The first time I decided I was a Christian was in college. With the twin zeal of a new convert and a wannabe intellectual, I set about doing one of the things I did best back then—pick arguments. My target, this particular afternoon, was a girl studying with a friend of mine. They were discussing their religion class, and she expressed her opinion that all the world’s religions teach basically the same thing, which is that everyone should be a good person. If there’s a heaven, she said, it will be filled with the people from every faith who managed to live good lives.
“There’s no ‘if’ about heaven,” I told her, “and the only people who will be getting in are the ones who believe in Jesus Christ.”
I set about doing one of the things I did best back then—pick arguments. My target was a girl studying with a friend of mine.
In reply she named a person we all knew, someone who devoted a lot of time to charities, who practiced self-restraint, who was kind to everyone he met. He also happened to be an atheist. “Are you saying,” she asked, “that God will keep him out of heaven, but let in a Christian who hasn’t done as much good in the world? Are you saying God cares more about what we say than how we live?”
I didn’t think that was what I had said. In truth, I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to say, but I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to her. Suddenly I had an inspired notion. “I’m saying,” I exclaimed, “that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you can’t be a genuinely good person.”
What ensued was an argument about exactly how good this mutual acquaintance of ours really was, with me taking the unenviable position that deep down he must actually be bad, because without Jesus in your life, you can’t really be good.
Lord have mercy on all us fools who try to win people to Christ without knowing the first thing about Him.
Perhaps I could be forgiven for my misperception that the goal of a Christian life is moral living. I’d read what the apostle Paul, for example, had to say on the subject of sin: “Or do you not know,” he wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
It was abundantly clear to me at the time that avoiding sin is essential if one wants to get to heaven. I’d thought the same years before when I was just a boy getting dragged to my grandmother’s church in North Carolina every Sunday. Being good, it seemed to me then, was a matter of not being bad. Bad boys definitely had no place in heaven. From my vantage point, barely able to see over the back of the pew in front of me, this alone seemed a steep enough qualification to undermine my salvation.
And the wall around heaven seemed to get higher as I got older, because I learned that avoiding sin wasn’t enough. There are all these admonishments to love my neighbors, to forgive the harm done to me by others, to lose my life in order to save it. Salvation began to feel exhausting.
Thus the Lord and I were at an impasse—at least it seemed to me—until college, when I got to know some Christians who carried within themselves a peace that I realized I was desperately thirsting for. I gave Christianity another try, but with the mentality of a college student, which meant that I spent very little time praying and a great deal of time reading books about what it means to be a Christian.
The wall around heaven seemed to get higher as I got older, because I learned that avoiding sin wasn’t enough.
None of these books included the recommendation that one’s faith gets deepened by debating non-Christians, but I ignored that fact. Which was the reason I found myself getting twisted into rhetorical knots one afternoon by a girl who couldn’t understand why the God I claimed to represent didn’t want someone who loved more deeply, and avoided sin more ably, than a lot of people who call themselves Christians. The problem was that both of us had a wrongheaded conviction that what the Lord wants most of all is good behavior. But of course that isn’t it at all, is it?
“Do you not know,” Paul continued in his letter, “that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Paul returned repeatedly, in his epistles, to this image of believers running a race. It’s a daunting metaphor when you think about it. A footrace is a strenuous, time-consuming activity that requires your complete devotion. It doesn’t matter how fast a runner you are if you stray from the course. And even if you follow the right path, you still lose if you fail to press hard all the way to the finish line.
You’ve got to go at a race the right way, Paul explained, if you want to triumph: “Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things ... Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Imagine the kind of runner who wins championships. He trains relentlessly in the summer’s heat, in dark and freezing winters, perfecting the instrument of his body. When the day of the championship comes, he flies down the track like a rocket, breaking the tape well ahead of his closest competitor. Now imagine him rising to the podium during the medal ceremony. But when the race officials try to put a medal around his neck, imagine that he tells them to keep it. “My health is my reward,” he says. “I disciplined my body so I could have low blood pressure, strong legs, and an impeccable respiratory system.”
No champion would say such a thing, would he? Of course not. Championship-caliber athletes strive for physical perfection, to be sure, but not as an end in itself. Victory is their goal. Health is just a means to the end.
Morality is no more our purpose than is good health the purpose of an Olympic sprinter. The prize is the purpose.
Now return to Paul’s description of our race as Christians. He makes clear that we must work in order to win the prize, and that this work is a combination of refraining from sin and pouring out love for our fellow man. (See 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.) But does Paul mean by this that the purpose of our race is the morality we must exercise along the way? Of course not! The Christian must live a moral life in order to complete the race, but morality is no more our purpose than is good health the purpose of an Olympic sprinter. The prize is the purpose.
And what is our prize? The author of Hebrews writes: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). Lay aside your sin and follow Christ, he says, not for the purpose of becoming sin-free, but because Christ is leading us into the kingdom of heaven, and this is the only way to follow Him. Nothing less than communion with God is our prize.
Refraining from sin and loving our neighbor, then, is what helps us win the race, by helping us draw closer to Christ. To share in His suffering, His humiliation, His death. By our self-denial and lovingkindness, we demonstrate our love for and gratitude toward God, but make no mistake—He doesn’t need any of this for His sake. He asks all of it for our sake. That we may shed every entanglement that keeps us from Him.
Moral living is an essential part of the Christian life—it’s evidence the Holy Spirit dwells within us (see Gal. 5:1-26)—but oh, how we impoverish the gospel when we make that our primary purpose. As if the reason God Himself took on human flesh were so we’d become more pleasant to be around. How cheaply we must value His blood, to think that’s all it’s worth. “Take up your cross and follow Me,” Jesus says, and in this He calls us not to be moral so much as to be wildly self-sacrificial; to love with complete disregard for the consequences, which in effect is a call to be more like Him—which in turn is to know His heart better and find our place within it. Yes, absolutely this entails being moral, but to think that’s all the Christian walk is about is to adopt the mindset of the Pharisee standing in the temple, quietly congratulating himself for being righteous (Luke 18:10-14). He kept the commandments but didn’t give his heart to the Lord, and he left unjustified.
He calls us not to be moral so much as to love with complete disregard for the consequences.
I have thought often of my ill-informed argument about the moral atheist all those years ago. How I wish I’d had the presence of mind to recall Christ’s warning that far beyond moral living, people could claim allegiance to Him, even going so far as to cast out demons and perform miracles in His name, yet still be barred from heaven. Why? Because they did not give their whole heart to Him: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’” (Matt. 7:21-23). It would seem there’s something deeper than morality, and if we don’t grasp that, all our good clean living will do us no good at all.
The goal of the Christian walk is very simple and shockingly bold: to be with Christ. Indeed, not only to be with Him, but to be as He is. What a scandalous notion to the Jews, who were so reverent they refused even to speak the Lord God’s name; who obeyed not just the commandments bequeathed them by Moses, but tiers of rules and ordinances growing out of these—layer upon layer of strictures whose purpose was to make them righteous. All that work, and along comes this Nazarene and His followers, claiming the right to call God Abba, Father. The right to consume His flesh and blood, to become one with Him.
But we cannot become one with Christ while maintaining a heart separate from His. Awesome works mean nothing, great declarations mean nothing, elegant essays in Christian magazines mean nothing, unless we are wholeheartedly Christ’s. “Our God,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). May we be consumed, despite our faintheartedness.
Photograph by Craig Cutler