How to Have Eternal Life

For God loved the world in this way: he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

If you're trying to explain this statement to someone who is interested, I invite you to consider this explanation.   To avoid any confusion from the beginning: faith, belief, and trust, are synonyms for the identical biblical concept.  To believe in Jesus Christ is the same as having faith or putting your trust in him. 

What do these synonymous expressions really mean?  Some would try to convince you that to have faith is to abandon reason.  I have presented an argument to expose the folly of this viewpoint here in a blog entry entitled "A Leap of Faith".  (It would be helpful to read this before you continue.)  As I explain in this previous blog entry, everybody, every day makes decisions that combine reason and faith.  And, I believe you will find this definition of faith to be true to practical experience: Faith is a reasonable decision to take action in dependence upon someone or something outside of yourself.

Faith is a part of all of our lives every day.  We employ it many times throughout our normal daily experience.  So, when the Bible tells us that we must exercise faith to receive the gifts of eternal life and forgiveness of sins, it is referring to an experience with which we are all familiar.  This is not to say that we all employ faith to the same degree; some of us find it easier and others find it more difficult.  

Are those who find it easier the gullible and ignorant ones, and the ones who find it more difficult the smart and discerning ones?  That is what some would like you to think, but intelligence, or the lack of it, is not the distinguishing difference between those who are more or less likely to employ faith.  No, it is humility, or its opposite - pride, that makes the difference between those who are ready to believe and those who are not.

Since faith is a reasonable decision to take action in dependence upon someone or something outside of yourself, it is clear that the proud are less willing to depend upon someone other than themselves.  I remember a man with whom I shared the gospel and the testimony of my relationship with Jesus Christ.  After hearing what I had to say, he responded, somewhat angrily, "Well, some people need a crutch like that; I don't!"  

Jesus was approached by a young man who was a wealthy ruler.  This individual asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  He was asking not just how he could get into heaven, but how he could earn an inheritance there.  Jesus quoted to him five of the ten commandments.  He responded: "All of these I have kept since I was a boy."  These are the words of a proud man.

Notice, in contrast, the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips."  Or consider the words of King Solomon: "O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties."  Or what about David, a man after God's heart: "I am a worm and not a man."

Jesus, sensing the pride in the young man's heart, gave him both a prescription for humility, as well as an answer to his question1: "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."  If he had followed the words of Jesus, he would likely have understood and believed that Jesus was more than a "good teacher", but rather God himself - the very Redeemer the world had been awaiting for centuries.

Expressing this kind of faith, he would have been given the gift of eternal life, and begun to inherit eternal life.  But he didn't like the answer Jesus gave and so walked away.  He valued his earthly wealth more than the heavenly treasure he might have earned.  As he turned to go. Jesus said to him: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"

Why is it hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God?  Because you have sell everything and give to the poor?  That's not what Jesus meant by what he said.  It's hard for the rich because the rich typically place their dependence in their money, and since faith is all about depending on someone or something outside yourself, they cannot depend on their money and on God at the same time.  Rich people typically don't feel like they need anything from anyone else; they don't think they need to depend upon anyone else.  On the other hand, poor people are usually much more ready to say, "I can't" or "I need."  

The first of Jesus' Beatitudes, in the Sermon on the Mount, says: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  This is the same concept Jesus was addressing in his interchange with the young man.  Those who recognize that they are spiritually destitute, they will inherit the kingdom of God.  Those who think they are spiritually "together" ("All of these I have kept since I was a boy") and are depending upon their money, will not inherit the kingdom of God, nor are they likely to even enter it.  

So then, how can people have eternal life?  They must humble themselves to the point that they are willing to admit: "I can't"; "I need."  If you insist that you can or that you have no need, then you cannot receive eternal life.  This is not a step in addition to faith, it is simply the necessary prerequisite for faith.  The person who is self-sufficient or places confidence in his wealth, simply will not believe, because faith is, as we said earlier. a reasonable decision to take action in dependence upon someone or something outside of yourself.  And why should you depend upon someone or something else, when you are convinced that you and your money don't need anyone or anything else?

How then do people truly humble themselves?  It's not complicated: you simply say "I can't" or "I need."  Here are some examples of what a humble person might say:

• I can't face eternity by myself

• I can't become the person I want to be

• I can't quit the destructive habits I've become enslaved to

• I can't show genuine love to the people I really want to love

• I can't cope with the turmoil in my life and in the world

• I need, God, what only you can provide

• I need help; I need hope

• I need freedom from the guilt I feel

• I need a purpose for living

• I need a sense of satisfaction in my life

• I need security

You see, to be humble is to readily admit that - by myself:

• I am nobody

• I know nothing

• I have nothing

• I can do nothing

Or, anther way of saying it - apart from Christ: I am nobody2, I know nothing3, I have nothing4, and I can do nothing.5

The proud person says just the opposite - by myself, without Christ:

• I am somebody

• I know plenty

• I have a lot

• I can do much

This is exactly why a humble person can believe in Jesus and a proud person cannot.  Remember that believing is a reasonable decision to take action in dependence upon someone or something outside of yourself.  Proud people are self-sufficient.  Faith is an expression of weakness: an admission that one is a nobody, knows nothing, has nothing, and can do nothing.  These are declarations a proud person is unwilling to make.  

The proud even teach others to be like them.  They encourage others to "believe in themselves".  They declare that to succeed in life one needs to believe in himself.  But it is impossible to depend upon God and depend upon yourself at the same time.  It's like trying to lean against opposite walls simultaneously; it cannot be done. (Click here for a more complete discussion of this concept.)

OK then, humble people are willing to believe in Jesus, and proud people are not.  But what do humble people believe?  Do they simply say: "I believe in Jesus"?  And how do they come to the knowledge of what to believe?  Here's the answer: when people humble themselves God graciously grants them spiritual insight. (Click here for a little more "insight" on this concept.)  There is no other explanation for why humble people "get it", and proud people don't.  With regard to proud people, the Bible says: "Professing to be wise, they became fools."6

Why did the ordinary people, and even the "sinners" of Jesus' time put their faith in Jesus while the learned leaders did not?  Why didn't Pharaoh understand that God was more powerful than him?  Why didn't Nebuchadnezzar comprehend that God was the one who had given him all that he had?  Why did the apostle Paul say, when speaking of the composition of the church in Corinth: "There [are] not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble"?

Spiritual understanding is not a birthright; it is a gift from God.  That is why the apostle prayed that God would grant it to the church at Ephesus: 

I do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.7

This is why the humble people in the scripture have great spiritual insight and great faith.  A humble Canaanite woman identified Jesus as the Son of David (the promised Messiah).8  A humble Roman military officer understood Jesus' authority over sickness.9  A humble woman from Bethany who was always at the feet of Jesus apparently understood that Jesus was soon to die.10

When Jesus taught the people with parables, even his own disciples did not understand what he meant by what he said.  His disciples asked why he taught this way.  Jesus responded: "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted."11 But why were Jesus' disciples given this understanding and the others were not?  Was it, as some have maintained, simply a matter of God's sovereign decree and irresistible grace?  Or was it that the people with the understanding were smarter, or, conversely, less sophisticated?

Calvinism has taught us that God has simply decreed who will understand and embrace the truth, and that those who are favored by this decree will, without fail, positively respond to it.  Arminianism has taught us that it is each person's responsibility to pursue the truth, understand it and embrace it; God will help them, but they bear the responsibility to understand and believe.  But the scriptures, experience, and lingering doubts, have led many Christians to be convinced that there must be an answer somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Good news: there is!  It is not named after a person, like John Calvin or Jacob Arminius, so what can we call it?  Many people call it "Free Grace".  This seems like an adequate description, since it advocates that salvation, and the spiritual understanding necessary for faith are the result of both God's gracious intervention, and well as the free choice of the individual.  How, then, does this differ from the Arminian viewpoint?  Simply in this: the gracious gift of salvation (forgiveness of sins and eternal life) can neither be earned nor lost.

So if justification from sin is neither earned by personal effort nor bestowed by divine fiat, how does one come to possess it?  Here, I believe is the answer: spiritual understanding is graciously given to the one who admits that they are inadequate and incapable of living successfully in this life or of preparing satisfactorily for the next.  Or, to put it in other words, spiritual understanding is God's gift to those who humble themselves before him.  And where there is spiritual understanding, faith follows naturally.

Allow me to illustrate from ordinary life how faith naturally follows understanding.  Suppose you saw someone stick a screwdriver into an electrical panel, and sparks were flying.  Later someone asks you to unscrew something in an electrical panel.  Your response is: "No way; I saw someone else do that once, and sparks were flying and he almost electrocuted himself."  But then it is explained to you that the power has been turned off to this panel, so there's no danger.  And to show you that there is no danger, the person touches the wires with his bare hands.  So given this understanding, you immediately believe him and put your screwdriver into the electrical panel.

It is similar to the reaction of the apostle Thomas when the risen Christ showed him his pierced hands and side.  Immediately he fell to his knees and declared: "My Lord and my God."  Faith naturally followed spiritual understanding.  

So what must a person do to be saved from the penalty of sin and receive the gift of eternal life? The gospel writer said it as clearly in the familiar verbiage of John 3:16 as anywhere:

God loved the world in this way: he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.

So then, as this text proclaims, it is by faith (believing) in Jesus Christ that one is released from the penalty of sin (perishing) and receives the gift of eternal life.  

So, what specifically must a person believe about Jesus?  Is it enough to simply believe that he was a good man that lived a long time ago and said a lot of good things?  Well, we don't have to speculate about what exactly a person must believe.  At the conclusion of his gospel, John said it clearly:

These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name.12

There are, then, two things a person must believe:

1) "Jesus is the Christ" - he is the Messiah, the promised Redeemer, the Savior, the anointed one of God.  He is the one mankind has been promised and waiting for ever since the Garden of Eden.

2) Jesus is "the Son of God" - he is God himself, in human flesh.  There was no equivocation in the words of Jesus when he declared, "I and the Father are one."  And there was no misunderstanding of his words by his hearers when they wanted to stone him for what he clearly meant by this declaration.13

I have already said several times that faith is a reasonable decision to take action in dependence upon someone or something outside of yourself.  At its heart, faith is a decision; a mental exercise.  Some people take issue with this, saying that "true saving faith" involves more than mental, or intellectual, assent.  Intellectual assent is thusly used in a negative, pejorative sense, intimating that it is lacking in that which is necessary to bring salvation.  Understood correctly, however, intellectual means "the capacity for rational or intelligent thought" and assent means, "to agree." Putting both of these together implies that if one intellectually assents, he has thought intelligently about God's promise and afterwards agreed that it is true.

So, let's put this all together.  In order for one to have eternal life one must simply believe that Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God.  Belief, or faith, is not a blind leap in the dark, but rather a reasonable decision to take action in dependence upon someone or something outside yourself.  The proud person will simply not believe in Jesus, because he is unwilling to depend upon someone other than himself.  Only the humble — those whose confidence in themselves is shaken, broken, or shattered — will be willing to depend upon God, be granted the gift spiritual understanding, and take the step of faith to place their lives in the hands of the Savior.

The decision to believe in Jesus Christ is a free choice that every person may make.  There is no room for boasting or taking any kind of credit before man or God.  This is because only the humble will be granted the understanding necessary for faith.  Only those who admit to themselves and God: "I can't" or "I need" will receive the gift of spiritual insight upon which their faith will be founded.  No one will attempt to take the credit for, or be proud of, having admitted his utter incapability to save himself.

1 The key to correctly interpreting Jesus' response to the young man's question, is understanding that the wealthy ruler did not ask Jesus how to enter the kingdom of God, but rather how to inherit eternal life.  The consistent Old Testament and New Testament meaning of inherit is "to take possession".  In the scriptures, to inherit is to earn a reward; it is not to just get something because somebody has died.  An inheritance can be lost or forfeited; faithfulness is required to take possession of it.  Understanding this, we can better understand why Jesus didn't just tell the young man to receive the gift of eternal life by faith.  He said, if you want to inherit eternal life, you must humble yourself and give of yourself in sacrificial service to others.  

2 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. (1 Timothy 1:15)

3 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

4 What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)

5 Apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

6 Romans 1:22

7 Ephesians 1:16-17

8 Matthew 15:22

9 Luke 7:7-8

10 John 12:7

11 Matthew 13:11

12 John 20:31

13 “I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning me?” The Jews answered him, “For a good work we do not stone you, but for blasphemy; and because you, being a man, make yourself out to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

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