The purpose of all religions is to prepare us to go to a world that is full of bliss when we die, a place where there is no misery or suffering but only joy and happiness. For Christians we refer to this place as heaven and believe this is where God lives. And, since God is perfect, we therefore imagine that heaven must also be the perfect place for us to live forever.
Protestant Christians teach that the way we get to heaven is by confessing with our mouth that Jesus is the Christ and believing with our heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). They further teach that while it's important for us to read the Bible, pray, attend church, and do good to others, such things do not get us into heaven. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints agrees with that belief but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also disagrees with that belief as well.
They do not believe that we get into heaven simply because we read the Bible, pray, attend church, or do good to others. Yet, at the same time they teach that we cannot get to heaven without studying the Bible, praying, attending our church meetings, and doing good to others. While this may seem like a contradiction, there is a very important distinction between these two statements. To understand what that distinction is we must first understand what heaven is like.
The most common Protestant view of heaven is that when we die those who are saved will become like the angels who sit on clouds, playing harps, and continually singing praises to God throughout all eternity. Protestants also believe that when we confess with our mouth that Jesus is our Savior and accept Him into our life that God then sets about changing us into a creature who is fit to live with Him in heaven. This involves changing our heart, changing our habits, changing our priorities, and changing our perspective. Paul describes this as being "transformed by the renewing of your mind." The end result of this process is that we will be changed from a corruptible, contemptible being into a one who is incorruptible and compatible with God. We go from living like the devil to living with the divine.
When that process has been completed, God will have transformed us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. Paul put it this way: "And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly" (1 Corinthians 15:49). Therefore, "put off the old man with his deeds; And put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Colossian 3:10). The term used to describe this process is called becoming Christ-like.
However, for Protestants, explaining how this process actually works is not exactly clear. One pastor explained, "God's desire for all who know Him is for us to become more like Christ. We do this by first growing in our knowledge of Christ. It stands to reason that we cannot grow to be like someone we don't know… Of course, knowledge alone will not produce a Christ-like character. The knowledge we gain from God's Word must impact our hearts and convict us of the need to obey what we have learned…. obedience to that knowledge aligns us with the perfect will of God… we grow in our knowledge of God by reading the Bible daily, studying it, and being obedient to what it says." Then he adds, "Only when we have entered Heaven for eternity with God does this process reach its culmination."
Another minister asked, "How do we become more Christ-like? It does not happen by accident, and it does not happen by force. God does not take away our free will and force us to change. Rather, we must turn to him and seek him… In prayer and study, worship and service, we make choices about what is a priority in our lives. We make choices each day about what god we will worship and serve."
Still another preacher put it this way, "Our total commitment to Christ is what makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to transform us into Christ-like beings… Only in heaven will the work be completed in us… We cannot make ourselves Christ-like, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to do that work. Our job is to be willing to change and to walk in the changes the Spirit makes in us."
While such explanations might sound clear and specific, they raise some perplexing questions. If our entrance into heaven is assured based only on our confession of faith in Christ and not on anything we do, then what happens to someone who has accepted Christ but doesn't grow in the knowledge of God, who is not obedient to that knowledge and who is not willing to make the changes in their life that the Spirit directs? The Protestant answer is that they will still go to heaven and live with God when they die, along with those who did grow in their knowledge of God, who were obedient to His will and who did let the Spirit change their life. But, if that is true, then, according to the Protestant view, there is no point in working to become Christ-like because once a person has made a confession of faith in Christ, they're going to heaven no matter how they live.
There are those who say we will be rewarded in heaven for how we lived our life here on earth. They say that those who have made a diligent effort to become more Christ-like will have greater glory and advantages than those who didn't put forth as much effort. But there are two problems with this answer. The first is that it is better to live in the slums of heaven than among the rulers of hell. Just the fact that a person has made it into heaven, no matter how bad of a Christian they were, is infinitely better than the alternative, which is living in hell. Therefore, under the Protestant concept of heaven, there is no real incentive for a person to become Christ-like.
The second problem with this answer is that Christians are taught that the reason we go to heaven is not for our own glory but to sing praises to God's glory. We don't go there for any good that we've done but to praise God for letting sinners like us into His presence. We don't go there seeking a reward because of the life we've lived because being saved IS our reward. Therefore, if all we do in heaven is worship God, then the concept of being rewarded for what we do here on earth is meaningless. And if all we do in heaven is continually sing songs of praise to God then the only reward there can be for living an obedient life is sitting in the chief seats of the eternal choir.
Another perplexing problem with this belief is that if we get to become Christ-like by growing in our knowledge of God, being obedient to His will, and surrendering our will to His, how does someone become Christ-like when they get to heaven if they haven't done those things on earth first? In other words, if God doesn't take away our free will and force us to be obedient to Him while we live on earth, then it stands to reason that He won't do that when we live in heaven. And if we used our free will on earth to disregard God's ways, what happens when we use our free will in heaven to be disobedient to God? Since we can't lose our salvation once we've accepted Christ that means we can't be kicked out of heaven if we are disobedient to God once we get there. In that case, how does God still turn such a person into a Christ-like being?
And if the process of becoming Christ-like begins on this earth at the time we accept Christ into our life, then why must God wait until we get to heaven before He can complete that process? Why can't He complete it here on earth? After all, as Christians, we believe that's what Jesus did. If we are striving to become like Christ, then why can't we become perfect here on earth just like Christ was?
And there is still another problem. How do we become fully like Christ once we get to heaven? Does it just suddenly happen all at once without any effort on our part? If that is so then why put forth any effort here on earth? Why not just wait until we get to heaven and let God completely transform us then? Or are we required to read and study the Bible in heaven until we've grown in our knowledge of God just like we are required to do here on earth? Are there church services in heaven we have to attend until we've finally learned how to be like Christ? In other words, how does God actually complete our Christ-like process when we get to heaven?
Protestants don't even claim to know the answer to that question. They merely say that God will take care of that when we get there. While that may be an honest answer, it does nothing to instill in people a desire to become more Christ-like.
And then there is one more fundamental question. If salvation only comes because of our professed belief in Christ then why should we have to do anything more to be fit to live in heaven? Although Protestants say that performing works doesn't get us into heaven, yet their ministers continually preach that Christians should be engaged in doing all sorts of work, such as reading the scriptures, praying, attending church, proclaiming the gospel, and doing good to others.
The often given response to this question is that these godly works happen naturally in the life of Christian. That is to say, such behavior is the natural outgrowth of a person's love of Christ and is evidence that God is in their life, changing them into a Christ-like person. But if that is true then there should be no need for pastors to keep reminding Christians to do the works of God because that should happen automatically without any pastoral preaching, that is if it really is God who is doing all the work of transforming people into the image of Christ.
While the LDS Church has a similar view of heaven it is different in several respects. They too believe that once we accept Christ that God then sets about to change us into the image of His Son so that we are fit to live with Him in heaven. To do this He seeks to change our heart, our habits, our priorities, and our perspective. And the way this happens is by us growing in the knowledge of God through reading the Bible daily, studying it, and being obedient to what it says, by prayer, worship, and service.
Yet, God doesn't force us to do His will. Instead He allows us the freedom to choose for ourselves whether we will serve Him or not. And it is in choosing to follow Him that the Holy Spirit is then able to transform us into Christ-like beings. But this process doesn't happen quickly. It will take not only our time here on earth but after death as well and will continue even in heaven until we have become perfect even as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
However, the LDS Church does not believe that heaven is a place where the angels sit around all day doing nothing but singing praises to God. Although we may do that as well, for the most part heaven is a place of busy labor where the work of God will continue to go forth on an infinite scale. As such, those who reside in heaven will forever be engaged in serving God and helping Him advance His purposes.
Therefore, to be happy in heaven will require belonging to a citizenry that finds joy in serving the Lord and in doing His will. As such, those who live in heaven must have a willing heart and an obedient attitude towards God. Those who do not possess these qualities will not find heaven to be a particularly enjoyable place to live but will be miserable doing work they find no pleasure in performing. The reason why God seeks to transform us into the image of His Son is so that when we get to heaven we will be happy there. But in order to be happy we must first learn how to be willingly obedient to God just as Jesus was. Therefore, God seeks to turn us into a Christ-like person, not for His own glory but so that we will be happy living with Him forever.
But this transformation doesn't take place simply because we read the Bible, say our prayers, attend church or do good to others. Those are tools we use to help us build a Christ-like character.
Imagine how hard it would be to build a beautiful grandfather clock without any tools. Yet, not just any tools will do. They must be the right kind of tools if we want the finished product to look attractive in appearance and work with precision. In the same way, God, the Master Craftsman, wants to take us with all of our faults and weaknesses, and transform us into the kind of a being who is as glorious as He is. But to do that He must use the right tools. And the tools He uses are the Bible, prayer, the church, and providing opportunities to do good to others.
However, tools by themselves are useless. For example, a violin is a tool used for making music but it is useless in the hands of an untrained musician. To learn how to make beautiful music on a violin or any other musical instrument takes a lot of practice, perseverance, dedication, and desire. No one ever became a great musician by being forced to learn how to play a musical instrument. At best, such a person will only become an average musician. Great musicians come from those who have a burning desire to learn their music well.
This same principle applies to the tools God has given us. Merely reading the Bible will not make us Christ-like. It is only when we study the Bible because we sincerely want to know God more intimately that the Bible has any power to transform our lives. Saying repetitive prayers to God each day has no power to help us become Christ-like. It is only when our prayers become similar to a heartfelt conversation between a student and their teacher that they then have the power to help us become more like Christ. Simply showing up at church each Sunday and sitting through the services will not turn us into a being fit to live in heaven. It is only when we come to church because we have a burning desire to learn what God wants us to do that will change the way we behave. Helping others is a nice thing to do but unless it's done the way God wants then we are working against His purposes rather than with Him, and heaven is not a very pleasant place for those who don't want to work in cooperation with God.
To get into heaven without learning how to properly use these tools is like trying to build a grandfather clock without the proper tools and training. In that sense, we can think of the Bible as our instructional manual, attending church as attending vocational classes, saying prayers as having a conference with our spiritual instructor, and doing good for others as on the job training. It is when we diligently put into practice what we've learned and persevere in that practice until the end of our life that we begin to think, act, and behave more and more like Christ.
To some people this sounds like we make it into heaven because of our own efforts and merits alone rather than because of God's grace but there are two reasons why that reasoning is inaccurate. The first is that God didn't just drop the instruction manual off at the printing press and then left us alone to figure out how to properly use it. Instead, He has given us the Holy Ghost to be our instructor, mentor, companion, and friend. Without His help we don't have enough knowledge or skill to become like Christ in attitude and action. It is the Holy Ghost who opens our eyes as we read the Bible so we can come to a true understanding of God's mind and will. It is the Holy Ghost who touches and softens our heart so we have a greater desire to follow God's commandments. It is the Holy Ghost who pricks our conscious when we do something wrong so that we stay on the right path and then strengthens us with hope and courage to keep going when we think we can't.
More than that, in our struggle to do what's right, God's arch-enemy, Satan, is doing all he can to cause us to fail. Without the aid of the Holy Ghost, giving us the help we need to overcome Satan's efforts to destroy us, no one would succeed at becoming Christ-like. For that reason alone it cannot be said that we can make it into heaven by our own efforts.
But there is a second reason why this can't happen. There are some things that are within our power to do but there are other things that aren't, and one of the things we can't do is to remove the sins we've committed. Even if we strove with our whole heart to do what God wants of us, our sins, big and small, act as a barrier between Him and us, preventing us from entering heaven. But, because of Christ's atonement, that barrier can be torn down. As a member of the godhead, the Holy Ghost has the responsibility to apply the blood of Christ in our life so that our sins are washed away. In that way we can enter into heaven clean and spotless of sin. (For a more in-depth look at this subject read "Sanctified by the Spirit" ).
Therefore, it's not what we do that qualifies us to live in heaven but what kind of a person we become. It is when we have reached the point where we have the mind of Christ (see Philippians 2:5) and do the will of God that we then become the kind of person who is prepared to live eternally in heaven.
Yet, having said that, it is in the doing that we become like Christ. Without doing anything there can be no transformation of our life. But, if what we do doesn't help us to change then our works mean nothing. Paul explained it this way. He said that even if he could speak with the tongue of angels, could prophecy, could understand all mysteries and had all knowledge, if he had the kind of faith that could remove mountains, gave all of his goods to feed the poor, and allowed himself to be burned at the stake for being a Christian but didn't have charity - which is the kind of love that Christ has - then, Paul said "I am nothing" It is when we have learned to be long suffering, kind, humble, not easily provoked, rejoice in truth but not in iniquity, able to bear up and endure all things that we then become more like Christ (see 1 Corinthians 13).
The reason why we need to read the Bible, say our prayers, attend our church meetings, and take advantage of opportunities to show love to others is not because doing those things will get us into heaven but so we can learn how to become transformed into the image of Christ. It is only when that happens that we are then fit to live in heaven.
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