I had a Muslim housemate a few years ago, a transfer student from (if I recall) Saudi Arabia. I got to sit down with him a couple times and hear about his life. He was discombobulated, a devout follower of Islam living in a Christian area. Hypercharged homesickness. I felt for him.
But that was nothing next to what I felt after hearing about his faith.
This guy had no idea whether his religion was “breaking through”. He practiced, as best he could, the Five Pillars of Islam and their attending rituals – a dizzying mass of minutiae including five daily prayers at proper times, even kneeling in a specific manner. Charity work. Fasting. He hadn’t yet made a Mecca pilgrimage, though he hoped to. But he admitted that all these observances were doing nothing to reassure him that God accepted his work. He was “flying blind”, as the saying goes.
I couldn’t help but think, “that’s an awful way to live.”
Then I read something today from a Catholic…: “If I take off my scapular prior to surgery and die on the operating table, will I still go to Heaven?” A scapular is a ceremonial apron that Catholics believe will grant you eternal life if worn at one’s death. I was like…good gravy! The sheer paranoia if such a talisman carried that kind of weight. Forget it in the morning and forget about heaven! I’m bad enough at remembering to pick the right shoes for the day.
You’re probably thinking, I’m glad we Christians don’t go there.
Dancing. Drinking. Premarital sex. Winking. Reading Harry Potter. Being angry. Playing cards. Smoking. Watching Harry Potter. Withholding tithe. Not voting right. Rock music. Switching church. Missing church. Cussing. Wearing gold. Yelling at parents.
I’ve lost track. But one Christian or another believes they’ll all “send you to Hell.”
Not that I’ve done all those; not that I’m endorsing the ones that are actually sins. But Muslims have their pillars, Buddhists have their Eight-Fold Path, and Christians can slip back into legalism so easily, so unconsciously. Like picking at your nails. Good works become our scapular, held up to God hoping it’s enough. Hoping we haven’t forgotten anything. (“Honey, have we gone through Habakkuk? It’s a remote book, we don’t want to miss anything.”)
May God help us.
But he has helped us. And his manner of help is what sets us apart.
The Christian is saved by faith alone, their every sin covered by the blood of Jesus Christ upon accepting him as Savior. The righteousness of this Jesus becomes the only thing we ever need to hold up, approved by God, awarding eternal life.
Christian: you are not doing good works in order to earn his love. You’re incapable of that – and it’s unnecessary. What a small God he’d be if his love fluctuated with our works. Nothing you do can make God love you more; nothing you do can make him love you less. His pleasure might change as our holiness does, sure. But God’s saving love is perpetually at its maximum, its xenith, its apogee; there are no blips, skips, or waverings. If there’s a problem, it’s on our end – whether our faith, holiness, and attention are letting us experience that love.
So why bother with works?
“As a prisoner in the Lord, then, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling you have received“ (Ephesians 4:1)
Paul’s not going anywhere. That love is clamped down like jail bars, keeping his fate secure.
But note that this verse comes on the heels of Ephesians 3, where Paul prays that the Ephesians will know God’s love. The sequencing implies that love is the foundation of works – not the other way around. We do our good works to live out what we’ve already received. It’s our propulsion, our catapult. We live well out of gratitude and witness – not to earn anything.
That’s a revolution. It yanks me out of my practical Islam, reminds me that salvation was never about how successfully I pull off this Bible thing. It’s about how Jesus pulled it off. His success has become my access.
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4-5)
Other religions make you reach for God; Christianity says God reached for us.
Skeptic: if you’ve ever cited the multitude of world religions and asked “What makes you think yours is right?” – this is it. Grace, unmerited salvation. It’s Jesus’ calling card.
And it’s offered to you.