Religion invariably contains instructions about what to do and what not to do. This makes it easy to think that religion might be, among other things, a sort of self-help system, where we figure out the right things to do, and do them to get the good results we want. Christianity, however, does not work like this. Yes, Christianity includes things to do and things not to do. But the good results to be found in Christianity are not an automatic consequence of doing the right things. It is a bit more complicated, and much more profound, than that.
Christianity is a relationship between God and human beings. God is perfect, but human beings are not, and all human beings fall short of God’s standards [Romans 3:23]. It is impossible for human beings, by their own efforts, to “do the right things” well enough, because God’s perfection is out of reach. But because God loves human beings, he is not content to leave it that way. He himself becomes a human being, Jesus, to do something about it [John 3:16]. Jesus does not provide a comprehensive system or set of instructions for pleasing God. Instead, he tells people to follow him, and he himself will give them eternal life [John 10:27-28]. Sadly, Jesus is not well received by some, who plot to torture and execute him. Jesus sees this coming, but lets it happen anyway [Mark 8:31]: he is crucified and killed as if he were a criminal [Luke 23:33]. But that is not how it ends. Jesus does not stay dead: he is raised to life [Matthew 28:6], never again to be killed, and to this day he continues to offer life with God to those who believe in and follow him [John 11:25]. This is the essence of the Christian story. The consequences are profound: it is not in following a set of rules that Christians are saved, it is in following Jesus himself.
Where, then, do the rules of Christianity come in? Christianity certainly has plenty of rules: love your neighbor, do not murder, do not steal, and many others. It is easy and sometimes tempting to reduce Christianity to this set of rules, reducing Jesus to a sort of wise historical rule-giver, as if he is another Confucius, Plato or Buddha. It makes things simple, turning life into a sort of sport or game where you can do what you want (within the rules) to see what you can win for yourself. But this is not what Jesus is about. Treating Christianity in this way is risky (and mistaken) because you may end up following the rules, more or less, but not receive life with God. The reason is that it is not following the rules, but following Jesus, that saves. Following the rules is important and helpful (it helps us avoid many dangers, and Jesus asks us to follow them, out of love for him) but it is not enough, it is not sufficient. Only Jesus himself is sufficient. Happily, because Jesus wants us to be saved, when we fail to follow the rules, we can repent and go to him for forgiveness. That does not mean we can ignore the rules (Jesus is nobody’s fool) but it does mean that our being made right with God, our salvation, depends not on the excellence of our rule-following, but on following Jesus, who goes to great lengths to save us. This is what makes Christianity special, and different from all other religions. As Christians, we are saved not by rules, principles, teachings, books, or a system of life, we are saved by Jesus himself, who knows and loves each one of us personally. He calls us, each one of us, to love and to follow him. Let us do so, trusting in him to save us.