June 4 2010

A lot of people think heaven is a reward to be earned, but I discovered it’s a gift to be received. Most people don’t even think about heaven until things start to fall apart on Earth. My world fell apart during the sixties in the border town of McAllen, Texas, where the drugs flowed freely and the parties seemed to never end.

Rebellion was in the air. Authority was to be challenged, not followed. Police were pigs, parents were prigs and we were stoned as we danced to the tunes of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Jefferson Airplane.

At 16, I ran away from home and hitchhiked to San Francisco, which served as rebellion central for runaway teens who dropped out and doped up. As President Johnson called up more troops for Vietnam, college students burned their draft cards. Our generation would show the world how to “make love, not war.”

My rebellion collided with authority when the Salt Lake City police arrested me for loitering, which was their term for sleeping on a park bench. After a US Marshall escorted me back to Texas, I became the problem that my parents could not solve. Counseling, therapy and moving to Beaumont, Texas to live with my grandmother only fueled my resentment toward all authority and withdrawal from conventional society.

After returning to McAllen, I began to search for answers outside of drugs and parties. I started to read the Bible, but it seemed confusing to me. I visited different churches, but that left me even more confused. My confusion peaked when I visited a church where the preacher said that Christ died for my sins, and if I would make him Lord of my life, God would give me eternal life. When the preacher asked for people to come forward to follow Christ, I responded.

Eternal Life Is A Gift To Be Received, Not A Reward To Be Earned

I thought that going to heaven was a joint venture or partnership. God would do his part by sending his son to die for my sins, and I would do my part by following him. At my baptism, a friend in the audience sensed my confusion. My friend invited me to a youth meeting not associated with that church. At the Christian Youth Ranch in Pharr, Texas, pastor Wally Morillo said something that totally shocked me.

Wally said that eternal life is a gift to be received by faith alone in Christ alone, not a reward to be earned by good works. I objected. I was sure that good works had to play a role in going to heaven.

Then Wally did something I’ll never forget. He opened the Bible to the book of Ephesians and read from chapter 2, verses 8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

There it was in the Bible. I could hardly believe what I was reading because it was the opposite of what I believed. Going to heaven or being saved is “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” There won’t be anyone in heaven bragging about all the good deeds they did to get there because living with God forever is “not of works.”

Not only is going to heaven “not of works,” Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “it is the gift of God.” I wondered, “How could God possibly allow people to go to heaven freely without doing any good works?”

Wally explained that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he paid for all sins. He said it was Jesus’ work on the cross that made it possible for anyone to go to heaven.

Finally, the light came on. I saw the true meaning of “It is finished,” the words Jesus uttered when he hung on a cross. If Jesus completed the work necessary to pay for all my sins, it would be foolish to think that I could add something by trusting in my good works to get me to heaven.

The most quoted verse in the entire Bible now took on new meaning for me: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). I realized it didn’t say “whoever tries to live a good life,” or “whoever dedicates their life to following Christ.” Jesus said in John 3:16, “whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

A famous theologian once said that believing in Jesus is “the hand of the beggar reaching out to receive the gift.” I understood that believing in Jesus Christ alone and his sacrifice for sins and resurrection from the dead requires humility. By trusting Jesus alone, plus or minus nothing, I realized that in myself I wasn’t qualified to live with God forever. I needed help.

Distinction Between Eternal Salvation and Following Christ As Disciple

For the first time, I saw the difference between becoming a Christian and becoming a disciple of Christ. Becoming a Christian requires trusting in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Becoming Christ’s disciple requires good works not as a means to enter heaven, but as an expression of thankfulness that I’m going to heaven. There’s a big difference!

Knowing Jesus Christ as my savior has motivated me to do a lot of things I never could have imagined. After being such a poor student in high school, I now had a reason to study. I wanted to know the Bible and to prepare myself to tell others that God is now offering eternal life freely to all who believe in Jesus as their savior.

I graduated from Florida Bible College and then pursued a master’s degree at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Next, my studies took me to the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where I obtained another master’s degree. As someone who never graduated from high school, I have to smile when I think of how much God’s grace has changed my desires.

I’ve seen my journey-of-faith newspaper articles appear in The Washington Post and other major newspapers that received my stories through The New York Times News Service. My newspaper column, Kids Talk About God, has been in syndication since 2000. The children’s website I started, www.KidsTalkAboutGod.org, receives visitors from around the world.

I traveled literally around the world when I produced and directed the Mission Explorers Video Series, which features the adventures of an 11-year-old girl who reports on the activities of missionaries in far away places. Also, I’ve awarded 19 dude ranch family vacations to children who wrote and drew for the online storybook Bible I’m writing, Kids Color Me Bible Gospel of John. More recently, I awarded the 20th dude ranch vacation to the winner of the Rio Grande Valley Children’s Arts Festival.

My latest project is FaithProfiles.org, where Christians can learn to write their testimonies in Journey-of-Faith Writing Workshops. We publish well-written stories on this website and design business cards that point people to these stories. I’m working on this project with my ministry partner and soul mate, Lisa. In 2005, we were married, both of us for the first time. This really is amazing grace, especially for me.

The Power of God’s Unconditional Love

God’s unconditional love has given me a confidence I could never have if my eternal destiny in any way depended on something I could do. I want to serve God and follow Christ not because I’m trying to get into heaven, but because I’m grateful that God has given me eternal life as a free gift.

I’ve experienced the abundant life that Jesus promised to all who follow him. I know that following Christ cannot in any way add to the work that Christ did on the cross to secure my place with him forever. Because God’s love is unconditional, I’m motivated to let him live his life through me. I’m not claiming that I always let God have his way, but I know from the Bible and experience that God’s way is much more fulfilling than my way.

My hope for anyone who takes time to read my story is that you would accept God’s gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus Christ alone as your savior. Enter into an eternal relationship with a loving God who gave his only son so that you might live with him forever and experience peace and joy from knowing his love in a personal way.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).