“A Life of Satisfaction and Enjoyment”: The Glorious Reward of Heaven

October 26, 2011

Below is a recent article I wrote for The Gospel Witness (August 2011, pp. 10-13).

“A Life of Satisfaction and Enjoyment”:

The Glorious Reward of Heaven

The great English poet, John Donne (1572–1631), has given us a lyrical contrast between life here on this place and what heaven will be like:

Here in this world,
He bids us come;
there in the next,
He shall bid us welcome.

Christians of all times and all places have looked forward to that day when they would move from this world and to another where we would be welcomed with open arms by our Father. Christians do not believe that when one dies that it is simply the end. No, they believe that there is something beyond this life; something far better than what we have now. Now, we are “aliens and strangers” (Eph 2:19), and our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). And while Christians long for that time when “He shall bid us welcome” most have a rather confused view of what heaven will be like, and frankly, who will populate it.

Therefore, it is imperative to answer these two most fundamental questions when considering the doctrine of heaven. First, what is heaven? What will it be like? What will it’s nature be? What can we expect? Second, who goes to heaven? Who will be the resident population of heaven? What must one do to enjoy the glorious reward of heaven?

What is Heaven?

Our world is fascinated with the supernatural, the angelic, the other-worldly. Whether it be people who make pilgrimages to “Area 51” in the Nevada desert to prove that there is life out there in the universe, or the myriads of television viewers imbibing the constant stream of the fantastic supernatural creatures like vampires or zombies, most want to believe there is more than just what we absorb with our senses. There must be something more than this physical reality that we see here and now. And many want to truly believe, despite their religious persuasion or even their lack thereof, that there is something beyond death. But ask your average person in North America what heaven will be like and you will get some typical answers:

1) White robes
2) Harp playing
3) Cloud floating
4) Halos

Their understanding of heaven is that at death that we will proceed to enter into the “pearly gates” as long as St. Peter has us on his list and we will remain for all eternity relaxing on clouds playing harps looking like the innocent angel statues that frequent most Christian book stores. The problem with this is, it is exactly what heaven will not be. This then begs the question, what will heaven be like? For answers to this question we must turn to our only authoritative source, the Bible.

The reality is, heaven is not just an ethereal place where we float around. Instead, the Scriptures tell us that there will be after the final judgment, a new heaven and a new earth. Isaiah 65:17 reads, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.”[1]

What we know of as the current space-time-mass continuum, all of the heavens and the earth; the entire universe, will be completely changed. Yet, it will not be destroyed. While some people today envision a full and final destruction of the universe which will leave absolutely nothing, the Scriptures instead present a new creation. In light of God’s purposes to redeem creation that had been marred in the curse (Romans 8:19–21), everything will be restored to absolute perfection. This will not mean the absence of the physical, but the physical made perfect. This is nowhere more clearly spelled out than in Revelation 21:1–8:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

The theme here is one of newness. All things become new, yet not all things are fundamentally different from what they once were. While the effects of sin will be removed there will still be heaven and still be earth and the holy city Jerusalem will be there. This is a physical realm populated by physical people. We have a tendency, even in Evangelical churches, to sort of imbibe a platonic dualism that sees spirit as somehow “better” than matter. That one day we will shed this body and be pure and whole. The problem is, the Scriptures teach us that when we shed this physical body we will put on another physical, resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15:35–49). And the place where these bodies will dwell will be on a physical new heavens and new earth.

This connecting of heaven and earth in a new creation presents a number of new changes. The Scriptures tell us there will be no sea, that there will be a new Jerusalem, where God Himself dwells, there will be no more darkness or sin, and no more tears. The dwelling place of the redeemed will be a place untouched by the ravages of sin. What God once called “very good” in the original creation will once again be very good as sin is purged and the curse is fully and finally destroyed. Everything that we think of as wonderful and beautiful will only be more so in heaven. Even our work, our service to god, will be redeemed. We will not float upon clouds playing harps but will joyfully serve Him on a real physical earth (Matt 25:23; Rev 22:3).
For those who will dwell in heaven, the final judgment and recreation of the universe to be our dwelling place is not something to fear but is something to rejoice over. René Pache captures this well when he writes,

It is told us that at the creation of the world “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God [the angels no doubt] shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Since then, this joy has become dimmed by the fall and by the curse of sin, so that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of travail. When, at last, the new heavens and the new earth appear, the whole universe will resound with praise. Myriads of myriads and thousands upon thousands of beings around the heavenly throne have already sung of the God of creation, of redemption, and of judgment…. They will certainly burst forth again when, all things having become new, there will be seen descending out of heaven from God the new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.[2]

Who Goes to Heaven?

Once one understands the true nature of heaven, the logical question is, who will populate this renewed Eden? If it will be a physical place where people will dwell working, serving, and glorifying God through the use of their gifts and talents, who will these people be? Again, the average person in North America, when asked the question of how one gets to heaven will simply answer that you just have to be good enough. When we die and we stand before the gate to heaven, our good deeds and our bad deeds will be weighed on the divine scale and as long as the good outweighs the bad, then entrance is guaranteed. Who goes to heaven? Good little boys and girls who never did too many wrong things. Again, if we want to know who will be in heaven, we have to turn to Scripture and see what the prerequisites are for citizenship in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Pache is clear here about those for whom heaven is opened. “His will, then, is unmistakable: all sinners are invited to heaven, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”[3] The entrance requirements to heaven are to simply respond in faith to the message of the Gospel proclaimed on earth. For all those who hear they are a sinner, repent of that sin, and trust in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice alone for their salvation, the doors are opened unto them. For all those who do not, there will be no place for them in heaven. No amount of good deeds done on earth, no amount of good intentions, will earn you a place in heaven. Simply, one sin will deprive you from an eternity with God in paradise. Instead, the Scriptures call you to repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ; only then will you find that at death, you will have such a great reward.

Why is Heaven a Glorious Reward?

Frankly, the reality of what the Scriptures teach about heaven far surpasses the fluffy cloud, angelic harp-playing, that so many believe. The great English Puritan Richard Baxter remarked that “this is a life of desire and prayer, but that is a life of satisfaction and enjoyment.”[4] Often, when we consider the doctrine of heaven we only consider the myriads of questions regarding the details and neglect the true and real importance; that everything in the new heavens and new earth are beautiful and joyous. All of the physical details presented in the Scriptures point to a vastly beautiful realm of wonder and joy. Anything that we could hold dearly to in this life will be far better in the next. Yet, even for all the beauty that we will see around us in heaven, there is something far more important. Wayne Grudem writes about that when he says,

But more important than all the physical beauty of the heavenly city, more important than the fellowship we will enjoy eternally with all God’s people from all nations and all periods in history, more important than our freedom from pain and sorrow and physical suffering, and more important than reigning over God’s kingdom—more important by far than any of these will be the fact that we will be in the presence of God and enjoying unhindered fellowship with him.[5]

What beauty and wonder is there in the statement in Revelation 21:3 that reads, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” What better thing is there than to consider that God will dwell with man face-to-face? From the very beginning of creation when man walked with God, we have been striving to be with God again. Now, God, through His Son’s reconciling work, will provide that avenue. God will dwell with man in a new heavens and a new earth. In fact, God’s presence will mean there will be no more need for a sun because His glory will light the city (Revelation 21:23).

What better thing to look forward to for the Christian is the reality that God will dwell with man? It is fitting to close and consider again the words of Grudem,

When we look into the face of our Lord and he looks back at us with infinite love, we will see in him the fulfillment of everything that we know to be good and rich and desirable in the universe. In the face of God we will see the fulfillment of all the longing we have ever had to know perfect love, peace, and joy, and to know truth and justice, holiness and wisdom, goodness and power, and glory and beauty. As we gaze into the face of our Lord, we will know more fully than ever before that “in your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11). Then will be fulfilled the longing of our hearts with which we have cried out in the past, “One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple (Ps. 27:4). When we finally see the Lord face to face, our hearts will want nothing else. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you…. God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25–26). Then with joy our hearts and voices will join with the redeemed from all ages and with the mighty armies of heaven singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8).[6]

[1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

[2] René Pache, The Future Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1962), p. 330.

[3] Pache, The Future Life, p. 372.

[4] Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest, (London: Printed for Thomas Underhill and Francis Tyton, 1654), p. 115.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), p. 1163.

[6] Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1164.

“From the Sordidness of Sin to the Purity of God’s Image”

May 9, 2011

Below is a recent article I wrote for The Gospel Witness (April 2011, pp. 6-8).

“From the Sordidness of Sin to the Purity of God’s Image”: The Doctrine of Sanctification

There was once a time when catechisms were a common feature in the life of the church. Through a series of questions and answers people would learn the basics of theology. It so happens that at the church where I serve as Pastor we are studying through the Baptist Catechism[i] in a weekly bulletin insert to seek to grow in our knowledge of God as best understood by our Baptist forebears. It seems fitting that at this time in preparation for celebrating Easter we would be at Question 38 of the catechism which asks “What is sanctification?” Since Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and that through this we are united to Him, and through our union with Christ we receive the blessing of sanctification (cf. 1 Cor 1:30) it is only fitting to consider what exactly sanctification is, how sanctification flows out of the cross of Christ and to consider bearing it has on the Christian life.

Towards a Definition of Sanctification

Puritan great William Ames (1576–1633) writes that sanctification is “the real change in man from the sordidness of sin to the purity of God’s image.”[ii] What we are understanding sanctification then to be is that process where we grow more and more in holiness. We are constantly being changed and conformed to the image of Christ through a joint process of our own along with the work of the Holy Spirit in us. In particular we will consider what the answer to the Baptist Catechism question noted above tells us about sanctification. The answer to the question reads, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” There are a number of things we see about sanctification.

First, sanctification is a work of God’s free grace. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 notes that the work of sanctification is a work of the Spirit that flows out of God’s sovereign choice, and thereby, a work of His free grace. The verse reads, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”[iii] We often act like when we are saved, our justification is done through the power of God, but our pursuit of holiness is by our own effort. In contrast, it is seen that even the ability to grow in godliness is a gift of God.

Second, we see that sanctification involves a renewing in the whole man after the image of God. In the fall, our image has been marred. It has been damaged by our sinfulness to the point that it effects all of man. We are totally depraved because of our sin. Yet, our goal is to regain that complete image of God through our pursuit of holiness. Therefore, sanctification is that process where we are being renewed into His image. Paul in addressing the Ephesian believers notes that we are to be “renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:23–24). Just as one would remove a dirty shirt, we are to remove our old, sinful self, and replace it with a new self, after the likeness (or image) of God.

Finally, we see that sanctification has a result that we are more enabled to die to sin and live to righteousness. As we grow more and more in holiness and are closely matching the image of God in our lives, we are more able to resist sin and temptation and instead to pursue righteousness. In fact, Paul in Romans 6:6 identifies a close relationship between our association with the death of Christ and our ability to bring our sin under control through sanctification. He writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” As our old self has been taken off (or here crucified) we are no longer enslaved to sin and therefore are more able to resist it (put it to death as the catechism says) and to instead pursue righteousness. It is a life-long pursuit and we will never reach perfection this side of glory, but because of what Christ has done on the cross, we can pursue holiness and become conformed to the image of God in Jesus Christ!

The Cross and Sanctification

On Easter it is important therefore to consider the cross of Christ. The cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith. Without either, Christianity falls apart. That is why we must have a correct understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ because our Gospel message stands or falls upon it. Yet, the cross did not simply pay for our sin and our guilt as Christ became our substitute, but it made provision for our ability to grow in Christ-likeness through our pursuit of progressive sanctification.

Romans 6 is one of the clearest passages of Scripture which connects the dots between the cross of Jesus and sanctification. Our ability to pursue holiness clearly comes as a result of the cross. Paul begins by addressing an objection that if when we sin grace increases should we continue to live in sin (v. 1)? Paul says, “By no means!” Since we have died to sin we can no longer live in it (v. 2). But what does Paul mean when he says that we have died to sin? He is speaking specifically that those for whom Christ died have too died. Just as Christ was crucified for us, we too were crucified with Him. We are united to Him in both the cross and the resurrection. In fact, Paul goes on to connect the ordinance of baptism to that of identifying ourselves with the death of Christ. All of those who have been baptized into Christ have also been baptized into His death (v. 3). Baptism is, at the heart, a public identification. If we have chosen to identify ourselves with Christ we have identified with His death. Hence, Paul can write that, as we go down under the water of baptism, it is as if we have been buried with Christ and just as we come up out of the water of baptism, it is as if we have risen to new life with Christ (v. 4). This newness of life is the key to our understanding of sanctification and the cross. Through the death of Christ and our identification with it, we have died to sin’s control and mastery over us and have been given new life and the ability to pursue godliness.

He continues to say that if we have died with Christ we too will be raised with Christ (v. 5) and that our old self (our sinful nature) has been crucified with Christ  so that sin would no longer have control or dominion over us (v. 6) so that he can make the bold statement that “For one who has died has been set free from sin” (v. 7). If then we have died with Christ we then therefore live with Him and since death has no hold on Him so will it have no hold over us (vv. 8–9). In this death Christ died to sin (as death is the result of sin) and He now lives for God (v. 10) and therefore we too are dead to sin and alive to God (v. 11). As a result then of our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection we are to no longer live in sin but to be slaves to righteousness (v. 18). We are therefore to “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (vv. 12–13).

We have been given the power to live for righteousness because we are no longer controlled to sin. We have died to it because Christ has died to it. And now since He lives, we too live and are able to live for righteousness. We are able to be holy because the Holy One died for us, and through our union with Him, we too have died to ourselves and to sin. As David Peterson writes, “God has consecrated to himself a new people, through the death and resurrection of his Son. By faith, we have been buried together with him by baptism into death, united with him in a death like his. God has dealt with our sins and bound us to himself, making it possible for us to live a new life to his glory and ultimately to be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.”[iv]

Sanctification and the Christian Life

In addressing the doctrine of sanctification, Baptist Divine John Gill (1697–1771) writes of sanctification being, “grace in the soul is a well of living water, springing up unto everlasting life”.[v] The pursuit of holiness is not one of drudgery as if it is obedience to the Law. Instead, it is everything of grace to the soul. The Holy Spirit, dwelling inside the believer, convicts us of sin and brings us ever closer to the image of Jesus Christ. God calls us to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Our goal is therefore to be like God, as perfectly manifested in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. This is not solely through our own effort as if we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps but is a joint effort through the power of God working in us that we put off sin and put on righteousness. This power in us comes as a result of being united to Christ through His death and resurrection.

This then is our ultimate goal in life. Because we are united to Jesus Christ in His death through the cross, we are called to glorify God by becoming more like His most perfect Son. This occurs through the process of sanctification. It is a glorious process, occupying our entire lives from the point when we are united to Christ at salvation to the point when we are perfected in glory. So, if something is so consuming of our lives and integral to our pursuit of the glory of God, we should reflect more on the matter and consider more how we can be faithful to this pursuit of holiness. For, it came at a great cost, the death of Jesus Christ. Through His death we have the power to become holy. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “God’s purpose for us, in other words, is not just future happiness or a guaranteed entrance into heaven but perfect likeness to Christ and therefore to himself. God could not, in fact, have designed a higher destiny for his people than that they should be completely like his only Son, in whom he delights.”[vi]

This Easter, do not think that Christ’s death only made you right before God in position, but that through the cross work of Christ, you are pursuing God’s highest purpose for you: being made right before God in the actual way you live!

 [i] For a brief introduction to the Baptist Catechism see the forward by James M. Renihan in The Baptist Confession of Faith and the Baptist Catechism (Vestavia Hills, AL/Carlisle, PA: Solid Ground Christian Books/Reformed Baptist Publications, 2010), pp. 89–91. For a more detailed examination see Tom J. Nettles, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study of Catechisms in Baptist Life (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 1998), pp. 47–58.

[ii] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), p. 168.

[iii] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.

[iv] David Peterson, Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), p. 100.

[v] John Gill, A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, 3 vols. (London: Printed for W. Winterbotham, 1796), II, 312.

[vi] Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 233.

What’s the Big Deal about Complaining?

March 11, 2009

The February issue of The Gospel Witness has my recent article, “What’s the Big Deal with Complaining.” You can see it in PDF version here. The other articles in the issue are, “The Biblical Basis of Gratitude” by Jospeh C. Harrod and “Gratitude and Grace-Centered Living” by Nathan Finn.