Some people seem to be Christians not because they want to know and follow Jesus, but because they’ve bought into a “deal” whereby they get something they want out of religion, and so they put in what they think they must, in order to get it. These “deals” vary from denomination to denomination and from tradition to tradition, but they always fall short of what Jesus is actually looking for from us.
The traditional “Catholic deal” (which is true also of the churches of the East and to a certain extent of Anglicanism) is clericalism. This “deal” looks like this. Clerics (priests, nuns, monks, friars and so forth) are supposed to be holy. The laity are to contribute some financial support, and perhaps volunteer for this or that, and go to church for obligatory visits and at key life moments, to watch priests do holy rituals on their behalf. Anything more is for the clergy to do. This misperception is perhaps one of the reasons that the discovering of predators and predator-enablers in priest’s clothing has been so damaging: it is not that priests are the only guise that predators assume (far from it), it is that people who have bought into the Catholic “deal” are looking for their clergy to be holy on their behalf, and when they are not, they believe the deal has been broken, and indeed it has. Yet the deal was skewed in the first place: God wants all of us, not just priests, to be holy and to do what is right.
The various “deals” from the Protestant tradition are a bit different. Luther’s idea is one: that human beings are dunghills, incapable of being clean, who get into heaven only by being covered up from the Father’s judging eyes by the merits of Jesus. It is mistaken in that we are not in fact dung: we are made to be in God’s image and, though sinners, are transformed by Christ into something holy [2 Corinthians 3:18], fit for heaven. In other words, salvation is not about Jesus sneaking “unworthy us” into heaven as if we were teenagers crashing a backstage party, it is about Jesus making us fit to be there. Yes, while we are not dung, we are indeed dirty, but Jesus will clean us up if we follow him, to make us fit to be with God.
Another Protestant “deal” is Calvin’s idea that God predestines who to save, and that we are all simply playing out a script prepared for us in advance. In this view, no matter what we do, the outcome is already set. But salvation is not a rigged sports match where the outcome has been pre-decided in secret, God desires all to be saved [1 Timothy 2:4]. Yes, God does predestine us for heaven: for that reason, he made us in his image, and sent his son, Jesus, to save us. But being made in God’s image means having free will; God doesn’t decide in advance which one of us to save and which to condemn, he calls all of us to follow him, which we are free to do or not. Our freedom is genuine: it is not “rigged”, it is up to us.
Yet another “deal” popular in Evangelical circles is the “name it and claim it” deal, where if we believe in our heart the truth about Jesus, and say so [Romans 10:9], that no matter what we do, we have “assurance of salvation” and we cannot fail to be saved. This is thought to mean that by agreeing to some facts about Jesus, and saying so, we’re good. But this is a misunderstanding of what “in your heart” actually means. Belief in your heart is something lived, not just something thought and said. Belief that is not lived out in action is no belief at all.
All these “deals” have the same effect: they whisper a tempting lie in our ears. “Don’t sweat it”, they murmur, “you don’t really have to become good. Someone else will be good instead of you. Just do a few pro-forma things and then you can just piggyback on someone else’s goodness.” The truth of the matter is that we really do need to become good ourselves. It is not sufficient that someone else “be good” in our stead, not even Jesus. True, we cannot be good by our own efforts alone, but Jesus makes it possible for us to be good with his help. He makes us good by calling us to take up our cross and follow him: if we do, he will do his part. But if we do not, then that is a different story. Jesus sees our hearts: he will judge properly how well we have followed. But the judgment is not made in advance. What it will be depends on what we decide, in our own hearts, through our own free will. We need to choose to follow Jesus, and live out that choice. He will save us, if we let him.