Eighth Letter

Dear Abdallah,

Thank you for your last letter! It was a pleasant surprise to me! Thank you very much for your effort to reply in such comprehensive and understanding manner! Often Muslims are inclined to minimize sins by classifying them into big and small ones, those that can be compensated for by ‘good deeds’, those that need repentance and those that are unforgivable. The Bible makes a different assessment.

Maybe it is best understood when looking at what Jesus called the ‘Great Commandment’. It really is the sum total of the Law of God, the Ten Commandments:

Love the Lord your God
   with all your heart and
   with all your soul and
   with all your mind...and...
love your neighbour as yourself!
(Matthew 22:17-18)

This is God’s desire for us. Anything short of that is actually ‘missing the aim’ that He has for us. You will recall this allegory from my last letter.

To practice self-will or self-gratification instead of God’s will is not only missing the aim, but has consequences as well. The Bible simply states:

Your iniquities have separated you from your God. (Isaiah 59:2)

Sin is a kind of ‘red card’, like in a soccer game. I means: I am out! Religion demands from its followers a rigid effort to act aright and, once a sin is committed, to try to compensate for it somehow with ‘good deeds’. That very much pleases our pride. ‘I can! I am able!’ It is part of our nature to try to pacify God by compensating for our sin. Ultimately that amounts to the assumption that as long as I do not commit shirk or kufr, I do not really need God. This is equal to the expectation of a convicted criminal to be released on the promise to do a ‘good deed’ to compensation his crime, and in addition not to repeat that crime again. God’s righteousness does not work like that; neither does this reflect his mercy and grace. Unless God removes it, sin separates an offender from God for all eternity!

The last book in the Bible records a vision of the devastating consequence of that:

I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened... The dead were judged according to what they had done according to the books. (Revelation 20:12)

Judgment Day is harvest day. Everybody receives what he or she deserves. It is the execution of God’s judgment.

The Judge will be Jesus, as he himself stated:

When the Son of man (i.e. Jesus) comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left ... Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world' ... Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels' ... Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-34,41,46)

Who then are the ‘blessed by my Father’ that inherit the Kingdom of God? Are these people who are sinless? When we look at the text carefully, we notice, that it is not those who deserve to be in God’s presence, but those who inherit it. How can we understand that? The heirs of someone are (as a rule) his children. They do not inherit their fortune because they deserve it, but because they are the children of the testator. Inheritance is obtained after the testator has died. In His New Testament God uses that metaphor. Every person that receives God’s pardon through Jesus belongs to the family of God, for the barrier, which separated us from God is removed. Being a child of God then, we can joyfully call God our Father! But to belong to the family of God, one must be born into it. It says of Jesus:

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:10-13)

Explaining this, Jesus said:

I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. ...
I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the
Spirit gives birth to spirit.
You should not be surprised at my saying,
‘You must be born again!’
(John 3:5-7)

It needs some contemplation to understand the deeper meaning of this metaphor. We are all alive, because we were born into this world. That was our physical birth. Jesus said that to be truly human the way God intended it, we must in addition also be born spiritually. Without a spiritual birth one is spiritually dead.

Spiritual birth into the ‘family’ of God is affected through faith in Jesus. This faith not only constitutes trust in what he did for us, but also the recognition of our desperate need for His forgiveness. He was the one Who was executed in our stead. By this rebirth we become children of God and by that his heirs (Romans 8:17, Galatians 3:29).

Having understood this, we will agree with an important statement in the New Testament:

Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved! — ... through faith, not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:4-5,8)

Because we all have sinned, we all depend totally on God’s mercy.

That raises the question, whether in that case our attempt to live righteously is really necessary. Not as a means to relinquish former sins or to gain merit! God wants His children to ‘grow up’ spiritually by being changed more and more to reflect His nature! Jesus once said:

Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect! (Matthew 5:48)

But as much as we may try, our old nature just does not always comply. As long as we live in this life, we cannot be righteous in the sight of God by our own effort. Neither can God’s Law justify or forgive us. A law merely determines what is right and what is wrong:

Know that a man is not justified by observing the law (Galatians 2:15)

says the Bible.

That is why God, in his mercy, offers us his own righteousness. Speaking about the Jews who rigidly tried to keep the Law, the New Testament says:

I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:2,3)

This was never different, for we already read of Abraham that

he believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6)

I just wonder now, how you, as a Muslim, will react to this for you possibly very foreign ‘language’. It tells you—as it does to the Jews—that by trying to establish merit or righteousness before God, you actually do not submit to God!

The tenet of our faith in God is that we can do nothing to earn eternal life, but depend on His rescue. We already noted that salvation is offered by the saviour. He is Jesus. Salvation means to be pardoned. Actually, it is more than a pardon that is offered to us. God actually says:

I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

You will cast all our sins into the depth of the sea. (Micah 7:19)

As far as the East is from the West, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

God not only condescends to forgive and to pardon us, but he actually promises to forget our sins. He makes us as pure as though we had never sinned. Our heavenly records are clean. We are recorded in the ‘Book of Life’ (see also Daniel 12:l; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 20:12,15; 21:27), which is the deciding factor determining our entrance into God’s eternal glory. In short, we have been reconciled to God and are at peace with him:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:18)

You will now understand why we Christians rely so much on Jesus. He is our only chance. Jesus himself said:

I am
   the way,
   the truth,
   and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
(John 14:6)

Last not least I like to mention a question I have been asked repeatedly: why should anyone endeavour to perform good deeds, when their sins will be forgiven anyway. Well, we want to please our Father! It is out of gratitude for having saved us! Our love for God makes us hate sin, because he hates it and it hurts him.

The Bible presents God as deeply affected and grieved by our sin, and because we are devoted to him and love him, we strive to be the way he wants us to be. Let just a couple of verses from the Bible demonstrate this:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovable, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars. (Philippians 2:15)

And why do we try to live in an uprightly fashion? Because

the love of Christ compels us! (2 Corinthians 5:14)

Now you want to ask me, where those Christian are that live with such resolve. You find them in every country and every society, in some more—in others less. Their numbers are not big, and more often than not they are not in the limelight. But if you search for them, you will find them. But please take note again: they are not perfect. Perfection cannot be found this side of the grave. But they will have a resolve that is already reflected in the Bible:

Not that I already obtained all this... But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal... for which God has called me. (Philippians 3:12-14)

With sincere greetings, I am

Yours faithfully