Skeptic Pastor: Which Magic Words Get Me Into Heaven?

“Dude, you have to come to this play my church is doing.  Everyone is getting saved there!”  I can still remember the fervor in my friend’s voice as he invited me to go with him after youth group to a play about heaven and hell.  Ok, it was mostly about hell, but heaven was in there at the end.

The Basic plot of the show was a series of sin depictions that began with the stereotypical sex and drugs and then got less and less severe ending with people telling white lies.

Each scene began with sin, then showed demons tearing at the person growling instructions to them.  At some point each of the persons died and were transported to the gates of heaven where they were told they could not enter and were dragged away to hell erupting with the most horrifying screams my teen ears had ever heard.

It all ended with a person witnessing to one of the sinners.  After hearing about hell and heaven, the sinner prayed the sinner’s prayer, died, and was accepted into heaven.

I will be honest, this show was worse than any horror movie I had seen to that point, the lighting, screams, and growling-special-effects voice of Satan made my heart stop.  When the altar call was given, you better believe I ran down with everyone else and got saved again just to make sure.

The real problem that I have with these kinds of shows is not the fact that they talk about heaven and hell, but that they take such a low view of salvation and the teachings of Jesus.  Instead of lifting Jesus up and calling everyone in the room to follow him, they boil it down to a set of magic words that we can say to get into heaven. That makes those who are skeptical about Christianity think we’re a bunch of slimy tricksters playing on people’s fears without offering anything of substance.

Which is, of course, exactly what Jesus said would happen.  In the Sermon on the Mount he talks about people who use his name and even perform miracles, but are really wolves in sheep’s clothing.  Rather than calling people to live out the teachings of Jesus, they offer them a cheap version that does not bear fruit in their life, and ultimately does not grant them entrance into heaven.

Salvation is bigger than some trick phrase (like Lord, Lord), and Wesley was careful to offer a different perspective on salvation. He understood salvation as a “way” rather than a moment or a decision.  Don’t get me wrong, Wesley was all about getting more people into heaven, but he saw that as the same thing as getting people to follow Jesus now. Doing that required much more than a thirty minute play and a thirty-second prayer.

When Wesley preached, his altar call was much more likely to be about getting involved in small groups that were struggling to do good, stop doing bad, and connecting with God.  Research done by Thomas Albin suggests that many more conversions (75%) happened in these groups than in the preaching time, and that often these conversions would require more than two years of involvement.

But isn’t there a quicker way or a simple prayer we could say instead? The idea that there is a “sinner’s prayer” that grants you access to heaven is difficult to match with scripture that encourages us to continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phillipians 2:12)  Not only that, but it makes our faith look cheap and insignificant.  Take a second and read or watch the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus calls us to far more than a prayer! Salvation is a way — a path that we walk towards Jesus.  It is a life of sacrifice and surrender; a life that begins wherever we are and takes a narrow road towards Jesus.

You cannot be scared into heaven, nor can you accidentally say the wrong words and go to hell.   The “eternal life” Jesus offers doesn’t start when you die, but right now, right where you are.  It seeks to transform you into his image and takes a lifetime.  It grows from the tiniest seeds of faith into being used by God as a member of his body.  That is the Gospel. That is heaven. Anything less is a cheap knockoff.

Jeremy Steele, UMR Columnist

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry and the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. You can find more of his writing and a list of all the places he contributes at his website:

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Skeptic Pastor: Which Magic Words Get Me Into Heaven?

Answer: “Our Father” if spoken in Christ !

Mark Winter

“By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.” ~John Wesley

Michael P. Daniel

Excellent, Jeremy! The entire point of sanctification moves beyond justification and comes with purposeful intent. A recent experience has revealed to me that there are probably a lot of angry "former" Christians who were sold a bad bill of goods by some feel-good preacher or scare-hell-out-of-'em evangelist; and the facade has fallen away. Life didn't get better, no external changes, no "magic words". Indeed for these many it has been revealed as nothing more than a fraud. Sadly, however, folks (even church "members") don't want to hear about discipleship. They don't want to live for Jesus; they just want Jesus… Read more »


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John Meunier
John Meunier

We might need to be a little careful with what Wesley did and taught. He did allow that sanctification might happen by degrees, but he also taught that it could come in an instant. Indeed, he said we should expect it to come in such a way.

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