This piece was originally published at The Christian Post on July 9, 2012.
In Monopoly, one dreads getting the Community Chest card, “Go to jail – go directly to jail – Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.” Much better is the card “Get out of jail, free.” You can keep it until you need it. If only the spiritual life with all its consequences for our actions was that easy. I wonder how often those of us in the West look at our faith as if it is nothing more than spiritual monopoly.
A seminary student of mine, Calin Popa, who was born and raised in Romania, told me that “Salvation is free” is a claim that Western missionaries brought to Romania after the fall of communism and the doors to the West were opened. Before the doors were opened, the message among Romanian churches was more like “Salvation will cost you dearly. You can go to jail for free.” Pastors who warned their congregants of the costliness of the faith knew that their next sermon could be their last message to their congregation. One never knew if the authorities would come and take them away to prison. In America, a pastor’s next sermon (or a professor’s next book!) could and can be the message that launches the career. This reminds me of what Joseph Aldrich would say about the danger of desire for personal gain and profit in ministry: one can enter into the ministry to do good and end up doing quite well (Lifestyle Evangelism: Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You, Multnomah Books, 1993 edition, p. 134). What a stark contrast to what Calin said.
Calin went on to say,
During communism Christians lived under the threat of humiliation, intimidation, joblessness, beatings, torture, interrogation, jail, forced labor, and execution. There was little emphasis on salvation being “free” because there was no way to hide the cost. And although it was hard and many compromised under pressure betraying their brothers, the church as a whole was used to paying a high price for following Christ. After Romania opened to the West, the gospel came in as “free,” and people started looking at it as free fire insurance more than as a costly relationship. The cost was not extracted from them by the communists anymore, and for a while they thought that there was no cost. Yet the cost was and is high because today the children and grandchildren of those who resisted persecution are seduced by the false consumerist gospel message of salvation without a cost to self.
No doubt, there are many missionaries from the West and many Romanian Christians who sacrifice a great deal today for their faith in various ways. I am no Romanian church or missions scholar, so I do not know how widespread the problem of cheap grace messages from the West and contemporary Romanian Christians’ appropriation of the consumeristic gospel is. However, I do know that when Calin shared about his experience, it reminded me of my own experience here in the States. The challenge that we all face in the West is the need to guard against using the faith for personal gain and profit. Spiritual monopoly isn’t really a game. One can really lose one’s soul, if one takes the “Get out of jail, free” card to represent a materialistic and consumeristic view of the gospel, which supposedly allows for an easy way out of one’s troubles and conflicts.
Certainly, God’s grace is free, but it will cost us our lives in various ways to follow Christ. May God not allow us to leverage the faith to profit ourselves. May God leverage our lives to profit the faith. For Jesus said, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)