The more I learn about Islam and Christianity, the more it becomes apparent that the nature of the two religions is completely antithetical. However, exposing this is often painfully arduous, because the issues are extremely complex and require some serious meditation and dissection of thorny theological issues. Because of this, many well-intentioned and intelligent people are fooled into citing similarities in the two religions where disagreement and divergence exists instead.
Perhaps nothing reveals these complex inversions better than examining the issue of salvation as it relates to grace, faith, and works. If you ask a Christian about how to earn salvation, you will be told that such a thing is impossible. Salvation cannot be earned, but rather comes by God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet Christians also maintain that a person must have faith and repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness (Acts 17:30-31; Acts 2:38). This faith is demonstrated via works (James 2:20; Ephesians 2:10). While some Christians might take issue with this combination rather than faith alone, the idea of good works flowing out of a true faith is one that has Biblical support (James 2:14: James 2:22). So the question arises of how grace, faith, and works interplay. Would the acts of believing in Jesus and repentance of sins in themselves be “works”? Would this mean that a person must have faith and works to be saved, and thus not grace alone? How do these operate in concert? Doesn’t grace “by definition” exclude works of any kind? (Romans 11:6) Hold these thoughts for a moment while the Islamic position is analyzed and this can all be sorted out.
In Islam, the path to salvation is described using strikingly similar language. Since Allah is viewed as sovereign, Muslims will say that salvation is ultimately at his discretion. Muslims will say that it’s only by the grace of Allah that a Muslim can be saved, and not by faith or works. (Many Muslims erroneously interchange the concepts of “grace” and “mercy”, but that’s an article for a later date.) As an example of the predominance of Allah’s grace, Muhammad said “There is none whose deeds alone would entitle him to get into Paradise”. [i] Yet Muslims are also required to believe that Allah is one, and there are many commands within Islam for Muslims to follow. This faith and its corresponding actions are also seen as critical within Islam. The Qur’an mimics the Christian view of requiring faith in order to obtain salvation. One of many such verses of the Qur’an is as follows,
[5.9] Allah has promised to those who believe and do good deeds (that) they shall have forgiveness and a mighty reward.
In these passages, both faith and good works are mentioned. Muslims have a common understanding regarding the interaction of grace, faith, and works. Salvation within Islam comes by grace, yet faith and works play a key role as well. It is outlined by one Muslim author as follows, “Islam teaches that salvation is attained by God’s Grace, and that God bestows His Grace upon those who have both inner belief and good works.” [emphasis in the original] [ii]
This all sounds so akin to Christian doctrine. Surely Christianity and Islam are two sides of the same coin in this case. Yet there is something going on here that is so easily missed. Look very closely not at the words being used, but in what order they are being used.
In Islam, while the ultimate decision is left to Allah, grace is given to those who most merit that grace. Perhaps to put it more bluntly, one Muslim described Allah this way, “He is the All-Merciful, He is Mercy. He is compassionate, All-Forgiving, but only for those who deserve it.” [iii] In contrast, God is described as the one who first gives us the grace so that we might even be able to believe and be obedient in the first place. In John 6:44, Jesus tells us “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Grace within Islam is something very different than what it is within Christianity. In Islam, grace is something Allah gives you AFTER you muster up your own faith and works. While it is Allah alone who grants salvation, this occurs as a consequence of believing in Allah and doing good works as defined within Islam. However, in Christianity, grace comes first, before either faith or works. Neither the ability to confess Jesus as Lord or to do anything pleasing to God can happen unless God first grants the grace to do so (Matthew 16:16-17; Romans 8:7). This Bible consistently teaches salvation by grace alone, with faith and works flowing out as an after-effect.
To put it another way, in Islam, faith and works lead to Allah’s grace. In Christianity, it is God’s grace that leads to faith and works (Romans 2:4). Complete opposites.