What Boxes Do You Cross in the Attempt to Gain Eternal Life?
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was the religion of many teenagers over ten years ago. To the extent that those teenagers come of age are still embracing the MTD ideology today, they maintain that God functions as a divine butler or a cosmic therapist. The divine butler or cosmic therapist deity of MTD comes to our aid when we need him to solve problems but who otherwise remains at a distance to reward us with heaven if we live good lives. What does that do to Jesus and his work? Without wishing to demean the idea that Jesus does come to our aid and provides comfort and emotional support and healing, this does not exhaust Jesus’ identity and work. He does not take kindly to having to check boxes of tasks we expect him to perform on an occasional basis so we can make it the rest of the way on our own to heaven.
MTD tends to assume that we are basically good and that we can make it to heaven on our own with a little help from God from time to time. I wonder if the rich young ruler in Matthew’s Gospel was a card-carrying member of MTD who was transported back in time to first century Palestine. He asks Jesus: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16; ESV) Notice that salvation is something he seeks to attain by his own effort. He is looking for the box to cross or to check to gain eternal life. But what if there is no good deed box to cross? What if the answer is out of the box? What if the answer to his question is not an action plan for activists or a belief system for theologians, but a person to follow. Jesus tells the rich young ruler, “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” (Matthew 19:21; ESV). Jesus doesn’t tell him he will be saved by selling his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor (though it does not mean hording wealth and ignoring the poor either!). Rather, it is to die to his former way of life and embrace Jesus’ life.
No doubt, this rich young ruler (probably a progenitor of capitalism!) could have gone out and made a whole lot more money after selling his possessions and giving all of the proceeds to the poor. The issue wasn’t giving away money (Surely, he could put it down as a tax write off!). Rather, Jesus was calling this young ruler to Jesus as ruler, which entails a new way of being and allegiance. It would entail selling all his possessions to gain the pearl of great price—Jesus and his kingdom: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46; ESV).
The rich man might have been relieved if he could have thrown money at a poverty problem, just like some of us might be relieved if Jesus asked us to perform various good deeds or solve theological mysteries. But Jesus tells this man and the rest of us to put down our money and our pens used to cross or check activity and theological boxes and follow Jesus.
To be clear, no one is saved by following Jesus. But we are saved by the Jesus we follow. The only thing Jesus asks of us is everything: “Come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). We need to move from trying to cross boxes to carrying our cross with Jesus who was crucified and rose from the dead to bring us eternal life.
What boxes do you and I cross to try and gain salvation? We must desist and stop resisting Jesus’ call on our lives. We will never make it to heaven by being rich or by becoming poor, by being good people or by believing the right thing. Rather, heaven comes to us as we follow Jesus, aligning our lives with the One who alone saves us and who identifies with the poor: “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40; ESV).