Saturday, July 25, 2015

No Rules!

Christianity is not like other religions. In fact, it’s completely different. However, many people, including many Christians, think and act as if it were no different from any other rule-based religion. Here is what is so different: there are no rules to achieve the reward of heaven or to earn God’s love. There is nothing that a mortal human can do to earn God’s love or salvation. Heaven – eternal life – is the “reward” for something very simple: believing that Jesus is the Son of God and that His death has made you righteous in God’s eyes. That’s it. Period, end.*

This is the polar opposite of most other religions. Those religions are full of requirements to make sure you are one of the chosen: you have to eat (or avoid) certain foods, you have to pray a certain way or at certain times of the day, you have to do good works, you have to wear (or not wear) certain clothes. Those religions say: if you do enough of these “good” things, then God will love you and let you into heaven. In other words, you have to “earn” your way to eternal life.

Christianity is completely different. You can’t “earn” anything. This is what grace means – we get what we don’t deserve. We cannot ever be “good” enough to earn a place in the kingdom of the most righteous and holy God. It is God’s grace alone that saves us. And once given, there is nothing we can do to have that grace withdrawn. Nothing.

“Well, wait a minute – you mean I can accept Jesus as my savior and keep on sinning and still get to heaven?” Yes, exactly. There are no requirements for entry into heaven except belief. This is why the Gospel is so radical! It is not about what we do, but what God has done through Jesus Christ. You can’t make God love you less, no matter what you do. If you have Christ in you, your actions may change (as you are transformed into His image – 2 Cor. 3:18), but they don’t have to change. Christianity is not about rules, but about belief. And that’s radical!

Other religions are full of “us vs. them” theology – by following the rules a special, chosen group is created and all others are excluded. And human beings love that kind of thinking! You get to feel special, and you get to feel superior to those “other” people who are not pure enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough. But Christianity is fully inclusive: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” [Gal. 3:28] And Jesus himself saved his anger for the Pharisees, who had the outward appearance of righteousness (following “the rules”) but inside were dead and rotten. [Matt. 23:27] It was this inclusiveness, and lack of rules, that enraged the Jewish leaders. They were God’s chosen people! They had thousands of rules to prove it! How dare this poor, itinerant preacher (who consorted with SINNERS!) offer salvation to just anyone?

This new way of “achieving” salvation turns rules-based religions upside down. It is not our own efforts that make us worthy – it is God’s grace, and God’s grace alone that does that. But the pure simplicity of this Gospel is so hard for humans to grasp! We want to keep adding rules – rules to keep others out and rules to earn God’s love. It’s just too simple to just believe and be saved. It’s just too inclusive that everyone gets in on this! How can we feel superior to others if even the lowliest low-life gets the same grace as the “pure and righteous” person? I’ve even heard people say, “Then what’s the point of being a Christian?” as if having a relationship with the God of the universe and being able to draw on His power in our lives wasn’t enough! They somehow feel cheated if there aren’t rules!

Sadly, many Christians behave as though the old rules were still in place. However, Jesus himself said there are now only two “rules” we need to follow: love God with all your heart, mind and soul; love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. [Matt. 22:36-40] Jesus also said: “They will know you are my disciples because of your love.” [John 13:35] He didn’t say: “They will know you are my disciples because of what you eat.” Or “how you dress.” Or “the music you listen to.” Or “who you associate with.” Despite this, many Christians still live as though following the rules will earn them something, and, conversely, that not following these rules will earn God’s wrath.

But, again, even if we fail to follow these two “rules” we can still be assured of God’s love and our salvation. Those are the only things we can absolutely be sure of, because we don’t earn them on our own merits – they are gifts from God, and can never be revoked. So stop trying to “earn” God’s love. It has already been given – on the cross. And that can never be undone. And if you feel like you just have to have rules, then the only rule to remember is LOVE.

*Even more radically, some Christians believe that Christ’s death on the cross bought salvation for everyone, regardless of their belief. Talk about inclusiveness!