I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I love my pastor. It has been on my heart to write about salvation this week, but I kept waiting, feeling like it wasn't quite yet time yet. Then I get to church, and because it is Palm Sunday and the Sunday before Easter, my pastor spoke on salvation. The title of the sermon? "Access Granted."
On the stage was a beautiful big door. I have to wonder where they got it and who made it, because it was a gorgeous door, the sort of door you'd see in a really really nice house where a master carpenter lovingly put time and effort into making something beautiful and lasting. This door represented the door between us and God.
When Adam and Eve (man and woman) first walked the earth, there was an open door between them and God. They could literally walk with God. They were in total submission to and in perfect relationship with God. The only thing He asked of them was that they did not eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. By doing so, they would essentially take on the role of "gods," being able to say what was right and wrong and not be in complete submission to and love for God the Creator in all things. They would be able to know and do sin. This was not a good thing. We are not and can never be God, so to take on the responsibilities of knowing good and evil separated us from God, who is perfect. But they were tempted by Satan, who tempted them with this promise of false godhood, and they gave in.
The door closed. Access Denied.
Since then, men and women have been trying to find a way to open that door. Many keys have been invented and pursued: religion, philosophy, good works, self sacrifice, reincarnation... Yet none of those things can open that door, because we will never be good enough. We can never perfect ourselves in this imperfect state. We are not God.
But then Jesus came to this earth and died on the cross for us.
Luke 23:33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. 47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
Jesus took on our sins, offering forgiveness of all the wrong things we have done. We can't offer that to ourselves, we can only receive that by accepting it from Jesus. This is why belief, faith, in Jesus is the only requirement for salvation, and no works can ever do for us what Jesus' great work did.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, the innermost room was called the Holy of Holies. In it, once a year, the High Priest would enter alone to made sacrifice for sins and ask for forgiveness for the sins of all the people. This had to be repeated every year because it was a sacrifice done by sinful humans for sinful humans, and it was just an example, a type, of what was to come. The High Priest had to be purified and repentant in order to safely enter the Holy of Holies, as he was coming into the presence of God. To enter, he had to pass a thick, tall veil that protected the outside world from the overwhelming presence of God.
The moment Jesus died, the Bible tells us the veil was torn--from top to bottom. (Mormons have sewed it back up and put it back in their temple.) The significance of it being torn from top to bottom is that it couldn't have been people doing it: it was God. The people of god no longer needed protection from God's presence because there had been atonement made for the sin that separated God from man. God could and does enter into believers, making them his temple now.
Jesus opened the door. Access Granted.
We have the tendency to still think that only good people go to heaven. Yet look at the thief on the cross. The Romans didn't idly toss any criminal onto a cross. They generally only used crosses in areas where there were people not subject to Roman rule, and only for the worst criminals, traitors, and rebels. They were placed on hills or on roadsides to make a point of the might and strength of Rome for people who saw them. It was a terrible, ignominious, drawn-out, horrific, and shameful death. These criminals who were crucified with Jesus would have been arrested, tried, and sentenced in hearings not unlike those held in American courts today. They truly deserved their punishment. They were not good people just trying to survive by stealing some grapes in the marketplace, they were lowlife robbers.
Yet when the one defended Jesus in the face of the other's mockery and bitterness, and then asked Jesus to remember him, something amazing happened. Jesus didn't say, "well, this may be difficult, but you're going to have to make amends, go through a long and arduous repentance process, and then be a good person from now on." No. He promised that the man would be with him in paradise that day.
Good people don't go to heaven. Forgiven people do.
Romans 5:8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.