I once heard a pastor compare the extent of our sinfulness to the distance between California and Hawaii—a stretch that no person can swim on their own. Over the years, this imagery has stuck with me and evolved into a helpful illustration that showcases the uniqueness of the Christian faith and the beauty of the gospel.

Imagine every person who ever lived lined up along the coast of California with the aim of getting to Hawaii. The idea is quite simple: as soon as we arrive on the shore, eternal life and perfect communion with God will be ours forever.

In this illustration, almost every religion is akin to a swimming technique—a strategy designed to help people move through water using their own strength. In one sense, sure, moving through water is at least part of the goal. Of course, some techniques will inevitably work much better than others. The breast stroke, for example, will be much more effective than the doggy paddle. And some people will even have a natural ability to swim much farther than others. Michael Phelps, for example, will likely get closer to Hawaii than the rest of us.

But, in the end, everyone who tries to embark on this journey on the basis of their own strength will eventually fail and drown.

Most religions work the same way. Of course, the purpose of every religion is to help people “get somewhere” spiritually. Some religions are more effective than others, and some even lead people in the right general direction, but they’re insufficient means of accomplishing the ultimate end goal: eternal life and perfect communion with God. The journey is too far and the task is too great. No person, no matter how fit, can be reconciled to God by sheer will power and spiritual strategy. In the end, even the most zealous attempt coupled with the most effective technique will lead to death.

The gospel, on the other hand, is a cruise-liner.

It’s as if God became a man and stood on the coast of California with us. After swimming out toward the horizon Jesus dipped beneath the waterline and, three days later, came back with a cruise-liner.

Now, should we all aspire to be better swimmers (like Jesus)? Absolutely! (There’s a swimming pool on the deck of the ship, we can practice all we want.) But thanks to the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we no longer need to swim in order to stay afloat and gain our eternal reward. Our spiritual fate no longer depends on our ability to swim, but on the buoyancy of the gospel. Rather than depending on our own weary and water-logged righteousness, we can now stand happy and dry aboard the steady ship that is Christ’s righteousness—a glorious vessel, designed by God to conquer the raging seas and carry faith-filled voyagers to the shores of eternal life and intimacy with God.

It’s a vast and deadly ocean out there. If you find yourself swept up in the waves and gasping for breath, by all means, stop swimming and come aboard.

“And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5, ESV)

“There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:22b-25a, ESV)

Photo courtesy of Carlo Mirante via Flickr.

The pastor referenced above is Chris Dolson, the former Lead Pastor of Blackhawk Church in Madison, WI. I’ve been unable to find a recording or manuscript of the original sermon for reference. If anyone happens to be able to hunt it down, please send it over. It was probably about 8-10 years ago now.