Friday, June 13, 2014

Salvation is not a Sticker Chart

When you become a mother, your eyes are miraculously reprogrammed to notice brightly-colored objects in any level of light. I believe this is a self-preservation mechanism to prevent you from stepping on Legos in the middle of the night. Anyway, I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed a couple weeks ago when my eyes were drawn to a colorful picture a friend had posted.

But wait, this wasn't a kindergarten art project. It was a sticker chart labeled "Good Behavior," and UCG was using it to illustrate an article titled "Chart Your Way on the Road to Eternal Life."

To be honest, I have never been a sticker chart kind of mom. Mostly because I already have enough things to keep up with, and we already have stickers affixed to almost every flat surface in the house. But I have friends who say they've worked wonders with their kids. I have nothing against them. Except when you use them to make sure you marked everything off your daily sainthood checklist.

No, really. That's exactly what the author of the article said: "The saints are those who check off their chart daily."

To be fair, the writer's stated goal was to encourage readers to reinforce daily spiritual habits like Bible study and prayer, or to quantify progress on a spiritual goal like cleaning up one's language. She suggested that a visual goal or tangible reward could help readers establish regular routines. I'm not here to criticize that. I'm highly visual myself, and am pretty distractible. I get it. If buying a new pen gets you in the Word daily, go for it. And celebrating our spiritual victories with friends - another suggestion of hers - is totally biblical.

The problem is, like most COG articles, the helpful suggestions are the bookends around a collection of doctrinal misunderstandings supporting the notion that we are in the driver's seat when it comes to overcoming our sin and inheriting eternal life. As usual, the author gives God a mention in the process - after all, He gives us the Holy Spirit, "a spirit of power, love and self-discipline," to help us. But this attitude comes across loud and clear in her follow-up statement, and resonates through the rest of the article: "He wants us to learn to regulate our behaviors on our own."

So, back to the article. Those who want to chart their progress on the road to eternal life should be as the saints in Revelation 14:12, the author tells us. They should keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. Aha! God has given us our chart - the 10 Commandments! With God's own road map in hand, how can we fail?

After all, we know what he requires of us, the author says - "do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with Him while learning to keep his Commandments in righteousness and truth." Interestingly, the author attributes her list to Micah 6:8, but that verse makes no mention of the Commandments. Traditionally, when one cites a scripture word-for-word, one doesn't add words after the point where the verse has a period. I heard that before somewhere. Something about adding to the Word of God... but I digress. I'm not going to argue about the 10 Commandments today, or tell you that showing mercy isn't a good thing. Let's get back to our map.

For argument's sake, I'll agree with the author that if we are on the road to eternal life, like these saints, we will be doing the things Micah 6:8 says to do PLUS the stuff she inserted into the verse. Elsewhere in Revelation - and in many verses throughout the the Bible - the saints are described as wearing things like white robes, clean linen, spotless garments. This is commonly understood to be a symbol for a sinless state, someone who is perfectly righteous. It would appear that their race is over and they have done what was required of them.

Does this symbolism have any implications for us today? After all, we are being evaluated in this life, on our daily behavior, the author reminds us. The chart we compare ourselves against is the 10 Commandments - both the physical and spiritual intent. That might seem like a tall order, but if these are the objectives God has set for us, "then they must be attainable," she reminds us. Okay. What level of sinlessness does He require us to reach in this life? Not the level God would ideally like us to attain, or the percentage we're striving for. What actually gets us eternal life? Let's once again consider the saints' pure white garments.

Tell me, at what age do you expect you'll achieve spotlessness? In other words, what happens when your sticker chart isn't complete at the end of your life? Because it won't be. When I picture my hypothetical conversation with Jesus based on COG doctrines about salvation, it goes a lot like the one we see in Mark 10:17-27.

"Wow, I finally made it!" I exclaim.

"Made what?" Jesus asks me.

"To Your Kingdom! I kept your commandments and met the conditions for salvation!"

"You did? Show me," He says.

"Right here!" I pull out my 8x10 sticker chart. "Oh right, there's a spot right there. I came to the Feast late that one time in 2001. I had a biology test I couldn't miss. But I have all my Feast attendance stickers after that!"

I rush to fill the awkward silence. "Oh right, that empty spot over there. I didn't quite make it out of work by sunset that particular Friday. But the Sabbath comes really early at that time of year."

Jesus reaches over and takes my chart out of my hands. He unfolds a portion that was hidden from sight. The first three rows are titled "mercy," "faith," and "self-control." Each row contains a handful of stickers.

I blush. "I didn't see those rows," I stammered. "Well, maybe I did. Sometimes. But, well...".

Jesus reaches into a drawer with a knowing smile, then tells me, "I wouldn't worry about that too much. You weren't using the right chart anyway." Then he unfurls a chart as long as a city block.

You see, in the COGs, we have created our own chart measuring righteousness. I think this is why we are so tempted to fall into a performance mentality. We attach our stickers each Sabbath and Holy Day, when we respond to someone's anger with kindness, or when we tell the truth, even if it hurts. Don't get me wrong, even tackling the COG sticker chart for righteousness is daunting. Still, the checklist we've designed for righteousness is the size of an envelope, while God's checklist of standards for righteousness is the size of a cruise ship.

Even having the right chart alone doesn't address the bigger issue, which is our hearts. In Matthew 15:11, Jesus tells us that it's what comes out of a man's mouth - not what goes in - that defiles him. What comes out of our mouths is a good barometer for what's in our hearts, and our hearts are naturally desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). I can try to keep - or even duct tape - my mouth shut, but that doesn't silence my inner voice.

You see, the COGs teach that humans are born with neutral - with blank slates - and that we were corrupted by Satan's broadcasts and living in the world. The underlying premise is that we can change our hearts back - using the Holy Spirit as tool, of course. HWA discussed this concept much more than the modern COGs do, particularly in his book, The Incredible Human Potential.When I asked one COG minister about this doctrine, he told me point blank that it sounded like one of HWA's pet teachings that clearly contradicted scriptures like Jeremiah 17:9, Psalm 51:5 and Job 14:4. But it's still there in almost every group's literature, and it logically underpins their teachings on salvation.

I don't disagree with the author's suggestions that we should focus our minds on what is good (Philippians 4:8) and use our bodies for good works (2 Timothy 2:21) instead of thinking evil thoughts and committing sin. But how? Aside from just trying harder.

"Trying harder" sounds like a good strategy when we're in our teens and 20s. Sure, I'll obey better. I'll pray more. I'll make a chart! As long as I am completing my checklist, I'll be on the road to eternal life. But as we get further down the road, we find the checklist is not as easy as we thought. Or that there are more columns than we thought when we were 25. And more importantly, that a checklist can never change our hearts. Our hearts are inherently corrupted. Scrubbing around the edges, even using the "tool" of the Holy Spirit as a pressure washer isn't going to change that.

Striving to obey is not a condition for salvation, as the author mistakenly states in a comment below her original article. We WILL strive to obey God once we are saved, but those works are evidence of our conversion, not the cause of our conversion. I want to say that again. Salvation is not a result of our works; our works are a result of our salvation. Similarly, growing in the fruit of the Spirit is evidence of of the indwelling Holy Spirit sanctifying a believer. Again, the in-dwelling of the Spirit is not a result of our fruits; our fruits are a result of the in-dwelling of  the Holy Spirit. Consider that very metaphor. Have you ever gone into an orchard at night and listened to the trees grunt as they work to push out apple blossoms? We cannot work up kindness, gentleness, patience and self-control. Only God living in us can produce that fruit.

I want to make this absolutely clear. God is not avoiding you until you change; holding you at arm's length until you are properly behaving. No! God is inside you, intimately and completely, preparing you, healing you, changing you. Sin does not chase Him away. If so, there would be no hope. No! When you are weak, He is strong. When you sin, He stays, and together you deal with the effects of sin. You are not forgiven because you re-double your efforts. You are forgiven because you see your need. He satisfies that need. It is His goodness that changes you. His goodness, not your own. His presence makes holy. His holiness, not your own. It is His righteousness that He is looking for in you. His righteousness, not your own.

Creating a spiritual checklist, or tracking our accomplishments is dangerous because it reinforces the erroneous belief that our accomplishments have anything to do with our salvation. It either leaves us puffed up with pride because of what we've done, or wallowing in despair because of what we haven't done.

This is the whole point of Ephesians 2:8 and 9 - that we are saved by grace through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. We can't add to Christ. In fact, if we try to do so, when we try to blend our efforts into our salvation, we risk negating His sacrifice. Galatians 5:2-4 tells us that believers who thought they must be circumcised in an attempt to be justified before God alienated themselves from Christ. That they are indebted to keep the WHOLE LAW. I know the COGs argue this passage is just making a point about circumcision, but it can't be. It wouldn't make any sense. Remember that circumcision was the prerequisite to joining Israel and keeping the Passover, according to Exodus 12:48. And keeping the Passover was a requirement for being a part of Israel (Numbers 9:13-14). Reading Galatians chapters 3 through 5 makes it exceedingly clear that Paul is not just referring to circumcision, or any unofficial oral traditions, or the items that the COGs put on their checklist, but to the whole Sinai Covenant. What other law could anyone be biblically indebted to keep?

And this is where the COG teachings about salvation go off the tracks. We are responsible for overcoming our own sin. We can use the Holy Spirit as a tool, but "He wants us to learn to regulate our behaviors on our own," as the author tells us. Our ministers tell us that God doesn't expect us to be perfect, but in the next breath they remind us that some of us are not going to "make it" if we don't overcome this or that sin. Not one minister can tell me what percentage of sin I need to overcome to "make it," but the booklets they write state that I need to be re-justified with God after each and every sin if I'm going to "be there." Is it even possible to realize and repent of every sin I ever commit, even if I'm just using the COG checklist? When confronted with this reality, all we can do is hang our head and hope that we were "good enough." How does that offer the joy and peace the New Testament promises believers?

God has made his checklist for righteousness through legal obedience pretty clear. James 2:10 tells us that if we stumble at just one point of law, we are guilty of breaking all of it. So if legal obedience is a condition for salvation, then we have to do it perfectly. Just "striving" to do so isn't enough. "Wanting it badly" isn't enough. You might strive and achieve an 85, while I might eek out a 72, but both fall short of the required 100 percent. It's the doers of the law who will be justified, according to Romans 2:13. Those who actually keep the whole law, that is. Not those who try really, really hard. The Sinai Covenant is like a glass window. If you throw a rock at just one corner, the whole thing shatters, and you have broken the whole thing.

Even assuming I could "learn to regulate" my behavior "on my own," the Bible tells us that's not good enough. Jesus made it pretty clear in the Sermon on the Mount that just refraining from committing adultery isn't good enough. I'm not even supposed to think about it. Multiply this standard for every possible infraction and you can see the futility of a checklist mentality. The COG plan for salvation looks good on paper, but at the end of your life, they have no exit strategy besides achieving sinless perfection.

If you're thoroughly depressed, remember that God is good and that He works all things for good for those who love Him. That He made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. That Jesus loved you enough to die for you. Israel's failure to keep the Sinai Covenant may have angered God, but it did not surprise Him. God told Moses it would happen in Deuteronomy 31:14-18. Jesus' sacrifice was not just Plan B when Israel failed to live up to the Sinai Covenant, He was slain from the foundation of the world. The COGs might not have an exit strategy, but God does. Paul outlines that strategy in Romans 3:20-26. In the coming weeks, I will explain that exit strategy by exploring the doctrines of justification and imputed righteousness. Until then, you can put your stickers away. As we'll soon see, God's checklist for salvation only requires one.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


Anonymous said...

Where is the Biblical command for sticker charts? Jesus and His Apostles never had such a practice so why do you UCGs practice it?

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Direct and to the point, yet non judgmental.

Ong Seng Aun said...

A checklist of doctrinal points let people understand proper object of faith.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Just came upon this June 13, 2014 article today and wondering if you wrote more (you say that "In the coming weeks, I will explain that exit strategy by exploring the doctrines of
justification and imputed righteousness. Until then, you can put your stickers away. As we'll
soon see, God's checklist for salvation only requires one."). If you wrote more, how do I find those articles?

xHWA said...


We are SO sorry it took so long to get your comment published.

Martha said...


Thanks for bearing with us. Here are the ones that followed up this post:

This series came later, but may be of interest along the same lines: