Every human being that has ever lived has made a life or death wager – on God or on man. It’s not just atheists who bet on humanity. Most who believe there is a creator, a higher being or even multiple gods put their money on mankind. Every path to life after death ever conceived in world history gambles that people have some say in their eternal destiny. Only Christianity, which was not conceived by man but revealed by God, bets that we have no control. There’s no amount of good we can do, no degree of sin we can avoid, and no enlightenment we can achieve to earn salvation. The Creator had to come down because His creation could not possibly fix what it broke. Only God could close the insurmountable gap between rampant sin and infinite holiness, reconciling creation with Creator.
However, that’s not the end of the story. Within Christianity, throngs of professed adherents to the faith are still letting it all ride on man. When confronted with the question, “How do you know you’re going to heaven?”, they begin by describing where (or how often) they go to church, sacrifices they’ve made for the Lord, or a list of charitable activities. Like the character Ignorance in The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling books of all time, hints of “wage”-based philosophy have crept into the world’s only “gift”-based religion.
Trusting Christ fully for redemption means understanding that even our most fervent religious acts are “filthy rags”. We must bet the ranch on Christ’s righteousness, not our own. If we believe there’s one tiny morsel of goodness in us, any pure motives, anything worthy of God’s favor, we’re denying our need for Christ. Self-proclaimed Christians often hang their hats on their religious affiliation, claiming their ticket has been punched based on a label or status assigned to them, while clinging to a vestige of personal goodness by association. They’re placing a losing bet on man-made religion, not on God.
The Revival of Wage-Based Christianity
Why is this heresy so prevalent in Christianity today? Some would contend it stems from the teaching in most churches that God gives “favor” in this life for doing good things. If I pray hard enough, give generously or serve frequently, the Lord will reward me. That must mean that some part of me is good.
However, scripture paints quite a different picture. Jesus and all but one of his disciples died excruciating deaths at the hands of those who hated them. Paul suffered beatings, berating and imprisonment at every turn. Those inducted into the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 suffered mercilessly, never realizing their hopes and dreams in this life.
What they all had in common was a focus on rewards to come in the next life, after death. They all recognized that this earth was not their home and acted accordingly, gladly sacrificing everything for the sake of what was to come. “For the joy set before him He endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:2) “For he (Abraham) was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10).
Wage-based thinking is about earning and deserving. It’s about what God can do for me, a fair exchange conditional on my “good” thoughts and behaviors. Yet God’s love is unconditional and the gift of Jesus Christ is not for sale. Christianity is not about having a better life or sustaining us through the hard times (the theme of most Christian songs today). However, pastors often make those promises, implying that our religious acts are “good”, not “filthy”. They encourage taking a gamble on self-righteousness, leading us to believe that our personal sacrifices will bring a commensurate return from the Lord. The grand irony is that God has no intention of rewarding us for a works-oriented mentality that He sent Jesus to destroy.
The illusion of man’s goodness has infiltrated Christianity since the days of the early church. Surrendering all control to Jesus and leaving our fate entirely in His hands goes against our inherently self-centered nature. However, its recent rapid expansion within American churches is largely a result of…
- the vast number of church buildings, each carrying fixed expenses that have to be covered…
- going after a shrinking “pie” of frequent attenders…
- each of whom gives less today…
- in a landscape filled with more Walmart churches, making life difficult for “mom-and-pop shops”…
- and seminaries producing significant numbers of aspiring pastors every year.
It’s a vicious cycle. Those “competitive” factors fuel efforts to attract and retain churchgoers, which in turn:
- defines church as a place and treats congregants as “customers”, removing their sense of personal responsibility for pursuing the real “customer” (as defined by the Great Commission), those who don’t know Jesus
- drives up the number of “dones” who leave church, disillusioned by the transparency and disingenuousness of religion
- dissuades non-believers from getting to know Jesus because they aren’t seeing His love being poured out into the community by institution-building churches
…all of which combines to further shrink the “pie”, creating even greater incentive to attract and retain.
Why Work Without Rewards?
Humility doesn’t “sell” in today’s Selfism-driven culture. Selfism assumes human nature is “good”, whereas Jesus teaches that mankind is inherently evil. The idea of being “poor in spirit”, wholly dependent on God with no trace of self-righteousness, directly contradicts our self-empowerment, consumeristic society. Churchgoers feel more comfortable working on self-improvement plans, and churches accommodate them by providing a list of church chores – attending regularly, plugging into a ministry and tithing.
We know the Bible teaches the importance of obedience and we dutifully comply, expecting recognition from pastors and rewards from God. We take some measure of pride in all we do for the Lord. But the essence of obedience is not compliance – it’s being in alignment with the Word of God, which says righteousness is found only in Christ. We have no right to boast in our benevolence – Romans 5:2 and 5:11 says we should boast only in the glory of God (i.e. His goodness). That’s the foundation of grace-based obedience – betting on God and trusting only in Him.
When we bet on our goodness and trust in ourselves, we may obey orders from the pastor or clean up our act, but we do so with wrong motives. We’re disobedient in our obedience, trying to work our way into the pastor’s good graces or earn God’s favor. Sanctification is learning to do what is right for the right reasons – out of our love for God – but realizing our motives are never truly pure in this life. Sanctification is the process of continually throwing ourselves at the feet of Jesus in thankfulness for mercifully overlooking our sin and bringing us into right relationship with the Father. Sanctification follows from discipleship, which breeds obedience as we sit at the feet of the Master, come to grips with His righteousness and ask the Holy Spirit to help us follow in His footsteps in how we live and love.
However, the redefinitions of “Church” and its intended “customer” have created a dichotomy between obedience and discipleship where none (should) exist. In other words, church leaders have become particularly cautious in our consumer culture about asking congregants to obey the Great Commission mandate, enduring all the discipline and disruptions that discipleship actually entails. The long, hard road of sanctification Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians has been reduced to repeating a phrase and joining a church.
It’s Your Turn
In Pilgrim’s Progress, nearly every time that Christian and his companion Hopeful stepped off the path to the Celestial City, it was because they were hedging the bet they had made on the righteousness of Christ. Most believers they encountered, although traveling along the same path, were veering off on self-righteous, wage-based detours. How have you seen modern church growth models contribute to leading Christians off the straight and narrow road?