Remembering God: A Response to Grace or an Act of Merit?


I attended a wonderful worship service today in a small town in California where I’m presently on sabbatical, writing a book. During the Communion service, the pastor reminded us that every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember – to remember what God in Christ has done for us to win our salvation. He remarked on how easy it is for us to forget the grace of God, and to revert to the fleshly notion that scaling heaven is dependent on our efforts. Regular times at the Communion Table drive through our calloused hearts the truth that salvation is of grace – when Jesus uttered “It is finished” on the cross before his final breath, he meant it. The work of salvation has been wrought by the Son of God, and there is nothing we can add to it, only to receive it by receiving Him, with gratitude and allegiance. Remembrance plays a crucial role in weaning us from the striving of “works righteousness.” In the words of Robert Robinson, penned in 1758:

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

As he was speaking on this topic, my mind jumped to the principal meaning of remembrance in Islam (looming in my mind because of my present book project). The Arabic word dhikr is used by Muslims to signify the call to keep the thought of God front and center in the mind. The command to remember God is found plentifully throughout the Quran. Here’s one representative verse: “O you who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance” (Sura 33:41). But in Islam, remembrance isn’t a way to keep us focused on God’s costly grace; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a way to earn brownie points, either deducting some of our sins from our eternal bank account, or accruing extra merit if we’re already super spiritual. For example, Islamic scholars have determined that the absolute best form of dhikr is reading the Quran – or even better, reciting it from memory. They have calculated (don’t ask me how) that every letter read racks up ten rewards, and since there are about 321,180 letters in the Quran, to read it through completely rings up almost four million “rewards” in your merit bank. (I don’t know for sure, but I assume that various sins have differing values of demerits, so if you have a lot in your debit column, you’ll want to be reading your Quran voraciously.) But there are other ways you can earn rewards as well: repetition of the phrase Subhanallah (Glory to God) a hundred times a day will be the same as earning one hundred good deeds, or erasing one hundred bad deeds. Other phrases also count in like measure. You get the idea. (For a chart of all these “remembrance phrases” and what they ostensibly earn, see this chart as developed by one Muslim who researched the early documents of Islam: http://salahtimes.blob.core.windows.net/documents/DhikrChart.pdf

Once again we see the huge chasm between the Christian and Muslim world views. The biblical message announces what steps God has taken to wipe away our sins and adopt us as His beloved children. The quranic message declares what humans must do to overcome the demerits of our sins by using praise of God as a spiritual scrub brush. Grace vs. works. It’s the same old story.

Yesterday I was reading a powerful expose of Muslim theology entitled The Muslim Doctrine of God, authored in 1905 by Samuel Zwemer (who earned the sobriquet “Apostle to the Muslims”), and came across this pithy summation on p. 52: “As regards the moral code Islam is phariseeism translated into Arabic.” So true. So sad. Dhikr is a case in point.

May God raise up a new generation of mission-minded believers whose hearts are tender toward the Muslim world and whose lips are seasoned with the grace of the gospel!

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5 Responses to Remembering God: A Response to Grace or an Act of Merit?

  1. Viola Larson says:

    Thank you Mateen, No other people remember what we remember, Jesus gift of salvation, but we pray that many more will come to the table in remembrance.

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  2. Debbie Berkley says:

    In Islam, is there any concept that you must have a certain level of merit in order to make it into paradise? I’m thinking of the Christian idea that if you follow the law, you must follow it perfectly in order to attain heaven, and since we are unable to do this, God graciously imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, when we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, and so grants us entrance to life everlasting. For Muslims, do you need to attain a certain degree of merit, or must your merit just outweigh your demerit? (As an aside, we recently watched the movie “Wajdja”, and found it fascinating, and also somewhat distressing, that women just accept their life in that culture without protest; but there was a lot of emphasis on HOW you recite the Quran and less on WHAT it was about, at least as presented in the film.)

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    • mateenelass says:

      Debbie, one of many significant differences between Christian and Muslim theology is the doctrine of sin. For Christians, the entry of sin into creation distorted human nature (as well as the rest of creation), and so broke the human capacity to be in relationship with God. Fallen human nature can only be overcome by the gracious work of God. For Islam, there was no fall — Adam’s sin was his own; all human beings are created good, but weak-willed. (In fact, one common belief of Islam is that all human beings are born as Muslims (i.e., those rightly submitted by God), and then somewhere along the way they go astray. But there sins do not degrade their inherent nature such that they need transformation from the “old Adam” to the “new Adam.” Hence the system of merits/demerits. A perennial image for Judgment Day is that of the pan balance, indicating the thought that merits simply need to outweigh demerits. And in Muslim lore stories abound concerning Muhammad telling people that good deeds of certain kinds offset huge amounts of bad deeds, demonstrating, in my opinion, the human longing for divine grace. In the end, though, God’s judgments remain inscrutable — He is free to decide on the basis of the pan balance or to ignore it in pronouncing one’s fate. Judgment is not a matter of justice, but of sovereign decree. The constant hope, though, is that one’s good deed will so outweigh one’s evil that God will take notice and relent from sending one to hell. As you can tell, this system leads many to a sense of despondency or fatalism, for there no possibility of personal assurance of God’s mercy, except by martyrdom in jihad, but of course there is no time for worry that Muhammad may have been wrong after one chooses that path successfully.

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      • Debbie Berkley says:

        Thanks, Mateen! So they really need to trust that God is good and will make a wise choice. Even so, they are without any assurance of their own fate. Yes, I can really see how this would lead to despondency. Thank God for the assurance that we have in Christ! Those who say all religions are the same really do not know what they are talking about.

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  3. You need to keep writing these blogs, my friend!
    Grateful for you, Mateen and your faithful witness.

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