If salvation is a gift, then can't I live however I like?
Dr Andy Gemmill didn't give a second thought to Christianity until he met some Christian friends at university. Through their lives and words he came face to face with Jesus for the first time, and gradually became convinced that the Christian message was true. He became a Christian in his second term in 1980. He worked for some years as a hospital doctor before becoming a church leader.
A question of understanding
Let me begin by saying that this is a good question. In fact it is a question you will only ask if you have begun to understand just how extraordinary the Christian message is.
Most people assume that Christianity is something to do with becoming a better person, changing your behaviour to please God or to live a more useful life. Now if that’s what Christianity is about then there’s no way that “living however I like” can be the way forward. How could I possibly please God more by living life my own way?
However real Christianity is not like that and because of this there are a number of reasons why people hear the Christian message and conclude that it’s possible to be a Christian and to live however they want. Here are two of them, one connected with Christianity
itself, the other with gifts in general.
Christianity is about receiving, not performing, so surely my behaviour isn’t important?
Christianity is all about being rescued, not about being good; about God’s exceptional love, not about our exceptional behaviour; about being forgiven, not about outperforming. When I stand in front of God on the day of judgement my only hope will be that Jesus
has died for my sins, not that I have lived the good life. I didn’t gain God's favour by living the right way and I don’t keep it by living the right way. God's love is so wonderful that he doesn't treat me according to how I have lived, but according to how Jesus has lived. This is the heart of the Christian good news and it makes Christianity fundamentally different from every other ideology. Everything else is summed up by a two letter word, “DO” (do better, work harder, live cleaner) but Christianity is summed up by a four letter word, “DONE” (Jesus has done everything that you need to be saved).
Because salvation is a gift from God and not something I can contribute to it might seem logical to conclude that my behaviour just isn’t that important. In fact it could be argued that to suggest that human behaviour is important in any way is to make Jesus’s perfect life and sacrificial death look less impressive than they are. What role can my behaviour possibly have if salvation is only to do with what Jesus has done for me?
Most gifts are given out of love and without conditions, so how can this gift involve change?
We all know that the best gifts are given for the benefit of the recipient, to help them or to please them. We don’t normally give gifts to manipulate people into doing things for us. “Gifts” of that sort are better termed bribes. When your elderly aunt Susie gives you a Christmas present every year she doesn’t do it to make you behave well but because she loves you. If you changed your life on receiving her gift (socks again!) this would probably be met with shocked surprise. Gifts are not usually meant to lead to any sort of change in behaviour from the person on the receiving end, so if salvation is genuinely a gift how can it be that any change is necessary?
In short, if salvation is really an undeserved gift rather than a bribe, something I can’t pay for or contribute to, then why can’t I just receive the gift of salvation and carry on living as I want?
A matter of relationship
To answer this question we will consider these two areas again from the perspective of relationship. Gifts are all about relationship People who give gifts do so within the context of relationship. We nearly always receive gifts from people we know well. In such cases the gift is an expression of the relationship that already exists. Occasionally gifts are given by those who desire to initiate relationship, for example an ambassador bringing gifts to a foreign power to promote the development of diplomatic relations.
This relational aspect of gifts is important. It’s true that gifts are not earned or deserved but they certainly have consequences for behaviour. Because they are about relationship they demand a relational response.
Auntie Susie’s Christmas socks may seem undemanding, but start treating Auntie Susie
with indifference and you will soon discover that, though she didn’t give the present because
of the response it would elicit, she objects strongly to being treated as though she
To call salvation a gift but continue to live a life that ignores the giver is to relate to God’s generosity as you would relate to a slot machine jackpot payout, to treat God like a machine rather than a person.
Salvation is all about relationship
In terms of gaining salvation, the way I live contributes nothing. In terms of needing salvation the way I live is all important. Living "however I like" is precisely the reason I need salvation in the first place.
God is not an aged aunt, nice enough, if rather peripheral to life. Rather he is the maker, possessor and rightful ruler of everything that exists, ourselves included. One New Testament writer says of Jesus that all things were made through him and for him. Another says that Jesus sustains everything all the time by his powerful word. The consequences of these statements are profound. To live, "however I like" is to put myself at the centre of a life made by Jesus and designed to have him at the centre. Not only is that profoundly insulting towards him, it's also deeply destructive towards myself. A life of that sort invites disaster at Jesus’s return and in the mean time, even if it looks outwardly well behaved, the self-orientated life is simply not what we were made for, it's subuman.
Human beings are not designed to live small, self-determining, self-orientated
lives. Rather we are designed to live in joyful dependent relationship with the one who
made us, sustains us, and despite the way we have behaved towards him, has a place for
us in his great plans for eternity.
God’s gift of salvation brings people back into relationship with him. It’s a relationship restoring gift. There are many different aspects to salvation: forgiveness, freedom, deliverance from future judgement, eternal life, to name a few. These might be likened to different facets of a beautifully cut gemstone. But the stone itself is relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom and for whom we were made. Through the work of Jesus God reaches out to hostile enemies heading for destruction and gives them the status of family members heading for eternal life. Restored relationship with Jesus brings with it many good things in this life and in eternity, but none of them comes without him. It would be utterly incongruous for someone to claim that they had received the gift of salvation while remaining relationally distant to the giver of the gift.
The truth is that to live “however I like” is to remain an enemy, to have received nothing.
Salvation is not just for me
A final note. There are other reasons why to live “however I like” is incompatible with the gift of salvation and one of the most significant is that salvation is not just for me. Before I became a Christian one of the things that most interested me about Christianity was the lives of the Christians I knew. It was not that they were perfect, but there was an authenticity about their lives which was attractive. I now recognise this to be a product of their being rightly related to their creator. Living life, albeit imperfectly, the way Jesus wanted, made them different and drew my attention to him. I now know that my experience is not unusual and that God regularly uses the changed lives of others to pass on the gift of salvation. To think that I could receive the gift of salvation and live however I wanted would be to behave as though the gift was for me alone.
If salvation is a gift, then can't I live however I like? It’s a good question because in certain
ways it recognises the completely undeserved nature of what Jesus has done. But in
the end it’s a flawed question because it misses out the central relational dimension both
to gifts and to salvation.
© Andy Gemmill