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Introduction“I expect three surprises when I get to Heaven.” So Martin Luther, the German reformer who turned the world upside down in the sixteenth century by his rediscovery of justification by faith alone, is often quoted as saying. First, there will be people in Heaven he did not expect to be there. Second, there will be people not present in Heaven he was certain would be there. Third, the greatest surprise of all, that he is there himself!
I write this book to show:
- What the New Testament means by the Gospel.
- How you can be sure you will go to Heaven when you die.
Definition of the True Gospel
- The Gospel is the Good News that you will go to Heaven when you die—and not
to Hell—by transferring your trust in your good works to what Jesus Christ the
Son of God did for you on the cross.
I want to commend most heartily and warmly those people in various parts of the world, especially in Britain and America where I have many friends, who faithfully uphold and preach the historic Gospel of Jesus Christ. This would include those in the public ministry, but equally those lay people who have little or no profile in the church. I thank God for anyone and everyone who is unashamed of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ—whether in pulpits preaching to thousands or giving out pamphlets in the streets.
If you are like me you will be surprised to learn that the question, “Whatever happened to the Gospel?,” became relevant before the end of the first century of Christianity—even while the apostle John was still alive. However, it is sad but true that few were asking that question then. The Gospel was brushed to one side, and no one seemed to notice it. Proof of this is Jesus’s letter to the church of Ephesus from the Throne of God (Rev. 2:1–7), written at some time between AD 70 and AD 100.
Two thousand years later the question becomes more relevant than ever, especially when you watch some religious programs on TV today. I would say that at least 90 percent of what we watch on religious television focuses on almost everything but the Gospel. For example:
The “prosperity gospel”
The “health and wealth gospel”
The “name it and claim it gospel”
God will make you prosperous if you support a particular ministry
God wants everybody healed
The political gospel
The “feel good” gospel
The “prosperity gospel” has eclipsed the Gospel of Jesus Christ in many religious television networks. The emphasis on worship and singing has done virtually the same thing in many churches when you consider how little time is given to preaching in some places—not to mention the shallow content of so many songs being written today. Hypergrace teaching—the notion that believers do not need to confess their sins to God—has elbowed its way into many churches. It has divided the people of God in many parts of the world, and in some cases even ruined marriages. The “political gospel,” whether it is called that or not, relegates the Gospel to one side in order to stress how crucial it is that you vote for a particular party or candidate. The theology of “open theism” (defined below) has been the doctrinal foundation of many platforms, even if some don’t know what this term means.
Furthermore, many people in Charismatic churches flock to hear a rhema word—a word of knowledge or personal prophecy—but sometimes show no interest in the real reason God sent His Son to die on the cross. “Name it and claim it” teaching suggests you can have anything you ask for; just name what you want and claim that God will give it to you. The “health and wealth gospel” purports that God wants everybody to be well off financially and healed. If one is not healed, it is due to one’s lack of faith. Really?
In addition to these concerns, have you ever thought about the absence of preaching and teaching on Hell and eternal punishment? Have you become concerned about the lack of the fear of God in church and society? Have you wondered if there might be a correlation between the absence of the fear of God and the absence of belief in eternal punishment?
If this were not enough to concern us, there has been an ever-growing acceptance of universalism in the church today—the view that all will be saved and none will be lost. This teaching renders the Gospel useless! Why preach if all will be saved?
And yet I have also been worried about a large number of “Word” churches, also “Spirit” churches, especially in America, that have been more excited about politics than the Gospel. There are those who feel they have a mandate to support certain candidates owing to their conservative views. I wish they were as excited about the Gospel as they were over who gets elected to political office. Right or left, rightly or wrongly, it seems to me that the Gospel has been pushed behind the door in order for people to express their political views. It somehow does not seem right to me to be more excited about political and social issues than the pure, simple, undiluted Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The true Gospel has been largely ignored in many historic Protestant churches in America and Great Britain—Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopal, some taking out any reference to the blood of Christ from the traditional hymns. At the same time, the focus in some “Word” churches has stressed sanctification as the only grounds for assurance of salvation, robbing the Gospel of its uniqueness. That said, it is my own observation that almost wherever I go nowadays a shocking percentage of people in all denominations—whether Word or Spirit churches—lack assurance of their own salvation simply because they don’t know the Gospel.
Thankfully, there are still a number of preachers, teachers, and lay Christians who have not allowed themselves to be diverted from the true Gospel. They believe now—and always have—in the true Gospel as defined at the start of this chapter. It is my sincere hope that this book will be a wake-up call for many others to once again be sure that the main thing—the true Gospel—once again becomes the real thing to them.
Several years ago I was invited by the late John Wimber to have dinner with him in London. I had heard him preach in the Royal Albert Hall and enjoyed his message. To be candid, I don’t often get “words” for people. But I was pretty sure I had a word for John. I was troubled about one thing—and told him this: “You say, John, that, ‘the Reformers gave us the Word in the sixteenth century, but in the twentieth century we are to do the works’.” John agreed that this is what he said and that his ministry was to teach people to do the “works”—largely praying for people to be healed. I said to him: “You are teaching pharaohs that knew not Joseph (see Exodus 1:8). You are assuming that the people you are teaching know the Word. John, these people you are teaching don’t have a clue what Martin Luther gave to the world in the sixteenth century. How can you teach people to do the works when they don’t actually know the Word?”
He put his knife and fork down, then put both of his index fingers in the middle of his chest and said to me: “RT, you have touched the very vortex of my thinking right now. I fully accept your word.” Whether this made any difference in his ministry after that, I do not know. I will say we became good friends. He spent two hours with me at Westminster Chapel a few weeks before he went to Heaven.
The Gospel as I defined it above and will continue to mention in this book has, I believe, passed behind a cloud throughout the world. I refer to the historic Gospel as introduced by Jesus and filled out by the apostle Paul in the New Testament and articulated by the Reformers of the sixteenth century.
My understanding of the Gospel has been refined over the past sixty years or more. As we will see below, John Calvin (1509–1564) built his understanding of the Gospel on Martin Luther’s teaching of justification by faith alone, not contradicting but making clearer what the apostle Paul and Luther taught.
I suspect Luther was right in his speculation. I think many of us may be surprised to see people in Heaven we assumed were not fit for Heaven. Could this be because we set a standard of fitness that is different from what the Lord Himself requires?
And yet if we should miss seeing a friend or loved one (if this could be a question we would ask) I can only conclude that we will be kept from feeling any pain. God promised that He will wipe away all tears in the New Jerusalem and that there will be no pain (Rev. 21:4). I don’t think God would let that question enter our minds in Heaven.
Paul’s statement is worth remembering as you read this book:
- Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who
will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes
of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
- —1 CORINTHIANS 4:5
Rediscovering the True Gospel
- I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called in the grace of
Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there
are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
- —GALATIANS 1:6–7
Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the apostle Paul’s teaching of justification by faith alone woke up not only Germany but the whole of Europe. But Martin Luther did not intend to wake up the world; he was trying to save his own soul. That is all it was.
The son of a coal miner, Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, Germany. To please his father he entered law school in the University of Erfurt. But he eventually dropped out, complaining that law represented uncertainty. He sought assurance about life and was drawn to theology and philosophy. His tutors taught him to be suspicious even of the greatest thinkers, and to test everything by experience. He became disillusioned with philosophy; it taught him nothing about loving God, which had become very important to him. He became convinced that he could know God only by revelation and reading the Holy Scriptures.
At the age of twenty-one, on July 2, 1505, Luther was riding on horseback during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck very close to him. Being terrified of death and divine judgment he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!” St. Anne was the patron saint of coal miners. He explained to his father that it was a vow he must keep. Two weeks later—on July 17—he became an Augustinian monk. He devoted himself to fasting, long hours of prayer, and confession. He was so conscientious that he would return to confession an hour after having just confessed to a priest, having thought of a sin he did not confess. The priests who heard his confession dreaded to see him coming so often, and they sometimes tried to get out of having to hear Luther again. In 1507 Luther was ordained to the priesthood. In 1508 he was invited to teach theology at the University of Wittenberg. On October 19, 1512, he was awarded the Doctor of Theology.
Luther became increasingly troubled about the spiritual condition of the Church. He wondered about rightness and biblical soundness of the sale of indulgences—paying for remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the money going to build St. Peter’s in Rome. It was suggested that he himself visit Rome. His colleagues felt he needed a break from his studies; and that seeing the grandeur of Rome would encourage him. He went to Rome. While there he climbed the Scala Sancta, holy stairs. (I myself did this when I was in Rome a few years ago. I wondered what it would seem like, especially recalling what Luther said to himself when he reached the top of the stairs.) These stairs had been built so that one could climb each step on their knees. It takes several minutes to do this on your knees. Each step allegedly guaranteed so many years out of purgatory. When Luther reached the top of the stairs he asked himself, “Who knows whether this be true?” He also became disillusioned when he learned about the immorality of so many priests there. Being in Rome did not change his concerns, but only heightened them. He later reported, “I went to Rome smelling of onions; I came back smelling of garlic.”
Luther’s “Tower Experience”
At some point between 1513 and 1517, when he especially studied the psalms, Romans, and Galatians, Luther had what he would call a “tower experience.” No one seems to know the exact date. But we know it was while studying certain psalms—especially Psalm 32, Psalm 118, and Romans and Galatians that he crossed over from doubt to full assurance of faith. As for Psalm 118, “I call it my own,” he said. He became drawn particularly to Romans 1:17 (KJV): “The just shall live by faith,” a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4, which is quoted three times in the New Testament: Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 11:38. His tower experience came when he became convinced that faith alone apart from good works satisfied the “passive justice of God.” By this Luther means that he did not have to act to satisfy God’s justice; God is satisfied not by our having to perform works but that faith alone satisfied God’s justice. Active justice would have meant what one does in order to get satisfaction. Passive justice would be getting satisfaction by doing nothing; it is when God sees our faith. “It is a passive justice by which the merciful God justifies us by faith,” Luther concluded. Faith without works therefore means justification by sola fidei—“faith alone.” When he began to perceive the implications of this insight he became more bold and confident.
His breakthrough therefore came by understanding Romans 1:17 (KJV): “The just shall live by faith”—that is, faith alone. That one word, alone, did it for Luther. Once he saw the implications of this he never looked back. He was never the same again, nor would the Western World—starting very soon after his own breakthrough—ever be the same again.
The Day of Days
On October 31, 1517, at the age of thirty-three, Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door—some say it was more like a notice board—of the Wittenberg castle church. He did not have any idea what was about to happen when he did this. Written in Latin only for scholars, it was a list of questions and statements about people purchasing indulgences as a way of having their temporal sins forgiven and shortening their time in purgatory. At the bottom of these theses, summed up, was, “If the pope has power over purgatory, why ever doesn’t he simply let everybody out?” Luther’s motive in writing the Ninety-Five Theses was to get a debate going about indulgences. But someone translated these into German, then printed them and distributed them without his permission. The knowledge of this little treatise spread like wild fire. In three weeks, this was read all over Germany. The ordinary, common people in particular were amazed and excited. This caused a stir among the highest levels of the Church. In two months, it was read by the pope. It was the beginning of an awakening that eventually turned the Western World upside down. And yet it began with Martin Luther merely trying to save his own soul.
The Gospel and issue of personal salvation came to the forefront. Whereas the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) had been the center of worship in churches, preaching became popular, preaching that explained the Bible. This in turn brought about an emphasis on ordinary people reading the Scriptures. Previously people thought that only the priests could read the Bible and understand it. Luther later translated the entire Bible into German. Ordinary people began reading the Bible, and with the help of preaching, began to understand it! What became the Great Reformation was begun with the common people of Germany.
Although it was his breakthrough with Romans 1:17 that was so life changing, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was Martin Luther’s favorite book. Whereas Romans contains the “purest gospel,” “Galatians is my Katie von Bora,” he would say. He married her in 1525. He lectured through Galatians three times, dealing a lot with the issue of the Mosaic Law and the Gospel. Here are three interesting quotes of Luther on this subject:
- Whoever knows how to distinguish skillfully between the Law and the Gospel, by
the grace of God he also knows how to be a theologian.
Anybody who wishes to be a theologian…must distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.
There’s no man living on earth who knows how to distinguish between the Law and the Gospel.
It is hard to read the third quote above without laughing! But Luther was beautifully transparent in all he wrote and did. After he was excommunicated from Rome in 1520, he said, “Katie and I are going to get married. We are going to have babies. We will put the nappies in our front garden for the pope to see!”
It was at the Diet (official meeting of the Holy Roman Emperor) of Worms, Germany, on April 16–18, 1520, that things came to a head. Luther stood before the authorities. On a table nearby were twenty-five of his tracts including the Ninety-Five Theses, On the Papacy of Rome, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. “Dr. Luther, will you denounce what you have written in these tracts?”
He asked for twenty-four hours to think about it. During those twenty-four hours he prayed and felt little or no sense of the presence of God. He wrote out his prayer. He cried out in his cell, among other things he said, “Oh my God, are you dead? No. You cannot die. You only hide yourself.”
The meeting recommenced the next day, on April 18, 1520. He was asked to deny what he had written in the tracts. His reply was something like this:
- Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or clear reason (for I do
not trust in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have
often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have
quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not
recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I
stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ became the paramount issue. It set him free.
My book is not only a commemoration of Luther’s faith and courage; I equally believe that it is an extension of what he began in the sixteenth century. We need a new Reformation today. The battle lines are not the same in every generation. Luther also said: “Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.”
Never forget: it was Luther finding rest of his soul that started the entire movement. He needed to know that he was accepted before God more than he wanted anything else in the world.
Some Important Questions
I ask: “Have you ever been concerned about your own soul and final destiny?” Jesus asked an unanswerable question: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10).
I therefore ask you this question: “If you were to stand before God—and you will— and He were to ask you (He could do), ‘Why should I let you into My Heaven?’, what would you say?” There is only one valid answer.
What is your answer to this question?
This book, at bottom, deals with two questions:
- What makes a person fit for Heaven?
- What happens to those who do not go to Heaven?
My own background helps to qualify me to write this book, this being something I feel I should share.
I became a Christian on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1942, at the age of six. Before going to church that day, I said to my parents in tears, “I want to be a Christian.” My father said, “We don’t need to wait until we get to church, you can do this now.” I knelt with my parents at their bedside and confessed my sins. As I look back I can’t imagine there were many sins I was conscious of—only talking back to my parents and feeling ashamed. I was convicted of this. I wept as I prayed. I felt a sense of peace and relief. I never looked back. I believe I was truly converted that day. But how much of the Gospel I knew at the time is another question.
I was brought up in the Church of the Nazarene. I was named after my father’s favorite preacher, Dr. R. T. Williams, general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene. I have always cherished my Nazarene background. In fact it is what largely endeared me to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899–1981). He had read a biography of Phineas Bresee (1838–1915), the founder of the Church of the Nazarene. Dr. Lloyd-Jones felt that there was something genuine about Bresee and the early Nazarenes, that there was a real touch of God on them. Dr. Lloyd-Jones used to say to me again and again, “Don’t forget your Nazarene background. It is what has saved you,” meaning that it saved me from being like too many reformed pastors who he thought were, “perfectly orthodox, perfectly useless.”
I entered Trevecca Nazarene College (now University), Nashville, Tennessee, in September 1953. A year and a half later, March 1955, while remaining a student at Trevecca, I was called to be the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in Palmer, Tennessee, about 115 miles from Nashville. I drove to Palmer on weekends while attending classes at Trevecca Monday to Friday.
On a Monday morning, October 31, 1955, while driving in my car back to Nashville I had what I would describe as a Damascus Road experience, although it was not my conversion. It was my baptism with the Holy Spirit, what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would call, “the sealing of the Holy Spirit.” On old US 41, a few miles from the bottom of Monteagle, Tennessee, the Lord Jesus appeared to me as I drove. I saw Him interceding for me at the right hand of God. An hour later I entered into a rest of faith; my heart was warmed, peace came into my heart unlike anything I had ever experienced. Before sundown that same day my theology changed. I knew I was eternally saved, and I was given a glimpse of the sovereignty of God. For days I wondered if I had discovered something new, that I might be the first since the apostle Paul to believe these things!
Because of the views I was discovering for myself, my Trevecca professor Dr. William M. Greathouse cautioned me, “RT, you are going off into Calvinism.” I had never read anything by John Calvin or a book by any Calvinist. I knew that the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower were known as Puritans, but I had not read a book by any Puritan. Months later I was to learn I had not discovered anything new at all but that I was led to the mainstream of Protestant theology. It is still an amazing feeling to this day when I try to absorb having seen these truths without reading books.
My own theological background, without doubt, helped prepare me for the writing of this book. I was brought up in a church that taught that one gets to Heaven by being “saved” and “sanctified wholly”—these being two works of grace. The second work of grace was also called, “second-blessing holiness,” without which no one shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). The second work of grace allegedly enabled one to, “live above sin.” If one did sin, they lost their salvation, and he or she was now headed for Hell. Some taught that the sin nature was “eradicated” by the second work of grace, although, surprisingly, this did not keep a person from sinning.
One of the sad consequences of my old teaching was that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was—I’m sorry—barely mentioned. It was almost entirely about holy living instead. Not going to the cinema, and the women not wearing makeup. These are some of my most indelible memories. I choose to believe that the Gospel was preached now and then. The need to be saved was certainly emphasized, or I would not have told my parents that I wanted to be a Christian on that Easter Sunday. I have asked myself many times whether I ever heard the true Gospel preached by the four different pastors I heard as I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. Surely I did. But I am simply not sure.
The question follows: how could one ever become a Christian in an atmosphere in which the pure Gospel is rarely if ever preached? Good question.
It is John Calvin’s teaching of “implicit faith,” to be explained below, that shows how a person could be regenerate without fully understanding the Gospel as the apostle Paul knew it. This explains how I could be saved at such a young age without hearing the true Gospel as I now understand it. How much could one know at the age of four, the age of Jonathan Edwards when he was first overwhelmed by the glory of the Lord?
Martin Luther had a lot more to learn, as we will see further below, especially regarding the Book of James. Calvin learned from Luther and made his teaching of justification by faith clearer than ever. And yet we are all learning. Each time we gain a fresh insight our reaction often is, “Why didn’t I see this before?” and, “Was I truly converted before then?” But new insights are partly what is meant by being changed from “glory to glory” by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18, KJV), or as the ESV translates it: “from one degree of glory to another.” It does not take a lot of knowledge to be saved. The least degree of faith in a great God is all that is required. Or, to extract two lines from the great hymn, “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”:
- If you tarry till you’re better you will never come at all.
All the fitness He requireth is to feel your need of Him.
- —JOSEPH HART (1712–1768)
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