If there is a god, then which one? And who speaks accurately of him, if anyone? These are questions I asked myself many times before conversion from atheism to Christianity. They are honest questions. Every religion, philosophy, and theology claims, “This is the true god” or “We have the gospel, come follow us.” The task of finding the truth is daunting and is why an honest, inquiring agnostic may throw his hands up in frustration. There are thousands of religions, cults, sects, philosophies, sciences, and theologies under the sun. I recall discussing with friends from time to time, and thinking to myself, “How can a man in one lifetime carefully examine all of these religions and still hope to find the right one?” Before answering too quickly, realize what we are asking. We are asking about the final eternal state of our souls, and whatever answer we choose will affect our lives and the lives of our families. When it appears there are hundreds of religious “ways” and “truths,” we cannot waste the precious little time we have examining them all to figure out which one is true and which are false.
While the sheer volume of things to examine may seem daunting, in reality, there are only two religions in the world. Only two. One is the true salvation from God, and one is not. The first is the Christian faith, and the other has many identities. True Christianity goes by a singular identity with a single confession and reality, while the other goes by various and sundried names (including hiding under the name of “Christian”). These two religions oppose each other.
At the crux of all religions (including Christianity), philosophies, and errant theologies within Christianity is the same “itch” needing to be scratched, “How can I be sure and certain this is true—not just generically true but true for my family and me?” Though they have various names and identities, all religions opposed to the Christian faith are identifiable by one mark. At the point of assurance—where we know that we are personally ‘saved’ in some fashion—each of these religions turn us inward to find god or the ideal. In this way, they all principally function the same: by making us depend on our strength, conscience, experience, reason, person, or works. Their basic theology is one in which we receive from the deity, ideal or even “jesus,” a grace to then work in us. When we see these “graces” working in us, then we may be assured that “God is for me and I am progressing.” This principle of God working “in me” is the default setting of all fallen mankind. This mentality even finds its way into Christianity, demanding us to look inward for a so-called progression in “holiness” as evidence of the God operating in me. However, when all the fat is boiled off this kind of theology, it points us only toward introspection for assurance.
This type of assurance is utterly hopeless and precarious; it is this that is the very opposite of certitude. It does not answer our question, “Which religion,” because all of them point us inwardly to our own strength, conscience, reason, experience, person, and works. The questions rebound infinitely: Which one, what works, how much, how perfect, and what happens when I inevitably fail—for at the grave all possibility ends!
As we lay in our dying moments, the possibility vaporizes and all the failures rush forward to accuse us, “You have failed, now you must be judged.” A devastating verse from Scripture calls us out, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). This is a devastating blow to trusting anything in ourselves. By looking inward, we fool ourselves in such magnificent deceit that we cannot even understand our own self-delusion. No amount of works and introspection can surmount this. Rather, they are the cause of it!
This lack of assurance is due to looking inward for signs of God, grace, spirit, holiness, or even Christ. These factors will drive everything. Named as the "monster of uncertainty" by Luther, uncertainty concerning one’s eternal state makes a person leave their callings in life to pursue a life of religiosity or other similar searches. Others throw their hands up in exasperated agnosticism (cf. Pontius Pilate’s, “What is truth?”) The lack of assurance of one’s standing before God causes a person to do anything to make things right in a vain attempt to gain eternal certitude. They become assiduous monks, aid “God” to rid the world of the wicked, or dedicate their lives to works to prove they are progressing. Puritan Thomas Hooker recalled that this inward search for assurance was so searing that one woman tossed her child down a well killing him or her, and concluded with this assurance, “Now at least I KNOW I’m going to hell.”
The lack of assurance of one’s standing before God causes a person to do anything to make things right in a vain attempt to gain eternal certitude.
In direct opposition to this type of religion is another religion. Martin Luther once described it this way,
“And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves (extra nos), so that we depend not on our own strength, conscience, mind, person, or works, but on what is outside ourselves (extra nos), that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.”
Believing is to trust that the promise of forgiveness is addressed to you and for you through the proclamation (preached Word), water, bread, and wine, and not due to anything good or evil in you, before or after conversion. The promise is dependent on God’s faithfulness to it. This is the Christian faith once delivered to all the saints. It points us outside of ourselves. Like most of us, Luther’s friend Philip Melanchthon was given over to introspection for assurance. During one bout of this Luther wrote him, “…Phillip the entire Gospel is outside of us.”
The constant refrain of the Christian faith is to completely and constantly look outside ourselves, outside of our deceitful heart, outside of our works, and look only to God. The true God who suckled at Mary’s breast, walked and talked among us, was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and rose from the dead as the sole proof of our forgiveness, salvation, and sure eternal life with God. This same God comes to us favoring us today precisely where He says He is, outside of us, in the preached Gospel of the absolution, baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine—the same God crucified, buried, and risen to life again. The risen Christ invited Thomas to put his hand into His wounded side to cure his unbelief, and He pours His wounds into our mouths every Sunday so that we may confidently know, in spite of our own strength, conscience, experiences, and works, that we are His.
Our hearts and introspections are nothing but deception—especially to us. They are neither where faith is to look, nor assurance is to be had. Faith and assurance are outside ourselves, in baptism (Christ externally present with His saving name), the bread and wine (the very body and blood of the Son of God), and the proclaimed forgiveness to us by a preacher or a fellow believer (where two or three gather in my name, there am I in the midst of them)—these are the words and promises spoken explicitly by God, outside us, for us, and they still stand!
The difference in the two religions of the world can be summarized simply and succinctly: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, very God Himself spoke and promised, “Take eat,drink this is My body and blood given for you for the forgiveness of sin” and“this baptism is for the forgiveness of your sins.” All other religions, philosophies, sciences, sects, and cults in the world say the same thing, “No it is not.”