I remember being on vacation as a boy once, enjoying the freedom of the channel buffet before me at the hotel television. I turned to ESPN Classic. It’s not something we kids did very often. At the time I was more infatuated with my current sports heroes, guys like Donovan McNabb and Tracy McGrady, and the thought of watching outdated sports matches with short-shorts athletes and weird haircuts wasn’t appealing. But in my turning to ESPN Classic, I found Muhammad Ali.
I had never really watched Ali before, though I knew who he was of course. He was universally the most recognizable face at one point. But I had never seen Ali enclosed by the ropes, in action. As I watched his 6’3″ frame dance around the ring, the camera flashes illuminating the arena, I was hooked. I watched Ali smirk, chant, and stare down George Foreman’s direction that October night in 1974. I watched him not simply be the more powerful puncher, but the smarter boxing mind, employing what boxers now know as the “Rope-a-Dope” method, deceiving Foreman into punching himself exhausted. I watched this giant find victory, the crowd going wild. That was the Ali I knew from then on. A dominant boxer, an athlete who defined “icon” arguably as well as or better than Tiger, Gretzky, and Jordan.
But there is another side of Ali many of us saw. In all of our reminiscing over his death this past weekend, it’s the person of Muhammad Ali that has gotten just as much attention as his boxing skill. Ali is remembered for his social, religious, and political influence. For example, he made great strides in furthering the cause of curing Parkinson’s, the beast that ultimately took his life. But it was Ali’s composure under interviews, his winsome approach to the questions of the world, that I found so interesting. In fact, after the news broke days ago, I came across a clip I had never seen before. The People’s Champion is asked by an audience member what he is going to spend his time doing once he retires. The response is a few minutes long, but worth a watch.
Ali was also remembered for his commitment to Islam. The transition from “Cassius Clay” to “Muhammad Ali” was done out of his holding to Muslim beliefs. Ali was very vocal about his faith, rarely shying away from anything, much less religion. Imagine, for a moment, in 2016, a Christian getting 9 minutes of airtime to talk about his faith!
After I watched this video, I became even sadder about his passing. We lost a legend, certainly. And we lost an eloquent speaker and sharp thinker. But mostly, because Ali was (barring an off-camera repentance we may never know of), missing the gospel of the one true Christian God.
There has been a lot of conversation about the similarities Islam and Christianity share. Ali, a devout Muslim, is testament to this. I heard profound explanations of Christian doctrines in that short video from a Muslim. Our culture sees these similarities, and assumes that this is proof for a harmony of religions, a coexisting. As a result, truth becoming post-modernized, relative to preference. We have seen how these similarities have blurred the lines for us, causing difficulty in holding the differences. Books and articles seek to answer the question, “Do Mislims and Christians worship the same God?” because it is the question being asked. College professors have found themselves in hot water over blurring these lines. The Pope himself cannot tell the difference between the Muslim Allah and the Christian YHWH (and yes, there are major differences).
While we might be inspired by Ali’s talk of creation, his apologetic for a Designer, his description of eternity and the importance of living with urgency and doing good, we must be deeply sobered by what is missing from the gospel of Ali. A Savior who can deliver.
“Get myself ready to meet God.”
That’s the Islam way. As pastor and former Muslim Thabiti Anyabwile puts it, “The goal of Islam is not salvation, but to bring the entire world under the rule of Allah–dar al Islam.” What does Ali mean in the video when he says Get myself ready? We aren’t sure specifically. But we can be sure, it was set on moralistic, duty-driven works to achieve Heaven. This is what the Qur’an may say gets you to heaven, but the truth of Scripture says something else entirely different. The gospel of Ali would tell you, if you listened long enough, that if we do enough of the right things, and live in the right manner, and obey the right commands, this is the key to finding God. But what does the Bible say about this “getting ourselves ready?”
Together they have become worthless. (Romans 3:12)
The apostle Paul sets the record straight about not only the Gentiles, but even the Jews. A definitive “NO ONE does good” (3:12, emphasis mine). What the true gospel, the gospel of Christ, has to say about our ability to be getting ourselves ready is that we are utterly unfit for the task. It sounds terrible, doesn’t it? According to Christianity, no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we work, none of it will measure up, none of it will save us. Doesn’t the message of Islam sound more appealing at this point?
Enter the Savior.
Like other religions, Islam asks us to be our own savior. But anyone that deeply knows themselves knows that this is not good news. It’s damning, for we are imperfect. A death sentence. But Christianity suggests another way; the Way, the Truth, the Life. The God-man enters human history, with real fingers and an appetite. He walks with people, rejected by many, but on a mission. He has come to proclaim the truth. He has arrived to usher in redemption to a worthless people. And he’s going to do it by providing the only fitting Passover Lamb spotless enough for such a task – himself.
Jared C. Wilson, in his book Unparalleled, makes a striking observation about the uniqueness of Christianity:
The law can provoke adherence, behavior modification, conformity. But because it cannot get to the heart, it cannot provoke real, authentic, sincere worship. You see this in other religions that promote law-based adherence to the teaching: they don’t sing like Christians sing. (186)
As we all know after honestly examining our own hearts, following the law and “getting ourselves ready” may change some of our external actions, but it is incapable of changing who we are, and what our heart is. Islam is no gospel after all. Only the truth of Christianity can offer a heart transplant, a solution to our fleshy worthlessness.
The only way we will ever “get ourselves ready to meet God” is by believing in the Lord Jesus, that Christ died as the substitute for our sins and was raised to life, defeating death for good. It is in the gospel that we stand (1 Cor. 15:2). Wilson is right here. No other gospel (“not that there is another one,” Gal. 1:6-7) is truly good news, because only the gospel of Christ fixes our human epidemic and stirs us to worship. The gospel of Ali may be inspiring in some sense, and it may sound similar to our Christianese, but ultimately it is centered in the vanity of making ourselves the Savior, an office we will never be able to fulfill.
Muhammad Ali will be remembered for his right hook, his knockouts, and his reach, but most of us will remember Ali as one of the most self-confident athletes of all. Anyone nicknamed “The Greatest” deserves to be in the conversation. But as a Muslim, such a title has to go beyond boxing. The religion of Islam only fuels the epithet. Islam says with the Roman soldiers, “save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mk. 15:30). It is a futile exercise. It is bad news for sinners. The true gospel, the gospel of Christ, has brought something radically different to the table.
Wilson reminds us, and Scripture reminds us, of this important truth. Only the grace of Christ has set us free from the curse of the law, redeemed us from the bondage of sin, and ultimately saved us from the idolatry of self. Ali now knows that. He now knows The Greatest indeed. I hope and pray Ali found repentance and faith in Christ before his passing. I hope just as much that we will not deceive ourselves into thinking the gospel of Ali is capable of saving us. We cannot save ourselves. But there is one, praise God, who can.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Eph. 2:8)