Recently my wife and I traveled to spend time with family. I have a bit of a love/dislike (not hate) relationship with these visits. The reason is because my wife and I continue to follow the faith that we were raised in, while my siblings and their mates have chosen another path. In fact, neither of my sibling’s mates was raised in the faith that all three of us grew up observing.
During these visits the conversation invariably finds its way to the topic of what is required for salvation. Said another way, the question is “What does one have to do to be saved?” as opposed to “What does God find acceptable?” I find that each of these discussions end up pointing to the same conclusion with only slight variations on how it is arrived at. The conclusion is, “Come as you are and stay that way. God loves you, accepts you, and is happy with you as you are.”
This trip I was presented with a new twist to the same theme, one I had not previously heard. I was told that the reason there are so many different denominations within Christianity is because God wants to make sure He can meet as many people as possible “where they are” in order to “reach” them. In other words, if there are enough “brands” of Christianity, then everyone will find an acceptable path to God. The concept here is that if God casts a wide enough net (as if God, not man and his divisive nature, created all of these denominations) and He lowers His standards to human criteria in order to reach us, and then all we have to do is believe in Him and He will accept us (no change necessary). You see, God is so desperate to have a relationship with us that if He doesn’t capitulate in this way, He will be out of luck. Why? Because no one wants to have a relationship with a God they have to actually change for. Everyone should be able to stay the way they are, live the way they want to live, and let God come to them and meet them where they are.
Is this concept accurate? Let’s briefly examine the Scriptures to see if this is true.
The first thing I see in Scripture is, when God created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, He, not man, set the standard to live by (Genesis 2:15-17). When Adam and Eve did not live by His standard, He didn’t just accept them as they were. There were consequences for their disobedience (Genesis 3:16-19), and there was a very clear change in the relationship between God and man for his disobedience (Genesis 3:22-24). Mankind became estranged from God as a result of his sin. Mind you, there is no indication that God loved Adam and Eve any less than He did before they sinned, which is where I believe many people jump track. Consequences and estrangement are viewed as a lessening of love when in fact God uses them as teaching tools to show His way is the only way. He does this for us in love, with the hope that we will find our way back to full reconciliation with Him.
The mistake many people make is to think that God is somehow tolerant of sin. Just because He was merciful enough to make a way for us to be reconciled with Him when we sin does not mean He tolerates or accepts sin in any way, shape, or form. He makes that abundantly clear in the example of the woman caught in the act of adultery. Though Christ forgave her sin, He was clear in His instruction regarding her future actions: “Go and sin no more!” (John 8:10-11).
God is willing to forgive our sin as long as we are willing to repent of it (1 John 1:8-9). But we should not mistake His mercy regarding sin as acceptance or tolerance of sin. In fact, He is so non-accepting and intolerant of sin that He required His Son to die for it (Romans 5:6-8), which Christ did willingly. Think about that! Even though Christ never sinned, He had to die for our sin so the path to reconciliation could exist.
What would be the point of baptism, which is a requirement of all true Christians, if all we had to do was accept Jesus in our hearts and believe? I mean, what is baptism a symbol of? It is the death and burial of the old man, the cleansing (washing away) of sin, and the resurrection to a new life in Christ Jesus—a changed and different life from our old one (Romans 6:3-5). Why bother with repenting, crucifying the old man, or destroying the body of sin if there is no need to change how we live (Romans 6:6)? Suddenly the entire plan of salvation makes no sense whatsoever if we remove the need to change. What are we being saved from if all we have to do is believe?
Continuing to live in sin after we have been forgiven of it, or stated in another way, staying the way we are, is not what Jesus gave His life for (Romans 6:1-2). He gave His life so that sin could be forgiven upon repentance, not accepted. His forgiveness provides the reconciliation that is the foundation from which we are able to build a relationship with our Father and Elder Brother, which enables us become more like Them.
The path to forgiveness of sin (sin being the breaking of God’s law—1 John 3:4) was not provided so we can be accepted as we are, but so we can change our thoughts and actions to His. Why would the apostle Paul tell us to be dead to sin, not allow sin to rule our lives, and not to “yield our members as instruments of sin” if our actions are acceptable to God after we are forgiven (Romans 6:11-13)?
In the beginning God set the bar on how mankind was to live and He continues to do so through His Word today. Through a vibrant relationship with God powered by His Holy Spirit, we are expected to rise to meet His standard, not the other way around. As we are told in 2 Corinthians 10:5, we are to “bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” Again, think about that. Every thought is a pretty high standard! According to this verse, I am to raise myself to His standard, not expect Him to lower Himself to mine. So when God works with people, though He does start working with us “where we are,” His expectation is that we will not stay there!