I used to ask, "When is the last time you heard a sermon on hell?" This is because it is so seldom preached on. But now I ask, "When did you last hear a sermon on heaven?"
All of us are naturally concerned for our well-being in the here and now. It is thrilling to know that God will never leave us or forsake us and that He supplies all of our needs. Moreover, there is no doubt that all we haveâ€”whether it be our health, protection or financesâ€”is due to our security in Christ.
But the primary reason Jesus died on the cross for us has eternity in mind. John 3:16, which Martin Luther called the Bible in a nutshell, is referring to heaven and hell in one stroke: "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."
When Isaiah foresaw the death of the Messiah and said, "The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:6, NKJV), it was a direct reference to Jesus paying the debt on the cross in order that we might be saved from the wrath of God for our sins. This is what led to the greatest hymns of the church, for example:
"When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of Glory died / My richest gain I count but loss / And pour contempt on all my pride" ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"). "There is a fountain filled with blood / Drawn from Immanuel's veins / And sinners, plunged beneath that flood / Lose all their guilty stains" ("There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood").
It is said that early Methodists got their theology from their hymns, like those above. The premise of hymns such as these is that we will go to heaven when we die, because Jesus took our place on the cross and bore the wrath of God. But there are many in the church today who have never heard of hymns such as the aboveâ€”much less do they know the real reason Jesus died. Our theology produces the songs we sing. I fear that sometimes our worship is a mixed bag as a result.
When I listen to so much worship and preaching on Christian TV nowadays, I am not always edified. I sometimes think that people forget the main reason Jesus died on the cross. The songs being written today, speaking generally, are too often devoid of good soteriology. Such preaching often gives the impression that Jesus died only for making our lives better in the here and now.
It is as though existential philosophy (whether people know the word or not) has crept into the church. It is so often a "what's in it for you right now" gospel. Have we forgotten that we are going to stand before God one dayâ€”and give an account of our lives? "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).
What will matter most to us then? I would love to hear preaching that deals with that questionâ€”and to sing songs or hymns that reflect eternal values.
I have long said that there is more truth to the "health and wealth" gospel than many evangelicals want to believe, but not as much as some of the proponents of it would have us believe. You get the impression that the core of their teaching is all about money. It must make the angels blush. Is it possible that, just maybe, much preaching really is motivated by money?
I am so thankful that I am going to heaven and not hell when I die. It is because the blood of Jesus satisfied the wrath and justice of God. Some of us are so keen to live well, to prosper and enjoy the abundance of this life that heaven hardly enters our thinking. An irony of church history is that those who emphasized eternity most did the most good here below.
And as for hell? Oh dear, who believes in that today? Remember that hell is God's idea. We do our hearers no favor to withhold from them that the most important question in the world is, "Where will you be 100 years from now?"
That was my first question to Yasser Arafat when we met. This question is the fountainhead of evangelism: "Do you know for sure if you would die today that you would go to heaven?" By the way, do you?
I happen to believe that the last days are at hand, so I believe in last-days ministries. And I predict that when God visits the church it will be a revival of the gospelâ€”and a fierce and fervent return to the preaching that gave Christians their identity in the first place.
R.T. Kendall was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years. He is the author of numerous books, including Total Forgiveness, The Anointing and The Word and the Spirit. His Web site is www.rtkendallministries.com.