What makes Jesus’ sacrifice different from human sacrifices?

Q. When we read though the Old Testament, we learn that God was against human sacrifice, which was practiced  by the Canaanites. We see God’s anger at Manasseh, one of the kings of Judah, who “sacrificed his own son in the fire.” But our faith as Christians is based on the sacrifice of Jesus for the atonement of our sins. My question is, “What makes Jesus’ sacrifice different?” Isn’t human sacrifice still human sacrifice, regardless of the  fact that Jesus was willing to die in submission to the will of the Father? (If he wasn’t willing, he would have defended himself when he was brought before the leaders of the day. We see the submitted condition of His heart when He was in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane just before He was betrayed.) It would seem to me that his death was an act of human sacrifice.

I’d put it this way: Our faith as Christians is actually based on the death of Jesus for our atonement. That term literally means at-one-ment, that is, humans becoming united with God again. But how the death of Jesus restores us to God is such a complex question that throughout the ages Christians have offered many different explanations for it. I personally believe that the death of Jesus for us on the cross is so profound and meaningful that we need to look at it from multiple perspectives even to begin to understand it. In other words, there’s no one right answer; each perspective contributes something valuable. And so while, as I’ve just explained, “atonement”  refers initially to reconciliation (a restored relationship), the term also covers all of the different accounts of how Jesus’ death saves us.

One of those accounts holds that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice on our behalf. This is said against the background of sacrifices in the Old Testament, which had their counterparts in other cultures, as you’ve noted. But while those sacrifices provide the background that makes the statement about Jesus’s death meaningful, there’s an important difference.

The idea behind a religious sacrifice is that those who offer it are giving up something valuable as an expression of their devotion. For example, in the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were used to show that an individual or the community was sorry before God for committing sin. They were also used in other ways, such as to provide a feast that was understood to be shared by the worshipers, the priests, and God. (God’s portion was burned up on the altar and it ascended to heaven as “a pleasing aroma.”) Since meat was scarce and expensive in this culture, it was only eaten on rare occasions, and so hosting such a fellowship meal was a significant investment in devotion.

There was also a notion that the sacrifice would be pleasing to the deity, so that it had value for propitiation (changing the deity’s disposition from hostile to favorable). This is another account of how Jesus’ death saves us, but it’s not the primary idea behind sacrifice. Also, in most cases sacrifices were animals or inanimate objects, meaning that there was no issue of their consenting to being sacrificed. Even in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the focus was on the king or the society giving up something valuable to demonstrate devotion, not on the attitude of the person who was being sacrificed.

But Jesus’ death is not understood as a sacrifice along those lines. The human race did not offer him to God as a precious expression of its devotion. As the Bible makes clear, humans were estranged from God and Jesus needed to restore the relationship. And so he actually sacrificed himself. As Paul writes in Ephesians, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

How the self-sacrifice of Jesus came to be accepted on our behalf by God is a matter of further perspectives on the atonement. For example, we may understand it by analogy to the people who have sacrificed their lives in military service to protect our freedoms; this would be the perspective of rescue or ransom from oppression and bondage. Another analogy would be a person giving up their place in a lifeboat so that another could survive a sinking ship; this would be the perspective of substitution. And so forth.

So how, then, do the Old Testament sacrifices provide background to help us understand Jesus’ death? I find it interesting that the New Testament writers concentrate on the effects of Jesus’ sacrifice, explaining it by analogy to the effects of certain Old Testament sacrifices, rather than drawing an equivalence between the nature of those sacrifices and his. Jesus’ sacrifice is compared, for example, with the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, which opened up the way into the Most Holy Place (the direct presence of God). His sacrifice is also compared frequently to the sacrifice of the original Passover lambs, whose blood spared the Israelites from God’s punishment. The book of Hebrews sees Jesus’ sacrifice as something that qualifies him to become a high priest forever. But these are all the effects of him sacrificing himself, understood against the Old Testament background. The New Testament does not portray Jesus’ death as similar in nature to the earlier sacrifices; as I’ve said, it was not something valuable that we offered to God to express our devotion.

I’d like to note in conclusion that as Christians we are called not only to trust in the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf, but also to sacrifice ourselves for him, as he did for us. Paul writes in Romans, for example, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” And the wider context of the Scripture I quoted above about Jesus sacrificing himself is this: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

We may never fully understand in this life exactly how Jesus’ death saved us. But God can help us understand each day how to “walk in the way of love.”

“Paschal Lamb” stained glass window, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Carrollton, Georgia. Christian art has long depicted the association between the blood of the Passover lambs and the blood Jesus shed on the cross, memorialized in the communion cup.

Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized?

Q. I grew up in a country that is not predominantly Christian, but I decided as a young adult that I wanted to be a Christian and I prayed a “salvation prayer.” I feel blessed that many fellow Christians came into my life to offer support and spiritual guidance after that. I identify my religion as Christianity. But I do not go to church regularly, because for many reasons I haven’t found the right church yet, and I have not been baptized. Most churches require you to be member before you can be baptized. Some allow baptism if you pay a fee and take a course for a month, but that doesn’t feel right to me. I would love to study the Bible and know more in depth about it, and I would like to find a church and attend services regularly. Most of all, I would like to be baptized. But what if I never find the right church where that can happen? Am I still considered a Christian if I haven’t been baptized? This issue concerns me quite a bit and I would like to hear your advice. Thank you!

A stained glass window in St. John the Evangelist Church of Carmichael, California depicting Jesus being baptized.

A person becomes a Christian by choosing to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior, trusting in His death on the cross as completely sufficient for their forgiveness and reconciliation to God. Nothing needs to be added to the “finished work of Christ” (as it’s called) for a person’s salvation, and indeed nothing can be added to it. So the simple answer to your question is that a person does not need to be baptized, in addition to trusting in Christ, in order to be a genuine Christian.

Why, then, did Peter tell the crowds who gathered to hear the gospel on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”? Doesn’t this suggest that repentance (confessing wrong and asking forgiveness) isn’t enough, and that a person really does need to be baptized in order to become a Christian? No, such an interpretation is not consistent with the New Testament teaching that salvation is by God’s grace alone, received through faith, and not dependent on anything we might do in addition. So I think we should understand instead that while baptism is not necessary for salvation, it is necessary for repentance. That’s what “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” actually signifies.

Specifically, when we are baptized, we are demonstrating our repentance (our sorrow over the things we have done that have separated us from God) in the way that Jesus has asked us to do this. Put another way, we are coming to God on His terms, not on our own. This is consistent with the idea that our salvation is completely the work of God, not our own work.

(I think that the similar statement in the Gospel of Mark, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” should be understood in this same way. “Believing” in this context means having saving faith and demonstrating that faith in the way that Jesus has specified. This shows that we are truly trusting Him and depending on him.)

So I think that if you want to honor and obey Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you should be baptized as He has asked, as a sign to Him, to yourself, and to others that, as you say, you identify yourself as a Christian. But this means that you will need to find a church community that can baptize you. Believers can’t baptize themselves; rather, churches are given the solemn responsibility before God of ensuring that, at least so far as they can determine, the people they baptize have genuinely trusted in Jesus and understand the meaning and significance of baptism. That’s why churches generally want you to be a “member” (that is, a regular attendee whom they’ve gotten to know) or at least take a course about baptism before they will baptize you.

(However, I’ve never before heard of a church charging non-members a fee to participate in a baptism course. Perhaps they consider this a way of recovering course costs that non-members are not paying for through regular contributions. But like you, I’m uncomfortable with this approach and I understand why you wouldn’t want to follow it. As a pastor, I always felt that the sacraments of the church, which include baptism, should be made available free of cost to anyone who wanted to receive them.)

I would encourage you to believe that precisely because God has asked you to express your identification as a Christian through baptism, God will help you obey His command by enabling you to find a church where you can be baptized. The process may actually begin with you meeting a pastor who will recognize your faith and agree to baptize you on the basis of that faith, with the understanding that you want to grow as a follower of Jesus and become a regular part of a community of His other followers. I believe you can pray confidently and boldly for God to lead you to such a church and to such a pastor. God will help you do what He has asked you to do! This is one more way in which our salvation is entirely the work of God on our behalf.

Best wishes and God’s blessings to you.

Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts?

Q. Does everyone have God’s moral laws innately stamped on their hearts regardless of whether they know Scripture or have access to it? Paul wrote to the Romans that “since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” But he also wrote that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they . . . show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” Does that mean we are not only cognizant of the existence of God, but also without excuse concerning obeying His laws?

Does nature speak not just of a Creator, but of that Creator’s intentions for human life? (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

God did say through Jeremiah, in a passage later quoted in the letter to the Hebrews, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” But this promise was made specifically to those who would become part of the new covenant by trusting in Jesus. And in context, it refers to people not just knowing God’s laws, but obeying them willingly and eagerly, because they are being transformed within by the Holy Spirit.

The comment you quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans about the Gentiles keeping the law is actually talking about something different. It says literally in Greek that the work of the law is written on their hearts—not the specific requirements of the law, but what it looks like to “do” (live by) the law. Paul talks immediately afterwards about the conscience bearing witness along with the heart, i.e. at the same time—not “also” or “in addition,” as many translations have it. I therefore think these two versions capture his meaning pretty well:

“The conscience is like a law written in the human heart.” (CEV)

“In their hearts they know what is right and wrong, the same as the law commands, and their consciences agree.” (ERV)

Similarly, when Paul writes just before this that at times Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” he’s using a phrase that’s synonymous with “conscience.”

The whole point of Paul’s argument here is to respond to the claim of the  church in Rome, to which he’s writing, that the Jews have a greater right to the gospel. (“To the Jew first” seems to have been their motto.) Paul is working to transform this claim into a recognition that Jews and Gentiles have an equal need for the gospel. (“To the Jew first, but also to the Gentile.”)

And so, he argues, the Jews have the law, but they haven’t kept it; the Gentiles have conscience, but they haven’t followed that, either. (Most of the time, that is; they are capable of following it). Both groups have failed to follow the means of moral guidance that God has given them, and as a result, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but all can and must be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

So in this statement about the Gentiles, Paul is basically saying that everybody has a conscience that enables them generally to know right from wrong in their hearts. If they don’t follow their conscience, they can’t plead that they didn’t know any better. They need to admit that they’ve done wrong and come to God for forgiveness and justification by grace.

In short, while everybody may not have God’s actual moral laws innately stamped on their hearts, the Bible does say here that everybody has a conscience. However, we should recognize that a given person’s conscience, and thus their sense of right and wrong, will be influenced by their own family, society, and culture. Nobody starts out with a “blank slate,” the conscience they would have simply by understanding about God through the creation.

In addition, unfortunately, it’s possible to disregard or resist our conscience to the point where it becomes hardened and is no longer a reliable source of moral guidance. As Paul puts it in a vivid phrase in his first letter to Timothy, the conscience then becomes “seared as with a hot iron.” This frightening possibility should make us all eager to maintain a tender conscience before God!

Nicholas Kristof, you are not far from the kingdom

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been having a fascinating series of conversations with Christian leaders, beginning last Christmas with Timothy Keller and continuing this Easter with Jimmy Carter, asking “Am I a Christian?” if I don’t believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Here is my response to those interviews.

Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I’ve read with great interest your recent interviews with Timothy Keller and Jimmy Carter—two men whom, like you, I respect greatly. Please allow me to share my own (completely unsolicited!) thoughts in response.

I actually disagree with the implicit premise behind your questions to these men: that the boundary around Christianity consists of beliefs. You asked Timothy Keller, for example, whether you could be a Christian if you didn’t believe in things such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. He replied at one point (granting this premise): “In general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”

I personally believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Like Mr. Keller and Mr. Carter, I find these to be reasonable beliefs, well substantiated in the authentic gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. I also find them vital to a coherent understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. I even think that if anyone chose to follow Jesus, this might well lead them to these same conclusions eventually. But all of that is different from saying that such beliefs determine who is or isn’t a Christian.

I have been a pastor myself, and in one of my churches I once preached a sermon entitled “A Wall that Lets People In.” The sermon was about Nehemiah rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem after the exile. I noted that the regathering community needed such a boundary in order to establish its own identity. But those walls, I also noted, had gates. In fact, just as much is made of the rebuilding of the gates, which were designed to let people in, as of the rebuilding of the wall that we would otherwise think was designed to keep people out. That’s just the kind of boundary that now surrounds the Christian community: one that defines the community so people can find it, but which then invites people in rather than keeping them out.

So what is that boundary? Is it a collection of beliefs? Certain regular worship practices? A set of behaviors adopted or avoided? No, because boundaries like those would simply place a barrier between those who were already in and who were not yet in.

The defining-but-inviting boundary around the Christian community is supposed to be the love that its members have for God, and as a result for all other people, out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for them. Love of the character that Jesus modeled and taught is so distinctive that it identifies the community of his followers, and at the same time it draws others in to become part of the shared life it creates. “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “by the love that you have for one another.” Before his followers were ever known as Christians, their community was called The Way, because people recognized that they were following a certain way of life.

At one point Jesus was speaking with a scribe who asked him what the most important commandment was in the Jewish law. Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agreed: “‘You are right, Teacher,’ he said, ‘To love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (That is, than regular worship practices.) Jesus told him in response, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

In other words, because love for God and neighbor were the truly important things, Jesus ultimately defined membership in the community of his followers not in terms of a boundary, but in terms of proximity. The issue was not out or in, but far or near. So when I hear you say, “What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world,” my response is, “If you want to love in the way that Jesus loved, then surely you, too, are not far from the kingdom of God.”

My best wishes to you in your continuing journey of faith, and a happy Easter to you!

Christopher R. Smith

“No offense, but are Pentecostals and Catholics genuine followers of Christ?”

Q. The following question might be a little offensive to some, but I truly, truly mean no offense. I would like to know your thoughts on Pentecostalism and Catholicism. I know some people frown upon Pentecostalism, which I do not understand why. Are they considered as orthodox and genuine followers of Christ? As for Catholicism, I cannot come to terms with how they can be considered as Christians when they worship Mary, saints and erect statues of their saints. Isn’t that specifically forbidden by God in the Bible?

The simple answer to your question is yes, Pentecostals and Catholics are orthodox and genuine followers of Christ. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that people aren’t true Christians just because they are Pentecostal or Catholic. I’m not talking here about simple church attendance or church membership. I’m talking about people whose faith and trust is in Jesus. If that’s true of people who are Pentecostal or Catholic, then they are fellow believers and “joint heirs of the grace of life.”

You should know that the official teaching of the Catholic church is that followers of Jesus should not worship Mary or pray to the saints. However, Catholics do believe (as I do myself, even though I’m Protestant) that one of the most important ministries of those who have gone on ahead of us into the presence of God is to pray for us who remain here on earth. And so as followers of Jesus, we may reasonably ask any of the saints in heaven (including our departed loved ones) to pray for us, just as we would ask a brother or sister in Christ to pray for us here on earth.

Moreover, the Bible does not actually forbid making statues and other representational works of art, including those that depict human forms. When God gave Moses instructions to build the tabernacle, for example, He told him to include images of almond blossoms, pomegranates, and cherubim (angelic figures in human form). Some of these images were embroidered, but others were carved. Solomon’s temple similarly had images of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers.

What the Bible does forbid is making images of God and bowing down to those images—in other words, idolatry. But artistic depictions are acceptable if they celebrate the lives of faithful people who came before us and remind us that with them, we form a community that embraces believers both in heaven and on earth. (These images create a visual arts version of the “hall of fame of faith” whose literary version is found in the book of Hebrews.)

I’m grateful, for instance, that Mary, our sister in Christ, obeyed God by agreeing to become the mother of Jesus and by supporting him in his ministry right to the end. Though all the disciples fled, she stood by him at the cross. Her life is an inspiration and example to us, and it’s good to be reminded of it. A statue or painting can do that.

Unfortunately, in actual practice, popular piety sometimes does turn these acceptable activities into praying to the saints instead of asking the saints to pray for us. (For example: “Lost something? Pray to St. Anthony to help you find it.”) In the same way, popular piety can consist of worshiping statues instead of letting the statues lead us into worship. It’s been well said that an icon is something that you see through into the spiritual realm, whereas an idol stops your gaze and makes you see only it. Statues are supposed to be icons, but unfortunately they can become idols.

But as I said, this is not the official teaching or practice of the Catholic church. Catholic leaders and teachers would be just as dismayed as you if they discovered that any of their people were actually praying to the saints or treating statues as idols rather than icons. Their response would be to “explain the way of God more adequately,” as the Bible puts it.

As for Pentecostals, some people have a problem with their belief that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit remain available today, such as prophesy, healing, miracles, and “speaking in tongues” (that is, praying or bringing a message in a language one has not formally acquired). It’s specifically people who don’t believe these gifts are still available today who object to Pentecostals’ pursuit and use of them. (But I have no problem with this!)

Some people also disagree with the Pentecostal teachings that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is an experience separate from and subsequent to receiving salvation by trusting Jesus, and that the sign of this experience is speaking in tongues. These are classic Pentecostal teachings that have not been continued, by and large, in the charismatic groups that have emerged from the Pentecostal movement. (I discuss the baptism of the Holy Spirit somewhat in this post and speaking in tongues in this post. You’ll see that I respectfully disagree with the way these beliefs have classically been articulated within Pentecostalism, though I encourage both the experience of being filled with the Spirit and, for those who are given that gift, speaking in tongues.)

Let me say in conclusion that my Christian faith has been deeply enriched by my interactions with both Catholic and Pentecostal sisters and brothers, and that I’m honored and grateful to be part of one household of faith with them.

Follow-up to “I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

I began to respond to this question here. This post is the promised follow-up.

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

One thing I didn’t mention last time is that Bible Gateway allows you to read the Bible online in a large number of different languages. I’m not sure what your native language is, but on Bible Gateway, just to the left of the orange-yellow “Search” box at the top of the page, you’ll find a pull-down menu that lets you choose a Bible translation. For example, if your language is Arabic, you’ll find, second from the top in this menu, two Arabic translations, Ketab el Hayat and the Easy-to-Read Arabic Version.

Another good resource is the site maarifa.org. It offers basic Bible studies in Arabic (I’m hoping you know that language).  It has staff available for live chat for those who study the Bible from their website and have questions.

An excellent basic introduction to Christian beliefs can be found in the book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright.

But I think the best way for you to start getting answers to your questions is, as I said last time, just to begin reading the Bible (I recommend starting with the Gospel of John) and then find a knowledgeable, respectful Christian who can talk things over with you. I hope the questions and answers on this blog, Good Question, will also be useful to you.

Thanks again for your sincere interest. In one of the psalms (songs)  recorded in the book of Psalms in the Bible, the writer says to God, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” May this be your experience as you read and reflect on the Bible.

“I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

Thank you so much for your question and for your sincere interest. Let me begin with a simple suggestion.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a professor at the University of Cambridge, once taught a course entitled, “On Reading the Bible.” He began by saying, “My first advice ‘on reading the Bible’ is to do it.” I’ll write a follow-up post shortly to suggest some more resources for you, but I wanted to respond to your question right away and begin with basically the same advice.

I’d suggest that you just start reading about Jesus in a book in the Bible known as the Gospel of John.

Christianity is essentially a matter of following Jesus—coming to know Him as Savior, Lord, and Friend, and becoming part of a community that seeks to live by His teaching and example. There are four books in the Bible, known as “gospels” (which means “good news”), that tell the story of Jesus’ life and explore its meaning. There are four of them because Jesus’ life is so rich in meaning that we need to view it from multiple perspectives simply to begin to understand it.

The gospels are found, in the traditional order of the biblical books, at the beginning of the New Testament. This is the second part of the Bible and it makes up the last quarter of it. The books in it tell about Jesus and his earliest followers.

The first three-quarters of the Bible is known as the Old Testament. (Testament means “covenant,” an agreement between God and people.) This part of the Bible tells how God worked to save humanity through figures such as Abraham and Moses. But Christians believe that God’s saving purposes reached their culmination in Jesus.

The Gospel of John is a remarkable book that explains the meaning of Jesus’ life against the background of the events and figures of the Old Testament. But it does this in a way that’s accessible to people of every time and culture. So it’s a great way to be introduced to Jesus while at the same time appreciating the context of his life on this earth.

If you do have a Bible, or can get one, find where the New Testament begins. The Gospel of John will be the fourth book in the New Testament, in the traditional order of the biblical books.

If you can’t easily get a copy of the Gospel of John where you are, you can read it online starting here. At this link, you’ll see several brown icons just above the text of the book, at the upper right. The one on the far right is for audio—if you click on it, you’ll be able to listen to the book being read out loud. The icon in the center, which looks like a wheel with spokes, gives you page display options. For the best reading experience, I’d recommend unchecking the boxes that say “footnotes,” “verse numbers,” and “headings.” Those are resources you can find out how to use later.

I trust you will have a great experience finding out more about Jesus through this story of his life. As I said earlier, I’ll write a follow-up to this post shortly to recommend some more things for you. Thanks again for your interest.

What if I’ve never had “that moment” of asking Christ into my heart?

Q. A lot of believers have “that moment” when they officially asked Christ into their heart. I never had a moment like that. I was blessed to grow up in a Christ-filled home, go to a Christian elementary school, be involved in the Church, etc. I did profession of faith as a teenager, went on a missions trip to Peru, and I was even baptized 4 years ago. Is it “wrong” that I never had a “moment” like so many believers have?

There are two main paradigms or models that Christians have used over the centuries to envision a person’s entrance into the life of faith.

The first is the conversion paradigm. It’s a binary model, expressed in terms of before vs. after, out vs. in. You’re lost in darkness, but then you have “that moment” when you ask Christ into your heart and afterwards you’re walking in the light. Saved. Everything is immediately different. “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart,” as the old hymn puts it.

This may be the paradigm we’re most familiar with in our contemporary experience. However, it’s actually the one that has been used less commonly over the whole course of church history. The pilgrimage model could be called the “majority view” of Christians over the centuries. It’s progressive rather than binary. It envisions a person coming closer and closer to Christ through a series of steps over time. Within this model, it’s often hard to pinpoint an exact “moment” that determines precisely when a person comes “in.”

Probably the best-known expression of this model is the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. But many classic hymns express it as well, for example, “Draw Me Nearer” by Fanny Crosby:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith
And be closer drawn to Thee.

In my experience as a pastor, I’ve observed that people who become Christians under a conversion model often realize afterwards that God has been at work in their lives in many ways beforehand to lead them to the moment of conversion. There are specific experiences they point to as illustrations of this. They also take many steps of commitment later on that they sometimes feel are as significant as asking Christ into their hearts was in the first place. I’d say that these people are applying a pilgrimage model to their experience and finding it more meaningful and explanatory than the conversion model alone.

I’d encourage you to apply this same pilgrimage model to your own experience. It seems to me that God has been making what are sometimes called the “means of grace” available to you from an early age (Christian family, church, school, etc.) and that you have been using them fully to draw closer to God. If you really needed to nail down “that moment” in your life, you could point to either your profession of faith or your baptism as a time of definite commitment or conversion. But I think you’re actually already describing your entrance into the life of faith in terms of pilgrimage. I don’t think you really need to “translate” it into a conversion paradigm. You just need to recognize that the pilgrimage paradigm is a valid and time-honored understanding among Christians.

There’s a great danger in stressing conversion over against pilgrimage. I’ve heard preachers say, when “preaching for a verdict” (as it’s sometimes called—urging commitment to Christ), that if you can’t name the exact day and hour when you accepted Christ, then you’re not really a Christian and you need to get saved now. I think this can actually undermine the assurance of salvation that people would otherwise have if we encouraged them instead to think back over their lives and recognize the ways in which God had been “drawing them nearer.”

I think that profession of faith and baptism are excellent and appropriate ways for us to express a commitment that we’re growing into. But our assurance shouldn’t rest on having done those things, nor should it rest on having asked Jesus into our heart at a definite time. Instead, our assurance of salvation should rest on our recognition of God’s activity in drawing us to Himself, and our acknowledgment that we have been responding positively at each step along the way. We can be confident that “he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” as Paul writes to the Philippians. And in that sense we’re definitely “in,” with or without “that moment.”

An illustration from Pilgrim's Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he's
An illustration from Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he’s “in”? Or is it when he comes to the cross and his burden rolls away? Or is it at some other time during his pilgrimage? Or is he just on his way in all along?

If there are intelligent beings on other planets, are they saved by Christ’s death, too?

Q. If there are intelligent beings on other planets, are they saved by Christ’s death, too?

Any response to this question has to be highly speculative, of course, but let me share some thoughts.

When I was in college, this same question would sometimes be asked of speakers who came to share the gospel on campus.  (I guess it was an updated version of the question, “What about people who never get the chance to hear?”) The speaker would typically say, very confidently, “If there are intelligent beings on other planets, then God went to those planets, took on the form of those beings, and died for them, too.”  This response certainly reflects the relentless love of God, who comes to seek and save the lost, wherever they might be found, and so this answer is satisfying in many ways.

But in more recent years, I’ve been wondering whether Jesus’ incarnation on earth instead represented a unique entrance of God into all of time and space, just as it certainly represented a unique entrance into our specific world.  (Christ did not come to earth many times, to die separately for the people of different times and places.)  If that’s the case, then if there are intelligent beings on other planets, and we discover their existence, then it’s our responsibility to tell them about how God’s saving love has been shown definitively through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and invite them to follow him, too.

And here’s one other possibility.  Since these intelligent beings on other planets, by definition, are not members of Adam’s race, perhaps they are not fallen.  (The premise of C.S. Lewis’s book Perelandra is that there are intelligent beings on Venus who have not yet fallen; the mission of the book’s central character, Ransom, is to keep them from falling.)  And if this extraterrestrial race is not fallen, then it is still enjoying unbroken fellowship with God.  But that doesn’t mean that those beings wouldn’t benefit from Christ’s death; it would just mean something different for them.  It would still be a revelation of God’s saving love, showing how far God would go to bring them back if they ever did fall away, and I’d like to think that as such, in some sense, it would have a “saving” effect by drawing their hearts even closer to God.

I realize that I’m getting into some murky theological waters here, specifically, the distinction between (1) the belief that the fall was inevitable because it was the means God had chosen to become the occasion of our salvation and (2) the belief that the fall was not necessary or inevitable; people could just as easily have used their freedom to choose obedience rather than disobedience.  But I won’t go into this distinction any further here, as I’ve discussed it in another post.

But I will acknowledge here that anyone who believes that the fall of the human race was inevitable will also conclude that any intelligent beings (free moral agents) on other planets have also fallen, too, and thus need either for Christ to come and die for them on their planet, or else for us to share with them the good news of what Christ has done definitively for the whole creation through his death on a cross here on earth.

Galaxy M51, photographed by the Hubble telescope.

Why did Jesus say, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”?

Q.  Why did Jesus say, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”?  Whatever he meant was so hard to understand that some of his own followers left when he said this.  What’s this all about?

This statement by Jesus needs to be understood in light of two important distinctives of the gospel of John.

First, as I explain in my study guide to that book, “The festivals and locations that Jesus visits allow his identity to be disclosed against the symbolic background of Jewish religious life and history.”  In this case, when Jesus journeys across the Sea of Galilee and back at the time of Passover, “The focus is on the event that Passover commemorates:  the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. . . . While Jesus is on the far shore of the lake, he miraculously feeds a large crowd.  When the crowd returns to the opposite shore, they compare this feeding with the manna, the ‘bread from heaven,’ that Moses gave the Israelites in the wilderness.”

Next, as I also explain in my guide, in this gospel Jesus has “conversations . . . with many different people,” and these conversations “tend to follow a certain pattern.  Jesus speaks of spiritual realities, but his listeners misunderstand him and think he’s speaking about material realities.  They ask questions to try to clear up the confusion, and this gives Jesus (or John, speaking as the narrator) the opportunity to explain the spiritual realities further,” often in an extended discourse.

Jesus’ discourse after the miraculous feeding is designed to explain its meaning. “Jesus turns the crowd’s focus from the sign itself to what it reveals about who he is.  He wants them to see him not as the one who gave the bread, but as the one who is the bread.  His identification of himself with the manna, the ‘bread from heaven,’ points to his heavenly origins and the divine life he imparts.”

And so Jesus explains in his discourse, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In other words, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and then refers to “eating this bread” in order to have life, what he’s actually talking about is people “believing” in him.  As he says in this same discourse, “Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”

Unfortunately, the crowds misunderstand Jesus and think he is talking about material realities (food and drink, or even his own flesh and blood). Some of them are so confused and scandalized that, as John reports, they “turned back and no longer followed him.”  But when Jesus asked the Twelve who were closest to him whether they wanted to leave too, Peter, speaking for all of them, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

This is the response that John wants all readers of his gospel to make as well, by seeing through the material elements that are literally under discussion to the spiritual realities behind them.

A footnote to this discussion:  As I also note in my study guide, “Many interpreters believe that Jesus’ words here about ‘eating his flesh’ and ‘drinking his blood’ are a reference to the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.  These interpreters point out that John doesn’t describe anywhere else in his gospel how Jesus instituted this sacrament.  They suggest that John may therefore be doing that here.  Eucharistic themes do run through the gospel.  For example, the two things that Jesus provides miraculously are wine (at the wedding in Cana) and bread (on the far shore of the Sea of Galilee).”  However, if Jesus’ statement is in some way a reference to the Eucharist, the intention is clearly not for people to see eating the material elements of bread and wine as the way to “have life.”  Rather, this act is properly an expression of a person’s belief in Jesus.  That is the spiritual reality behind this physical and sacramental act.

‘Jesus Feeds the 5000’ by Laura James, from the “Global Christian Worship” blog