One of the most basic of all Christian beliefs is that of justification. It has been defined as "God's act of declaring or making a sinner righteous before God" or "God's act of pardoning sinners and accepting them as righteous for Christ's sake."
According to the teachings of Christianity, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and if that is the case then none of us are righteous or good enough to live with a God who is totally and completely righteous. Yet, at the same time, God loves us so much that He wants us to live with Him. The theological question is: How does a righteous God allow unrighteous sinners to live in heaven? The answer is that God sent "his only begotten Son [into the world to die for our sins so], that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
It is though the atonement of Jesus Christ which He wrought on the cross that the sins of those who believe on Him are taken away. In other words, as far as God is concerned, those who believe in His only begotten Son have never sinned and, if that is the case, then they are worthy of living in heaven forever. That is what the doctrine of justification is all about.
This process has often been likened to a criminal being brought before a judge and, after admitting his crimes, the judge pardon's him and lets him go free as though he had never done anything wrong. However, this doesn't mean that a Christian never sins any more. It means that when a person does sin, even after accepting Christ as their Savior, that God still views them as being sinless. This belief has led to the saying that "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven."
But if that is true then it would seem that it doesn't matter what a Christian does because whatever sin they commit will be forgiven. However, nearly all Christian faiths say if a person genuinely accepts Christ as their Savior then their desire will be to please God, in which case they will not want to sin. And when they do sin it will bother them to the point that they will want to repent. It has often been said that those who don't have this attitude haven't truly accepted Christ, in which case, they aren't truly saved.
Yet, the truth of the matter is that many Christians do back-slide and don't always continue living as Christians should. One pastor has cataloged three ways in which Christians fail to live up to their commitment. The first is exemplified by the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6). These are those who become so "busy with the pressing affairs of life, they gradually drift from God, his church, and his people." They don't live wickedly and they don't renounce their faith in God. Instead they just don't have time to attend church, read their scriptures or pray any more. These are they who have allowed the cares of the world to choke off their spiritual growth (see Luke 8:14).
The second way people back-slide is exemplified by the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9). Since a coin represents value, this parable speaks about those who have lost their value to God. Perhaps they still come to church but they no longer perform any service to Him. They don't share the gospel with others, they don't volunteer to teach in Sunday School, or they don't provide any financial support. They take but they don't give.
The third way is exemplified by the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). These are they who have accepted Christ but afterwards rebel against God's authority. When it comes time to actually live what they believe, they wither under the pressure and go back to their old ways and associate with their old friend where they feel more comfortable.
However, the doctrine of justification teaches that despite these acts of disobedience, God still pardons their sins and allows them to enter into heaven when they die. Those who teach this doctrine point out that Christians aren't perfect and are prone to sin like anyone else but, because of God's grace they are still forgiven. And this doctrine is defended by stating that the Bible doesn't teach that a person must be perfect to get to heaven. In fact, the Bible specifically states that " all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23, emphasis added) and that would include Christians as well.
This then lead to the next doctrine which concerns the concept of heaven and hell. The prevailing view among Christians is that all those who don't accept Christ by the time they die will go to hell and all will suffer the same punishment regardless of how good or bad they lived their lives. For example, the pious Buddhist will suffer in hell as much as Attila the Hun or Hitler. On the other hand, most Christian denominations teach that all those who truly accept Christ as their Savior will be equally rewarded in heaven regardless of how faithful or lax they were in living a Christian life.
Those who hold to this view point out that God will punish wayward Christians while they live here on earth (see 1 Corinthians 3:15) by facing the consequences of sin which brings heartache, despair, fear, and a troubled life. According to this line of reasoning, the punishment a wayward Christian receives involves being denied the blessing in this life that they could have had if they had been more faithful. Yet, despite this punishment, when they die the penalty for their sins will end as they are accepted into the kingdom of God. It is taught that once there they will no longer have the desire to sin and will be comfortable living among the angels.
It is the belief of many Christians that since none of us deserve to live in heaven therefore when God allows anyone to enter into His presence, whether they've been faithful or not, they will be so grateful that they will sing praises to His Holy name forever. This is why people describe those in heaven as sitting on clouds playing a harp.
However, that explanation doesn't adequately account for the justice of God.
Perhaps we can illustrate this with an example. Suppose a man accepted Christ when he was in his early teens. According to what most churches teach, he is a saved person and can never lose his salvation no matter what he does. Then, let's say that over the years he drifts away from the church and no longer attends. Then let's suppose that after marrying he becomes involved with another woman which, when it is discovered, leads to a divorce. Such a story is not an uncommon one.
According to most Christians, this man who has been unfaithful to his wife as well as to God will still go to heaven when he dies but he will be punished for his sins while he lives here on earth. This might include not having inner peace, never finding happiness, having troubled relationships, and other problems which are the same kind of consequences that an unbeliever encounters.
However, this also provides a hardship for his wife, both physically and emotionally, and so she also suffers because of his behavior. Yet, he doesn't pay any penalty for the hardship he has put his wife and family through. Furthermore, since he wasn't living a Christian life at the time of his marriage it is very probable that his wife is not one either yet, even though she remained faithful to her marriage vows she will go to hell while her unfaithful, adulterous husband goes to heaven.
And then there are his children. Had this unfaithful man been a good Christian father he would most likely have influenced his children to become saved but, because of his failure to teach them the ways of God, they will spend eternity in hell while he goes to heaven. It would seem only fair that he should share some responsibility for them becoming eternally lost. Yet, according to traditional Christian teachings, this man will not suffer for the harm he has done to others. He will only suffer for his own sins while in this life but, in the end, he will go to heaven when he dies.
But let's say that the wife is a saved Christian who forgives her husband and unsuccessfully tries to save the marriage. Since, under this scenario, the wife has to struggle harder to live a Christian life because of her difficult circumstances, it would be unfair of God to give her the same reward in heaven as her unfaithful husband receives. If God truly does reward everyone in heaven equally regardless of how they lived their life on earth or the degree of difficulty they faced in being faithful to Christ, then there is little incentive for anyone to do good once they've been saved.
However, the scriptures declare that God is both fair and just (Deuteronomy 25:15) which therefore dictates that what we do in this life must have at least some effect on the reward we receive in heaven. While God may indeed forgive us for our sins, it would be unfair and unjust for everyone to enjoy the same benefits in heaven regardless of how faithfully they lived as a believer in Christ.
The apostle Paul taught, "We must all appear before the Judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). This verse seems to say that people will receive different rewards according to what they did in life. However, many Christians interpret this verse to mean that the "deeds in the body" refer to accepting or not accepting Christ. Therefore, they say there are only two rewards for the deeds done in our body - we either perform the deed of believing in Jesus and therefore will be rewarded by going to heaven or we failed to accept Christ and are rewarded for that deed by going to hell.
But Paul also wrote, "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together" (Romans 8:16-17). According to this scripture, only those who suffer with Christ will become "heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ." Implied is the idea that if we don't suffer for being a Christian then we will not become heirs of God. More than that, since some Christians suffer more for their beliefs than other Christians it would reasonable that they should received a greater glory for their greater suffering.
The Lord also told the apostle John, "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Revelation 3:21). This is the reward of those who overcome evil but what about those Christians who didn't overcome the temptation to do wrong? According to the implication of this scripture they will not be rewarded with the privilege of sitting on thrones. And, again, some people have overcome evil better than others.
The definition of a reward is to receive something we deserve for something we've done. If we are saved by grace alone and not because of any work that we do (2 Timothy 1:9), then it appears that our works aren't important to God. Yet if God is going to reward us for our works (as the Bible repeatedly declares) then it is clear that what we do here must affect what happens to us once we arrive in heaven. And since there is a wide variety of faithfulness to God among Christians then it is only logical to assume that each person going to heaven will be rewarded according to the way they lived their life as a Christian.
This then raises two questions. The first is, what kind of reward will we receive in heaven in relationship to our works and the second is, what will we do with those rewards?
Traditional Christianity has no real answer to these questions because they readily admit that the Bible says very little about this topic. Therefore, they are left to speculate and guess as to what awaits believers in Christ because most Christians believe that the Bible is the complete word of God and since He has given us everything we need to know He no longer speaks to man as He once did.
The very thing that gives Christians hope is the belief that there is a heaven they will inherit when they die and yet, as important as this subject is, if the Bible says very little about this place then the word of God cannot possibly be complete. Furthermore, since there is much more to know on this topic then it is clear there is much more God could say to man if He so chose, thereby invalidating the claim that there is nothing more He needs to reveal to man.
However, there is one Christian church that doesn't have this problem. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphatically declares that God still does speak to man today as He did in ancient times and that He has given us more information about heaven. Furthermore, that information agrees with His word as recorded in the New Testament.
What He has revealed is that there will be three main divisions of rewards, identified as the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial, just as Paul explained to the Corinthians (1Corinthians. 15:40-41) yet within each of these there are more variations of rewards. Those who have been faithful and valiant in their service to God will be crowned with glory and will sit on thrones with Christ, just as He was faithful and sat down on His father's throne (Revelation 3:21) and will rule and reign with Him (Revelation 5:10). They are the ones who will inherit all that the Father has and become joint-heirs with Christ.
Those who have accepted Christ but have not been as faithful in keeping His commandments will become ministering angels to serve those who have received an exceedingly greater weight of glory (D&C 132:16; see 2 Corinthians 4:17). The word "weight" as used in this revelation can be understood as meaning "responsibility." This suggests that those who rule with Christ will not only have greater glory but will also have greater responsibilities associated with their crown and will need the assistance of these "ministering angels" to help them in their duties.
Those who have accepted Christ but have not been valiant in their service to Him yet have lived honorable lives while on earth will receive a lesser reward (D&C 76:79). They too will become ministering angels but not to those who wear crowns in the glorious realms where God, the Father and Christ dwell. They will administer spiritual help to those whose reward for a life of wickedness is to be shut out of the presence of both the Father and the Son for all eternity (D&C 76:86). This shows the great compassion and justice of God that He will not leave even the wicked without some sort of spiritual aid.
Unlike what most Christian churches teach about heaven, God has revealed in our day that heaven is not a place where we sit around forever do nothing except singing praises to Christ for allowing us the privilege of living with Him. Rather, heaven is a place of work where we partner more fully with God in assisting Him to continue His work.
Those who have accepted Jesus as their Savior and truly repent will have their sins blotted out because of Christ's atoning sacrifice. This is what the doctrine of justification is all about. But, those who don't repent of their sins while in this life, including Christians, will pay the full penalty for their sins, including the harm they have done to others, before being admitted into heaven, (D&C 19:15).
Even though justification is God's act of pardoning sinners and accepting them as righteous so they can enter heaven, yet God also rewards each person differently for how faithful they were in keeping His commandments (see 2 Samuel 22:21; 1 Corinthians 3:8; Revelation 22:12). Even though some argue that works do not secure our salvation, there should be no argument that our works are clearly linked to our reward in heaven.
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