I would hazard a guess that most people in Australia have no idea what the difference is between different religions. There are some obvious differences of course – different head coverings, different holy days, different building attended for church/mosque/synagogue/temple. But when it comes to belief systems, I think that many people simply think that the different religions all pretty much teach the same thing. After all, all of the major religions encourage people to be ‘good’ or moral and have some kind of law or code to follow. So it, in many people’s minds, comes down to what flavour you prefer, or what your cultural background is.
Now, as I am Christian minister, you don’t need to have wonderful powers of deduction to conclude that I disagree with this majority viewpoint. Yes, I am a Christian and not a follower of any other religion. And yes, I even teach others about Christianity! Of course I will say the religion I follow is different and distinctive, and better! But on what basis could I say this?
I had the privilege of attending a preaching conference for 2 days this week, with Bryan Chapell as the main speaker. It was refreshing to hear someone speaking so clearly about grace and hope in preaching, and reminding us that preaching is not simply about telling people what to do or making them feel guilty. All good preaching should give people hope, and all good preaching should direct people to Jesus.
But there was something that Bryan said that resonated with me and make me think. He said that it would be helpful to ask of any sermon (or any bit of Christian teaching really) whether the message would be acceptable in a synagogue or a mosque. After all, if the main message of a Christian sermon is that you should not steal, and that you should be honest in all your dealings, that moral is shared by our brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith and Islam. That doesn’t make that message wrong in itself, it just makes it less than Christian.
So what is distinctive about the Christian message? Well, that’s simple really. Christianity is all about grace, while the other religions are not.
Let’s explain it this way, by asking a core question. How is it that people connect with their god, or get to heaven, or reach nirvana? Yes, the answer will differ according to the different religions, but the basic answer is the same. You need to do something, or think a certain way, or live a certain way. You do more good things than bad things, or you offer the right types of sacrifices, or you go on the right pilgrimage. And then your god will reward you for your behaviour.
How do Christians believe that they are connected with God, which will result in a fulfilled life now and heaven in the future? It is not through anything they do. It is all to do with what has been done for them. Christians believe that we are simply not capable of living good enough lives, doing what god requires of us, and we need someone to have done it in our place. And the Bible teaches that this Person is Jesus, who died on the cross and rose again to connect us with God. Yes, Christians are to live good lives now, but in response to God’s grace and love, not to earn our way in. Nothing we do makes God love us more than he already does in Jesus.
In summary, all other religions are about what you do. Christianity is about what has been done for you. And that little difference makes all the difference in the world. It means you live in thankfulness and not fear; you are motivated by love and not guilt; and it means you can be certain of the future for it does not depend on you.
So when I teach the Bible, I am doing people a disservice if the whole message is “do this” or “do not do this”. Yes, that will be part of it, for we do need guidance on these things. But all preaching needs to give believers real hope; for Jesus truly is the answer, and trying harder will not ever be good enough.