The one word that makes Christianity different from every other religion

by Sep 2, 2014

When most people think of religion, they think of the rules. The things we’re commanded do for God or give up for God. And sure enough, it’s easy to find high moral bars set for us throughout the Bible. Look at the challenge Paul gave us in Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

When people read a passage like that, they tend to have one of two different reactions. The first is to say, “Whoa, man, heavy. Present my body as a living sacrifice? I don’t like the sound of that. Don’t be conformed to this world? But I like this world! Be transformed? Like, change? But I don’t want to change! I like the me I already am!”

The other reaction people have is to read it, and look at themselves, then say, “Yup. Nailed it! I’ve sacrificed everything to God. I give my money to missionaries, and I give my time to volunteer as a soccer coach, and I give my energy to help set up chairs at church and teach the little kids. I’m not conformed to this world at all. I go to work and I just put on my headphones and do my own thing. I only listen to the radio station that’s safe for the whole family!”

That’s how every religious person in the world operates. We see a high moral bar set in front of us, and that either makes us feel despondent (“I could never clear it!”) or arrogant (“I have no problem clearing it, and I don’t understand why all these losers around me can’t.”)

But there’s one word in this passage that radically challenges both mindsets: therefore. Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore brothers.” Which means that whatever Paul is appealing to us to do here in Romans chapter 12 is based on whatever he’s told us in the 11 chapters before this. And then he gives us a nice convenient summary right here in Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore brothers, by the mercies of God.”

That’s what Romans 1-11 is all about: the mercies of God. Not my love for God, or my obedience to God, or my service to God. It’s about God’s mercy on me. Which tells me that the most important thing about my walk with God isn’t what I do for God. It’s what God has already done for me.

That’s the way it’s always been. Look through the Bible, and you’ll see that God never tells people to do something without first telling them what he’s already done. Before he gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites he said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Before he told Isaiah to go and preach he said,  “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

That’s the gospel! The gospel is that God did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. We’re sinners who can’t stop ourselves, and so God sent his son Jesus Christ to live a perfect life to give us his righteousness , die on a cross to take away our sin, and then rise from the grave so he could be our king and empower us to live like him more and more every day through the power of the Holy Spirit. We couldn’t do any of that by ourselves.

That’s so hard for so many people to understand. Remember the story of the rich young ruler who came up to Jesus? Think of an entrepreneur who rolls up in his Bugatti Veyron, holding his $8 cup of coffee in one hand while he’s shouting into his cell phone in the other hand. Jesus says, “Can I help you?” And the guy impatiently holds up a finger. “Hold on.” When he’s finally done closing his deal he says, “Yeah. You’re that teacher guy, right? One question. What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “I’ve achieved everything else in life I wanted to achieve. I built this business. I bought a great house, and this epic car. I got a lifetime membership to the best country club in town. But there’s one last thing. I want an eternal membership in God’s club. So what do I have to do to get it?”

Remember what Jesus said to him? “Sell your house, sell your car, give away your country club membership, and give all your money to the poor.” He didn’t say that because that’s the objective entry requirement for heaven. He said it because he wanted to prove a point. He knew the guy would never be able to do it!

Sure enough, the guy walked away. He couldn’t do it. Because he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that the most important thing about your relationship with God isn’t what you do, it’s what God has already done.

That’s why Paul isn’t appealing to us in Romans 12 to try harder, work harder, or do more for God so we can receive his blessing. He’s appealing to us to understand, and believe, and appreciate, and desperately depend on all the blessings God has already given us.

When God gave up his own son, he sacrificed everything for us. And that’s the only thing that can motivate and empower us to sacrifice everything for him. That’s what the therefore in Romans 12 means, and that’s why Christianity is different from every other religion, philosophy, and worldview on the planet.