Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast with longtime pastor and author John Piper. We recently received an anonymous question from an international listener to the podcast, who emails us from a rural region of Nigeria. Amazing. And it’s a very simple, but profoundly important question all of us must answer in our lives. Here it is: “Pastor John, how do I know if I’m ready for heaven?”
I love that somebody asks the simple, basic question, because it gives me the chance to go right to the heart of the Bible and right to the heart of the best news in all the world that we call the gospel; namely, that nobody is fit for heaven. Nobody is ready for heaven. Nobody deserves heaven. Nobody can expect to go to heaven unless God steps in and provides a way by grace and by mercy that through faith, not through my good deeds or my merit, could get me there. That is exactly why the Bible was written. That is why Jesus came into the world. That is why there is a history of salvation.
“When you put your trust in Christ, your life takes on a new direction, not a new perfection.”
The most important part of the Bible that explains this is, I think, the letter to the Romans written by the apostle Paul. So, if you want one short book — it is sixteen chapters, but you can read it in an hour — to explain all this, go to Romans. What he shows there, first, is that we know this. Everybody knows this, if we are honest with our conscience. Every human being has sinned, he said, that is, failed to live for God, to honor God, to glory God (Romans 3:23). We are all selfish. Yes, we are. All of us, we are born that way.
And then he says, “By works of the law” — that is, if you try to keep a list of deeds that God requires — “no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight” (Romans 3:20). In other words, you will never be right with God if you try to go the law-keeping route. And then we learn the breathtaking news that, even though none of us deserves heaven, none of us is fit for heaven, none of us is ready for heaven in our own selves, nevertheless God made a way for us sinful human beings to be accepted as righteous, good, just, law-abiding, and he accepts us as righteous in his presence.
Now, how in the world can that be? That is the great gospel mystery. How can that be? How can a sinner, guilty, shameful failure like me be accepted by a perfectly good and holy and just judge of the universe? And we all know that is the way he is. Our consciences dictate it to us. He is perfectly righteous. How can I ever be accepted as good and perfect and holy as his child in his very presence? How can that be?
And the answer of the Bible is: God puts my sin, all our sin, whoever trusts him, he puts all our sin on Jesus and puts Jesus’ perfection and righteousness on us. Way back seven hundred years before Jesus came into the world, Isaiah 53:5–6 prophesied, “He” — that is, the coming Messiah, Jesus — “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. . . . All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” That is just the best news in the world to me. When my conscience condemns me at night and I know I have sinned, I hear the words: He laid on him the iniquity of us all.
“For whoever trusts him, God puts all our sin on Jesus and all Jesus’s perfection and righteousness on us.”
Not only this, it gets better — if it could get any better. No, it gets better. Not only were my sins put on Jesus, but his perfection, his righteousness — Jesus never sinned in the slightest — his righteousness is counted by God as mine. Here is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin” — he treated him as sin; he put our sin on him — “who knew no sin, so that in him we might become” — who are very sinful — “we might become the righteousness of God.” That is what the Bible calls justification: being declared just or declared righteous in God’s presence on the basis of the justice and the righteousness of Jesus, not ourselves. That is the great exchange. That is the great, glorious mystery of how a sinner can be accepted in the presence of God.
So, to say it again: In him we become the righteousness of God — in him. And that is an utterly crucial phrase. In him we become righteous before God. That means that the righteousness that enables us to be one hundred percent accepted by God is not our own righteousness. It is the perfect righteousness of Christ who never sinned, so that the foundation of our acceptance with a perfectly holy God is flawless, perfect, unshakable, outside us as long as we are in him.
The major question of life is: What must I do to be in Christ so that his life, his death counts for me? What must I do to be saved from my sins like this? What must I do to enjoy the hope of heaven and eternal life and joy in God’s presence like this? And the glorious, biblical, New Testament, gospel answer is: You don’t do anything to earn it. You don’t do anything to show yourself good enough to have it. Christ has already done what needs to be done. What we must do is stop doing in order to earn anything and, instead, receive. That is the key word. Receive Christ who did all the doing that had to be done as the foundation of our acceptance with God. Any doing that God expects of us now — and he does — any doing that God expects of us now is because we are accepted one hundred percent, not in order to be accepted one percent or any percent. We live out of our acceptance with God, which is through faith in Christ.
“Receive Jesus as a precious Savior, a perfect Lord, and an infinite Treasure.”
We receive Jesus as a precious Savior. We receive him as a perfect Lord. We receive him as an infinite Treasure. And the way the Bible talks about this is we must believe in him — believe. That is what receive is. This doesn’t mean merely believe facts about him, because the devil believes all the facts about Jesus and he is not saved. Believing is receiving him for who he is, for the treasure that he is. Believing is what Paul expresses in Philippians 3:8 when he says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
So, receiving Jesus is receiving him as that kind of treasure. And, of course, if faith is that kind of joyful embrace of Jesus, it changes us in this life. If it doesn’t change us, James says, it is dead faith, and dead faith doesn’t save anybody. It is not real. But, of course, being changed in this life doesn’t mean perfection. Oh, that is so important for people to hear. Think of it this way: When you put your trust in Christ, your life takes on a new direction, not a new perfection. The river turns, but it doesn’t yet run with perfectly pure water. The perfection is Jesus. And then, when we die or when Jesus comes back, we will share in that complete perfection.
Let me just end by giving you a belief bath, meaning that, for one minute as I close, I want to just bathe you with passages from the Bible that tell you how to be in Christ, where all these treasures are found; namely, believe.
- John 1:12, “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
- John 3:16, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
- John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.”
- John 11:25, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’”
- Acts 10:43, “To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.”
- Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”
- Romans 10:9, “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.”
- And one more with the reminder that it is in Christ, in relation to him, that we have our readiness for heaven: Galatians 3:26, “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
So, let me end with the words of the Bible itself in 2 Corinthians 5:20 to every person who is listening to me. I speak this as personally as I can: “We implore you on behalf of Christ” — I am speaking for Christ now — “be reconciled to God.”