in context.
A very sobering parable from Jesus can be found in Matthew 25:31-46. It speaks about how on the final day of judgement He will separate those who did His will from those who did not. It doesn’t make any mention of who asked God for forgiveness, nor who was baptized, nor what particular church denomination they belonged too… All it talks about is how they conducted themselves in relation to other people who needed help.
Now, I don’t believe this particular parable was told by Jesus in an attempt to indicate to us that we don’t need to follow God in order to be given the gift of eternal life and that all we need to do is be really nice to everyone… As there are many other teachings and parables in the Bible that would contradict that train of thought. I do believe however it was given to show us that it’s not a simple matter of ‘repenting’ or going to church or being baptized.
Mark 10:17-22 is another great indication that salvation isn’t about a specific set of words we must speak or actions we must take. It talks about a rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus replies, saying, “You know the commandments, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” The young man replied to him saying he has done all these things since he was a youth. Jesus then says he still lacks one thing, and if he really wants ‘treasure in heaven’ to go and sell all that he has and come and follow Jesus. The young rich man went away sad.
Now, some people take this passage and say it means that as a Christian we are to sell all our possessions. I don’t believe this is the case due to various other areas in the Bible where Jesus is teaching/talking about salvation and doesn’t mention selling possessions at all, nor do His disciples. So why then did He tell the young rich man to do so? I think the obvious answer is that Jesus recognized that the young man’s heart was not seeking God first, but rather was with his wealth. If he had truly been seeking God, I would imagine the young man would have left enthusiastically to sell all his possessions and return to follow Jesus, rather than leaving sadly.
But lets go further, as there are a lot of verses in the Bible about salvation, belief, being saved, etc: Ephesians 2:8-9, John 3:16-21, Acts 16:30-33, Acts 2:36-41, Mark 16:15-16, James 1:21, Matthew 10:38, Acts 3:19, John 14:12, John 11:25-26 and John 5:24 to name a few…
If you look at these verses and others, you’ll see some common threads between them all. One is that we as followers of Christ need to ‘believe’, another is that belief involves action.
James 2:16-26 talks about faith (belief) without works and how it is useless if not combined with works. Other areas in the Bible clearly demonstrate works by themselves are of no use either (Ephesians 2:8-9 for example). So we know it’s not anything we can do by ourselves that ‘saves’ us or puts God in a position where he ‘must’ extend salvation to us because of what we have done.
There are no shortage of ideas on what the proper ‘method’ or ‘sequence’ people need to take or follow in order to be ‘saved’ and attain ‘salvation’ as it were. Many different Christian denominations say many different things and argue about what ‘needs’ to be done. Some say you cannot be saved unless you are baptized, then another denomination says that’s true but you have to be baptized a certain way for it to ‘count’. Another denomination says all you need to do is recite the ‘sinners prayer’ and then you’re fine…
My personal belief based on what I understand of the Bible and of God, is that none of those actions really matter. I’m not saying baptism is wrong or anything like that, but I don’t believe God is going to have a checklist type thing going on at the pearly gates, like, “Hmm, lets see, you were baptized as a infant, check, okay so far so good… Baptized again as an adult, looking good… Oh, wait a minute now, it wasn’t a complete immersion baptism so that one doesn’t count… I guess I cannot let you in here, sorry.” Seems just as outrageous as the serial killer getting heaven insurance right?
What I do think we will be judged on is what is in our hearts and the love we showed for others and how that love directed our actions while on this earth. I believe this due to what the Bible says and how I understand it and what we can extrapolate about the heart of God and the way He desires us to live from the Word which He left to us.
At the end of the day, real belief in God will result in action and repentance and a genuine desire to change your heart and life. I think following God is about far more than just saying a few words or going to church on Sunday or reading the Bible occasionally. It’s a different way of perceiving and living life and a call to a higher purpose and most importantly to love instead of hating or indifference, focusing on serving others instead of yourself.
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