Let’s imagine that certain wealthy father had twins. The brothers grew up together at their family’s palatial estate. Once they were old enough to take their own path in life their father called them together and said, “You will both always be my children, but I would like you each to stay here in my household, manage the household affairs, and inherit this estate one day.”
Now let’s say that one of the brothers stayed with the father’s household to do as he asked. As a result he inherited everything. All this while, the other brother went and traveled the world instead. He would only visit rarely, and grew distant with his father and twin. He was always welcome to enter the house as a visitor, but he inherited nothing in it.
That illustrates the concept that we will be looking at in this chapter. Just like there is a big difference between inheriting a house and entering a house, there is an even bigger difference between entering the kingdom and inheriting it. Let’s take a look at our first verses, John 3:3.
… unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.1
Then in defining what it means to be born again Jesus says,
unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.2
What follows this in John chapter 3 is the most famous verse of all time. The well known John 3:16, seen as the premiere evangelistic verse, comes as an explanation for what it means to enter the Kingdom of God.
Because Jesus is so crystal clear in John 3 about what is required for gaining everlasting life, we don’t have to wonder what this means. We know, without a doubt, that entering the kingdom is a synonym for having everlasting life. Since everlasting life is a free gift for all those who believe in Jesus, then entrance into the Kingdom of God is free for all those who believe. Entering the Kingdom is salvation.
Now that we’ve established that entering the Kingdom of God is about salvation, let’s take a look at Galations 5:19-20.
Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.3
A casual reading of these verses might send shivers up the spine of the well-meaning Christian. Especially the last line makes it sound as if entrance into the Kingdom of God is not as free as we previously thought. It makes it sound as if only those who obey Jesus perfectly will be allowed in.
Some have proposed that there is leniency in entrance because Paul said, “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.4” The word practice is emphasized as if what Paul means is, only those that continue in repetitive sins are barred from entering the Kingdom. However, there’s a problem with this interpretation. How much sin is too much to be let into Heaven? After all, is it ok to commit a little murder and adultery, but not too much? Would that person be let into Heaven? The do-gooder would never know, and therefore never be sure that they are saved. However, the Bible offers assurance of salvation in a number of places.5
So, emphasizing the word practice doesn’t get us out of this pickle. Before you start sweating bullets, be calm. The answer is actually more simple than you might think. Understanding this verse does come down to one word, but the word is not practice. What’s the word that will clear up the confusion? Inherit.
…those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.6
Notice the presence of the word inherit in the sentence. It’s easy to miss it if you haven’t been made aware of the difference. The verse doesn’t actually mention entering the Kingdom of God at all. It’s not talking about salvation, but instead an inheritance of the Kingdom.
As we illustrated at the beginning of this chapter, entering a house and inheriting a house are two very different things. Doesn’t it make sense that entering a kingdom and inheriting a kingdom would be separate things as well? In fact, they are. To inherit the kingdom of God speaks of what Jesus called treasure in heaven. Inheritance is about ownership. Those who have salvation are welcome to come into Heaven, but those who practice discipleship will have ownership in the Kingdom. We can be stakeholders by discipleship. What a wonderful revelation.
In case this is a new concept to you, let’s look at another place where Paul defines what he means by the word inheritance.
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.7
We should thank Paul for being so clear here. By using the word inheritance, he means reward. As we have established in previous chapters, gifts and rewards are not the same thing. Once more, it’s clear that he is not talking about the gift of salvation, but reward for hard a working disciple. In fact, he even tells us who will get this reward. He explains that those who serve the Lord, which is a reference to good work done in obedience to Jesus. Disciples can expect a reward of inheritance.
The modern definition of inheritance might easily mislead us, for inheritance today is often evenly divided among all the living sons and daughters when a parent dies. That was not the case in the ancient world. In fact, a father would give inheritance unevenly to his children. He would often decide who was most worthy and faithful to inherit and run the family estate when he died. This definition most closely fits what Paul is saying here.
Entering the Kingdom of God is a synonym for salvation. However, for those who take up the mantle of discipleship and remain committed, they will inherit the Kingdom of God. The saved will enter, but disciples will inherit.
1 John 3:3–5.
2 John 3:5.
3 Galations 5:19–21.
4 Galations 5:19–21.
5 John 1:12, 3:16, 36, 5:34, 6:47, 11:26.
6 Galations 5:19–21.
7 Colosians 3:23–24.