We are saved by grace. But do we understand grace correctly?
One of the things that is difficult when dealing with various cults of Christianity, is that they often use the same terms as evangelical Christians, but they mean something different.
A couple of months ago, I was home one morning and the doorbell rang. I went to the door and saw two middle-aged ladies. I stepped outside and spoke with them. They told me that they were there to spread the Good News. In our conversation, they told me that the blood of Jesus washes away our sin and that it is vital to have a relationship with Christ. They also agreed with me that there was no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Of course, these things are all true. However, these ladies were member of the Jehovah's Witnesses
. As we talked, it became clear that what they meant by these terms was very different than what I mean when I share the gospel. My fear is that it is not only in the cults that these terms are misunderstood, but also in our churches.
Anyway, as soon as I looked out the door, I knew that these ladies were Jehovah's Witnesses. Does anybody else knock on doors these days? I knew they were not selling cable and Internet service, pest control, or lawn maintenance packages. By the literature they were holding, I knew who they were before they said anything.
They said they were in the neighborhood spreading the good news and they wanted to read a passage of Scripture to me. (I will use "they" throughout although obviously they were not speaking in unison. One lady was the primary spokesperson and the other observed and contributed from time to time. I got the impression she was the more experienced one and she was there to help the other one if she got in a jam.) I told them that would be okay, so one of them read Revelation 21:1-4:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
Then they asked me, "Are you ready for the new heavens and new earth?"
I said, "I am, but let me ask you, are you
They said that they were and I asked, "Are you sure?"
Their answer revealed much. "We hope to be — that's why we are out here knocking on doors."
I responded, "You hope
? I know that I am ready because I am in Christ." Then I quoted Romans 8:1-4:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
I emphasized that in Christ I have assurance of salvation because there is no condemnation for those who are in Him.
They readily agreed. "Yes, the blood of Jesus washes away our sin. There is no condemnation if you have a relationship with Christ."
So far, there has not been a whole lot for us to disagree on. We both agree that the blood of Christ washes away our sin and that if we are in Christ, there is no condemnation. But I couldn't leave it there. I had to push a little further, and this is where the difference showed up.
Since we were all being agreeable, I agreed that it was most important to have a relationship with Christ, but then I asked them how one could have such a relationship. Their answer shows the importance of a proper understanding of grace.
"How do you have a relationship with Christ?"
"By doing the things He commanded."
Therein lies the difference, and it is the difference between night and day, or perhaps more accurately, life and death.
I asked them if they really did keep His commandments. They answered that this was the reason they were out spreading the good news. I mentioned that it might not be very good news as it seems impossible to keep all of Christ's commandments. This was more like bad news.
They were ready with what they thought would be a reassuring answer: "But, God knows our hearts."
Now if you really think about what that means, it is not at all reassuring. The fact that God knows our hearts should terrify us beyond measure. I would much rather be judged by my actions because there is some ambiguity there. But if God knows my heart, there is no escape. What I said to them was, "If that doesn't sign our death warrants, I don't know what does."
We talked about this some more. Their position was tenable only if they underestimate the holiness of God and overestimate their own righteousness.
So finally I asked them, "Who does God justify — the righteous or unrighteous?" Their answer was quick and confident: "God justifies the righteous."
And that is where I got excited about our differences. "NO! God justifies the unrighteous!" Romans 4:5 says, "However, to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness."
They could not get over that. They said, "Do you mean that it doesn't matter what you do?" I answered, "Not one bit!" (Now I know that a Christian's behavior does matter, but in this context it does not. John Piper says if you don't get this objection when you are talking about grace, you are probably not talking about it the right way. Paul got that objection in Romans 6.)
Then I tried to turn the tables. "So, you think you can have a relationship with Christ by keeping his commands. Do you keep His commands? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? And do you really love your neighbor as yourself?"
They hesitated for a moment, and then one of them said, "We really try."
I reminded them that He didn't say try to do it, He said to do it.
I looked one of the ladies in the eye and said, "Can you tell me you do it?"
After a moment's hesitation she answered, "Yes, I think I can."
At this point the conversation had been going on for about 15 minutes and it was clear we were getting nowhere, so I ended it with, "Then you are too good to be talking to someone like me!" and we parted amiably.
While we used some of the same terms, the key difference is what was meant by them. Every version and perversion of Christianity talks about grace and a relationship with Christ. But for some, you access the grace of Christ and you enter and maintain a relationship with Christ by your attempt at obedience, hoping that God will cut you some slack. Bill Hybels and Mark Mittleberg say that the difference between Christianity and every other religion is found in the spelling. Every other religion is spelled D-O. Christianity is spelled D-O-N-E. Christ has done it all, we simply rely on his righteousness by faith and when we do, our sin is credited to Him and His righteousness is credited to us in a once-for-all transaction.
When you are speaking to someone about the gospel and they seem to agree with everything you say, I encourage you to dig a little deeper. I am afraid that often you will find that even many who attend evangelical churches still have the idea that their salvation is based in some part on what they do. I hope this blog may help you explain it to them differently.