How do I get to heaven? The story of the thief on the cross makes the answer to this question crystal clear—this man had no works to offer, either before or after his salvation. His salvation was only by grace of God. A. W. Pink asks:
What could he do? [The thief] could not walk in the paths of righteousness for there was a nail through either foot. He could not perform any good works for there was a nail through either hand. He could not turn over a new leaf and live a better life for he was dying.[i]
Truth can always be twisted by perverse people. The wonderful truth that God saves by grace, through faith and without works is no exception. A man said to Spurgeon, “If I believed that, I would carry on in a life of sin,” to which he replied, “Yes, you would!”[ii]
But the redeemed heart loves Christ. The forgiven sinner has a desire to please his Lord.
If the thief had been rescued from the cross and lived another 30 years, he would have lived a new and different life, but he did not have that opportunity. The fact that he entered paradise shows us with great clarity where our salvation lies.
Our salvation in Christ involves three marvelous gifts—justification, sanctification, and glorification. Justification is the gift by which our sins are forgiven, sanctification is the gift by which we grow in the likeness of Christ, and glorification is the gift by which we enter into the everlasting joy of heaven. If you get that, you get the Christian life.
Christ Justified Us
Now think about what happened to this man. He was justified and glorified on the same day! He completely bypassed sanctification! This man missed out on the entire Christian life—no battles with temptation, no struggles with prayer. He was not baptized, he never received communion, and he did not become a member of any church.
Let’s return to our question: How do I get to heaven? Here’s what this story tells us: Entrance to heaven comes through justification, not through sanctification. You enter heaven by forgiveness and through the righteousness that Jesus gives you. You do not enter into heaven by the Christian life.
The New Testament repeats this theme again and again:
A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2:16)
He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:5)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
It’s always true that where faith is birthed, works will follow, but salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is the good news that your acceptance with God does not depend on your performance in the Christian life.
Where would you be if Christ said, “I forgive you, but I’ll be watching to see how you do from now on.” What kind of love is that? “I forgive you, but make sure you don’t mess up again.” When you read the words “not by works,” rejoice. If it wasn’t for this, you’d be sunk because your Christian life is not what you want it to be and neither is mine.
Christ Gives Complete Assurance
“Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Don’t you just hate the business of waiting for exam results? You do the test, hand in your paper, and then you have to wait. Can you imagine living your whole life waiting for the results? Imagine praying every day, serving every week, and then wondering, “Will I make it into heaven? Or will I spend eternity in hell?”
When the man says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Christ does not say, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He doesn’t say, “It’s rather late in the day for you to think about repentance now. Look at all the years you’ve wasted!” No, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise!”
The Son of God brings the declaration of the last day forward for all who put their trust in him. Do you see how the gift of assurance flows from Christ saving us by grace, through faith, and without works? If our works were in any way involved in our gaining entrance into heaven, assurance would be impossible.
If salvation rested on our works in any way, all assurance would be arrogance because it would be saying “I’ve done the necessary works.” Salvation depends not on your works for Christ, but on Christ’s work for you. His work is finished. It’s perfect and complete. You can rest your life, death, and eternity on him with complete confidence.
Heaven Is Nearer Than You Think
Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Christ is the Lord of paradise. He holds its keys. There can be no higher assurance than his promise. That’s why the apostle Paul says, “It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns?” (Romans 8:33-34).
Death does not lead to a long period of unconsciousness. Nor does it lead, for the believer, to a long process of being prepared. For a Christian believer, death is an immediate translation into the joys of life at the right hand of God. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
Christian, heaven is much nearer than you think. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”