The way to be right with God in every religion is by earning your way. It is based on works, not grace. Christianity is different from every religion in this aspect: all other religions (including Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism) state that you must earn the right to be reconciled with God. It is by what you do in this life (good deeds or bad deeds) that determines your eternal destiny. Christianity is completely different from this. It is not religion. My high school American Literature Teacher, Mr. Patton, (who wasn’t a Christian) described it this way:
“The difference between Christianity and every other faith in the world is that all other religions are about man trying to reach up to God. Christianity is about God reaching down to man.”
This is a very important distinction, and it is core to what I believe, so I would like to try to clarify what I mean. Here is the way I am defining religion:
Religion is a system of beliefs or a code of moral conduct that judges (qualifies or disqualifies) a person based on their adherence and obedience to certain codes, rules, laws, traditions, or the performance of required acts.
Religion (almost universally) is enforced by those in power in an attempt to maintain, increase, or abuse their power over others. Religion is the creation of man and is not the intention or design of God. A modern day example (taken from the movie “Footloose”, starring Kevin Bacon) is a preacher who believes that dancing leads to promiscuity and destructive behavior (the Bible does not speak against dancing). He uses (abuses) his influence and his position of authority to convince his congregation that dancing is evil and forbids it. He sets up rules that are not in the Bible and adds additional beliefs that Jesus never endorsed. He is trying to control the people, using their trust of his authority to force them to believe his version of the truth. He adds rules that don’t exist in the Bible. In this example, he even has good motives, but he is still being religious and this “religion” is not from God. This is so very common. People have used Jesus to justify adding so many “requirements” to being a Christian. Here are just a few of the countless examples:
- Not drinking alcohol
- Not listening to certain types of music
- Insisting that church meet on certain days
- Only certain forms of music can be used in church
- You can’t be saved unless you are circumcised
- Reciting ritualistic prayers
- Saying you aren’t saved unless you get baptized
- You can’t eat certain foods
- Requiring you to perform rituals
- Being saved is conditional upon attending church or church membership
- Saying that you have to earn your salvation by doing good deeds
I could go on and on. When Jesus was on the earth, religion was very rampant, as it is today. There was a group of corrupt religious leaders called the Pharisees who had taken the word of God, passed down from Moses and the prophets (the Torah), and written a commentary on it interpreting what the scriptures said (called the Talmud). Then they wrote another commentary on that commentary called the “Mishnah”. The Mishnah was a list of hundreds rules to meet in order to insure that you were obeying the word of God. These were created by man and had little basis in the actual scripture.
For example, one of the 10 Commandments (from the Torah) was, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. The Pharisees had made literally hundreds of rules in the Mishnah that detailed to the n-th degree what you had to do in order to keep that commandment. There was a rule that you couldn’t walk through a field on the Sabbath because your sandal might clip a grain of wheat, and if it did you would be harvesting grain. If you were harvesting, you had worked on the Sabbath and sinned. Another example is that you could not spit on the ground on the Sabbath because your spit would create mud and this was making mortar. If you created mortar you were working on the Sabbath and therefore sinning.
Jesus hated this! He hated the way the Pharisees used the people’s love for God (or fear of God) to control them, limit their freedom, and empty them of the relationship with God that was intended. When you practice religion, your relationship with God is degraded to a mathematical formula. Do this, then do this, don’t do that, and presto. . . you are right in the eyes of God. This is TOTALLY missing the point! God wants so much more. He wants to have a real relationship with you. He wants to show his love to you and He wants you to love Him. That was the point of the original commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. The Sabbath day was supposed to be a day for us to take a little break from working, refocus on what’s important, spend time with our family, and spend time with God. You can’t build a deep relationship without spending quality time together.
If you read the 10 Commandments you will notice that they are all about relationships. They are either about improving our relationship with God or with other people. As Jesus Himself said:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” ~ Matt 22:37-40
And Paul said:
“For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law.” ~ Rom 13:9-10
So the law can be summed up in love; love for God and love for others. The law is about relationships; vertical and horizontal. It is about our vertical relationship with our creator and our horizontal relationships with the rest of mankind. It was never intended to be a list of rules that can be relegated to a checklist or mathematical formula. We are talking about love.
So the Pharisees took the commandment to remember the Sabbath and added religion to it by making that ridiculous rule about spitting on the ground. Jesus showed his complete disregard for their rules when he repeatedly healed people on the Sabbath. The Pharisees considered this “work”. On one particular occasion, He healed a blind man on the Sabbath by spitting on the ground, making some mud, and rubbing it on the man’s eyes. Jesus was God. He didn’t have to spit on the ground to heal the man. He was making a point to the Pharisees and everyone watching him that religion was wrong.
“Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam“. So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. Then they took the man who had been blind to the Pharisees, because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus had made the mud and healed him. Some of the Pharisees said, “This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath.” ~ John 9:6-7, 13-14, 16
Religion is man trying to reach up to God. The message of Christianity is God reaching down to man. Religion is about what man has to DO to be right with God. Christianity is about what God has already DONE to provide us the opportunity to be right with Him. Religion says you must EARN your salvation by doing good deeds or certain acts and not doing evil. Christianity says all we need to do is BELIEVE that Christ has already paid the price for the evil we have done. Christianity says we are all evil (filled with sin) and there is nothing we can do to earn the right to be saved. Christianity says that God (in the form of Jesus Christ) stepped into our place and paid the awful price that had to be paid for us. He gave us the free gift of salvation if we choose to believe in Jesus.
“Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.” ~ 1 Pet 3:18
“But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” ~ John 1:12
“Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.” ~ Rom 3:19-25
We are free by God’s great gift. All we have to do is claim it. Just like a Christmas present, it is a FREE GIFT (that cost the giver dearly), but it doesn’t become ours until we believe that the giver does care for us and that what is inside the box is something good. We then have to receive the FREE GIFT. It doesn’t become ours until we trust the giver and choose to receive the gift.
You see, as the verse from Romans above states, we can’t be saved by abiding by the law (the 10 Commandments). This is a list of rules. We can’t be saved by the effort of man. The bible clearly states this.
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” ~ Eph 2:8-9
So often you hear from people that they think they will go to heaven because they have “been a good person”. Being good has nothing to do with whether you are saved or not. That’s religion. You can’t earn it. Thank God, because none of us could ever be good enough. “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” God is perfect, and in order to be one with God and commune with the Almighty we would have to be perfect too. Only one person could ever do this, Jesus Christ. That’s why it took Jesus to stand in the gap and pay the price for all of us. Our sins are erased because of Christ. Theologians use a big term for this called “Substitutionary atonement”.
“If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts.” ~1 John 1:8-10
So, you might ask why, then, was the law was given. It was given to show us that we need God. As Paul says in Rom 7:7:
“In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, you must not covet.” ~ Rom 7:7
Without the law as a standard we would not even realize that we needed a redeemer and savior from our sin. The law was just and correct. There was nothing wrong with the law. This is the way we are called to act. However, as humans we do not have the ability to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbor as much as ourselves all the time, everyday. Because sin was introduced into the world by man, we are inclined to sin and no one can live this way. So, we are in need of redemption from this predicament. Christ provided this. He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” ~ Matt 5:17-18
Through Christ we are made perfect in God’s eyes. We are forgiven from all sin; past and future. When we receive Him, He gives us his Holy Spirit that has the power to change us and make us more like Him. This is a process, but as this happens we begin to realize that we are living in the love originally required by the law. The original intention, the heart of the law, is established in our lives. Our relationships with God and others are founded in love.
It is the Holy Spirit that accomplishes this within us, not our own human effort. The Bible describes this process as Holy Spirit producing fruit:
“So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful natureto his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” ~ Gal 5:16-18, 22-25
This is the difference between religion and true Christianity. There is no checklist or list of rules that you must follow. It is ALL about your relationships, vertical and horizontal. There is no rhetoric or rituals that have to be practiced. Believe that Jesus Christ came to earth and died for your sins, accept his FREE GIFT, let God help you to love Him and love others. That’s it! It is so simple it sounds stupid, and it would be if there was no real power here. I’m here to testify that when you do this, the relationship with God is REAL and the power to change your life is there! Religion is empty. But, in Christ there is power.
“The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.” ~ 1 Corr 1:18
So when you look around at the church and what has happened in history you see a lot of bad things, and some good as well. The key thing that you must understand is that historically “the church” is predominately a religious organization with man-made rules and controls. This is evil and God is not in it. Good has been done by the few that truly understand what it means to be a Christian. These look like Christ. The Bible says, “You will know them by their fruits.” It also says:
“But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.” ~ 1 John 2:5-6
Here is a verse that shows why most people who claim to be Christians really aren’t:
“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” ~ Matt 7:13-14
So don’t look at what has been done by religious people and discredit God for it.
If you want to know hear more about why the “good people go to heaven” argument doesn’t fly, you should check out this book. It is a quick read (it took me about 2 hours) and is worth the time investment. <http://www.howgoodisgoodenough.com>