11. Religion or Salvation
This is a strange title for our next chapter! Most people think that salvation is found in religion. The Bible does not say so! Notice also, we did not say “other religions” as if the Christian religion were different. There are millions of people who claim to be following the “Christian religion” but they are not really followers of Christ at all!
Anyone who reads the New Testament carefully will realize that Jesus did not come to found a religion. The Jewish religion had been given by God at the time of Moses (1500 B.C.) and its main purpose was to prepare the way for the coming of the Savior. Jesus came into the world to save sinners, which is a very different thing from founding a religion.
To illustrate this point, let us think for a moment of the religion of Islam. Islam is a religion which has a comprehensive Law (Shariah) which regulates every aspect of the life of Muslim peoples. This Law is so detailed that Islam is actually a religious system, and a legal system, and a political system and a social system. Islamic Law covers religion, ethics, marriage, divorce, inheritance, diet, dress, taxation and similar matters and in the fullest sense it can only be practiced ideally in an Islamic State. Islam is thus a religion, a culture and a community in which Muslim life is governed by the laws of the Quran and the Traditions. In contrast with this, no rules are given in the New Testament for a religious-state-culture system to be embraced by the followers of Christ. This is a startling concept to many people.
Jesus said that He came to build my church (Matthew 16:18) which would consist of all those who trusted and obeyed Him as Savior. The State is mentioned in the New Testament. Christians are viewed as a minority in the State which is more often than not hostile to them. (This is not really part of our main subject, but the student can check up for his own interest by reading the following sample references: Romans 13:1-10; 1 Peter 2:11-17; Acts 4:1-3; Acts 8:1-3; Acts 12:1-5; Acts 16:22-24.)
Millions of people equate Christianity with Western Civilization. Many think that Christianity and Capitalism are the same thing. Such an idea is completely foreign to the Bible. It is true that many lands in the West have adopted the basic ideals and ethics of the gospel and have thus become known as “Christian nations” but this is only a cultural development. From the very first time the gospel of Christ was proclaimed, its message was clearly one of spiritual truth, completely and entirely non-cultural! One of the reasons for the initial hostility of the Jewish leaders toward Christianity was because the Christians disregarded cultural and racial ties completely. Greeks, Romans, Jews, and peoples of many tribes and nations were brought together in a new brotherhood of equality and unity. Slaves and their masters, aristocrats and commoners, soldiers and their officers, all shared the common life of the church of Christ. All were permitted to retain their own cultural heritage except for those customs which were tainted by idolatry or immorality. An example of this is given in Acts 15:28-29: “For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from doing these things, you will do well. Farewell.
True followers of Christ have always been a minority group. Jesus and His disciples were a “little flock” within the Jewish circle. Christians were a minority in Greek or Roman cities; they are still a minority, in the world today, whether in Asia, in Africa or in European lands. In England, for example, less than 10% of the people ever attend any form of religious service yet people think of England as a “Christian” country! In many countries the Christians are a very small minority. What then, is the advantage of being a Christian? Why choose a “religion” which does not even offer the benefit of a common, unifying culture and the security of communal strength?
This is the reason—the gospel offers us personal salvation from sin! Men are not saved from sin in communities, but as individuals who realize that they are personally responsible to God. “Religion” can indeed be a cohesive force in social, communal and national affairs. The gospel of Christ emphasizes the vital importance of the individual and the great responsibility each person has to decide for himself the all-important matter of salvation from sin. This is evident from the very beginning in the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself. When He first began to preach, vast crowds flocked to hear Him, attracted by His personality, His teaching and His miracles. They imagined He would soon dominate the religious and political life of Israel and bring in “the golden age” of Jewish universal sovereignty. But as they heard His unchanging emphasis on the moral issues of sin and repentance, the majority of His “followers” deserted Him. An example of this is given in John 6:66-69. As Jesus watched the crowds turning away from Him, He said to His disciples, You don’t want to go away too, do you. The apostle Peter replied, Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God! Peter was absolutely right! Those who are seeking religion, or culture, or pleasure, or security can find many leaders to follow—leaders who make no heart-searching demands for confession of sin and sincere repentance. But if we want eternal life, there is no alternative! It is Christ or nothing! Read the following words of Jesus. But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:14). Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Read also the words of the apostle Peter: And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
It is at this point that we realize that the Bible is different from all books. Every religion in the world has as its base the idea that we must try to atone for our own sins, and that we can acquire merit by good deeds and religious acts. The way of “salvation” in “religion” is through human merit; through the good deeds balancing up the bad deeds. Islam, for example, lays great stress on the importance of ritual prayers, prescribed fasts, pilgrimages, alms giving and other religious acts by means of which the faithful are promised Paradise.
The gospel is totally different! God says that we are sinful and that no merits of our own can deal with this fatal spiritual condition. No human merit can change the deadly harvest of sin. In Galatians 6:7-8 we read Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. Our problem is that we have a sinful nature and we cannot please God (Romans 8:8). The popular notion is that if we try to do as many good things as possible then God will balance this against our sins and will forgive us! This false idea arises from a failure to understand how truly holy God is and how far we have come short of His standard. The Bible says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Suppose a businessman decided to pay half of his debts and ignore the rest of his liabilities! Would he be being honest or dishonest? Would the “merit” of his paying off half his debts atone for his failure to pay the other half? Of course not! His clear obligation is to pay off all that he owes. Religious people think that by being good and kind and honest and moral they can somehow accumulate merit and that this merit can be used to pay off their liability of sin. But these things are all obligations; we ought to do these things all the time. Since being good and kind, moral and honest is what God demands of us as life’s standard of behavior it is obvious we cannot offer Him half payment and say “Yesterday I failed to do and be all that you demand. I think I did better today. Please accept today’s achievement in payment for yesterday’s failure.” His answer would be, “You should have done and been all that I expected both yesterday and today.” In any case we cannot live the kind of life that God demands; when we sin we are simply showing our inability to live up to the standard of goodness that God requires of us. Read the following verses: And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!—and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:1-9). Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:16). But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).
The Bible tells us that no matter how popular and appealing the notion of human merit and religious good deeds might be, this path leads to hell. It is a broad way, crowded with lost people vainly hoping they will reach heaven at the end of life’s journey. But just because the great mass of humanity is going in that fatal direction is no reason why we should blindly follow them! This is the very heart of the gospel message. Each person is individually accountable to God; each person is responsible for his own repentance and confession of sin, for his own personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Jesus said, Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and share a meal with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20). He said, But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children (John 1:12). Paul said, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). In all these verses the dominant note is personal acceptance of Christ, personal faith and personal commitment to Christ as Savior and Lord. Have you made a personal decision to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior?
Related Topics: Law