Have you ever noticed how naturally we take pride in our own achievement and rejoice in what our own strong right arm has been able to perform? In matters religious, just as in all others, the tendency is for us to put the emphasis on what we ourselves do.
The primitive savage for example comes to the conclusion that his god is angry with him. His fowls have died or his wife has, or he has a pain in the tummy or has been defeated by his foes. The situation is intolerable. Therefore he must do something. He chooses out a choice victim and offers it in sacrifice to his god, and he believes that if he has chosen the right victim and performed the ceremonies correctly he will succeed in his object. His strong right arm has triumphed.
Or consider a religion of a very different type in Judaism. In our Lord’s day the Pharisees had made a very close study of the Old Testament, and especially the first five books which to them were sacred Scripture par excellence. In the Law (as these five books are called) they found that there are 613 separate commandments. Salvation for them then became a simple matter. Simply keep these 613 commandments and you are right! Here is a religion of a very different type from the foregoing, but again we discern the same principle–man’s salvation rests on what he himself does.
So with the mystery religions. Not a great deal is known about these (is it a coincidence that women were not admitted?), but it is known that the essence of the various cults consisted in submitting the initiates to various horrifying experiences and then bringing them out into a sense of calm and the vision of the god or goddess. Again if one would be saved one must do something; in this case submit to the rites of initiation.
In Modern Times.
Nor has the nature of man changed with the passage of time. In our day the great religions of the world stress the place of man. Islam for example requires a man to recite with full meaning the simple creed, “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet,” to say his prayers daily; to fast during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan (after dark he may eat what he will); if possible to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so on. It is all for him to do.
So with Hinduism. This religion sees the essence of evil in desire, and if man would be saved he must learn to control his passions until he reaches the state when he can sit all day and do nothing, and think nothing, and he nothing. Then he has attained the bliss of Nirvana, of nothingness. Paradoxically even this religion which decries doing anything rests salvation in man’s achievement, in his victory over desire.
But we do not need to look beyond popular Christianity for illustrations of this theme. Who has not met the Roman Catholic who thinks that he will be saved if he goes to Mass ? Or the Protestant who believes that if he leads a good life he will go to heaven when he dies?
Salvation by Grace.
Christianity cuts clean across this deep-seated conviction of the natural man. Alone among the religions of the world it insists that in the last resort man can do nothing, nothing at all, to earn his salvation. He will receive it, if he is to receive it at all, as a free gift proceeding from the sheer grace of God. At the heart of the Christian faith there is a cross, and the cross speaks to us of the Son of God Who died that our sin might be put away. Calvary is eloquent of the gift of God to man.
And this is to be seen throughout the teaching of Jesus. Justification by faith may be Pauline terminology, but the idea is Christ’s. (And in the September issue of the Expository Times the German Professor, Dr. J. Jeremias, argues that even the terminology is Christ’s!) What else are we to make of parables like the Prodigal Son or the Labourers in the Vineyard ? There is nothing in the way of acceptance on the grounds of merit in either of these, and both testify to the Grace of our God. So with the Pharisee and the Publican. You miss the point of that parable if you think of the Pharisee as a poor deluded man who had not done nearly as much as he thought. Every word he said about himself was true. His error lay in the fact that he was on the wrong track altogether, not in not having gone far enough along the right one. The Publican was accepted, was justified, because he put his trust in the mercy of God and not in anything he might do.
Trust in God.
The spirit of our age is one of self-sufficiency, of trust in what we can do ourselves. But the essence of the Christian approach is that it stresses man’s total inability, and puts before him the lowly way, the way of trust and of faith. The self-sufficient Pharisee was excluded in our Lord’s day, and his modern counterpart can expect to fare no better. “The grace of God means that God loves us so greatly that He sent His Son to die for us and so to put away our sins. Justification by faith means that we may stand before Him as just on the grounds of that grace shown on Calvary and that this standing as just men becomes a reality only when we cease to trust in our own puny efforts, and instead rely humbly, trustfully, on Him.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, originally published October 27, 1955.