“By the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with Him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.” Romans 3:24
Once upon a time, if you wanted to get right with God, you went to Jerusalem. You’d take the best of the best of what you had, and you’d offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, reparations for sin, and tithes for the priesthood.
That’s how you’d get right with God.
That isn’t too different from how it was in other parts of the world. Sacrifices and offerings would be brought to the temples, and the priesthood would intercede — mediate between the people and their gods. In the matriarchal societies, people even sacrificed their own children – a way to show the Mother Goddess that they were willing to part with even their precious children just to get a little rain and abundance, in hopes of a better future for themselves.
These might seem like old and archaic ways, and yet in many ways, they’re not. They’re as contemporary as they come. In certain Asian restaurants, you will see little altars with offerings to Buddhas and other deities of good fortune. At Botanicas in Brooklyn, you can buy idols and candles and other tools to placate the spirits of Santeria. In Cambridge, I had Haitian friends who would regularly sacrifice chickens in Voudou ceremonies, right out in their backyards, to entice a spirit to come into the gathering and possess someone for good luck. And as far as it seems we’ve come since the ancient times, nonetheless it is just as common now as then for women and couples to sacrifice children, usually before birth, in hopes of securing a better future for themselves.
I have friends who have traveled to India to temporarily wash their sins away in the Ganges River. I have many more friends who have traveled to Peru and sacrificed to the spirits of the jungle and fasted in preparation for an ayahuasca journey, a substance-induced vision quest for inner peace and purpose. And of course, many of our Muslim friends will at some point in their lives observe the obligatory Hajj, or religious pilgrimage to Mecca.
A journey like that must be amazing. I’m sure it feels exciting to take part in such elaborate rituals and promising religious obligations. Unfortunately, if that’s what you want, Christianity doesn’t have much to offer you. With Christianity, the only thing you’ll get is right with God! On the surface, maybe it won’t seem as exciting as a trip to India, to Peru, to Mecca, but it’ll do the one thing none of those things can – it’ll get you right with God.
Am I saying there is only one way to God? Am I saying there is no way to God but through Jesus? Of course I am. Those dreaded words that drive many non-believing people crazy, me among them once upon a time – the words of Jesus Christ himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes from the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Amen! “Ex ecclesiam, nulla salus” — outside the church, the universal body of Christ, there is no salvation.
But what does that mean!?
For non-believers, it means you have some reading, thinking, and praying to do! Read the Bible, think about its claims, and pray for God’s guidance. If you’re an atheist, you have to ask, “Where does my consciousness come from, and the the world around me which I am observing with this consciousness? How can I be sure I’m observing everything, seeing as I only have 5 senses and only twice as many decades on this earth if I’m lucky? How can I be sure there’s no God, knowing my facility to know is so limited? Maybe I can’t be sure – maybe I don’t know!”
The atheist’s stepping stone to getting right with God is going agnostic!
Then, the agnostic must ask, “How can I ignore the claims of all the religious people of world history, Christian or not? Isn’t it worth learning what my fellow man has had to say about the Divine – especially when time has tested so much of this wisdom? Just because man can’t fully know, doesn’t mean he will be wrong about the little he does know about these things.”
For people disposed toward elaborate spiritual rituals, to bathe in the Ganges, to drink ayahuasca, or to even just meditating with the goal of enlightenment and liberation – isn’t it worth investigating a religion that promises you the same rewards promised by those rituals, except from the hands of the One who has done all the work for you – namely, the Lord Himself?
What does it really mean to get right with God? It means you start asking your heart’s burning question — “Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?” You are a child of God. You are here to be the crown of glory in His creation. Your purpose is to be a vessel of God’s love, a messenger of truth, a royal priest in His Holy Kingdom, not just getting right with God yourself, but getting others right with God just like Christ did – by walking in His word, and ministering reconciliation, forgiveness, and love.
That job description is very simple, and so liberating. Do you have to drop all you’re doing, shave your head and become a monk or a nun to dedicate yourself to religion? No. Buy a plane ticket to a Holy place and perform a ritual that absolves you of sin for a year? No. Give money to everyone you’ve wronged to make reparation for sins you’ve committed against them? No. Sit in meditation to burn off the bad karma of your ancestors? No. Sacrifice an animal or even a child to get the career you want? No! None of these things.
All of these things spite the spirit of grace given to us by God, whom we approach through Christ, who accomplished all things for us on the cross. We don’t need to do any of these things to get right with God, because Jesus did it for us on the cross – so that we may “boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence, and receive mercy and grace in our time of need,” (Heb. 4:16) whatever our need may be.
This means we are free to be who God made us to be. Your spiritual calling is to be the unique gift to the world that God created you to be – literally, you are called to be God’s gift to men and women! That’s what it means to get right with God.
When you join the army, you take an oath of allegiance to the nation and the Constitution. Everyone in the army receives the same basic training, but not everyone plays the same role from there on out. You might drive a truck, you might fly a plane, you might join one of the bands, you might work behind a desk, or you might fight in the field. You take the job that best suits you, your personality, your skills – your gifts – in service of your country.
It’s the same way in the Kingdom of God. We all take an oath to “serve and protect” under the authority of Christ Jesus – but we all offer different, unique gifts in service. In the Kingdom of God, there are “many administrations, but one Lord”.
Believers and non-believers – we’re all born free, from the beginning. Don’t let anyone take you in with false promises in exchange for offerings, sacrifices, rituals, money – even obedience to a Law — “but by the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with Him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.”
This gift is “the mystery of Christ” which “in former generations…was not made known to humankind” (Eph 3:3,5) — Yes, Christ came in the middle of history, but he is also Omega and Alpha, the Last and the First, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). This mystery was a truth “hidden for ages in God” (Eph 3:9) but finally revealed in Jesus, so that all may have the “boundless riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8) — if you choose to inquire and learn this truth, the truth will set you free indeed.
God doesn’t ask you to “risk the serpents bite”; to “burn the soles of [your] feet”; “burn the palms of both [your] hands” — He doesn’t require of you that you make pilgrimage, follow onerous religious rules, offer sacrifices – He simply asks that you have faith, working through love. This is how you get right with God – and it’s also the way he’s given us to get right with eachother.
If pilgrimage, offerings, reparations, sacrifices fail to get us right with God – how much moreso will they fail us, His creation, His people who are created in His image.
But if He offers us this free gift of grace, loving us and forgiving us even as we sin – how much more should we pay it forward. “Freely you have received – freely give.”
Getting right with God is as simple as that – and it’s yours for the taking, a mystery hidden from the ancients but revealed and out in the open for anyone who wishes to take it up and step into God’s Kingdom of Grace.