I sat beside a friend recently as she waited to learn if a wrong she had done would lead to jail time or a lesser consequence. She’s not the first person I’ve know to face legal judgment recently, and as I’ve been exposed to this microcosm I’ve realized how closely it resembles the views I’ve held about salvation for most of my life.
I grew up in a religious family; we never missed church on Sundays (check that box). Starting at a young age I was taught to serve others (another check). And I did my best to avoid committing a mortal sin… although it was unclear if all those little sins could glob together on my soul as one big, sticky, black mark.
Come on Heaven, No Whammies!
In my mind salvation played out something like this: After 80 or so years of living I would be called before the heavenly throne. God would then review my life — sins and good deeds balanced on a scale — and determine if I had lived a life worth saving or should be condemned for eternity for my wrongdoings.
His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
I loved God, and I knew He loved me. So I struggled to reconcile how a good God could issue an eternal death sentence for a short life here on earth, no matter how failed. As I matured I began to look more broadly at the world and question who among us deserved eternal damnation? Most of the worst people had suffered greatly; behind their stories of evil was a story of brokenness….Did God take that into account?
It felt like a spiritual game of whammy, and it scared me.
With no assurance I worked hard to build my spiritual resume. I controlled what I could and strived to be good enough; yet sometimes late at night I would be gripped by fear of going to hell.
How could a loving God condemn me for doing my best?
That was the question that plagued me. I found myself tempted to blame God; after all, He created us humans. If He made us flawed and sinful, then how could He be surprised when we behaved accordingly?
Good for Goodness’ Sake
As I reflect on the younger me and how I lived out my faith under this paradigm I know that even my good works were tainted by self-interest. Sure I wanted to help others, but I also wanted to become worthy in God’s eyes. If I served another in order to gain something for myself was that good at all?
The other thing this outlook created was a lot of judgment. Without understanding the heavenly standard for righteousness I was left with a comparative one: “Certainly I am better than that one.” “I never miss church like they do.”
If salvation relied on a quota system I was determined to finish in the top quartile.
For God So Loved the World
I cannot say for certain that God waited 40 years to answer me; He may have been trying all along and I just wasn’t listening. But then again, He did allow the Israelites to wander lost for exactly that long, so maybe it was divine timing.
Regardless, when I reached my forties God opened up two paths to truth on this question: The first came through a young pastor at our church who listened to my questions, fears and doubts without judgment. He offered me insight and resources in a gentle manner that allowed me the freedom to discover and discern the answers for myself.
And then a neighbor invited me to Bible Study Fellowship.* There I began to see God’s Word come alive, creating vital connections between Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and my personal salvation. Passages like these took on rich, new meaning:
- “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. (Mark 10:1)
- For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:17)
- It is finished. (John 19:30)
- If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
- He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
God so loved the world that he sent his only son
that all who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.
One Way to Be Saved
Slowly the truths I had heard all my life began the long journey from my ears to my heart and mind: Indeed, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, not in that “no-other-religion-is-good-enough” way that the world seeks to characterize it. It is richer than that: Jesus loves us so much that He offers a free invitation to eternal life that allows us the freedom to choose:
To accept this gift of grace is to say “yes,” to Jesus’ offer to cover our sinfulness in His righteousness. When I stand before God Jesus will be by my side, and He will testify that my sin, my debt, has been paid by His sacrifice.
To reject this gift is to choose to be your own god, to live for yourself and your desires, to stand or fall on your own merits. I heard it suggested recently that no one in hell asks to leave. Perhaps this perpetual, self-determined rejection is the road to hell. (Read The Rich Man and Lazarus with this idea in mind, and you will see that the rich man never does ask to join Lazarus in heaven, he simply seeks to continue to be served as he was in life.)
So if all I need to do in order to be saved is accept Jesus’ gift of grace, then why worry about sin or even about doing good? (James thoroughly unpacks this question.) In my life it has come down to three things:
- Gratitude. As I gain a fuller understanding of what God did for me I have a deep desire to express my gratitude in whatever small measure I can. Loving others is the one thing Jesus asked us to do and the only acceptable offering we have to give.
- Gospel = Good News. When I discover something that makes my life better I feel compelled to share it with others. So how could I possibly keep this a secret? After all it is infinitely better than the secret of Dawn + hydrogen peroxide, the best-stain remover on the planet, and I must have told at least 100 people about that! As we live to be His hands and feet in the world we do so in the hope that they will see the good that we do and give glory to God. (Matthew 5:16)
- Love. And the last of these is the greatest and underpins the rest. As we come to know Him better and love Him more fully, our desire is to give more of ourselves to Him: He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:30)
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind and with all your strength.
* A brief plug: BSF International is a unique, powerful bible study that serves both men and women, skeptic and scholar. Even if you’ve never opened a Bible consider visiting a welcome class this fall!