The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise

When I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula—see review here), what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace—God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

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