In the sweet by and by

“If heaven was never promised to me, never God’s promise to live eternally; it’s been worth just having the Lord in my life.” — Andrae Crouch


This chorus from a pretty song made sense to me 30 years ago. Why, after all, would a twenty-ish immortal think a lot about heaven? A man’s perspective changes as his 20s (and his immortality) fade into flawed memory. I’ve come to understand that our heavenly hope is integral to the gospel?from the beginning of our salvation to its completion.


Take, for example, the language of Romans 5:12-21 where Paul contrasts the first Adam, the historical father of all people, and the Second Adam, Jesus. When we all sinned in the first Adam, we lost our clear and unhindered relationship with God as well as eternal life. There came to be a gulf between heaven, the special dwelling place of God, and the now corrupted earth. God was still everywhere present but his holiness necessitated his separation from sin-tainted creation. Simply, we lost heaven and intimacy with the God who makes it heavenly.


That’s where the Second Adam comes in. In Christ, the things lost in Eden can be restored. Our restored access to God matures until we stand before him, complete in Christ and absent from this flesh. Heaven is what we lost and heaven is what can be regained through God’s provision in Christ. We feel the loss in many temporal ways?hunger, alienation, fear, sickness, and so on; but fixing these things is not the point of the gospel. We shouldn’t act as though it is. Without the hope of heaven, what importance does forgiveness of sin have?


Joy, peace, and love are fruit of the hope that accompanies our redemption. These things are not the hope. If our goal is to be happy in ways we understand while still lost, we will define it as prosperity, a healthy marriage, good kids, health, and close friends. Shortcuts (from here to “happy”) are appealing to those whose vision is merely temporal. The same shortcuts are tempting to ministry leaders who wish to draw large crowds by addressing felt needs. A shortcut that skips a biblical statement of man’s need, God’s solution, and the essence of his promise is mundane, insufficient. Without the promise of heaven, why do we hope, love beyond our self interests, or see life as significant?


For today, an awareness of heaven’s reality should motivate us to righteous living. 2 Peter 3:10-13 describes the day of the Lord when temporary things will be destroyed with fire before the promised new heavens and earth appear. “?since you look for these things,” Peter says in verse 14, “be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless.” The fact that most of what presently makes us happy and unhappy will pass away should motivate us to be more focused on heaven, then. A desire to lay up treasures in heaven will be expressed by doing the things God says will be of lasting importance.


Without the promise of heaven, why not live as we wish?


Of course I wouldn’t be saying these things if I thought current ministry emphases were on target. We neglect heaven to a great degree. Abandoning the hymnal (the collection of music, not the book) has had this side effect. Our desire to be seen as relevant sometimes binds us too closely to the here and now. A well-intended sensitivity to the felt needs of lost people has affected not only methods but the message. We still say things that are true but not all that are important. We need to restore substance to our style.


Most important to my mind, preach the Bible. A pastor can selectively preach Bible passages and preach a good message every individual time. Why be selective in the first place? It is not possible for a man to know or meet actual needs of his church as well as the Holy Spirit does. There will be gaps in what the church learns if you preach to issues, topics, agendas, goals, or objectives. Preach it all, systematically?not with a goal of covering all the issues but with the goal of preaching the whole word of God. You’ll cover all the issues, including many you didn’t know were relevant.


If music is to be part of your worship (it is not the whole thing), sing some thoughtfully chosen and substantive old songs along with some new ones, also thoughtfully chosen and substantive. Music that affirms the essential elements of our faith will address the nature of God, the universality of sin, a call to repentance, encouragement to holy living, and the bright promise of eternal life. I think pastors, as worship leaders for the church, should see and approve all the music used in worship services, by the way. The pastor’s responsibility is real and his qualifications to judge the message of a song are likely the best in the church.


Or we can go with the flow of our culture. A recent article in Texas Monthly suggested in passing that Joel Osteen, pastor of what some call a “gigachurch” in Houston and a best-selling author, might be the next Billy Graham. I’m sure the writer was thinking of a preacher who draws large crowds or becomes the country’s best-known preacher. Maybe he will but probably not. Notice his substance, though. He’s not all that evangelistic by his own admission and he answers “I don’t know” on most timely moral issues. He uses very little Bible in his messages and draws people to his various events by making them feel good about things. That’s his goal and he’s reaching it. I’m not climbing on the “kick Osteen” train; others have done it well enough. I think he’s discovered the secret of building a successful, popular, enormous audience for our time. We should eit

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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