Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been folks looking for shortcuts to salvation. Even from very early times, groups (somewhat mistakenly) lumped together as “Gnostics” thought that since redemption has already occurred, no actions could possibly affect our guarantee of being saved—so go for it! This view has survived in a bizarre twist of Evangelical theology as “Once saved, always saved” (NOT, by the way, actual Baptist teaching). Others taught that they (and they alone) had the “key” to salvation—you’ll need us to initiate you into the secret mysteries of what Jesus really taught.
Later on, to the great shame of the Catholic Church, the concept of the indulgence made its appearance. Originally it was meant to motivate folks to join the Crusade to “rescue” the Holy Land—if you died on the way or in battle, your salvation was assured. This quickly morphed into the idea that any good work (usually involving a cash donation) could win you an indulgence that would send you, at death, straight into Paradise. We all know how this upset Martin Luther (though perhaps you don’t know his biggest objection at the beginning was that this practice was keeping his people from coming to Confession!). Donations (aka, fees) for indulgences usually wound up in papal coffers for the building of the new St Peter’s basilica. As one professor of mine from Notre Dame put it, “Do you know how much it cost to build St Peter’s? It cost us the Reformation.” The theology of the indulgence could be massaged into something reasonable, but of course no one in those days preached it reasonably.
In our own times, we have the so-called “gospel of prosperity.” Did you know God wants you to be happy and therefore prosperous? If you give to God (aka, a full tithe, aka to me the tele-preacher), God will bless you with abundance. It works for those preachers—I guess God must want them to be really happy…
But in all these deviant forms of “gospel,” there’s not a word about the Cross or “Deny yourself” or “Blessed are the poor/meek/mournful…” or “Some of you will be put to death.” What’s also conveniently forgotten is Jesus’ warning: “False messiahs…will arise…to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Are they in our midst?
What does Jesus Himself say? “Sell what you have and give to the poor; store up for yourselves treasure in heaven; deny yourself, take up your cross each day and follow me; forgive and you will be forgiven; love your enemies and do good to them; strive to follow the narrow way.” This is not a popular message! But if it is the truth (and if Jesus IS the Truth), it is the only way to ultimate happiness. Everything else is a dead-end, a blind alley, a path of no exit. Lent is a time set aside to help us come to terms with the difference between false and true truth. It’s not too late! What is it we’re really searching for? Do we know our hearts well enough to know in what ways the Lord is calling us both to discipleship and fulfillment? Are we ready to say YES and be truly free?