Precious Sorrow, Beautiful Catastrophe – 7) Pathway
"No clever arrangement of bad eggs will make a good omelette" (C. S. Lewis)
The fact that many of the world's religions follow universally accepted moral principles testifies to the similarity of the human conscience. C. S. Lewis makes a powerful argument in his book, Mere Christianity, that this similarity presupposes a divine moral standard, and the scriptures agree. "They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Romans 2:15).
Even as Adam and Eve felt compelled to hide from God after they sinned, people instinctively withdrawal and become antagonistic toward the One they perceive to be their judge. Rather than accepting God's path of reconciliation, they try to subdue their conscience through the observance of religious rites or humane acts.
Religion's Focus is Self-effort
The story of Cain and Abel illustrates this principle well. Abel humbly recognized his own sinfulness and the way it separated him from his Creator. In faith, he followed the example given to him by his parents, trusting only in the substitutionary sacrifice of a guiltless offering to cover his sin. The atoning power of the blood made Abel's sacrifice acceptable because it was God's way of forgiveness.
Cain, on the other hand, offered the first thing he thought of and the product of his own strength - fruit from his gardens. Cain's sacrifice would forever represent the model of every world religion that would follow - attempting to please God through self-effort and striving to achieve justification through methods that man determines himself. Cain's model would become the predominant world religious philosophy for the simple reason that this sacrifice of self-effort fosters pride, the foundation stone of sin.
In Sigmund Freud's book, "Future of an Allusion", he implies that man invented religion and God to help him cope with the harsh realities of life. The statements he makes in this book were revered by generations of scholars as fact, and yet they demonstrate an amazing lack of awareness about religious history and world culture. The world's religions seldom portray their gods as anything but burdensome tyrants that generate a continuous tally of requirements to pacify them; from Artemis' (the Greek goddess of love) demand for Agamemnon's daughter's sacrifice to provide a Troy-bound wind in Homer's epic tale of the Trojan saga, to Allah, whose adherents are called "those who submit," and whose only sure way to paradise is to die in a holy war.
Theistic or not, the road of every religion that followed Cain's is filled with requirements that follow the basic formula - you must do these things in order to work toward possibly reaching a particular state. Whether it's the Buddhist efforts to achieve nirvana, the Hindu's struggle to reach an elevated level of being in the next incarnation or the Muslims toil to enter paradise - religions every-where have followers climbing precarious ladders to reach their goals.
Contrary to the Freudian thesis of humanity's need of religion in order to cope with life's hardships, religion has always added an extra burden on the lives of people. Despite this painful and seemingly endless struggle toward moral perfection, humanity clings to its religious rites.
Christianity's Focus is Faith
Herein lays Christianity's distinction from every other religion in the world! The Bible contrasts religion's self-effort with a God who did all the work; a God who initiated our relationship by pursuing us, all the way to the cross.
I remember hearing the story of a man who had converted to Christianity from a lifetime of following Buddhism. To him, life was like drowning in the middle of a lake with Buddha on the shore yelling instructions on how to swim. When he became a Christian he felt as if Christ had come along to that same lake and simply pulled him out of the water. He discovered the basic formula of Christianity - trust in Christ and you will receive all the riches of eternal union with God or . . . Jesus + nothing = everything. This is not something you do; it's something you receive through faith!
The Christian life is a life of faith as: salvation is appropriated by faith in the redemptive blood of Jesus Christ, and strength to live each day is received through faith in God's intimate concern for our lives. "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).
The scriptures are full of examples of how God's greatest desire for every person is that he or she simply responds to Him in faith. This is demonstrated in the life of Abraham who is recognized in the Bible as "the man of faith" (Galatians 3:9). Because of his faith, he was given a son in his old age, but Abraham's greatest step of faith came when he was willing to sacrifice this son in obedience to God (Genesis 22:1-19). He believed God would either provide a substitute or raise his son Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:19), and in doing so, demonstrated a faith in the blessed future God intended for him. God did provide a substitute and was so pleased with this model of living faith that He made a special covenant with Abraham, and later brought the Messiah to the earth through Abraham's descendants.
A Seeming Contradiction with the Law
This may be somewhat confusing, because anyone with just a meagre exposure to the Jewish religion knows that the Bible speaks of how God not only gave the Jews the Ten Commandments, but a whole set of regulations to live their lives by. In fact there are more than 600 laws and regulations in the Old Testament!
If Christians use the same Old Testament scriptures as the Jewish people, why do Christians focus so much on faith? If the Christian elevation of faith was correct, why wasn't Abraham's mature faith used to demonstrate how God desired humanity to respond to Himself, rather than a legal code that would only promote the prideful religion of Cain? God's desire has always been to cultivate a living faith in His people, yet He did establish the law and the Hebrew people lived under it for fifteen hundred years before Jesus Christ was born.
The Bible points to three main reasons that God implemented the law:
1) Abraham's example of faith would always be significant, yet it lacked adequate emphasis on sin. Only through an understanding of one's own fallen nature and inability to save one's self would humanity forego its pride and reach out to God in faith. "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law" (Romans 7:7).
2) The law would become one more example of the progressive way God chose to reveal Himself. Building on what had already been established; humanity would now be able to gain a greater vision of God's moral perfection, and therefore His unapproachable ness apart from the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ. "So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3:24)
3) Through imparting the law, God once again demonstrated His intimate concern for humanity's welfare. It was through the people's failure to live by this law, however, which provided an opportunity for God to express His commitment to work out His plan of redemption, despite their failures. Regardless of God's hatred of sin, He continued to initiate and accept His people back whenever they repented, proving that, "Mercy triumphs over judgement" (James 2:13) and preparing them for His ultimate act of mercy through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.
So the law was implemented for a period of time to be a kind of instructor that would teach us what we are like and what God is like. It was never intended to be the vehicle by which God would reconcile humanity. "For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin" (Galatians 3:21).
The problem following the Law of Moses, or any other religious code, is that it has no ability to control our sinful nature. Holiness, in God's eyes, has just as much to do with what we think as with how we act. The law may compel us not to carry out a specific deed, but it cannot keep us from wanting to carry out that action. This is territory that the law can never influence! "Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Colossians 2:23)
In fact, the law that was meant to keep us away from sin actually stimulates us to sin. What happens when you see a sign that reads - Wet Paint, DO NOT TOUCH? You have a strong desire to touch the paint! The apostle Paul writes, "For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'do not covet'. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire" (Romans 7:5).
The Law Fulfilled
Because of these deficiencies, the law was administered until the unveiling of a more effective agent in reclaiming man's darkened character. Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Matthew 5:17). Fulfill the law He did, by making believers righteous in God's sight and sending the Holy Spirit to empower them to live a holy life. Unlike the Law, the cross accomplished all of this in a way that precluded anyone claiming ownership in God's redemptive work. This act was God's and God's alone!
Throughout time, God has carefully safeguarded His sole claim to salvation by choosing the weaker and the less deserving. A great nation could never profess responsibility for God acting in the world, for out of all the earth he chose the small land of Canaan and out of all the races, the people of Israel - "the smallest of peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). He chose not the first son Cain, but Abel; not Ishmael, but Isaac; not Aaron, but Moses; and not Eliab, but David! Out of all Israel, he chose the little town of Bethlehem and out of all Bethlehem, a manger. Out of all the nobility and scholars Jesus could have associated himself with in Israel; he chose fisherman, tax collectors and prostitutes. This is a principle that brings me great joy, because out of all the far more deserving people I can think of, God chose me.
Of all times God intervened in human history, the cross most lucidly demonstrates that salvation comes not to the strong or deserving, but to the broken and the anguished, for "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated that "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). This word poor comes from the Greek word, "tokos" and implies the poorest of the poor. Like a beggar that is too embarrassed to even look at those who pass by, but puts his hand out and cries, "have mercy on me", Jesus is saying, 'blessed are those who know they have no act of righteousness to offer God'. Happy are those who trust only in the gift of righteousness that God wants to give them.
The cross is God's towering witness to the fact that He alone is the one who imparts salvation and we have nothing to do with it, other than accepting it through faith. The God of the universe has humbled himself by becoming a man, enduring all the pain this world could heap on him, and died on a cross so that we could have life. What could you or I do that could possibly merit this marvellous act of kindness, an act that demolishes every barrier of sin and shame in our lives, and opens heaven's gate for us to enter eternal bliss? Nothing!
Or after receiving life, what could you or I do to add to this gift of righteousness that God has imputed to us through the precious blood of his Son, a gift that bestows on us the very righteousness of God Himself? We could add nothing! "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8)
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