T. Pierce Brown
As most of my readers probably know, “limbo” is a product of the theological imagination of Roman Catholics who were trying to find some philosophical answers to the question of where one would spend an eternity if he were not good enough to get to heaven, but not bad enough to go to hell. The word is from the Latin “limbus” which means “the border, or edge,” and was called “limbo” because it was conceived of as being near the borders of hell.
As is usually the case, once you conceive of one wrong concept, you have to make up a group of others to explain how the wrong one can be right. It is similar to any lie. Once you have told one, you almost invariably have to make up several others to explain and bolster the one with which you started.
So “limbo,” once it got started, had to be broken into two primary parts. 1. The limbo of the just or righteous persons who died before Christ’s ascension, who had to be kept somewhere before he re-opened heaven for them. 2. The limbo of little children who died without baptism, and who therefore are still in the state of “original sin,” and cannot have the “beatific vision”–see God.
In this article I did not intend to dwell on the fact that if one simply takes what the Bible teaches, he does not have to make up all these strange answers to his questions. But in thinking of these false doctrines, some Bible answers to some questions about salvation by grace occurred to me that I have never heard discussed. I want to share them with you.
Most of us who read this will recognize that we are “saved by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves; it is a gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This simply means that there is no good work, or any number of them, that we can do to merit our salvation, but we must accept the gracious offer on his terms. Those terms include repentance and baptism. Repentance is not a “good work” which we do. It simply involves the idea of emptying a vessel of dirt before it can be filled with pure, clean water. Baptism is not a “good work” which we do. It is a passive act that we allow someone else to do to us, which demonstrates our willingness to accept God’s grace on His terms.
But there are many connected to the church of our Lord who think that after one has done that, he may earn his way into heaven by doing “good works.” That is, it seems clear to them that one can not earn “initial” salvation — salvation from sin — by his own goodness, but that he can earn the reward of being saved in heaven by his good works, for surely everyone knows that one can not expect to go to heaven if he does not do good works!
To such a person, I suppose “limbo” would be a comforting philosophical supposition. That is, many church members know they have not done enough good works to earn or merit heaven, but feel sure they have not done enough bad ones to deserve hell!
The real truth is that neither “initial” salvation — that is salvation from past sins — nor “final” salvation — salvation in heaven in the next life — can be earned by good works. Jesus put it this way in Luke17:10, “So likewise, ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, `We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do’.”
Part of our philosophical problem comes because we conceive of one person “barely getting in” and another getting in “with a lot to spare.” In our minds, this means that the first barely did enough good works to earn his way in, and the other did more than enough. The whole concept is wrong! Nobody can DO ENOUGH GOOD to earn or deserve all the rewards and bliss of heaven!
When we admit that, then we have the other side of the philosophical question: “Did a person who accepted God’s gracious forgiveness of past sins, and yet `barely’ misses heaven, do enough BAD things to deserve hell?” Does it really seem right, and does the Bible teach, that this morally good person who does not go to heaven, deserves and will actually suffer the same punishment in hell as the morally degenerate, reprehensible, murdering, hypocritical rascal? If God did NOT have a limbo for this decent, good person who misses heaven, should he not?
God gives the answer to that, also. There are degrees of reward in heaven (Luke19:17-19), even though those who have “wrought but one hour” (Mt.20:12) will enter. And there are degrees of punishment for those who miss heaven (Luke12:48). But there is no limbo where one will just “hang around,” waiting for something else to happen.
You will surely know if/when you get to heaven that you have never done enough to deserve the blessedness of being there. And you will know if you do not get there that it was because you failed to do what you could and should have done to accept God’s gracious offer. And be assured of this: No matter how “light” that punishment may be, it will be worse than anything you ever knew or imagined on this earth! Don’t take a chance. Accept God’s grace on His terms, both for salvation from past sins, and salvation in heaven! There is “an inheritance … reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4-5). The fact that it is reserved for you does not necessarily mean you will be there, but it does mean it is offered to you by God’s grace.