Many Christians believe that all we need to do to get to heaven is to say the magic words that “Jesus is Lord.” You know the type: the Christian who focuses more on professing beliefs about Jesus than living the faith of Jesus. Such believers are especially common in Evangelical churches, where Christianity is seen as something of a tribal identity group to which we must belong if we wish to be saved from damnation — and within which, we can rest easy in the knowledge that confessing Christ with our lips will cover a life of habitual sin.
But as easy as it is to criticize Evangelicals nowadays, a loose and largely meaningless view of salvation is also increasingly common among liberal Christians. As the teaching of universal salvation has grown more popular in recent years, and as liberal churches struggle to fill the pews in an increasingly irreligious age, there is a tendency to shy away from challenging our brothers and sisters in Christ to aspire to high standards of religious discipline, spiritual growth, and a life of extraordinary sacrifice for the cause of God. If God loves everyone as they are, why do we need to do anything?
I believe God does love everyone unconditionally, and I have been teaching the truth of universal salvation for over 15 years. So I think I am particularly well qualified to address the issue of spiritual laziness that can derive from a “low threshold” view of salvation, whether among Evangelicals or Christian Universalists — in other words, the idea that there’s not much anyone needs to do to be “saved.”
The problem is, many Christians confuse the first step of salvation with the last. Do you believe Jesus is Lord, who came to save the world from our sins? Congratulations; you’ve taken a first step on the path of faith. If that’s all you’re willing to do, you have not yet obtained the goal that the Bible tells us is the ultimate destiny toward which we should be striving, which is to become like Christ, not merely to worship him.
The Apostle Paul, one of the greatest early Christian leaders, wrote to the church of the Philippians that “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” [Phil. 3:10-11]. Didn’t Paul already know Christ? His tremendous faith and good works were obvious to all. So why wasn’t he certain that he would attain to the life of eternal glory as Jesus showed is possible through the resurrection?
Paul continues: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. … Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” [vss. 12-14]
In other words, Paul is saying that we must strive to attain to the resurrection. The sublime goal of an eternal identity, untouchable by death, perfected in the fullness of the image of God, is something that we must work for. We do not receive it automatically, simply because we believe that Jesus Christ has achieved this lofty state of exaltation.
No, mere belief in what Jesus has done is not enough. Jesus is an example to us of what we can likewise become. And to do so, we must follow in his footsteps and in the footsteps of those who are walking diligently on the path to be transformed from a life of sin to a life in Christ.
Paul continues: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. … Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” [vss. 15,17-20]
One of the most powerful metaphors for the life we must pursue in order to reach the destiny that God has intended for us is the example of athletic training. We must discipline and perfect the physical body if we wish to become capable of great athletic achievements. Similarly, we must subject ourselves to moral and spiritual discipline in order to rise to our full potential as citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom. As Paul says, “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” [1 Cor. 9:25]
The crown of eternal life as a resurrected being is the reward of the soul that has taken seriously the strict training that life on earth can offer, when we live according to the calling of God instead of our natural tendency to sin. For the soul who does not take this training seriously, they have not yet won the crown of the resurrection into Christlike glory — and instead, undoubtedly they will be assigned to more training, whether in the gymnasium of earth or in some other gymnasium of the spirit, until finally, after ages of time, their spiritual muscles have grown to the point where no more training is needed, and like an Olympic athlete, the fully developed soul is worthy of wearing the laurels alongside Christ in the arena of heroic action, whether in this world or in the other worlds of God.
Anyone who has ever played sports knows how difficult it can be to grow your muscles, to increase your strength and endurance, and to improve your athletic ability. It takes serious dedication and commitment to a program of rigorous discipline. But it can be an exhilarating journey to work hard to transform yourself from a weak, unskilled, and easily daunted beginner to a seasoned competitor. Many people have experienced this process, to one degree or another, in the field of athletics — whether playing team sports where you seek to defeat an opposing team, or individual sports where you keep striving to beat your personal best.
Many of the same principles apply in the field of spiritual growth. As we strive to become more like Christ, we commit ourselves to religious disciplines such as prayer, fasting, works of charity, and participation in a community of faith. We work together with our brothers and sisters in Christ to score points for God’s team, and to defeat our adversary, Team Satan. We work hard to improve our skills in loving our neighbors as ourselves, including people who are difficult to love, and living a life of honor and integrity in the service of righteousness and justice — just like Coach Jesus, our personal trainer, taught us how to do.
The Reverend Kalen Fristad, a friend of mine who has several decades of experience as a minister, recently published a book called More Than Sports: Life Lessons I Learned Through Athletic Competition. In Kalen’s youth, he excelled in several different sports, including baseball, basketball, football, track, and horseshoes. After being called to the ministry as a young man, Rev. Fristad served United Methodist churches for many years — but in accordance with the principles he learned in athletics, he continued to “press onward,” as Saint Paul would put it, toward more challenging degrees of service to God. When I first met him about 15 years ago, he was traveling around the United States, living in a travel trailer, and speaking at hundreds of churches about the controversial idea of universal salvation. Rev. Fristad joined me as co-founder of the Christian Universalist Association in 2007.
Many people are reluctant to take risks or try new things, especially in matters of religion. But it’s only by following the calling of God wherever it leads that we can ever hope to strengthen our spiritual muscles and beat our personal best, and to score more points for Team Light in the battle against the darkness. Sometimes it feels like we can never be good enough to play on God’s team — believe me, I know how it feels. But we have to keep strapping on our athletic equipment, so to speak, “put[ting] on the full armor or God” [Eph. 6:11], and take the field despite our feelings of inadequacy. Even if we’re afraid that we’re the weakest member of the team, God would rather have us take up our bat — or our cross — rather than sitting on the bench.
It’s a daunting thought that God wants us to become like Christ. How could that be possible? He’s the guy who hits a home run every time he comes up to bat; his free-throw percentage is 100%; and he throws a long bomb for a touchdown on the first play of every drive. That’s how we tend to think of the captain of God’s team, the one we call our Lord. But we must remember that Jesus was human too. He struggled with temptation, fear, and despair. He didn’t want to go to the cross. Just because he became a spiritual hero doesn’t mean it happened automatically.
So we should always try our best. Much of the time we’ll fail to live up to the standards of Christ. But sometimes, if we really try, and put our trust in God to strengthen us in the attempt, we might surprise ourselves and really knock one out of the park for the Lord. Gradually, as we keep practicing and keep playing the game of life according to the strict training of Coach Jesus, we may find that our batting average improves, and we run the race faster, and we throw the discus farther, and we can lift more weight in our efforts to serve God. Yes, in the fullness of time, we can become like Christ and win the crown of eternal glory — but we have to be willing to try.
In Kalen Fristad’s book, he quotes a poem by Edgar A. Guest, who wrote:
“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That ‘maybe it couldn’t,’ but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!”
Even if we’re nowhere close to the level of a saint — perhaps many trips to the gymnasium away from achieving the exalted perfection of Christ — there’s no way to get closer to the fullness of salvation except by putting in the work of a life devoted to goodness. When we do this, even if we don’t yet win the gold medal, at least we’re on the path to ultimate victory. In some sense, to be saved is to be playing God’s game.
Rev. Fristad writes, “I very much look forward to watching the Olympic games every two years, those times when the best athletes in the world gather to compete. I am always impressed by the level of dedication and the amount of hard work the athletes put in as they pursue becoming the best in the world and to win that gold medal. They take very seriously the Olympic Motto, ‘Faster, higher, stronger.’ Doing everything you possibly can to win is central to the Olympics.”
But as Rev. Fristad also points out, “there is more to the Olympic games than winning. It is the joy of playing, the joy of competing. The Olympic Creed points to that reality: ‘The most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.’”
And so, as it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross … and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” [Heb. 12:1-2].
Watch on video (starting at 8:02):