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May 23, 2012
Near the center of every religion is a ledger. Every religion acknowledges, on one level or another, that people do good things and bad things and every religion then maintains a tally, supposing that one day there will come a reckoning. Every religion hopes that on the day of accounting, the day of the audit, the good will outnumber or outweigh the bad. There is hope for those who come to that day with a surplus and no hope for those who come with a deficit.
Islam acknowledges sin—deeds that contradict the will of Allah—and calls its adherents to do good that will outweigh the bad. Good deeds are repentance, prayer and certain acts of charity and kindness. Each of these go in the ledger as credits meant to balance the debits.
Judaism acknowledges sin—violations of God’s commandments—and calls on its adherents to make atonement, reparation of relationship with God, through the good work of repentance, through making right the wrongs done to another person, through prayer and devotion. Each of these is a black entry in the ledger that may outweigh the red.
Buddhism acknowledges sin, or something like it, and calls on its adherents to avoid it in favor of something higher and better. Bad deeds bring bad karma which must be outweighed by the good deeds that bring about good karma. When the accounting comes, the good must outweigh the bad, or fate will not be kind.
Hinduism acknowledges deeds that draw us toward and deeds that draw us away, though a Hindu would hesitate to describe such deeds as sin. Still, it calls on its adherents to repent of what they have done that is bad and to restore parity with repentance or acts of contrition.
Roman Catholicism acknowledges sin—acts not in accord with reason informed by Divine law—and calls on its people to be made right with God primarily by grace bestowed through the use of sacraments such as baptism. Great sins, known as mortal sins, destroy the grace of justification which must then be restored through penance and works of satisfaction. Though Catholicism acknowledges the importance of grace and faith, still it demands deeds, meritorious deeds, that may help restore balance.
Christianity, the Christianity of the Bible, acknowledges sin—acts that transgress or do not fully accord with God’s revealed will—and calls on its adherents to avoid sin altogether. There is a ledger in the Christian faith, but a unique ledger. This ledger allows no balancing. The moment there is one red mark, the moment any sin is entered in the balance sheet, the books are closed. Baptism merits nothing; penance and confession merit nothing; good deeds bring no good karma and no merit in the eyes of God. Balance cannot be restored by any human action.
What can be done? The answer is simple: the account must be settled by someone else. Merit cannot be intrinsic, so it must be extrinsic. And this is where we look to Christ in faith, faith that acknowledges that Christ’s merit can be—has been—applied to us and faith that is itself a gift of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The debt is canceled, it is paid, exclusively and eternally by the work of Jesus Christ.