Q. I have a question that troubles me from time to time that perhaps you can answer. We read in the book of Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Great news, right? But then there seem to some other passages that put qualifying conditions on that. Here are a few cases that come to mind. “Whoever shall say ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” “It is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (I’m certainly rich compared to the rest of the world.) “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” I am sure you are aware of even more statements that Jesus made that cause people like me to question their salvation, even though they follow Jesus. I love Jesus, but I realize that in my humanness I fail each day to be like him. I am so thankful for God’s love and grace. Sometimes I just worry that when I stand before God he will say, “Thanks for loving me, but you said ‘you fool’ one too many times.”
One thing I’d say right away in response to your question is that if you know that you love Jesus and you have a continual desire to become more like him, those are signs that you truly do belong to him. They are what the book of Hebrews calls “better things . . . that have to do with salvation.”
I would then encourage you to consider the context of each of the seemingly qualifying statements you’re concerned about. For example, the point of the statement, “Whoever shall say ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna,” is not that we need to avoid saying certain words in order not to go to hell. Rather, in that whole section of the Sermon on the Mount (the so-called “antitheses”), Jesus is stressing that fulfillment of the law is not an external or surface matter, but a matter of inward attitudes and intentions. His listeners were reassuring themselves in this case that only “anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” So long as they didn’t go that far, they thought, they were safe. Jesus warns them instead that the goal of this commandment in the law is not merely to prevent murder, but to promote love instead of hatred.
Our attitudes and words are indicators of our inner intentions, and so they show whether we are fulfilling this commandment by loving, or breaking it by hating. Using the characteristic form of Hebrew poetry, Jesus makes this point by presenting a series of parallels in which the judgment intensifies on a person who hates instead of loves:
Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister ~ will be subject to judgment.
Anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ ~ is answerable to the court.
Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ ~ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
So the takeaway for us isn’t, “I shouldn’t say those words if I want to escape hell.” The takeaway is, “If I’m truly a follower of Jesus, I need to cultivate love instead of hate.”
I won’t discuss all the passages you mention, but let me refer to another passage, in 1 Corinthians, that many people have similar concerns about. Paul says that people who do various kinds of things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But this doesn’t mean that if, for example, you’re greedy, or you say something bad about somebody, this will send you straight to hell. Paul isn’t saying that people won’t inherit the kingdom because they do such things; rather, he’s saying that people do such things because they won’t inherit the kingdom. That is, they’re currently outside the community of Jesus’ followers, and so they’re not being transformed by the influence of the Holy Spirit within.
Put another way, “progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” But the key word here is “progress.” So long as you can tell that the Holy Spirit is steadily transforming you as you love and follow Jesus, you don’t need to question whether you are truly saved.
God wants us to have this assurance and the peace that it brings. Scripture tells us in 1 John: “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
I hope this gives you encouragement and reassurance.