Religion v the Gospel

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A transcript of a short talk by Terran Williams, Teaching Pastor from Common Grounds Church in Cape Town, South Africa (http://commonground.co.za/ )

Let me tell you what I didn’t like about Christianity. Basically I saw it as another ladder, another religion. 

I know fantastic people of all faith persuasions, but let’s face it – that’s what religions are. They are ladders to God. They can be summed up like this: ‘I obey, then God accepts me’. You have to climb the ladder by obeying all the moral and religious rules. 

I love Thailand. There – and in Nepal – I have met wonderful Buddhists. I have asked them about their religion. It’s all about the Noble Eightfold way. Buddha started it. It’s a lot of hard work – relinquishing your earthly desires, endless rituals, spinning prayer wheels – but at the end of it, there’s Nirvana (that’s my middle name by the way.) You obey, then you’re accepted. A ladder. 

I love Indonesia. Other than being surf-heaven, it’s the most populous Muslim nation in the world. There I have asked people about their religion. (Mind you I have met quite a few Muslims here in Cape Town.) It’s all about the five pillars of Islam. It’s a ladder. I obey – I say my prayers, I fast, I take the pilgrimage – then I am accepted. 

I love India. Been there twice. The Hindu nation of the world. So many varieties of Hinduism, but at the heart of it, it’s a ladder. There’s the law of karma constantly rewarding good deeds, constantly repaying bad deeds. Visiting the temples, bringing offering to the gods. Obey, then you’re accepted. 

I’ve never been to Israel. But I grew up in Sea Point, the Jewish capital of the Cape. So many wonderful Jewish friends. My orthodox Jewish friends live by the Torah, the law, with the Ten Commandments as its center. It’s a ladder. I obey, then I am accepted. 

I grew up sort of connected to one version of Christianity. I don’t remember what they actually said, but I will tell you what I heard – ‘Obey God. Come to church, read the Bible, pray, don’t be bad. Then you will be accepted.’ That was my problem with Christianity. Another ladder. 

What’s so bad about a ladder? Well, it tends to either puff you up or break you down. Some people are really good ladder climbers. They seem to be good at sticking to the rules. But you know what I notice in these people. They are confident (because they’re at the top of the ladder) but not that humble (because they got there through their own sweat). And these people have a way of being – I don’t know how else to say this – proud, better than the rest of us. They’re confident but not humble – puffed up. 

On the other hand, some people like me are really bad ladder climbers. We’re no good at sticking at the rules. I don’t know about you, but by the time I was a teenager I could have filled a book with shameful things I’d done and said and thought – most of which I felt no shame for. I met many of these people in these religions who were poor ladder climbers. Falling short of their standards, and of God’s acceptance, they were broken by their religion. Humble but not confident. (Eastern faiths for example often suggest it will take many lifetimes to achieve moksha/salvation.) 

That’s my problem with ladders, with religions. Some people in that religion end up being confident, but not humble. Others end up humble, but not confident. I can think of better things to do with my time, with my life. 

I would have walked past Jesus. But when I was 16, after tragically losing my father, I made the discovery of my life. I heard a verse that said, ‘It is by God’s grace that you are accepted, not because of any of your good works – so you can’t boast about your relationship with God’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). That didn’t sound like a ladder. It sounded too good to be true. 

But it was true. I found that at the heart of Christianity is a cross, not a ladder. Unlike all the great religions of the world, Jesus is the only one who openly confronted the ladder-approach to God, and replaced it with something totally different. 

Something that cost him, not us, everything. The cross. 

You see, Jesus says, ‘God accepts you. Now you want to obey.’ See, he flips it on its head. None of us are good enough, says Jesus. We’re flawed and selfish in the deepest ways. So he does something amazing: he descends the ladder and dies for us on the cross. God takes your and my shameful ways and puts it on Jesus on the cross, and punishes it there. And he takes Christ’s acceptance and puts it on all those who trust in him. The cross is God’s way of accepting people like me who have lived unacceptably. God loves me so much that he’d rather die than live without me! (Which is what he did). 

As a teenager I understood it for the first time. I kicked away the ladder. I got on my knees at the foot of the cross. And there and then, God’s grace fell upon my life. Waves of mercy broke over my undeserving soul. 

You know what started to happen next? Two things. I became much humbler. I realized I was just as messed up as everybody else, probably more messed up than most. I didn’t need to hide that anymore. I can never look down on others! But I also became more confident. Jesus had done for me what I could never do for myself. Now I can live every day of my life accepted by God. Not because of my good deeds, and despite the bad things I sometimes do, all because of the goodness and the sacrifice of Christ! 

I can’t explain what a source of humility and confidence, awe and joy this has been to me over the years. It melts my heart every time I think about. It makes me want to live for God. More than that, it empowers me to live for God. Not to earn his acceptance, but because I already have it! 

All because Jesus descended the ladder, broke it and turned it into a cross. Now sinners like me can meet God, not at the top of a ladder but at the foot of a cross.

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