Not all who profess faith in Christ actually follow Him. Not all who give lip service to Christianity necessarily know its truth. Various warning passages (e.g., Heb. 2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 1 John 2:19), along with Jesus’ own words in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 7:23; 25:41; Luke 13:27), alert us to the possibility that we can appear to have a relationship with Jesus and even enjoy the fellowship of close Christian community without finding a home in heaven in the end.
When Self-Effort Strikes
Some of us have been awakened to the truth about who Jesus is. We’ve seen the seriousness of our own sinfulness. We know that sin isn’t merely a generic problem but something that dwells in our hearts. We may be under the teaching of the Bible and even find ourselves agreeing with much of what it says—especially about our need for redemption.
But it is precisely at this point that we are so prone to take a dreadfully wrong turn. Self-effort kicks in. We begin to say, Well, okay, I am a mess, I have sinned, I am a sinner, I do deserve God’s judgment. So let me handle this the way I handle everything else: let me get down to it and get it fixed. I’m going to start by attending Christian activities, I’m going to continue by using Christian language, and I’m going to pull my socks up and do a very good job.
Such self-effort leads to one of two things: pride, whereby we convince ourselves we’re doing very well, or despair as we acknowledge that no matter how well we’re doing, we just can’t do enough. Such an experience indicates that we have never come to know that it is in Christ that our condemnation is annulled and our sins are forgiven. It is only in Christ that God comes to live in a human heart by His Spirit, enabling us to live in a way that pleases Him.
Root and Fruit
One of the gravest mistakes we can make is to confuse the root and the fruit. Scripture leaves us with no question at all that God desires us to live in a way that accords with the Gospel (Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12)—that is, to live holy, or morally upright, lives. But an increasingly holy life is always the fruit of salvation, never the root. Christ’s finished work and our faith in Him is the true root, and it produces the genuine fruit of increasingly sanctified living.
Perhaps it sounds like a cliché to you, but the classic evangelistic question can help us gauge where we really are with God: If you died today and stood before the bar of God’s judgment, would you be acceptable to God? How do you respond? Is your first instinct to think of yourself and whether you might be worthy of God? Or do you point away from yourself to Christ? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that even the sum of our very best works is completely unacceptable to God on its own. But because of all that Jesus is, because of all that He has done, and because we find rest in Him as our Savior, we can approach this gateway boldly.
As dechristianized as America might be now, we still have plenty of churches with plenty of almost-Christians. It’s easy to get caught up in the crowd, sing the songs, and go through the motions. Eventually, you feel like you belong, and you can’t even remember a time when you weren’t a “Christian.”
Well, you must know that in heaven, there is no membership by association. Almost-Christians will almost get to heaven. But almost isn’t going to be close enough.
As a Christian, you must be willing to ask hard questions of yourself, to follow Paul’s direction to the Corinthians church: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). The test may prove difficult to administer, but it all comes down to one key question: Are you relying on yourself, or are you depending on Jesus Christ? In other words, is Christ the source of all your hope and strength? Have you admitted that only He is good enough and you never could be? Have you confessed that though your own sinfulness brings you to despair, Christ can make you clean?
This is the beauty of the Gospel: you can’t pick yourself up, but neither do you have to stay down, because Christ will carry you. When you trust Him fully, He will carry you all the way home to heaven’s eternal shores.