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13 September 2016

We’re not the only ones who do grace, y’know.

Grace is not unique to Christianity. Much as we’d love to think so.

Scott Hoezee told this story in his 1996 book The Riddle of Grace. Philip Yancey was so impressed by it, he retold the story in his 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

The story is told that, many years ago, a conference was convened to discuss the study of comparative religions. Theologians and experts from various fields of religious studies gathered from all over the world to tackle certain knotty questions relating to Christianity and its similarities or dissimilarities to other faiths. One particularly interesting seminary was held to determine whether there was anything unique about the Christian faith. A number of Christianity’s features were put on the table for discussion. Was it the incarnation? No; other religions also had various versions of the gods coming down in human form. Might it be the resurrection? No, various versions of the dead rising again were found in other faiths as well.

On and on the discussion went without any resolution in sight. At some point, after the debate had been underway for a time, C.S. Lewis wandered in late. Taking his seat, he asked a colleague, “What’s the rumpus about?” and was told that they were seeking to find Christianity’s unique trait among the world religions. In the straightforward, no-nonsense, commonsense approach that was to make Lewis famous, he immediately said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” As the other scholars thought about that for a moment, they concluded that Lewis was right: It is grace. No other religion had ever made the ultimate acceptance by the Almighty so absolutely unconditional. In other faiths, there is usually some notion of earning points. Whether it was karma, Buddhist-like steps among the path to serenity, or some similar system, the idea was that to receive the favor of the gods one had to earn the favor of the gods.

Not in Christianity, at least not in true Christianity. Hoezee 41-42

Hoezee says he heard it from Peter Kreeft at a speech in Calvin College, and no doubt he did. Too bad it’s gotta be bunk though. Told to make C.S. Lewis sound clever—smarter than those religion experts, who had to have heard about the uniqueness of Christian grace from G.K. Chesterton, at least.

But Lewis, and any religion scholar who’s not a chauvinistic ninny, would know full well grace is found in other religions.

It’s found in Judaism. The LORD rescued the Hebrews from Egypt, not because they were a great and deserving people who merited salvation, but out of his love. Dt 7.7-8 The LORD gave them Palestine, not because they deserved it, but because he promised to do so to Abraham and their ancestors. Dt 9.5 We make the same mistake the Pharisees and rabbis do, and confuse the Law with the foundation of their faith. But the foundation is their ancestor Abraham, who believed the LORD, and the LORD graciously considered that faith to be righteousness. Ge 15.6

It’s found in Islam. You may follow all Islam’s rules correctly, but the reason Muslims admit you still don’t know whether you’ll attain heaven, is because heaven has nothing to do with the rules. It’s entirely based on God’s will. And therefore entirely based on God’s grace. Which he has. The Quran begins, Bismi Allahi alrrahmani alrraheemi/“In the name of God—the most gracious, the most merciful.” Muslim prayers address him this way, and are continual reminders of God’s grace.

It’s even found in Hinduism. Karma only gets us so far. But the gods can be appealed to, intervene, and push people ahead a little further.

That’s the thing: Scratch away at every religion, and you’ll find yeah, they’ve got their rules. They’ve got their legalism. (So do we.) But if there’s no grace in the system to grease the wheels, the wheels won’t turn. Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on mercy, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and grace. In fact, when Christians don’t practice these things, and the other religions do, this is what draws Christians to quit Jesus and try those other religions.

We’d sure like to think we’re the only ones who do grace, but it’s only because we don’t know squat about other religions. We’re biased in Christianity’s favor. Which is fine; but bias is no excuse for preaching falsehoods about ’em. Slander and lies have no business in Christianity, and pushing our faith by misrepresenting the competition, is still evil. Dt 5.20

And we don’t have to do that. Wanna know what we Christians really have which the other religions don’t? The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Top that.

Graceless religion doesn’t work.

I used to believe that Lewis story. Part of what I used to teach was Christianity does grace and other religions don’t. As I wrote in the textbook I used to give my bible students:

Every other religion says we need to be good. If we are good, all the time, perfectly, we will be saved. But they admit that no one can really be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. At best, we can be mostly perfect.

So every other religion has a problem. They say they can save you. All you have to do is be perfect. They tell you how to do it. They teach you that if you are perfect, you will be saved. But they admit you really can’t be perfect. No one can. Now, if you can’t be perfect, you can’t be saved. So really, they can’t save you. They claim they can, but they really can’t. They’re false.

Christianity is the only religion that doesn’t have that problem. God saves us. Problem solved. Leslie 8 

A little naïve of me, but at the time I’d only done some rudimentary study of other religions. I didn’t realize they didn’t claim people are only saved when they’re good all the time. All I knew was what other biased, but ignorant, fellow Christians had told me.

And like I said, if a religion pushes the rules, but doesn’t include grace in the system, you’re gonna wind up with a lot of frustrated practitioners. Often they’re gonna be convinced the religion is futile, and they’re doomed and going to hell (or their religion’s equivalent of the bad afterlife). I’ve met many such people in Christianity, of all places: They go to legalistic churches which don’t teach grace, and as a result they’re convinced they can’t please God and won’t make it to heaven. They may still go through the motions—but they live their lives in despair, and don’t even bother to love God anymore.

So why are they still even there? ’Cause they don’t know where else to go! They don’t think there’s anyone else who can save ’em. Jn 6.68 They don’t consider nontheism an option. And we find this phenomenon in other religions too: I try to share Jesus with ’em, but they were convinced long ago their religion, though they no longer expect it to save them, is the only way, and Jesus isn’t an out.

But some of ’em do leave. And sad to say, some of ’em leave Christianity too. Hey, if they figure they’re going to hell anyway, what have they got to lose? That’s why we find so many ex-Christians joining Wicca: They figure God doesn’t love them, and maybe the Goddess will.

Graceless religions realize this is a problem. You know why Hindus in India freak out whenever the Christians come to town? Because they know all the folks in the lowest castes, who haven’t been shown a lick of grace by their fellow Hindus, will turn Christian as quick as they can. When you overthrow the caste system like that, it really irritates the people who were profiting by it.

But it happens all the time. The reason the Greco-Roman pagan religions, the Norse religions, and the Egyptian religions vanished off the face of the earth: It wasn’t because they were banned, ’cause Christianity gets banned all the time, goes underground, and grows like kudzu. It’s because those religions were based on fear, not grace, and Jesus offers us freedom from fear. Fear-based religions only grow when there’s no freedom of religion. And whenever neo-Pagans try to bring those old religions back, they don’t wanna return to fear: They’ve had to insert grace in their revived system, where it didn’t previously exist. ’Cause it won’t grow otherwise.

Show more grace than they do.

I’ve known young evangelists who were dumbfounded when they tried to preach grace to people of other religions… only to be met by people who aren’t swayed at all.

I’ve had to explain: No, it’s not because they fear change. It’s not because they don’t understand you. It’s not because they’re comfortable. It’s because we haven’t made God’s grace sound significantly different from the grace in their religion. We’re not showing ’em something they desperately lack. They already believe God is gracious—and if it’s all the same to you, they’ll stay right where they are, with their gracious God.

Yeah, sometimes we need to do a way better job of showing God’s grace. We gotta be loving, patient, kind, and exhibit all the Spirit’s fruits as best we can. But there’s one significant factor we also gotta show them, which I hinted at above.

It’s the Holy Spirit’s power. God’s grace hasn’t just extended into the man Jesus, who died for our sins. It’s extended into the fact God is here, in our presence, indwelling us, empowering us.

In other religions, their gods aren’t alive. They’re distant. Standoffish. Inert. (Phony.) It’s why their prayers don’t work. But ours do. It’s why they pray for healing and nothing happens. But our God heals. Their gods’ grace can only go so far. Our God’s grace extends all the way down to the ground.

So share how God’s been gracious to you. Give ’em real-life examples of his real-life, miraculous grace. Pray that God does for them what he does for you. Pray that he does way more for them than the gods they think do for them. Put your grace into action.