Eternal life is one of my favorite topics. And it’s one of the most difficult to get across. I preached and taught about it for eleven years. And still, if you ask people in my congregation “what is eternal life?” many would probably tell you it’s heaven after you die.
If you’ve been taught eternal life is “heaven” for sixty or seventy years, you won’t depart from that thinking. It’s the bedrock of your faith. And that’s okay if you don’t mind waiting until you die for eternal life.
Many people have been taught the only way to get to heaven is to believe in Jesus. And this faith is a gift rather than something you do.
On the other hand, there are many ways to receive eternal life…at least, according to the New Testament. Here’s a partial list I found for things you can do to receive eternal life.
(1) Those who believe in Jesus. This is the number one reason given by the Christian tradition. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Believing is often taught as the ONLY thing necessary to receive eternal life. But that may not be completely accurate.
(2) Those who obey the commandments. A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him… You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” (Luke 18:18-20). Contrary to those who don’t say you can’t do anything to receive eternal life, yes, it’s important to do something – or at least, “do no harm.” But don’t be foolish and claim that you’ve actually followed all the commandments, because it’s not possible to do it perfectly. You’ll see this in answer 3(b.)
(3) Those who leave everything and follow Jesus. We know St. Francis and St. Ignatius and Martin Luther literally left everything to follow him. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28-30).
And another proof: He [a certain ruler from #2] replied, “I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Luke 18:18-22). See my brand new ebook about treasures in heaven – it’s 99 cents until Saturday.
(4) Those who love God and their neighbor. Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28). But you have to love them a lot!
(5) Those to whom the Son wants to give it. “You have given [the Son] authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2). We can assume Jesus will give eternal life to those who follow him, but he has the option to give it to anyone he chooses.
(6) Those who know the only true God, and Jesus. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). To “know” God is to understand or even to experience God. Can anyone understand an inconceivable God? It’s a good thing this isn’t the only option. But it sounds like if you know God now, you don’t have to die to possess eternal life.
(7) Those who can hear/distinguish Jesus’s voice. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27). There are many voices in the world. And many voices not saying the same things from church pulpits. Which one is the voice of Jesus?
(8) Those who follow Jesus’s teachings (i.e., words). “Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Jesus’s words included things like “love your enemies,” “do not repay evil with evil,” and “don’t be angry with anyone.”
(9) Those who are destined or ordained to believe (the elect) will receive eternal life. “
And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). We can’t leave out the Presbyterians, some are chosen.
(10) Those who participate in Holy Communion. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (John 6:54). The sacramental denominations benefit by this option. Except that this is a metaphor for doing the things Jesus did with compassion and love rather than a religious ritual.
(11) Those who do good works. This one is swept under the rug by those who think works aren’t what help you receive eternal life. “Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19). You play a big role in securing eternal life for yourself.
Well, there are more, but that’s enough for one blog. I didn’t even include the verses I found that referred to everlasting life—which is the same thing as eternal life.
There are many ways to receive eternal life. And even with grace, you have a big part to play in receiving it.
I’ve explained about eternal life several other times. The short version is that for the first century writers, the term eternal life meant “the quality of life God wants for you to have in this life.”
Type “eternal life” in the search box at the top right corner of this blog and you’ll find the blogs I’ve already explained it. They’ll explain more what the New Testament means by “eternal life.”
Go through the list again and insert the new meaning in place of eternal life and see if the passages open up and mean something more.