In a world where more than half the population has heard the Good News, it is surprising that only a handful truly believe. Evangelism (sharing the gospel with people who are not hearing for the first time) still happens to be the global Church’s mainstay; perhaps receiving ten times as much effort as mission (taking the gospel to people who have completely no knowledge that Christ died for their sins).
Even still, the number of unbelievers among evangelized lands is still far greater than those who truly believe. Church attendance records may suggest otherwise, but it is in fact common knowledge that very few who claim to be Christians live as true sojourners. Contrary to Peter’s counsel in 1 Peter 2:11, they do not “abstain from the passions of the flesh”, consequently losing the war against their souls.
The true elect of God therefore aren’t as many, at least in this present time, as church demographics might have us believe. The harvest is plentiful (Luke 10:2) because God’s true children have yet to be as plentiful. The tares far outnumber the wheat, the fact that nearly every epitaph reads ‘Rest in Peace’ notwithstanding.
Resting in Peace?
No one who’s lost a relative likes to imagine that their beloved might have ended up in eternal damnation. Many who die are often eulogized as wonderful people who must be resting with the angels now. But do as many who have felt the kiss of death really rest in peace? “Perhaps they said a prayer right before dying,” we imagine. It just may be that some local church’s hospital ministry visited and shared the gospel and the lucky soul of the departed believed just in the nick of time; just before the grim reaper arrived.
Even though this belief is usually held onto as a hope for the departed, many who are living also have it as a plan. The plan goes something like, “I’ll enjoy the pleasures of this world at least until I’m old and nearing death, then I’ll become a Christian.” They suppose rightly that believing in Christ will deny them many of this world’s pleasures (which are only sorrows anyway), and as such play the waiting game with salvation. They’ll hold out long enough for them to enjoy as much of the world as they possibly can—and then they will believe.
It sounds smart: to enjoy the ‘best’ of both here and the hereafter; to enjoy worldly gains and still be rewarded with heaven. All thanks to a simple confession before breathing their last. Or thanks to simply rewarding God with a few final years of life. And like the departed they hope are resting in peace despite having rejected Christ all their lives, they too follow blindly to where their souls will be ripped in pieces (the unfortunate real RIP for many) to their utter shock.
Wrong Presentation of the Gospel
The problem begins with how the gospel is usually presented. There are many mysteries surrounding salvation—mysteries that theologians will die debating and others will inherit after them. But thank God there are also some very clear points concerning salvation. One of those answers the question, “how does one get saved?” Paul responds in Romans:
“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9–10)
That sounds simple. Perhaps as simple as “repeat this prayer after me”, after which one is declared a believer. But while indeed Paul’s words were pretty straightforward, their implication and significance are things that many of us, I am afraid, completely miss. To understand them best, we have to travel back in history and stop at…well, first century Rome.
When Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome was written, the Church of Rome was experiencing a persecution the depths of which have probably never been experienced again in history. Christians were a hated lot even before king Nero burned down half the city of Rome and blamed it on them. The incident offered the perfect leeway to purging Christians mercilessly. They were fed to lions in a circus as Romans watched; the Romans’ boisterous laughs perhaps loud enough to quiet the believers’ sharp cries. They were burned on stakes, their flaming bodies lighting the streets until they became ash. The closest thing that may compare is the holocaust.
To claim that Jesus had risen from the dead was not only the most ridiculous thing to say at the time, but also a sure ticket to death. And if by chance one were to escape death, they would likely fall victim to the plundering of their property. They’d be left with nothing. The suffering of the believers made death, however cruel and painful, a gain.
It is in that very context, to these very people, that Paul says, “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” Isn’t that audacious? He is telling them to willingly give up everything, even their very lives, for the sake of Christ! And that—treasuring Christ in such a way that even the most precious things in life fade in comparison like Paul himself did as evidenced in Philippians 3:8—is what it means to make Christ Lord.
It is not just a mere belief and confession. It is a confession and belief that alters the course of life completely. It completely undoes the things that were formally treasured. It installs Christ as a heart’s supreme treasure. One becomes as if he were born anew, for indeed “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
The “new” is undeniably clear. The world ought to find it ridiculously strange—even upsetting.
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32–34)
To be truly saved, therefore, is to live fully persuaded of this better and abiding possession. That is the conviction from which every fruit and action of the true believer flows. His painful sacrifices for the gospel’s sake are not just mere heroism. They are a joyful identification with his Lord. Such a one does not become a believer to escape hell. He becomes a believer simply to gain Christ! It matters not whether he does five minutes to his death or seven years into a life that ends up spanning a hundred years.
Dying thief on a cross
Many people plan for an end like that of the thief who received salvation on a cross beside Jesus’s. It seems fairy like: to live all of life rebelling against God, and then hear from the Savior of the world himself, “…today you will be with me in Paradise”! Which of us has never hoped for an ending like that? But while many pray for salvation frantically minutes before their deaths, I suspect their ends don’t always turn out like the thief’s.
One of the things often overlooked about the fate of the thief-turned-saint at Jesus’s side on crucifixion day is his incredible faith. All of us, when we believe, put our faith in a glorious King who has conquered death. We believe in a story of victory sufficiently backed by historical evidence. The thief, however, believed in the promise of someone whose helplessness he perfectly identified with. When the crowd scoffed saying, “He saved others; let him save himself,” (Luke 23:35); when the disciples despaired and even denied association with Jesus (Luke 22:54–62); and even when his fellow thief suffering the same fate railed at Jesus saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us” (Luke 23:39), this thief alone honored Christ as king and boldly prayed, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
For perhaps the shortest time in history, the thief truly fellowshipped in Christ’s suffering (Philippians 3:10). He believed in the ridiculed, spat upon, nailed, and dying man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). He did not believe merely because he thought there was nothing more he could lose. He trusted that Jesus was who he claimed he was—a king with an eternal kingdom—and he believed so he could gain everything there was to gain—both before death and after. Had God kept him from dying that day, that thief would have gladly lived for Christ for the rest of his added earthly life.
But would the many that make one last prayer for salvation before dying? If God were to keep them alive for another twenty years, would they from that point on live wholly for him? If the plea for salvation one makes with a few years or hours to live is not the same plea he would make if he thought he had thirty more years to live, that person might be already damned. Though his lips confess that Christ is Lord, his heart does not believe the same. He only wishes that he were saved from hell, not sin. And hell, beyond disputing, is the sure fate of all who love sin.