An astounding thing happened during Jesus’ crucifixion — while dying, he issued a Divine pardon to the frightened criminal on the cross beside him.
I don’t blame that fellow for his fear. The religious leaders of his day taught that only perfect people got eternal rewards.
As a youngster, I believed the very same thing. In my memory, I tripped down to the altar of my childhood church to recite the sinner’s prayer every time I told a little lie, disobeyed my parents, mouthed a cuss word or fought with my siblings.
That trip saved me from eternal damnation at least two hundred and fifty six times. (I could be wrong. It may have been more. I collected so many tickets to heaven, I could have scalped them on E-Bay, had it been around then.)
Two friends — one Catholic, one Baptist — believed their tickets to heaven came through dunking or sprinkling. Other friends believed in salvation by association: their parents attended church twice yearly at least — Easter and Christmas. Three times, if you threw in a wedding.
As I grew in faith and years, I learned what the Bible says: Baptism no more guarantees heaven than dunking in hot oil guarantees donut-hood. Heaven’s gate doesn’t swing open at every recitation of the sinner’s prayer. And no matter how spiritual one’s family, God processes each applicant for eternal mercy on their own merit.
(Unlike me, God has no grandbeans.)
Perfect behavior doesn’t guarantee a spot in heaven either. Jesus Christ reserved his harshest words for the local religious leaders. Though they fastidiously observed the law, they lived loveless, self-righteous, and hypocritical lives. No wonder they wanted Jesus dead: unlike them, his life proved his words true.
At the age of fifteen, one of the greatest Christians of the nineteenth century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, read this Bible verse: “Look to me and be saved… for I am God and there is none else.” (Isaiah 45:22)
One verse. He believed it, and, like that condemned thief, his belief changed his destiny.
According to scripture, heaven will hold some who have prayed a sinner’s prayer — but so will hell. Both places will also contain baptized people, and people who lived good, upright, even religious lives.
Those in hell will have one thing in common: Regardless of what they did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say, during their lifetimes — God found no genuine belief in their hearts.
Those in heaven will have one thing in common too: Regardless of what they did or didn’t do during their lives, said or didn’t say, God found transformational belief in their hearts and it was enough to open heaven’s gates.
The thief recognized what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ still proclaims: Look to me, and be saved, for I am God, and there is none else.
He believed. I expect to meet him in heaven one day, where, by God’s grace alone, we will both reflect the Son in ways our lives on earth never permitted: perfectly.