You are not going to heaven just by wanting to go there; nor will your good intentions alone provide you admittance into the eternal kingdom (cf. Mt. 25.1-13; 7.21-23).
According to God, there are several "steps" that you must take, beyond living a decent moral life, in order to enter his heavenly abode (Rm. 4.12). Regardless of where you are spiritually, you owe it to yourself to approach a study of this nature with a mind open to conviction, and a willingness to change, should change be required.
Acknowledge The Danger Of Hell
Jesus spoke often about the "danger of hell fire" (Mt. 5.22). In fact, he came "into the world" in order to save it from this condemnation (Jn. 3.17-21).
Because of sin, "all the world" has become "guilty before God" (Rm. 3.19; cf. Gal. 3.22). It is this "guilt" which, if not pardoned, will make it impossible for an individual to "escape the condemnation of hell" (Mt. 23.32-33; cf. Heb. 2.2-3).
The lord wanted us to know that "hell" will "destroy both soul and body" (Mt. 10.28), a word which here signifies — not extinction — but a total "loss of well-being" (Vine, 164), or complete ruination (cf. Lk. 5.37; Jn. 6.27).
He further explained that the pain of hell will be exponentially worse than the pain of forcibly removing a hand, a foot, or an eye (cf. Mk. 9.43-47), and that hell is a place of ceaseless "torments" (Lk. 16.19-31) and "everlasting punishment" (Mt. 25.46). Its inhabitants will be cast into "the fire that shall never be quenched" (Mk. 9.43, 45, 48), causing "wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Mt. 13.49-50).
The savior further foretold that "many" will enter "destruction" in the hereafter, whereas only "few" will find "life" (Mt. 7.13-14). Contrary to common sentiment, murderers, thieves, and those who lived excessively heinous lives will not be the only inhabitants of hell. To the contrary, when the Lord returns and the judgment day ensues, he has warned that he will take "vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thess. 1.7-10).
Hence, the exceedingly wicked will not be the only ones banned from heaven's precincts (cf. 1 Cor. 6.9-10); for "the righteous judge" (2 Tim. 4.8) has forewarned that even those who fail to believe and obey his teachings also "will be condemned" (Mk. 16.16; cf. Jn. 12.48; 3.18, 36).
Your first step toward heaven requires you to admit that you are "lost" (Mt. 18.11; 2 Cor. 4.3); that you stand in need of salvation from the danger of everlasting punishment in hell; that your sins have separated you from God (Isa. 59.1-2; Eph. 2.12); and that salvation can be obtained only through Christ Jesus (Jn. 14.6; Acts 4.12; 10.42-43).
When the Jews on the day of Pentecost acknowledged their own spiritual danger (they had crucified the Lord), they sought to remedy the situation by asking: "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2.36-37). Paul responded similarly (Acts 9.6), as did the jailor of Philippi (Acts 16.30). Because they took this first humble step, admitting their guilt, feeling the need of salvation, and expressing a willingness to change, they ultimately were able to receive "the remission of sins" (Acts 2.38; cf. 22.16; 26.18), thereby becoming "saved" (Acts 2.40; 16.31).
Hear And Understand The Word Of God
Once you realize you stand in need of salvation, you must next begin learning the "message of the cross" (1 Cor. 1.18).
Jesus, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, insists that we must "be taught by God." In order to come to him, he explains, we must have "heard and learned from the Father" (Jn. 6.45; cf. Isa. 54.13; Jer. 31.34; Micah 4.2).
The message we must learn has been revealed to the apostles and prophets of Christ through the "Spirit of truth" (Jn. 16.13f; 17.20; 2 Pt.1.21) in the form of words (1 Cor. 2.10-13; Titus 1.3), which they wrote down for all to read (cf. Jn. 20.30-31; 1 Cor. 4.6; 2 Tim. 3.16; 1 Cor. 14.37; Col. 4.16). These words must be received "not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God" (1 Thess. 2.13).
By contrast, we must learn that it is impossible to please God by following our own heart, pursuing merely what seems right, or by heeding humanly-devised philosophies. Put another way: we cannot chart our own path to heaven.
Jeremiah explained: "the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walks to direct his own steps" (Jer. 10.23). Those who trust in their own heart behave foolishly (Prov. 28.26; 14.12). We must not "trust in ourselves" (2 Cor. 1.9), for God will destroy the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor. 1.19f). Instead, we must live "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Mt. 4.4); we must "put [our] trust in him" (Heb. 2.13); and we must "give the more earnest heed to the things...spoken by the Lord" (Heb. 2.1-3; cf. Acts 16.14).
You must learn that "without faith it is impossible to please him" (Heb. 11.6), and that faith can only come through "hearing the word of God" (Rm. 10.17).
Thus, if you ignore the biblical message (the word of God), you cannot have faith; and if you lack biblical faith, you cannot please God. Too, if you "handle the word of God deceitfully," you are "perishing" in your blindness (2 Cor. 4.2-6).
Conversely, God wants us to "understand what the will of the Lord is" (Eph. 5.17). He "desires all men to be saved;" but, in order for that to occur, we must "come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2.4). This can only be accomplished by hearing the word of God (Jn. 17.17).
In short, you cannot continue your journey to heaven without learning God's will, as revealed through Christ and his inspired apostles and prophets (cf. Mt. 11.29; Jn. 8.32; 2 Tim. 3.16-17; Acts 17.11-13; 18.11; 2 Tim. 2.15; Titus 1.3; 2 Pet. 3.2). According to the one who will "judge the world in righteousness" (Acts 17.31), those who fail to listen to and understand the word of Christ are "of the devil," while those who "hear God's words" are "of God" (Jn. 8.42-47).
Believe The Word Of God
Your next step toward heaven is to believe what the Bible teaches. It is one thing to understand the word of God; but another thing entirely to accept it as true (cf. Jn. 10.38; Lk. 20.19).
By sacred selection, the apostle Paul became a model "to those who are going to believe on [Christ] for everlasting life" (1 Tim. 1.16). The preposition, "for," is translated from the Greek, eis. It is used following "verbs of motion" (Moulton, 186), which move forward "toward a place" (Machen, 40). Renowned Greek lexicographer, Joseph H. Thayer, rendered the preposition, eis, as used in Acts 2.38: "to obtain the forgiveness of sins" (94).
Hence, the passage asserts that in order to take the necessary steps which lead toward everlasting life — in order to obtain heaven — you must first believe.
Biblical faith involves three elements:
(1) the acceptance of historical and theological facts as valid (Acts 13.12);
(2) a trust in God as creator, sustainer, and savior (2 Tim. 1.12);
(3) a willingness to comply to the will of God (cf. Heb. 3.18-19).
First, we must believe in Jesus. Jesus said: "if you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins" (Jn. 8.24). He further prayed that the world might "believe in me through their [the apostles'] word" (Jn. 17.20). Only those who "believe in his name" have "the right to become children of God" (Jn. 1.12). When the Philippian jailer asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16.30), Paul and Silas said: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved" (Acts 16.31). All the prophets in ages past prophesied "that, through his name, whoever believes in him will receive the remission of sins" (Acts 10.43).
We must believe:
(1) that he has existed eternally (cf. Micah 5.2; Jn. 8.57-58; 1.1-2, 14; 1 Tim. 1.17);
(2) that he was God in the flesh (cf. Mt. 1.23; Phil. 2.5-8; 1 Tim. 3.16);
(3) that he was perfectly sinless (cf. 2 Cor. 5.21; Heb. 4.15), so as to atone for the sins of the world through his own sinless sacrifice (cf. Mt. 20.28; 26.28; Jn. 1.29; 1 Pt. 1.18-19; 1 Jn. 2.2);
(4) that he was raised from the dead (cf. Lk. 24.46; 1 Pt. 1.3; Acts 17.30-31; 1 Cor. 15.12-19);
(5) and that he currently reigns "in heaven" (Col. 4.1) as the "king of kings and lord of lords" (1 Tim. 6.15), possessing "all authority...in heaven and on earth" (Mt. 28.18) — the Father being the sole exception (1 Cor. 15.27-28) — meriting our obedience (cf. Heb. 5.9) and honor (cf. Jn. 5.23).
Second, we must believe what Jesus taught. It is not enough to believe in "the man;" you must also believe in "the plan."
Many admire the character of Jesus, but are offended by his doctrine (cf. Mt. 13.53-58; 15.12; Jn. 6.41, 53-66; Mk. 11.18; Jn. 18.19-24). Both must be honored to be his disciple. Hear him:
"For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the son of man also will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels" (Mk. 8.38).
On the mount of transfiguration, God, speaking of Jesus, told the apostles: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" (Mt. 17.5). John affirmed that those who fail to "abide in the doctrine of Christ [do] not have God" (2 Jn. 9). John seems here to employ the "plenary (full) genitive," which embraces both an objective meaning (i.e., the doctrine about Christ — who he was) and a subjective meaning (i.e., the doctrine from Christ — what he taught) — see Wallace, 119-121, for examples. Both who Jesus was and what Jesus taught must be believed if we are to "have God."
Third, we must believe the Scriptures — the gospel message as a whole. The New Testament is the infallible expression of the mind of God — "every word" comes from God through the Spirit (Mt. 4.4; cf.1 Pt. 1.12).
During his earthly ministry, the Lord instructed his disciples not to worry about how or what they would speak, "for it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speaks, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you" (Mt. 10.19-20). This continued in the writing of the New Testament (cf. Jn. 14.26; 15.26-27; 16.13). You must believe this message to be saved (cf. Jn. 20.30-31; Rm. 1.16; 1 Cor. 1.21; Acts 15.7; Eph. 1.13; 2 Thess. 2.13-14; Jms. 1.18).
Repent Of Your Sins
While faith is a necessary step that leads to salvation, faith, "by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Jms. 2.17). While we are "justified by faith" (Rm. 5.1), no one can ever be justified "by faith only" (Jms. 2.24).
Instead, "faith working through love" (Gal. 5.6) is essential, if it is to "avail" for salvation. While faith enables us to take God at his word, it is only "when we love God" that we are driven to "keep his commandments" (1 Jn. 5.2-3; cf. Jn. 14.15; 2 Jn. 6; 1 Jn. 3.22-24), thereby completing our faith (cf. Jms. 2.21-22).
If you want to go to heaven, then, and if you believe the word of God, you must commit to putting sins behind you out of devotion and love (i.e., repent). Peter's first response to the question, "what shall we do?," was this: "repent" (Acts 2.38).
Hear his response to another crowd sometime later: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3.19). Indeed, God commands "all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17.30). Jesus put it like this: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (Lk. 13.3).
Repentance involves a "change in mind, heart, and life" (Trench, 272). Trench also cites Plato (Republic 7.532b) as describing it as a "turning from shadows to light" and "a turning about, a turning around of the soul" (ibid, 7.521c; 269-273).
Biblical repentance requires a man "to turn from his evil ways" (Orr, 2559) toward a life of righteousness and truth. The brethren in Thessalonica manifested the meaning of repentance when they "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thess. 1.9). Christ sent Paul to preach to the Jews and Gentiles in order "to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins" (Acts 26.18). This he did, telling them "that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance" (26.19-20).
We can never attain sinless perfection in this life (1 Jn. 1.8-10; Rm. 3.23). But we can — and must — "put to death" and "put off" sin (Col. 3.5-11), leaving behind us "the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts" (Col. 4.22; cf. vv. 25-32) instead putting on "the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness" (Col. 4.24). We can — and must — make ourselves "dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rm. 6.11).
Without taking this step of commitment, changing your life from the ways of sin to the ways of God, you can advance no farther to heaven's hallowed home, no matter how much you believe the word of God to be true (cf. Jms. 2.19; Mk. 10.17-31).
Confess That Jesus Is The Christ, The Son Of God
Your next step toward heaven is to confess your allegiance to the Lord before others. Paul wrote:
"if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Rm. 10.9-10).
Again, the preposition, "unto," comes from the Greek, eis, suggesting movement "toward a place" — i.e., confession leads toward salvation.
The savior declared: "whoever confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my father who is in heaven" (Mt. 10.32; cf. Lk. 12.8). W.E. Vine observes that this statement
"conveys the thought of 'confessing' allegiance to Christ as one's Master and Lord, and, on the other hand, of acknowledgment, on His part, of the faithful one as being His worshipper and servant, His loyal follower..." (120).
This is the confession Thomas made when he said to Christ: "my Lord and my God" (Jn. 20.28). This is the confession the eunuch of Ethiopia made when he said: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (Acts 8.37).
Are you willing to profess allegiance to Christ before others? If so, you are one step farther from the danger of hell, and one step closer to the salvation of heaven.
Submit To The Lord In Baptism
The Ethiopian eunuch asked his teacher, Philip: "here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" (Acts 8.36). Once the eunuch confessed his faith, Philip and the eunuch "went down into the water, and he baptized him" (Acts 8.38). This too is your next step toward heaven.
First, confessing Christ as lord, while necessary, is not enough to enter heaven. Let the savior explain: "Not everyone who says to me, 'lord, lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father in heaven" (Mt. 7.21).
Sadly, "many" (Mt. 7.22) are willing to admit that Jesus is the lord — and are even willing to speak and act on his behalf — but are not willing to "do the things which" he says (Lk. 6.46). Those who confess him, without obeying him, will never be "known" by him (Mt. 7.23).
Second, it is sin that will keep us from the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6.9-10; Gal. 5.19-21; Rev. 22.14-15). No amount of self-appointed good deeds can remit sin (Titus 3.5; Eph. 2.8; Rm. 4.4).
Rather, the only way to be "set free from sin" is by obeying "from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered" (Rm. 6.17-18), rendering "obedience to the faith" (Rm. 1.5; 16.25-27; Acts 6.7), thereby allowing the grace of God to justify us "freely...through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rm. 4.24-26). The only way to "purify your soul" is by "obeying the truth" (1 Pt. 1.22). In other words, God does not submit to us when he forgives us (as if we have earned his grace — Rm. 4.2); rather, we submit to God by faith (cf. Rm. 3.25-26; 4.16; cf. Jms. 4.7) when we "walk in the steps of the faith" (Rm. 4.12). Truly, then, Christ is "the author of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Heb. 5.9).
Third, baptism in water, performed with a penitent faith, is the only act of obedience to the grace of God that can set us "free from sin" (Rm. 6.1-18).
Therefore, you must be baptized "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2.38); to "wash away your sins" (Acts 22.16); to "be saved" (Mk. 16.16; cf. 1 Pet. 3.21); to be "added to the church" by the Lord (Acts 2.47) and placed "into one body" (1 Cor. 12.12); to be put "into Christ" (Gal. 3.27); and to be "buried with him" and "raised with him through faith" (Col. 2.12).
Thus, even if you believe; even if you are repenting of your sins; even if you have confessed allegiance to Jesus as lord; if you have not yet done the will of God in baptism, so as to allow his grace to forgive your sins, then you "cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3.5).
Serve The Lord Faithfully
These are your first steps toward heaven, according to God:
(1) acknowledge your lost condition;
(2) hear and understand his word;
(3) believe his word;
(4) repent of your sins;
(5) confess Jesus as lord;
(6) be baptized in water "to obtain the remission of sins."
It is at this point that God wipes away all past guilt, makes you his spiritual child and disciple (cf. Gal. 3.26-27; Mt. 28.19-20), calls you a "Christian" (Acts 11.26), and gives you the hope of heaven (1 Pt. 1.3-4). But these first steps toward heaven are not your last steps. They are only the beginning.
In order to receive "the crown of life," we must "be faithful unto death" (Rev. 2.10). Jesus said: "he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Mk. 13.13). We are commanded to "continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, not moved away from the hope of the gospel" (Col. 1.23). During our journey in Christ, we are instructed to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our lord and savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pt. 3.18; cf. 1 Pt. 2.2).
After the Jews on Pentecost "were baptized" (Acts 2.41), the Bible says "they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (v. 42). They worshipped as a church on the first day of every week (i.e., Sunday; Acts 20.7; 1 Cor. 16.1-2), sometimes meeting "daily" (Acts 2.46); they were evangelistic toward the lost, spreading the New Testament message to all the world, as the Lord had instructed them (cf. Mk. 16.15; Mt. 28.19; Acts 8.1-5; Col. 1.23); they dedicated themselves to living "soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age" (Titus 2.11), refraining from carnal lusts, "which war against the soul" (1 Pt. 2.11).
Those children of God who faltered in faith were to be "rebuked" in love (cf. Lk. 17.3; 1 Tim. 5.20; 2 Tim. 4.2; Titus 1.13; 2.15), and "restored" to the faith through repentance and prayer (cf. Gal. 6.1; Jms. 5.19-20; Acts 8.18-24); while those who maintained their fidelity were "highly esteemed in love for their work's sake," encouraged, and commended by the brethren (1 Thess. 5.12-13; cf. Rm. 16.1-2).
In sum, your first steps toward heaven, culminating in baptism, should ultimately became an entire "race" run by faith in the word of God (cf. 1 Cor. 9.24-27; Gal. 5.7; Heb. 12.1).
When you finally get to the end of your life on earth, will you, with Paul, be able to say:
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not to me only, but also to all who have loved his appearing" (2 Tim. 4.7-8)?
One thing is certain: you can never finish the race without taking your first steps. And unless those first steps be according to God's "rule" (cf. Gal. 6.16; Phil. 3.16), you will be running "in vain" (Gal. 2.2; Phil. 2.16) and will be "disqualified" from obtaining heaven's prize (1 Cor. 9.27).
Accordingly, if you want to go to heaven, do not leave it at mere desire; rather, "be even more diligent to make your call and election sure" (2 Pt. 1.10). Investigate his word with seriousness and sincerity; search "the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things are so" (Acts 17.11). Obey his word with humility and devotion.
If you do these things, "an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pt. 1.10-11)!
Machen, J. Gresham. New Testament Greek For Beginners. Toronto, Ontario: The Macmillan Company, 1951. Moulton, J.H. and Milligan, G. Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004. Orr, James, Ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986. Thayer, J.H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book Company, 1889. Trench, R.C. Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000. Vine, W.E. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985. Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.