by Steven B. Cowan –
The jailor at Philippi asked the Apostle Paul the most important question, “What must I do to be saved?” He wanted to know how he could escape God’s wrath for his sin, how he could find forgiveness, how he could have eternal life. Paul answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Paul told him, in other words, to place his faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. Paul’s answer to the jailor’s question
was to preach to him the gospel (good news!) that God saves undeserving sinners from his own wrath by grace alone, through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone (see Rom. 3:21-26; 4:1-5; Eph. 2:8-9). The Christian gospel is the message of salvation by grace apart from works. Indeed, the Christian view is that we simply can not be saved by our good works. We are sinners who deserve God’s wrath for the evil things we have done. And if the truth be known, we don’t really have any good works to speak of. As Paul says elsewhere,
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Rom. 3:10-12)
We are basically evil, and even the good deeds we do are tainted by evil motives. So, we cannot earn our salvation by good works because we don’t really have any good works, and we have quite a few bad works to answer for. Therefore, the grace of God which comes through faith in Jesus Christ is our only hope of salvation. We need to have our sins forgiven, and we need the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account if we are to stand before a holy God and escape his just wrath.
The Muslim view of salvation, however, is very different. It is quite straight-forwardly a works-based system of salvation. And like all works-based systems it has several significant problems. Let me explain the Muslim view of salvation and then point out its flaws.
The Muslim View of Salvation
A description of the Muslim view of salvation should begin with a brief account of Muslim eschatology. The Qur’an is clear that there is coming a day in which Allah will judge the world. The Qur’an says:
On the Day of Judgment, We shall bring out for him a scroll, which he will see spread open. It will be said to him: “Read thine own record: sufficient is thy soul this him: “Read thine own record: sufficient is thy soul this 14)
The Book of Deeds will be placed before you; and you will see the sinful in great terror because of what is recorded therein; they will say, “Ah! woe to us! What a book is this! It leaves out nothing small or great, but takes account thereof!” They will find all that they did placed before them: And not one will thy Lord treat with injustice. (Sura 18:49)
According to these texts, on this Last Day, Allah will open up the “Book of Deeds” and weigh every person’s actions, good and bad, on a scale. The outcome of this weighing of deeds will determine one’s eternal destiny: “Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will be successful. But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in Hell they will abide” (Sura 23:102-3). Two former Muslims, Ergun and Emir Caner, explain the significance of the Muslim view:
Misery versus magnificence ultimately will be resolved statistically. Muslims believe that each person must be 51 percent good. Therefore, those who know they have lived a life of misery and shame have no hope of heaven if they are nearing death. Accordingly, they live in dispair and destruction, for they can expect only hell.
The divine balance scale is the ultimate demonstration of precise mathematical judgment. Each person is literally accountable for each act performed. Consequently, the scales become more important as one approaches the end of life, especially for those who are on the edge. They have to work harder, live better, and give more. Then, they can hope, the scales will tip in their favor.1
So, the Muslim achieves heaven and avoids hell if his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds. Each man stands or falls on the day of judgment on his own merit or demerit. This tells us that the Muslim view of salvation is one of human works. The Muslim is saved, he thinks, by his own works.
But, what are the good works that are required? Muslim theologians assert that what is required for salvation is belief and action. As the Qur’an puts it, “To those who believe and do deeds of righteousness hath God promised forgiveness and a great reward” (Sura 5:10). The beliefs that are required are the basic doctrines of the Muslim faith, especially the belief in the oneness of God and that Muhammad is the prophet of God. The actions in question refer specifically to the five pillars of Islam, as well as performing other good deeds in society.2
This picture of the Muslim view does need to be qualified in a couple of ways, however. First, many Muslims believe that even a very wicked person can be saved if Muhammad intercedes for him.3 The Qur’an makes no mention of this doctrine, but it is very popular among Muslims all over the world. Of course, there is no guarantee that Muhammad will intercede for a person. One cannot place his hope in this possibility.
Second, for the Muslim, there can be no certainty of salvation, not only because he cannot be sure he has done enough good deeds, but also because entrance into paradise is ultimately up to the arbitrary will of Allah. As Chawkat Moucarry points out, “Salvation is always a divine prerogative and favour, even when granted to believers; although they may have followed the teachings of Islam perfectly, they will have done nothing more than carry out their duties to their creator.”4 In other words, even if one has been perfectly obedient to Allah’s will, he is under no obligation to grant one entrance to heaven.
An Evaluation of the Muslim View
There are several problems with the Muslim view of salvation. First, as should be obvious, the Muslim denies the Christian doctrine of original sin (the doctrine that says that human beings, because of Adam’s Fall, are born with a sinful nature incapable of doing anything good in God’s eyes). Though they acknowledge that human beings are weak and prone to ignorance and rebellion, Muslims believe that human beings are inherently capable of doing good and obeying God’s revealed will. The problem with this view is that it leaves unexplained and unintelligible the human tendency toward sin and rebellion. The Christian worldview explains our native predisposition to evil by claiming that human beings were originally created innocent. But, our first parents freely chose to sin. As a consequence, we have all inherited Adam’s guilt and corruption (see Rom. 5:12-19). Therefore, we sin because we are, by (fallen) nature, sinners. The Muslim, however, has no explanation for why each and every human being is so bad, so prone to ignorance, moral weakness, and outright rebellion against God.
Second, the Muslim view of salvation severely underestimates the seriousness of sin. Since the Muslim believes that entrance into paradise is the result of God’s decision to reward a life of 51% obedience, it is clear that no atonement is required on their view for one’s bad deeds. Islam has no room for the Christian doctrine of the cross; no room for atonement as necessary for salvation. For the Muslim, God can forgive sin arbitrarily. This means, of course, that sin is not nearly so bad as the Bible says it is. One problem with this is that it implies that the Muslim god has little concern for justice. To see this, imagine a human judge who, every time a criminal came before his bar, looked to see how many good deeds the person had done as opposed to bad deeds. And if he happened to have 51% good deeds, though having committed many evil acts against his neighbors, the judge said, “That’s okay. You’re forgiven.” Suppose you were one of the criminal’s victims. Would you be content with this judge’s decision? Would you think that justice had been done? Or would you cry out in protest and demand a new judge? Obviously, such a judge would be unworthy of the office. Likewise, a God who had no concern to punish evil, no concern to uphold his own honor and holiness in the face of human rebellion, would not be worthy of the divine office.
The Christian faith overcomes this difficulty, and preserves the holiness and justice of God, by recognizing the need for atonement. God simply must punish sin. He cannot look the other way at our evil acts. Yet, as the Scriptures teach, he also loves his creatures and desires to forgive them. So, God provides a substitute in the person of His Son Jesus Christ. Imputing the sin of believers to Jesus, and puinishing him for those sins, God shows himself to be just. And he shows himself to be merciful by imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to believers, justifying them by faith alone (Rom. 3: 21-26).
Another way in which the Muslim underestimates the seriousness of sin is in his belief that he can have good works to offer God in the first place. The fact of the matter is that there is no hope that any human can ever have 51% of his actions weigh out on the good side of the scale. The only way that a person can come to think otherwise is to drastically water down God’s demands on us. But, like the Pharisees in the New Testament, this is exactly what most Muslims have done. They have come to believe that all that God requires is that they give mental assent to the essential Islamic doctrines, perform a few religious rituals, and then live an outwardly civil and upright life. Yet, externalizing God’s commands in such a way that they become so easily achievable actually ignores what is most important in ethics and most important in religion: the desires and intents of our hearts. Jesus said it plainly:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder’. . . . But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
“. . . You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
“. . .Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:21-22, 27; 6:1)
If the Muslim is honest with himself, he will have to admit that his motives, even when he obeys God, are seldom pure. (Indeed, the Bible tells us that no one’s motives, apart from the grace of God, are ever pure.) What does this imply? It implies that the Muslim can never hope to have anywhere near 51% of his actions be good for most if not all of his actions will be motivated impurely. And actions done from false motives can never accrue to the moral praiseworthiness of the agent.
Third, the Muslim view of heaven actually underscores their inadequate view of both God and Man. Though some Muslims interpret the Qur’an’s statements about paradise figuratively, most do not. And it is well-known that the Qur’an describes heaven in sensual, hedonistic terms (Suras 37:43-48; 44:54; 52:20, 24; 55:72; 56:17, 22; 74:19), where men will enjoy food and drink to their heart’s content, be waited on by menservants and maidservants, and have sexual access to large harems of women. The problem with this is that it suggests that the reason why people should seek to become Muslims and obey God’s law has nothing to do with God’s worthiness of our devotion and everything to do with our selfish pursuit of pleasure. In other words, on the Muslim view of salvation, the primary motivation to serve Allah is to receive entrance into a hedonistic paradise. And, apparently, Allah approves of such motives because he promises this reward in exchange for obedience.
The Christian, on the other hand, sees God himself as his greatest reward (Ps. 16, etc.), and the proper motivation for obedience is love and adoration of God. The Christian knows that the greatest pleasure and happiness is not to be found in a harem of sensual delight, but in knowing and experiencing the presence of God.
Let me close this article with a brief reflection on the respective Muslim and Christian doctrines of intercession. We have noticed that many Muslims believe that even a wicked person can escape hell if Muhammad intercedes for him. However, such intercession cannot be counted on. The Christian faith, however, is that we have a High Priest who does intercede for us, and his intercession is perfectly efficacious. His intercession can be counted on with utter confidence. And when Christ our High Priest intercedes, he gets what he prays for (Heb. 4:16; 7:25). It is for this reason that we can have assurance of our salvation. We are assured, not because we are good or because we have accumulated a certain number of good works, but because Christ is good —because he loves us, died for us, rose again for us, and ever lives to make intercession for us. We are assured because we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the work of Christ alone. Amen.
Steven B. Cowan is the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center, and editor of Areopagus Journal.
1 Ergun Mehmet Caner and Emir Fethi Caner, Unveiling Islam (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 149.
2 See Muhammad Abul Quasem, Salvation of the Soul and Islamic Devotions (London: Kegan Paul International, 1983), 29.
3 See Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah: An Arab Christian’s Perspective on Islam and Christianity (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 103; and Norman Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 118-19.
4 Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah, 104.
Want to Read More About Islam?
Miriam Adeney, Daughters of Islam (IVP). Abdiyah Akbar Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim (Bethany Fellowship).
George W. Braswell, Jr., Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power (Broadman & Holman).
Ergun M. Caner and Emir F. Caner, Unveiling Islam (Kregel).
Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam (Baker).
Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? (Zondervan).
Chawkat Moucarry, The Prophet and the Messiah (IVP).
Paul Marshall, Roberta Green, and Lela Gilbert, Islam at the Crossroads: Understanding Its Beliefs, History and Conflicts (Baker).
Bruce A. McDowell and Anees Zaka, Muslims and Christians at the Table (P & R).
Phil Parshall, Understanding Muslim Teachings and Tradition (Baker).
Steven Massood, The Bible and the Qur’an: A Question of Integrity (OM Publishing).
Robert Spencer, Islam Unveiled (Encounter).
Steven Tsoukalas, The Nation of Islam: Understanding the “Black Muslims” (P&R).