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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice

I found a website (well, it popped up in my ad banner and I decided to type in the address and investigate it) about a week ago. It was a beautiful site with attractive pictures of women and children running through fields of flowers, and so on. Beautiful as it seemed on the surface, I'll admit I smelled death there.

The site touted that being "saved" as a "Christian" meant living well and doing good. It insisted that it was "almost impossible" to go to Hell, because everyone was "predestined" to go to Heaven. The way to Heaven, according to them, was doing good, according to the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, and others. The way to Hell was an outright rejection of doing good of any kind. By extension, I take it that means that if you do any good at all, you're guaranteed a place in Heaven.

These are broad and heretical claims, but I'm worried that some Christians out there are not truly equipped to dissect and discard such claims.

A Sense of Fairness

I read the stuff about how to get into Heaven on this website, and if I didn't know any better, I would feel cheated. Don't all people do some good in their lifetimes? We try to portray historical figures like Hitler in all-black terms, but surely they too were capable of loving their own mothers or doing other such "good" things. According to the teachings of this site I found, even Hitler was "predestined" for Heaven, and despite his bad deeds, he found it hard to go to Hell.

This irks my personal sense of fairness, though. If I did more "good" than Hitler did, and he never even said he was sorry about anything, why would he get the same reward as I should, in the end? Is there no punishment for mass murder, theft, and other criminal excesses? Beyond that, is there no punishment for little hurtful things done in secret, even if no one ever found out? Doesn't God see, and punish? Isn't God just?

I mean, even Moses taught that God is just. As he passed the cloak of leadership to Joshua, Moses is quoted as singing,
I will proclaim the name of the LORD. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. They have acted corruptly toward him; to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation. (Deuteronomy 32: 3-5 NIV)
God is by nature just, and as we see in the last part of this passage, He is quite willing to disown "a warped and crooked generation." God doesn't do that to be cruel; He does that to be just. Any other response would discredit Him and everything He's ever taught us to believe about Him, because it would be unequal treatment of one person over another. When we are wicked, we should expect some sort of equally-enforced consequence...or is that a concept beyond even the smallest child's understanding?

The Necessity of Sacrifice

Justice is only the beginning of the story. We all instinctively know that evil deserves some sort of punishment, even if it means that we also deserve that punishment. We also long for a way, especially an easy way, to obliterate the evils of the past so we can have a "clean slate" and no future punishment to worry about.

As children we hid our transgressions, and hated tattle-tales. We knew what wrong is, but rather than "fess up" and face the consequences, we were more than willing to do more harm to cover up what we'd already done. Eventually, when we were more mature, we developed a sense that doing more evil to cover up the past evil was only making it worse. It looked better to us to distance ourselves from past evil by doing good, such as confessing to our parents that we broke the vase--rather than framing a brother, who would have gotten angry and turned us in, anyway. We almost had the right idea.

Doing good after evil might smooth over other people's memory of the past, but it does not in fact erase the past. Even as children, we knew that once the bat which broke the vase was used in the house, there was no un-using it. Not even confession and a lot of glue put the vase back the way it was. What can truly erase what can't be undone? Can we ever do enough good to undo a wrong?

So many of the world's religions deal with this very question. Islam teaches that followers of Allah should do good, so at the final judgment their good deeds can outweigh the bad in the scales of judgment. In this way, a Muslim can pass judgment and enter Heaven. Hindus teach that we should do good, so that we can be reincarnated into a higher form of life, and eventually so that we can reach nirvana, their idea of the afterlife. Buddhists teach that good works and self-discipline will allow a person to reach enlightenment (a concept very similar to the Hindu nirvana). Unfortunately, none of them can truly assure followers that their good works will be great enough to overcome their bad works (however, note: they all have a concept of evil, and that it must be overcome, not tolerated). Followers of these religions must always wonder and fear that they haven't been "good enough" and that they will be forced to suffer consequences for their evil deeds, even if those deeds were very far in the past. Christianity is unique, in that it answers the "good enough" question. Bluntly.

God says that no amount of good deeds can undo the evil of the past. We all have such a past, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3: 23 NIV), and that past, which has made us "fall short" has also separated us from the presence of God:
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things." (Isaiah 59: 1-3 NIV)
We cannot expect God, who by nature is just, to overlook evil, and reward us for behaving badly. Our sins are an indelible mark against us, and unless something changes, the Bible says that they will always come between us and Heaven. We are not universally "predestined" for Heaven. If anything, our actions predestine us for Hell.

The Bible, unlike other religious texts, proposes a different kind of fix for sin--the idea of substitutionary atonement. Here's how it works. God, as our Creator, gives life. No one except God has the power to impart life. So when we sin, we are in essence rejecting both the very nature of God and life. The punishment for this is death, as the Bible says, "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23a NIV).

The universal penalty of death can be paid early, through the symbolic dedication of the blood of some other living thing. Shed blood, the universal symbol of life, acts as a covering before God, turning away His anger at our disobedience and rejection. This has been the penalty for sin since Adam and Eve first sinned, when God killed an animal to use its skin as a covering for them (Genesis 3: 21). Later, God established animal sacrifice as a legal ordinance among the Israelites for the symbolic atonement of sin.

The Centrality of Obedience

When God insisted that an animal must be killed to atone for every evil, He wasn't doing it to order needless mass-slaughter of animals. This penalty was meant to drive home the gravity of the situation--it was meant to be a deterrent for evil. The prophet Samuel put it into succinct words when he told a rebellious King Saul,
Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15: 22 NIV)
God would rather we not commit sin. He would rather that substitutionary atonement not be necessary.

Let there be no misunderstanding--the penalty for sin is banishment from God's presence, which is the same thing as death, or eternity in Hell. Since we all sin, we all have Hell in our futures. That is, if we sin and do not have someone else to pay our penalty.

The Way to Heaven

The problem with animal sacrifices, which made them insufficient, is that people took the whole practice for granted. It became an outward practice, but did not lead to obedience. After all, there is no easier way than to let an animal take the fall for something we did. People had arrived at the point where killing an animal was so meaningless that they could go and do that, and turn around and commit the sin, without feeling any fear or conviction over their sinful behavior. It had become a works kind of salvation, without real obedience to God, or any attempt to please Him. How, then, was this religious practice different from any of the other works type salvation messages being taught elsewhere in the world?

This is why God sent His son, Jesus Christ, as the ultimate sacrifice for the atonement of sins. He was God; therefore, He was innocent of sin. Jesus was unjustly sentenced to death, though He was as innocent of wrongdoing as any sacrificial lamb. Because of this, God raised Him from the dead, and because of this sacrifice, we can call on Him to cover our sins with His atonement. No animal sacrifice is necessary any longer, because we have Christ.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8: 1-4 NIV)
Therefore, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12 NIV).

As I explained, earlier, we can now see that all people know, from a very young age, that sin brings a penalty that must be paid. While many other religions tell us that we can pay it by doing generous amounts of good, they cannot offer absolute security from that penalty. Why? Because the penalty is too great to repay by our own power, and it cannot be escaped. We have no other choice but to fall on the mercy of God. We can be thankful that God is good and infinitely merciful, as well as just. He gave us a way out from under our penalty, through the sacrifice that Jesus Christ gives us, to fulfill the just and universal requirements that He has imposed on us all.

Returning to what that website promised, I hope you can now see what a complex lie it really is offering. By saying that we don't have to follow Jesus alone, but can also follow people like Buddha, it places us back in jeopardy of Hell by condemning us to spend a lifetime of "doing good and living rightly," trying to pay back our penalty. Through Christ, real Christians are free from a works salvation of this type.

Does this mean that nothing more is required of us? Certainly not! We must still obey God. Remember that sacrifice is not what God most desires of us--that's why He willingly paid that price, so that we no longer must. God has always desired our obedience, and that desire has not gone away since Christ's death and resurrection. Animal sacrifice is no longer necessary, therefore we are free to get on with the business of obeying God.

Being "saved" as a Christian is not to be sanctified by good works; rather, it is to be sanctified through Christ's sacrifice. Now, with Christ's help, we can not only enter Heaven, but also can walk away from further sinning. Unless we surrender our lives in obedience to God, we are just turning Christ's sacrifice into another works salvation--and that can easily blended with other religions, on pretty-looking websites.


Anonymous said...

"It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13
In case you do not know a law had been added to the law after Jesus was crucified. Ref. Rom. 5:20 & Heb. 7:12.

Rachel said...

Thank you for your comment! You're right to point out that those who obey the law are righteous, but unfortunately for all of us, Christ is the only one who holds the distinction of having obeyed all of God's laws--therefore, He's the only one who is truly righteous (Isaiah 45: 21, for instance). Christ fulfilled the law (Matthew 5: 17), and He is now our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1: 30), so that those who are His can meet the righteous requirements of the law (Romans 8: 1-4). The purpose of the law is to make us aware of our sin, not to redeem us from it; only Christ's sacrifice can atone for sin (see also Romans 3: 19-31).