Is There Any Common Ground?
As difficult as it may be to achieve unity, there is, nevertheless, one standard or religious principle that actually is common to virtually every religion but one. While the amazing variety of religion in the world may make this seem surprising, one ought to expect that if there is such a thing as true religion, there must be some way of identifying it as distinctly unique from false religion. If the standard or principle referred to above is true, it invalidates only one religion. But if it is a false principle itself, then it invalidates all but one religion.
One might also expect that if there were really only one true religion able to effect a relationship between God and man, there would be many attempts to counterfeit it. Such religious counterfeits would aim not only at being accepted as legitimate, but also at supplanting and destroying the genuine.
Therefore, no counterfeit could exactly duplicate the genuine without promoting the genuine and defeating its own purpose. While it would strive to appear like the genuine, there would always be something at its heart separating it from the genuine and identifying it with all the other false religion of the world.
Interestingly, more than a few of the religions and religious bodies grouped together by the standard referred to earlier claim to be the true exemplars of the one faith that stands apart from all others. Perhaps no other religion in the world has so many groups and systems foreign to itself yet claiming its own identity for themselves.
Still, it truly does stand alone. And that which most distinguishes it from all its counterfeits is the very mark that identifies them as one with all the other religions of the world. What is the common denominator between all these religions? What is the standard that sets just one religion apart from all the rest?
The Distinguishing Mark
In one form or another every religion but one teaches that man controls his own destiny (be it eternal or in this life only), and that that destiny depends upon his learning and applying correct principles.
This idea that one’s ultimate destiny depends on one’s learning and applying correct principles finds various expressions. In Mormonism’s extra-biblical scriptures, for instance, one reads:
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of the world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated,” (Doctrine & Covenants 13O: 18–21).
Just what the principles are which one must learn and apply, how one is to apply them, and the reward or destiny attained for so doing—all these may differ from religion to religion.
The principles may be crude—”the more scalps you take from the neighboring tribe the better off you’ll be.” Or they may be sophisticated—making the law of God Himself a ladder to eternal success. The application of correct principle may be a matter of “thinking correctly,” or of external action, or any shade or combination of the two. The reward may be getting to live forever in a nice place, or even with God, or, becoming a God, realizing that you are God, etc.
All these differences give the appearance of a diversity of religions. In every case but one, however, with or without help from God, man’s final destiny is, ultimately, in man’s control.
This underlying philosophical base of self-determination through knowledge and self-effort is common to every religion in the world but Christianity. Christianity’s counterfeits share this mark with every pagan and admittedly non-Christian religion in the world.
Where And How It All Began
It first appeared with Adam and Eve’s seeking to be like God by eating of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil,” and then trying to cover their nakedness with aprons of their own making. Believing Satan’s lie, they sought the “ultimate salvation,” to be as God, through knowledge. Then they tried to cope with their failure and shame through more of their own efforts.
Such effort can never rectify sin. God rejected their aprons and provided garments for them Himself, at the cost of an animal’s life. The fate man deserved for his rebellion against God was thus pictured. So too, was the cost of his redemption and salvation. And the most basic of all differences between true and false religion, between the genuine and the counterfeits—that salvation is provided as an undeserved gift of God’s sovereign grace, completely apart from anything man can do—was thus pictured and preserved by God from the very beginning of history down to this day.
The Great Divide
It is this difference that sets historic, genuinely biblically orthodox Christianity apart from every other religion. Christianity teaches that no amount of learning and applying correct principle by man can materially affect his eternal destiny. It teaches that the destiny that all deserve, and to which all are naturally headed, is frighteningly unpleasant, and that the only thing that can rescue any man from that fate is the sovereign interposition of God. It teaches that God has indeed interposed, and offers men the alternative of eternal life with Himself, which can only be received through faith, as a completely free gift independent of any human effort.
Indeed, any reliance by man upon learning and applying correct principles, to qualify for eternal life or to somehow participate in providing it for himself, automatically disqualifies him (Romans 10:3) .
The ego and pride of man still seeks autonomous control over his destiny. Religions that offer eternal rewards dependent upon man’s learning and/or performance appeal to this pride, however difficult their requirements may be. Indeed, the stiffer the requirements, the greater the spiritual pride of those who think they meet them.
In their attempts to counterfeit genuine Christianity, some religions may try to bring Christ into the picture by mixing “help from God” together with the “effort of man.” Jesus becomes essential to salvation, but He is never sufficient in these schemas. They thus rob God of His glory by making man’s efforts co-essential with God’s, and eternal life as dependent upon man as upon God.
There seems to be no requirement so difficult as sacrificing pride and ego altogether, admitting one’s very nature is evil and utterly helpless of becoming worthy, or even contributing to such worthiness, in God’s sight, and accepting eternal life with God as an absolutely free and undeserved gift.
But do not be deceived. There is no other way.
The Real Thing
Though God offers eternal life with Himself, one can only receive it on His terms. God so highly values the eternal life He offers that the price He requires for it is perfect righteousness. That does not mean a “cleaned-up” righteousness (having sinned and then stopped sinning). It means a “never-having-sinned” righteousness, as Jesus had and demonstrated to us here on earth. It means God’s own righteousness. God Himself is the standard for righteousness. Anything less righteous than God obviously is, to one degree or another, unrighteous.
For God to require anything less would both cheapen eternal life and undermine God’s standards. God’s standards are an expression of His own character, and cannot be changed without God changing. God does not change.
Every mortal having already sinned, it is too late for any man to supply for himself the righteousness that God requires for eternal life. That is why eternal life (not only living forever, but life in God’s presence, in full enjoyment of every blessing He has to offer) can only be received as a completely free gift.
Though it is humiliating, even devastating to the human ego and pride to be unable to even contribute—unable to mix one’s own hands and work with God’s—in providing eternal life, still it is so. That is the only way it can be. Eternal life with God is an entirely free gift from God.
Hearing such wonderfully good news, there are, no doubt, some who will say it is just too good to be true. “Wait!” they may say. “There’s no free lunch! Would not God giving eternal life as a free gift undermine His standards just as much as requiring and accepting in exchange for it something less than its real worth?”
Yes, it would—unless it was already paid for!
Fortunately, Someone has paid the price, already! God giving eternal life with all of its blessings as a completely free gift is not a case of mercy robbing justice. Justice has been satisfied!
Jesus, not guilty of any sin Himself, suffered the wrath of God against His people’s sin, for them, and in their place, sacrificing His life on the cross. And God testified that His sacrifice was accepted, had satisfied the demands of justice and paid the debt in full, by raising Jesus from the dead and seating Him at His right hand. Now, God says He will credit the life and the death of Jesus to the account of anyone who trusts that by that means God will save him.
The believer’s debt owed on account of sin—canceled; paid completely by the death of Jesus (Colossians 1:13-14; 2:13-14) . The righteousness required for eternal life—provided in the life of Jesus and credited to the believer as a free gift of God’s grace (Romans 4:4–6; 4:20–5:2; 5:17.19; Philippians 3:8–9; Colossians 1:12).
Everything anyone needs for eternal life with God is in Jesus! (Colossians 2:10.)
Whoever will stake all his hope of eternal life on Christ alone with nothing else added, will receive it all as a completely free gift. The partisans of self-determination through self-effort invariably retort, “If God doesn’t require our good works for eternal life then why not just do whatever we want?”—thus revealing their real desire for evil and the self-centered motivation behind all their “obedience and good works.”
The Christian’s response is that if one’s motivation for doing good is to escape punishment or to obtain eternal life, then one is not serving God after all, but oneself. In that case one may as well do whatever one wants, because service to oneself could never win anything from God anyway. But if the good one does is the overflow of a heart full of love for God, then His giving eternal life with all its blessings as a free gift will only make one love Him, and consequently serve Him, the more.
The good news, the Gospel, is not God saying, “Stop doing good.” The Gospel admonishes us to be zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14; Ephesians 2:10) but also to take our trust off of what we can do or be, completely (Ephesians 2:4–9; Titus 3:5–7) . Get it out of the picture altogether! Trust God alone! Give Him all the glory! He alone deserves it!
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