Have you ever been approached by a guy in a trench coat with a selection of watches up his arm? “Hey, buddy! You want a deal?”
We intuitively respond to such offers with mixed and conflicting emotions. How much can I save? This is probably too good to be true. I wonder where he got those? Is this legit? Will I get in trouble? Are those things real?
Such quick today only and last chance offers are the stuff of internet scams, the means to identity theft, and the basis of those ubiquitous Nigerian letters offering millions for your compassionate help. And we all really want to believe that Bill Gates will send us a personal check for a million dollars if we just forward enough emails to help the unfortunate little girl. Every one of these offers promises returns far in excess of our effort, makes us feel good that we helped someone (or at least showed a little compassion), but requires very little effort or serious commitment.
That sounds almost like religion. Or, at least, a lot like the way many people view Christianity.
So much of what is presented as the Christian message is aimed squarely at the basest of human lusts. Success, happiness, satisfaction, and prosperity may all be fine, but the attainment of these achievements is neither the goal nor proof of one’s Christianity. The message of the New Testament is more along the lines of tribulation, persecution, suffering, and surrender.
The message of Jesus was not designed to satisfy people’s natural desires, but rather to call them to change leading to action. Be pure, be holy, be salt, be light. Love your neighbor, love your enemy, go the second mile, never revile but respond in grace. How is it that we have cheapened the greatest message about the Creator and God of all to a blatant sales pitch repugnant to men and women of character or principle?
Jesus told a parable about two men forgiven their debts, and asked the question, “Which of the debtors do you suppose would love his creditor more?” The obvious (and correct) answer is “He who was forgiven most.” (Luke 7:41,43) There was a real value in the creditor’s gift to the debtors. In the same way, when we make the Gospel acceptable to anyone without change or cost we strip it of any genuine value or worth. A Gospel that sanctions us as we are is powerless to make us what we are to be.
Part of the problem is, perhaps, an emphasis on “salvation by grace, not of works.” This can lead to the idea that any examination to discern works in the life is to discredit God’s grace. But, as Dallas Willard says, “Grace is opposed to earning; grace is not opposed to works.” I would suggest that where there is no change, there is no grace. And part of the problem is a focus on “going to heaven when you die,” without too much concern on how we live in the here and now.
Read this statement by C.S. Lewis, and think carefully about what it means today, some 65 years after it was written:
…I cannot help thinking that any religion which begins with a thirst for immortality is damned, as a religion, from the outset. Until a certain spiritual level has been reached, the promise of immortality will always operate as a bribe which vitiates the whole religion and infinitely inflames those very self-regards which religion must cut down and uproot. For the essence of religion, in my view, is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the finite self’s desire for, and acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favour of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it.
C.S. Lewis, Religion without Dogma? Paper presented to the Socratic Club on May 20, 1946.
Let’s not cheapen our message. Jesus Christ offers real life, joy, and peace to all who follow Him. But there is the price of surrender to Him. After all, it cost him his life.