I dated a pastor’s daughter when I was 21, with whom I had long-drawn conversations about faith and religion. As someone who had only became a follower of Jesus a couple years prior, I asked her out of curiosity,
“When did you first give your life to Christ?”
“I guess I’ve always known Him,” she replied. “I’ve always been saved.”
Interesting statement, I thought. How does being born of a religious family automatically make someone ‘saved’ by default? I’ve had friends say they’ve accepted Christ in their hearts at five years old, so it didn’t sound too off-base. Although, I was still taken aback by such a pious remark.
I have to admit, I was a pretty awkward guy in my late teens and early twenties. Even though I tried my best to maintain our long-distance relationship, it was short-lived. It became all the more real when she told me,
“I need to focus on my relationship with God.”
Fair enough. But within a couple weeks later, I was dumbfounded when she posted a poem titled I Want You To Chase Me on her blog. Of course, I assumed it was directed towards me, so I pursued her again upon impulse. But I found out rather quickly how wrong I was. I’d be lying if I said I have not struggled with feeling extremely bitter towards her for feeling so led-on. Although forgiveness has never been my greatest strength, I do wish her the best and hope she finds a relationship that fulfills her in ways I could not. However, this experience caused me to be on my guard whenever I considered to date Christian women.
This wasn’t the last time I was burned by a fellow believer. I’ve had many former friends who acted like Sunday morning saints and treat others horribly, including myself, every other day of the week. One friend I once worked for told me all my mistakes were a direct reflection of my relationship with God. A paradox, it seems, when they brushed aside their own wrongdoings as though they were the real victims.
These, among many other negative experiences, led me to question the notion that Christians were justified by faith alone.
Moralistic Superiority Syndrome
Some of the most manipulative, condescending, rude and difficult people I’ve dealt with were those who claimed to follow Christ. This does not mean all Christians act this way, but there’s a special type of arrogance that comes with believing one is already predestined to be ‘saved.’ It’s a mindset that seems to cause people to think of others as less holy, sometimes even less desirable, intelligent or valuable. In effect, ‘faith’ becomes a crafty disguise to render a person in complete denial of their own wrongdoings. Those who harbor a bad case of moralistic superiority syndrome only seem to confirm the bad stereotypes. In a world where negativity spreads like wildfire, I think this is one of the many reasons why many people become turned off by Christianity.
The idea that one can nonchalantly ‘accept’ Jesus as their personal savior without culpability for their actions seems to be a very destructive mindset. It seems easy to create a false dichotomy that faith and good deeds are somehow at odds with each other when people cite pet verses saying, ‘Justified by faith, not by works.’ ¹ Most who subscribe to this ideology believe good deeds are a reflection of faith in the same manner a good tree should bear good fruit. 2
But what does it mean to have faith? People often refer to when the Bible quotes, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 3 But the Bible also states that even the demons ‘believe’ in God, and shudder. 4 This leads me to wonder whether or not mere ‘faith’ is sufficient in itself.
“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning? how art thou fallen to the earth, that didst wound the nations?
And thou saidst in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north.
I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the most High.
But yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, into the depth of the pit.” 5
Lucifer, the devil and former archangel of God, was cast out of Paradise along with a third of the angels for the very same sin many Christians carry – the sin of pride. From my understanding, Lucifer and the rebelling angels experienced God’s glory firsthand. 6 It is also believed that angels and humans are two completely different beings, but have free will and the capacity to rebel. If belief and actions were supposedly divorced from one another, shouldn’t Lucifer’s ‘faith’ have secured him in Paradise? 7
Or perhaps this implies that faith and obedience are inseparable? As the Book of James quotes,
“What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” 8
To me, using Jesus’ death for our sins as ‘fire insurance’ while being self-aware of our own deliberate wrongdoing seems like a giant cop-out from being accountable for our own actions. For the Scriptures also say,
“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” 9
“For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries.” 10
What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life?
The truth is, nobody likes to be preached at or told to be a sinner, especially Christians. But I do believe being a follower of Christ truly means acknowledging we are all equally fallible human beings. 11 Having faith definitely helps me realize that working for our salvation is like washing with dirty rags; 12 although there is something to be said about holding each other accountable for our actions as long as it is meant to build each other up. 13
Whether a person believes in Jesus or not, no one is exempt from personal responsibility. When Christ’s suffering comes to mind, I think of how everyone (especially those who aren’t religious) have their own crosses to bear. Everyone has to endure the hardships of life and also experience death at some point. Should other people’s sufferings be invalidated just because they suffer without faith? Absolutely not! In fact, as people of faith, it should be our job to empathize with them. If we as Christians cannot see Jesus in those who live among us, how can we possibly love our enemies let alone Christ himself? Mother Teresa once quoted,
“I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”
In the Gospel, Jesus is approached by a rich young ruler,
And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”
And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
He said to him, “Which?”
And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. 14
People have often used this passage to justify the notion that nobody can fully obey the Ten Commandments. I think it brings to light that in order to have good faith, one is required to act faithfully. I don’t think mere belief without repentance or obedience should be a free pass to the higher circles of Heaven. Faith and good works ought to go hand-in-hand, not one without the other.
If one were to ask whether I’m saved through faith in Jesus, my answer would go like this – I was saved, 15 I am in the process of being saved, 16 and I have a hope that I will be saved. 17 My greatest hope is that my love for God will be shown in how I treat everyone as valuable people made in His image.
But ultimately, it is not up to me to decide whether or not I fit the criteria for entering Paradise. If I invoke judgement upon myself for presuming to qualify for salvation due to mere faith without any regard for my actions, then I sure as hell deserve it.
¹ Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-9
2 Matthew 7:17-18
3 Acts 16:30-32
4 James 2:19
5 Isaiah 14:12-15 Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition
6 2 Peter 2:4
7 1 John 3:8; John 8:44; St. John Damascene, De Fide orth. 2,4: PG 94,877.
8 James 2:14, 24, 26 Revised Standard Version
9 Matthew 23:12 Revised Standard Version
10 Hebrews 10:26-27 Revised Standard Version
11 Romans 3:10,23
12 Isaiah 64:6
13 Proverbs 27:17
14 Matthew 19:16-22 RSV
15 Romans 8:24
16 1 Corinthians 1:18, Philippians 2:12
17 Romans 5:9