“If I ask Allah to forgive me, maybe he will, maybe he won’t,” began Ana, our South Asian friend. The statement took my wife and I by surprise. For our Muslim friend, there could be no amount of good works, no amount of righteous living, no amount of beseeching the divine that could guarantee her a spot in Paradise. So everyday, she tried. She prayed. She strove to be a good wife and mother. She fasted during the month of Ramadan. She prepared countless meals for foreigners like us in a prodigious display of hospitality. She was kind to the poor. Yet for all this, any confidence in her eternal standing remained slight.
My mind took me back to my childhood. There I sat in a church service, hanging on every word of the children’s pastor. He said that Jesus had come to give His life as a sacrifice for our sins. If we put our trust in Him as our Lord and Savior, we would be forgiven of our bad choices. Then he went on to describe a pretty accurate and kid-friendly definition of justification: putting our trust in Jesus meant that we could be in right relationship with God.
This children’s pastor revealed something to me about myself that Muslims the world over intuitively know as well: that all people make bad choices and these choices require payment. In other words, every person who has ever lived has accrued a sin debt. For Ana, the reality of this debt kept her striving to earn Allah’s favor through the completion of a series of works. However, because he is unknowable and distant, there was no sure way of knowing where her relationship with Allah stood. She only hoped that she was doing enough to gain entrance into Paradise after she died.
As we sat around the table that evening with my friend and his wife Ana, we explained that what we believe is different. There was no striving to earn God’s favor on our part. There was no working to find purchase into Paradise. To be sure, we believed in good works, but as an effect of salvation—not the cause of it. A sin debt like ours required a mammoth payment, one that could only be covered with our very lives. Rather than requiring this of us, God sent His only Son to lay down His life as a sacrificial payment for us. Because of Jesus, our sin debt was paid and we have right standing with God!
Like my friend and his wife, many Muslims the world over are seeking justification through works, but they have no assurance of salvation. Their relationship with Allah sits eternally insecure. Many, like our dear South Asian friends, wait for believers to share the Good News with them: that the Creator of Heaven and earth has made the way for their justification, and in Him they can have the blessed assurance of Heaven!