Religion And The Gospel
A lot of attention has been paid to Jefferson Bethke’s video Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus. Jefferson is a great, humble, teachable brother who loves the gospel. But the response to his video has been varied. Many love it. Others hate it. And still others have raised a caution flag–uncomfortable with the way “religion” is often contrasted with the gospel.
Wary of the trend amongst younger evangelicals to justify their jettisoning of the institutional church and theological traditions in favor of a vague, individualistic, a-theological, a-historical, version of modern licentious spirituality by saying “All of that other stuff is religion…and Jesus hates religion”, is a point of contention for those who questioned the fruitfulness of Jefferson’s video. If that’s what people think when they hear the word “religion”, then I understand the concern. I too am concerned by the individualistic, church despising, “moralistic therapeutic deism” that seems so palatable and popular amongst some younger evangelicals today.
But, the distinction between religion and the gospel that Jefferson makes does raise some important questions. For example, in the Bible, is the word “religion” ever opposed to the gospel? Or, is the main idea of “religion” opposed to the main idea of the gospel? What about what people hear when they hear the word “religion”? Do they hear the word and understand something different than what the Bible says about the gospel? Good questions. Obviously words have their meaning in context and thankfully Jefferson provided context for his use of the word “religion” in the video by writing on his website:
[This is] a poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion. In the scriptures Jesus received the most opposition from the most religious people of his day. At it’s core Jesus’ gospel and the good news of the Cross is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification. Religion is man centered, Jesus is God-centered. This poem highlights my journey to discover this truth.
Regardless of what you think about the video, Jefferson’s definition of “religion” above and Tim Keller’s definition of “religion” below does highlight a crucial distinction between “religion” and the gospel (a distinction that, ironically, even those who raised concerns about the video agree with).
Justifying the contrast between religion and the gospel, Tim Keller has pointed out that the Greek word for “religion” used in James 1 is used negatively in Colossians 2:18 where it describes false asceticism, fleshly works-righteousness, and also in Acts 26:5 where Paul speaks of his pre-Christian life in strict “religion.” It is also used negatively in the Apocrypha to describe idol worship in Wis 14:18 and 27. So, according to Keller, the word certainly has enough negative connotations to use as a fair title for the category of works-righteousness. In the Old Testament the prophets are devastating in their criticism of empty ritual and religious observances designed to bribe and appease God rather then serving, trusting, and loving him. The word “religion” isn’t used for this approach, but it’s a good way to describe what the prophets are condemning.
Keller goes on to tease out this distinction with this helpful comparison list:
RELIGION: I obey-therefore I’m accepted
THE GOSPEL: I’m accepted-therefore I obey.
RELIGION: Motivation is based on fear and insecurity
THE GOSPEL: Motivation is based on grateful joy.
RELIGION: I obey God in order to get things from God
THE GOSPEL: I obey God to get to God-to delight and resemble Him.
RELIGION: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I am angry at God or my self, since I believe, like Job’s friends that anyone who is good deserves a comfortable life
THE GOSPEL: When circumstances in my life go wrong, I struggle but I know all my punishment fell on Jesus and that while he may allow this for my training, he will exercise his Fatherly love within my trial.
RELIGION: When I am criticized I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a ‘good person’. Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costs
THE GOSPEL: When I am criticized I struggle, but it is not critical for me to think of myself as a ‘good person.’ My identity is not built on my record or my performance but on God’s love for me in Christ. I can take criticism.
RELIGION: My prayer life consists largely of petition and it only heats up when I am in a time of need. My main purpose in prayer is control of the environment
THE GOSPEL: My prayer life consists of generous stretches of praise and adoration. My main purpose is fellowship with Him.
RELIGION: My self-view swings between two poles. If and when I am living up to my standards, I feel confident, but then I am prone to be proud and unsympathetic to failing people. If and when I am not living up to standards, I feel insecure and inadequate. I’m not confident. I feel like a failure
THE GOSPEL: My self-view is not based on a view of my self as a moral achiever. In Christ I am “simul iustus et peccator”—simultaneously sinful and yet accepted in Christ. I am so bad he had to die for me and I am so loved he was glad to die for me. This leads me to deeper and deeper humility and confidence at the same time. Neither swaggering nor sniveling.
RELIGION: My identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work. Or how moral I am, and so I must look down on those I perceive as lazy or immoral. I disdain and feel superior to ‘the other
THE GOSPEL: My identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for His enemies, who was excluded from the city for me. I am saved by sheer grace. So I can’t look down on those who believe or practice something different from me. Only by grace I am what I am. I’ve no inner need to win arguments.
RELIGION: Since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufactures idols. It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline, my social status, etc. I absolutely have to have them so they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I may say I believe about God
THE GOSPEL: I have many good things in my life—family, work, spiritual disciplines, etc. But none of these good things are ultimate things to me. None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there is a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, and despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost.
So let’s not lose sight of the fact that, as defined by these two brothers, there is an antithetical relationship between religion (the burden of achieving rescue and right standing with God) and the gospel (the blessing of receiving rescue and a right standing with God in Christ alone). There does exist a Christless “form of godliness” that lacks power (2 Timothy 3:5)–an empty, behavioristic, ritualistic “version” of so-called Christianity that these men rightly refer to as “false religion.” Is defining “religion” as clearly as Tim and Jefferson do and then distinguishing it from the gospel really going to feed the fury of fascination with the licentious, individualistic, a-theological, church-dismissing, version of modern spirituality out there? I don’t think so.
One final thought: as I mentioned above, for a thousand different reasons people hear different things and draw different conclusions when they hear the same words (Cornelius Van Til). So, let’s not forget as missionaries that if the gospel is ever going to reach people in our day it’s going to have to be distinguished from religion (as described above) because “religion” is what most people outside the church think Christianity is all about—rules and standards and behavior and cleaning yourself up and politics and social causes and ascetic appeasement and self-salvation and climbing the “ladder”, and a whole host of other things that Jefferson rightly points out.
Soli Deo Gloria!