I was riding in a taxi last week in Mexico and talking to my taxi driver. I like to try to share the gospel with taxi drivers here, since they’re stuck with me until I get to wherever we’re going. I found out that he belonged to a Seventh-day Adventist church here. Not knowing much about Adventists, I asked him a few questions. Everything seemed fine when I asked him what it takes for a person to go to heaven. He simply and clearly said that you need to repent of your sins and trust in Jesus. However, as I continued to talk to him, several things troubled me.
When we talked about what repentance was, we both agreed that it meant turning from your former lifestyle of sin and humbly asking Jesus for forgiveness. However, what Miguel described in practical, non-theological terms was something quite different than what I expected. “For example, if you were to die smoking or drinking, you have not truly repented and will go to hell. You may say you believe in Jesus, but you have shown that you truly don’t.” I was shocked – and I don’t even smoke or drink!
Miguel’s view of salvation was one that seemed to imply that if a person “believed in Jesus” and later committed the same sin that they had (in his view) pretended to repent of, his repentance was false and his salvation had never really happened. But what does the Bible say about this?
The first thing that came to my mind was the story of Peter. When I read the Bible, it seems that Peter was saved some time around his confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. (Mt. 16:16) After this clear statement of faith (not to mention his lifestyle of giving up everything to follow Jesus), Peter was still not the perfect saint that we would expect him to be. He denied Jesus multiple times during Jesus’ time of suffering, swearing that he did not know Him. (Lk. 22) Even if we were to say that Peter’s sinless life as a believer did not begin until after Jesus’ resurrection, we would still fail. Peter continued to have problems, refusing to eat with non-Jewish believers (like me) until Paul had to publicly call him out. (Gal. 2:11-14) While I do not think Peter is someone to look down on, we would be rewriting Biblical history if we were to ignore the truth that this believer continued to struggle with sin from time to time.
In addition to the stories of imperfect followers of Christ, this view of salvation troubled me because it cheapened Christ’s sacrifice. Miguel told me that he now had the “fear of God” since becoming an Adventist (from a Baptist). When I listened to him though, it seemed like he was afraid, afraid that if he sinned God would take away his salvation. He was sure that he had it, but wasn’t so sure that he could keep it. When Christ died for sins, He did it once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. (1 Pt. 3:18) We weren’t righteous before, we were sick. The reason that believers are righteous now is not our church attendance or perfect obedience to the law. We have been declared righteous because of the perfect obedience of Jesus, because Jesus fulfilled the law. “If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died needlessly” Paul says. But we are “justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.” (Gal. 2:21,16)
Finally, this view of salvation that is so dependent on my own obedience simply doesn’t mesh with the clear teaching of Jesus about where our salvation rests.
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (Jn 10:27-29)
We don’t get to go to heaven because we’re good enough. I have received the gift of eternal life because Jesus died for my sins, and only He is powerful enough to keep me saved. That’s good news, because if salvation relied on me, I would have lost it several times by now.