I vividly remember when my oldest daughter Sami was a toddler and just starting to read. I sometimes thought we could read each other’s minds. She would be sitting in my lap with a book, staring at the words on the page. I would point to a word and ask her what it said, encouraging her, “It’s just three letters: c-o-w. Sound it out.” In my mind, I would be thinking, “You can do it, Sam! Say cow.” And sure enough, she would work it out and say, “cow.” I would hug her and tell her what a good job she did. Then on to the next word. Reading books is one of my happiest memories with both of my daughters.
It’s heartbreaking to think that some kids have dads who are never satisfied. When they were reading and got a word wrong, their dad would sigh and shake his head. Not good enough. Those are the kids who ended up spending their lives trying to earn their father’s love by doing things right, obeying the rules, and trying to make him proud. They longed to hear “I love you,” or even “well done” from their father. And if that acceptance never came, they walked away broken.
Imagine how that approach would work in a romantic relationship. Suppose you get the man or woman of your dreams to agree to marry you. But then they tell you that you will need to first show them that you can do things right and obey their rules before they will love and accept you. Who would ever enter into a relationship like that? That’s not how real relationships work.
Sadly, I’ve found that some of us have just that kind of understanding about God. They’ve come to believe that He is a distant, hard-to-please father figure who requires us to adhere to a strict list of moral restrictions before He will love us and let us into heaven. Many of us believe we can earn our way into heaven by living a good life and doing good things. But this is the exact opposite of biblical Christianity. Islam teaches that to enter paradise our good deeds must outweigh our bad deeds and Allah must will it. Judaism teaches that salvation consists of faithful adherence to the Torah. But Christianity turns the idea of earning God’s acceptance on its head.
Whereas those other worldviews—and our human sensibilities in general—say that we must first work to earn God’s love and acceptance, the Bible teaches that we are accepted simply through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9), even while we’re still hostile toward God (Rom 5:8). And then, our natural response to that is a changed life. We aren’t begrudgingly following a list of rules, we’re willingly following after God’s heart. We aren’t working to appease an angry God so He’ll love us. Instead, we want to please our perfect, heavenly Father because He loves us.
As speaker Voddie Baucham points out, hell is full of sincere, religious people who didn’t drink or smoke or curse or have sex outside of marriage. None of those things can save you. Heaven, on the other hand, is full of broken, immoral people who simply repented and believed. We are not saved by living a “good” life, or by reciting a prayer. And nowhere in the Bible will we find that salvation is about “asking Jesus into our heart.” What we will read—over and over, in fact—is that salvation comes when we repent and believe (Acts 16:31). That’s it. It’s no more complicated than that.
You sometimes hear Christians say “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” What does that mean? It means that we do not need to do things right and obey God’s rules before He will love and accept us. With God—just like with a good spouse or a good parent—love is not earned through our actions. And, conversely, in a good relationship, love is not taken away when we mess up. A relationship is more than a list of rules. Especially when it comes to God, His love for us precedes our commitment to Him. There’s nothing we can do to earn our way into heaven. God already did all that work for us Himself (John 3:16-17). We simply need to believe.
The Bible says we are God’s children. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are” (1 John 3). There’s a great meme going around social media right now that says that God doesn’t want the kind of parent-child relationship with us where, when we mess up we think, “Oh no! Dad’s going to kill me.” Rather, when we mess up (and we will all mess up) God wants our first thought to be “Oh no! I need to call my Dad.”
It’s only once we’ve come to place our faith in Jesus that we begin to truly understand that the obedience and morality that the Bible talks about are actually borne of love, rather than based on control or judgment. We begin to see that God gave us those standards because He is a perfect, loving Father. He knows that it’s within those boundaries that we, His children, will experience the most peace, joy, and fulfillment. And He doesn’t take away His love when we happen to fall short of them. Instead, He helps us get up, dust ourselves off, and get back on course (Psalm 40:1-2).
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39
When my girls were little and reading time was over, I would tuck them into bed, kiss their cute little cheeks, and tell them there was nothing in the world they could do that would ever make me love them more, and nothing they could do that would make me love them less. The reason I was able to tell them that and truly mean it is because I knew that—incredibly, almost beyond comprehension—God feels that way about us.