Forget everything you thought you knew about Christianity
Very often I hear pastors preach about how people who believe in Christ have eternal life. It’s based on the belief that Jesus took the penalty for our sins, and so God punished Him in our place. God is just (in applying the penalty for sin to Jesus) and the justifier (in applying the righteousness of Christ to those who believe in what He did by dying on the cross). It occurs to me that this line of thinking is based on the breaking of laws, of sinning, of falling short of the glory of God. It goes back to the events surrounding creation in the book of Genesis:
“The Lord God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil … Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’”
I believe that. I know that the Bible teaches that. However, it also seems a bit rudimentary to make being “saved” to be just about obedience to commandments — or a set of rules. It’s not insignificant, and it’s a tremendously freeing thing to know that because of Jesus there is now no penalty for sin. But if I think about it, is that what this is all about? God saying, “You broke my rules; so, I’m going to send you to hell.” Is that what’s going on? How to escape that? There just has to be more to it than that. That would make God into a child. That would also make Christianity simply about rules — rules that we can’t keep so that we are sinners and rules that we don’t have to worry about any longer because we are saved if we believe that Jesus was the propitiation for our sin.
In my experience the Christian life is not about rules. I think people often make it that. They say words like “should” and “ought.” We should deny ourselves. We ought to love one another. Again, I know that the Bible says these things too, but I think we often go beyond what the Bible says. We add stuff like how we should dress, how we ought to speak.
I think there is more to spiritual life than this. The New Testament writer to the Hebrew Christians thought so too. He said, “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.”
There is certainly a need to understand how Jesus fulfills the Mosaic Law, how the law is a teacher instructing us of our inabilities to keep it and our need of a Savior. However, these are the “elementary” teachings about the Christ. Parents are happy when their children grow — when they are no longer in diapers and no longer require milk. Parents are happy when their children thrive and develop strength and a capacity to function, when they become strong and can shoulder burdens and carry out responsibilities. Parents are happy when their children acquire knowledge, but they are even more thankful when their children develop wisdom. So it is with spiritual maturity.
When people develop the capacity to hear directly from God and when they demonstrate an understanding of revelation and how it applies to daily life, then children no longer need adults to tell them what things mean or what they ought to do. It’s more a matter of developing the relationship with God than merely trying to stay on the right side of His rules.
This is what Dallas Willard wrote about in Hearing God and it’s what CS Lewis wrote about in Surprised by Joy.
I think the main thing is the connection one has with a living God. Think of it. The one who created the universe, who lives in a dimension somewhat parallel to the one we know so well (call it heaven), and who has set his affections on us for some reason (He didn’t have to; he had the angels and he had the company of the other two persons in the Godhead), wants a relationship with us.
The medium for that relationship is the spirit. We have spirit, but in another way we ARE spirit. We are spirited-bodies. When we do not use spirit to communicate with the living God, we set our inner sense on such things as beauty, other spiritual beings, physics, metaphysical systems of philosophy and such — the things of value and that we cherish, but the things of the soul that we cannot touch, weigh, measure, taste, or see. We worship the creation instead of the creator, and we dabble in secondary, minor importances — including such things as religious rules.
The primary concern of a maturing Christian life must be one’s ability to sustain contact with the living Being of God, the God who also IS spirit, and the God who speaks back to us IN spirit. This is a capacity one has to develop by waiting on God and learning to listen for His “still small voice.” He will not shout, and He will not repeat Himself. He will not give up on you, because scripture assures us that He will complete the work He has begun in each person who has spiritual life. However, if you want to grow beyond the elementary things of salvation, it will require nurturing your relationship with God, learning to listen and to respond in faith, and letting go of virtually everything you thought you knew about Christianity — not because it isn’t true, but because that’s not the name of this game.