I just finished a book by Dr. John Lennox where he describes how religions usually work.1
- The Door: There is usually some kind of initial entry point, like an initiation ceremony or ritual or being born into a particular group, that starts you on the path of a religion.
- The Path: Leaders and others help teach and guide you along the path. You have successes and failures, but continue to move toward the goal of higher wisdom or enlightenment of some form or another. There may be rituals and ceremonies and milestones along the way.
- The Balance or Scales: There is a goal that religious adherents are striving for, whether it is a form of paradise, or elimination of desire, or some other form of eternal state. When you reach the end of your journey at death, there is a final evaluation of your efforts. Your good deeds are weighed against your bad ones or maybe your level of knowledge or enlightenment is assessed. However that looks in the religion you follow, if you have realized your goal you will enter into the glorious place or state that you have worked for.
Religions are generally understood to be grounded in a merit-based system. Lennox likens it to a university course: You satisfy certain prerequisite requirements, study the material, hand in assignments, then sit the final exam. You pass or fail based on your efforts. No matter how good or helpful your professors are, they can’t guarantee you will get your degree. It all depends on how hard you work.
Christianity shares many common moral truths with other religions. Many religions teach, like Jesus, that you should treat others as you want to be treated. Like other religions, Christians follow a path of learning and experiencing new things. They have ups and downs, successes and failures as they seek to draw closer to God.
It is common for people to think that at the end of a Christian’s life, the good and bad they have done will be weighed on a scale to see if they have earned the acceptance of God… but that is one area where Christianity is unique.
Lennox puts it like this: “However, the Christian message is very different. It does not consist in a merit-based acceptance by God at the final judgement. Christianity teaches something utterly radical at this point. It tells us that we can be accepted at the beginning of the path. It teaches that the initial step is not a rite or ritual or ceremony performed on an infant or adult, but is a step of commitment to a person, Jesus Christ, that involves believing that he is God incarnate, who has come into the world to give his life as a ransom for our sins, which alienate us from God.”2
Jesus says that He will be the final judge of humanity.3 Christianity teaches that no one merits a ‘not guilty’ verdict4, but as the ultimate judge, Jesus can, and will, declare us right with God if we only believe and trust in Him.5 He has paid the penalty for our guilty verdict on our behalf.6
Peter, one of His closest friends, saw Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as confirmation of His teaching that He is both our judge and saviour:
We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. – Acts 10:39-43
Jesus describes himself as the door we must enter to be saved,7 and as soon as we realize we are broken and need saving, and trust in Jesus to save us, we have stepped through that door. It is then that we are right with God.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
We still have work to do. Jesus preached a message of repentance, a turning away from sin and rebellion against God. Paul says to “work out your salvation”8 and James says that “faith without works is dead.”9 But accepting Jesus allows us to begin our journey already as an accepted child of God.
The Christian must completely rely on God’s grace (unmerited favour). When He looks on a follower of Jesus, the Father sees Jesus’ perfect life and sacrifice instead of our broken sinfulness.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to know the words of Ephesians 2:8-9 without truly believing them. Without really accepting the assurance. But we can be free to give our best to follow Him without constant worry that we “missed something” or that we haven’t done enough to win God’s favour. I think this is part of what Jesus had in mind when He said:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30
Understanding that we have already been accepted by God, and that our own goodness and our own abilities had nothing to do with it, can free us from worry and fear and condemnation… and from self-importance and pride. Freedom from these things brings the peace that Jesus offers. It allows us to better love God and love and care for others, fulfilling the purpose for which we were created.