What distinguishes Christianity from other monotheistic religions?


Christianity is the only belief system which both acknowledges the depth of the problem of sin and offers a solution to it. It's not only "really bad" people who need to be concerned about where they stand with God; it's all of us, for we have all rejected God's authority by doing wrong. The problem of sin is, once we've done wrong instead of the good we were supposed to be doing, how can we ever make up for it and be in the presence of a perfectly righteous God? (See Why won't good works get us to heaven?)

Islam
Judaism
Christianity


Islam

Islam acknowledges the gravity of sin. The Qur'an describes God as being "quick in reckoning" (40:17) and "Severe in retribution" (40:22). Evildoers are punished eternally (5:37, 4:56).

In Islam, the requirements for being right with God are to have faith in him and to do good (2:112, 2:277). Those who don't believe are condemned (3:10, 3:131), as are those who worship other gods alongside Allah (4:116), disobey him and Mohammed (4:14, 4:115) or murder believers (4:93). But what happens to believers who do wrong? The Qur'an describes God as "Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful" (3:31) and states that he loves those who do good and will forgive them (3:148, 152). Yet it also says that God doesn't love those who do wrong (2:276, 3:57, 7:55). Since all people do wrong during their lifetimes, even those who are devout in their faith, how is a Muslim to know where he stands with God - if God loves him for his faith and good deeds, or if God hates him for his wrongs, his missed opportunities to do good, his occasional doubts?

The answer appears to be in 23:102-103: "Then as for him whose good deeds are preponderant, these are the successful. And as for him whose good deeds are light, these are they who shall have lost their souls, abiding in hell." I.e. those who do more good than bad will be regarded as good and will have their bad deeds forgiven. Forgiveness also requires that the person be sincere and never repeat the wrong (2:275, 3:135, 5:95). There is a time limit as well. Those who repent soon after doing wrong are forgiven, but not those who wait until death (4:17-18, 39:54).

Can a Muslim be reconciled to God? The first question is whether one's good deeds can outweigh one's sins. Keep in mind that sin includes not only acts that are obviously wrong, but one's thoughts of hatred, pride, lust, envy, etc. as well as failure to do good; even those wrongs equivalent in weight to a mustard seed will be taken into account (21:47). Who can honestly say that they do enough good acts each day to make up for their wrong acts, evil thoughts, and failure to do good on other days? The Qur'an does say that God will multiply good deeds to make up for the bad (4:40); but how can one know if one has obtained the level of righteousness where God will be willing to do that? As the Qur'an says, "He forgives whom He pleases and chastises whom He pleases" (3:129); it is quite possible that it would please Allah to punish some of those who thought they would be forgiven. Indeed, perhaps the sins to tip the scales against them will be pride and self-righteousness, for "surely He does not love the proud" (16:23).

The second question is whether one has repeated a sin after repenting of it, for the Qur'an makes it clear that repeat offenses are not forgiven. Yet who can claim that they haven't committed any wrong more than once, or haven't recommitted a wrong even after sincerely repenting? We are creatures of habit, after all. If we commit a particular sin once, it's very likely we'll do it again, for the sin indicates a weakness within us. Each person has individual weaknesses and sins to which they are prone. There are certain temptations that each of us will have to struggle against for our entire lives. Who can say that they will achieve near-perfection, only failing once in any area?

While Islam holds out the hope of reconciliation with God to its followers, it is only a hope, never a certainty, and a very faint hope at that.

Judaism

The Jewish Bible (which is the same as the Protestant Old Testament) doesn't explicitly say that one should do this or that to enter heaven, but it does record the laws and moral commands God gave to the Israelites. According to Judaism, if God's people obey the laws, they will be blessed, but if they disobey they will be punished (Dt 11:26-28). It also clearly states the problem of sin: "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins" (Ecc 7:20, also Ps 14:1-3). It is because of sin that the sacrificial system is set up in the Law. Yet, as the author of Hebrews points out, animal sacrifices are not enough to reconcile us to God:

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:

   "The time is coming, declares the Lord,
       when I will make a new covenant
   with the house of Israel
       and with the house of Judah.
   It will not be like the covenant
       I made with their forefathers
   when I took them by the hand
       to lead them out of Egypt,
   because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
       and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
   This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
       after that time, declares the Lord.
   I will put my laws in their minds
       and write them on their hearts.
   I will be their God,
       and they will be my people.
   No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
       or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
   because they will all know me,
       from the least of them to the greatest.
   For I will forgive their wickedness
       and will remember their sins no more."

By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
(Heb 8:7-13, quoting Jer 31:31-34)

The priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings - external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Heb 9:6-10)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb 10:1-4)

In other words, if the sacrifices proscribed by the Law were enough to reconcile people to God, all observant Jews would be able to enter into the Most Holy Place and be in the presence of God, for their sin would have been forgiven. Furthermore, if the sacrifices were truly effective they would not have to be offered in perpetuity. Yet instead of this being so, the Jewish Bible itself points out that the Law and covenant need to be replaced, for God promises a new covenant with the Israelites.

Finally, Paul, a former Pharisee, makes further points in Galatians 3:10-11: "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law' (Dt 27:26). Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith' (Hab 2:4)."

Christianity

How then does Christianity solve this problem? The Bible acknowledges that people are incapable of earning their salvation in any way, for we are too weak and sinful. Only God is able to help us, by offering a perfect, atoning sacrifice for our sins: Jesus Christ, God the Son. Because this perfect sacrifice satisfies the need for sin to be punished, God is able to offer us complete forgiveness for our sins.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:21-25)

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb 9:13-14)


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