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There’s no such thing as a get-out-of-hell-free card

It is Christmas time again. I’ve been seeing “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and George Clooney’s mother (Rosemary) on the television. Bill O’Reilly is carrying on about the war on Christmas over at Fox. The atheists are trying to get the religious influence out of the town square. People are more numerous in town doing their shopping. The decorations are up all over the place.

I will be with family. It might likely snow. I’m sure I’ll freeze my little toes off, and I’ll think of the cats back here in Bermuda.

We’ll likely have a big meal on Christmas. We’ll do the presents. It will be a good time.

It’s times like this that I get nostalgic thinking of when I was a child. There were five of us and our parents doing the Christmas thing. I remember my youngest brother dressing up like Santa Claus and walking down the stairs saying, “Ho, ho, ho.” He must have been about five at the time, and everyone started laughing. He died a few years back in an auto accident. My parents are also both gone, and my grandmother and aunt who used to spend every Christmas with us — they’re all gone.

Now, it’s my generation that is up to bat. We’re the oldest ones on the block. We’re the next ones to pass the baton. So, I think back over the life I’ve lived so far. I have not quite gotten to the place I watched my father arrive at in which he had already lived a long life and decided to eat whatever he wanted. So, he ate a lot of candy and drank these horribly sweet cocktails my brother used to make for him. They made me sick just to know they existed. I’m still watching what I eat, but God willing I’m going to get to that stage too, and then I’m going to eat pastries and red meat cooked over a BBQ. I’m going to eat lots of cheese, and drink good wine. I don’t know if my stomach will be able to tolerate it, but at least I have a fantasy to look forward to.

In the meantime I am thankful to be able to be with my children while it’s cold and snowing outside and to reflect on where I’ve been so far in life, what God has given me in terms of a meaningful life. It didn’t have to be the way that it’s been.

A lot of people think of religion as fire insurance — one’s “get out of hell free” card. Religion might be just that, even if there actually is not such thing as a get-out-of-hell-free card. Religion can be a way to pass the time thinking you’ve got the bases covered when you really don’t, and it’s a reason not to have to think about what’s actually going on, but no religion takes care of life where the spiritual rubber hits the road.

Getting out of hell does not come for nothing. It cost Jesus his life, and it costs everyone else theirs. I can hear the brakes going on now. You thought forgiveness and grace was unearned, that there was nothing you could do to work your way into heaven, and I would agree with that. But that doesn’t mean getting out of hell will cost you nothing. It will cost you everything.

It might cost you neutrality and respectability, because you’ll have to admit to someone somewhere in public that you believe Jesus died for your sins. Getting out of hell means coming out for Jesus.

It might cost you friends or lovers, because when Jesus gets inside you (which is what takes place when people believe in Him and trust Him for their eternal lives), you get rather excited about Him. Such people in a previous generation used to be called “Jesus freaks,” because of this phenomenon, and not everyone can tolerate being in a relationship with a Jesus freak.

It might cost you a habit or a customary pleasure if it seems to get in the way of your spiritual growth, and this thing called spiritual growth (technical term is sanctification) will also possibly lead you to watch Christian programming on t.v. or attend church. It’s not that you have to do those things to go to heaven, but it’s that if you really are getting out of hell because of Jesus, then you tend to want to associate with other people in the same boat, or to at least listen to them on the radio or watch them on the television and on YouTube.

You can’t just say that you believe in Jesus but then never make any changes, never show that Jesus makes any difference to the way you live your life. Existentially, people reveal themselves by what they do. It’s in the enactment, the doing, the action. It’s the work of faith that breaths life into the still body of mere affirmation. You can read a creed in church, recite the catechism, and can say that you believe that something is true, but if that doesn’t burrow down inside you to the point where you have to act on what you affirm, then your faith is actually dead. And it’s worthless in regards to getting you out of hell.

So it costs you something. You have to put up or shut up. You have to fight in this world for what you believe, and you have to fight against the world to prove that you believe. Such action may or may not prove it to others, and God already knows the condition of your heart, but the cost of your discipleship is the struggle of faith that proves your faith to yourself. That conflict with oneself costs a lot. Paul said of himself that at many times the good thing he desired to do he did not do and the bad thing he detested he did. He called out, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who can save me from this dynamic?”

There is a get-out-of-hell-free card. But it’s not really free.