There are two kinds of religion in this world. In the first kind, individuals must save themselves and in the second, God must save each individual. The religion that says people save themselves always falls short of salvation. For “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rags” and “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (cf Isa 64:6, Rom 3:23).
Pick a religion. How do people in that particular faith come to a right standing before God? Think for a moment about Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism, or any other ‘isms’. They have laundry lists of things that a person must do. Tim Keller argues that in almost all religions people essentially build a bridge to get from one side to the other. They build their bridge to salvation brick by brick, following certain rules and doing certain deeds.
I once asked a devout Muslim: “How do I become a Muslim?” He said to me: “Declare there is no God but Allah, and follow the Five Pillars. Then you will be Muslim.” To be a Muslim that’s all you have to do. Merely follow a set of rules. What about Buddhism? Their central tenet is that a person achieves enlightenment by following the 8-fold path. In all of these religions, it’s always about you and your ability to achieve your way to God or some inner peace.
I do concede though that religions have differences between them. But at the same time, all those religions fundamentally espouse rules and rituals that people must do to save themselves. People are “saved” by following that system, whether it is Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, etc.
How then is Biblical Christianity any different from the rest? Fundamentally, it says that you can’t save yourself. No matter how hard you try, your best isn’t good enough. The ‘you’ on your best day still fails God’s perfect standard. Jesus must save you! The Bible says humanity has been separated from God because sin has infected us all. His holy nature cannot allow sin to go unpunished. These axioms are antithetical to what the majority of religions proclaim.
In Biblical Christianity, God saves humanity because they can’t save themselves. Why did Jesus have to die? To save wretched sinners separated from a holy God. If men and women could save themselves then Christ died for nothing (cf. Gal 2:21). A Christian then is one who always stands before God purely on Christ’s finished work (cf. Heb 10:14). He or she looks to Jesus, the spotless lamb and trusts in Him alone for salvation (cf. Jn 5:24). To quote the classic hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’:
nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling
foul I to the fountain fly;
wash me Savior or I die.
Religion is always of two kinds: either humanity tries to save themselves, or God saves humanity. The faith that saves is always the one in which God saves us and reconciles us to Himself “for salvation comes from the Lord” (cf Jon 2:9).