Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What's the difference?

I have been cleaning out areas of my house and garage lately that have not seen light in quite some time.  I found some items of obvious sentimental value - high school yearbooks; a set of collector plates that my mother gave to me; a journal that I started writing when I was in 8th grade.  I also found some unusual items belonging to my ex-husband - some ugly neckties, a whoopie-cushion or two, a box of MAD magazines from the 60's and 70's, just to mention a few. 

I also came across a letter wrtitten about five or six years ago by a friend who was questioning whether or not God is what people say that He is. Because of some run-ins with over-zealous Christians, he was turning to a belief, which I will not name, with more differences than similarities to Christianity.  He went on to quote George Harrison, saying, "All religions are branches of one big tree. It doesn't matter what you call Him just as long as you call."  Apparently, according to my freind's conclusions, it doesn't make a difference what you believe, as long as you believe in something.  What makes one religion more "right" than another? 

It seems I've been asked that question in one form or another several times in the past month or so.  I can't speak for every belief out there.  I can only speak to what I know. What sets Christianity apart is how it views salvation and entry into eternal life. 

Have you ever pondered why God would allow you to enter into heaven?  Your answer may be something like, "I've lived a good life, haven't killed anyone, gave money to missions, helped out at church" and whatnot.  It's as though you are saying God keeps a score card of sorts, and if our score at the end of our life is good enough then God lets us in.  But there's an inherent problem with that thinking.  How do we know if we're good enough?  Is my "good enough" good enough to be "good enough" for you?  If it's not, then how can God be a fair, just God?

The truth is, good enough isn't good enough. Even King Solomon, a man who had wisdom, wealth and women beyond imagination, recognized that no one was good enough. He wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes, "Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins."  For a God whose standard is perfection, what hope do we have for spending eternity in His heaven?

Some faiths believe in reincarnation. A do-over. Another chance to get it right. Which we won't, because again, there is no one who is righteous, no one who never sins.  Some folks speak of a penance they have to do, a purification process of sorts, to add good points to offset the bad score you got for your sins.  Who decides how many "points" of penance you have to do to offset a certain sin?  Look at Adam and Eve. You could say that all of mankind has been doing penance for their sin in the Garden of Eden, and after how many thousands of years we still don't have enough points to make it right with God.

My friends and fellow ponderers, if you have not yet figured out, the point of Christianity is not accumulating points.  God knows we'll never ever have enough.  And because He knows, He gives us what sets Christianity apart from other religions.  He has mercy on us, and gives us grace.

Mercy? Grace? Who are they? 

Not Who.  What.  Simply stated, Mercy is not receiving a punishment we deserve.  Grace is a gift we do not deserve.  Let me try to explain.

Let's say that you and I were best friends through high school and college. After college you went on to law school, became very successful, and are now a judge.  On the other hand, I wasn't such the angel you once believed me to be.  I got into some serious trouble with the law, and ended up a defendant in your courtroom.  You knew I was guilty of what I was charged with; I knew I was guilty of that and even more.  As a judge, it is your job to hand down a punishment for what I did even though it was a punishment I could not afford to pay (say, a fine of $100,000).  But the penalty was a just penalty, because the wrongdoing warranted that kind of punishment.

You dismiss the court, go back to your chambers and take off your robe. After careful consideration, you make an unexpected move.  Because it broke your heart to see me, your friend, standing guilty before you and sentenced to a penalty I could not afford to serve on my own, you make an offer to pay my debt in full, and hand me a check for $100,000, from your personal account. No strings attached.

I am offered mercy - I am not required to pay the fine myself.
I am offered grace - You offered the gift of paying my penalty with no expectation of anything in return.
Justice is served - the penalty is paid.

Outrageous story? Never happen in a million years?  Ponder the thought again, my friends, because it happened. 

The apostle Paul says it in his God-inspired letter to the Christians in Rome:  "The payment for sin is death. But God gives us the free gift of life forever in Christ Jesus our Lord." 

You see, God (our judge) knew that the penalty for our wrongdoings (the death penalty) was a price we could not pay.  Jesus' death on the cross was God's "$100,000 check" that God gave us as payment for our sins. 

We are offered mercy - Jesus paid the penalty for us.
We are offered grace - We gain eternal life in God's heaven.
God's justice is served - the penalty has been paid.

Why would God do this? 

Why?  Because He loves us!  Paul didn't tell the Romans that they were under a death penalty and leave it at that.  He says more:

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:6-11, NLT)
Whether this scenario works is up to us, the ones who stand before the Judge.  We have the choice of accepting this free gift, by simply believing that Jesus died to pay for our wrongdoings so we could live. Or, we can choose to not believe, and keep trying to achieve a good enough score on our celestial score-cards and never attain a high enough score to impress God.

There are, of course, many other differences between different faiths.  If you take the time to follow the branches you find they are not all of the same tree.  Through faith in Jesus and what He did for us by his death and resurrection (by the way, no other diety can make the claim of being raised from the dead - Buddha and Mohammad are still dead) we can call out to the Living God who will hear and answer us when we call.

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