Religion is Not a Bad Word

Years ago, Jefferson Bethke released a spoken-word poetic video on YouTube titled Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. The video went viral. It currently has over 30 million views. That’s 30 million. And that doesn’t include views from other YouTube pages that re-posted the same video. It would not be insane to assume the video has been viewed over 50 million times. The video sparked outrage and applause. Many came out and supported it from both the secular and religious world, and many came out criticizing it from the secular and religious world. The video which can be seen here, was posted over 3 years ago. This drama has died down, but the message in the video has not. The message which was popular prior to the video, which was made famous by the video, still exists today. 

Many in the Christian community have allowed secular baggage and unfair linguistic associations to hijack the word religion as if it were a Boeing 747 commercial airliner. Because of this, a blessed word and a blessed concept now carries negative connotations, and false denotations as well. This can be seen in the following quotation by Timothy Keller:

I don’t know if Keller actually said this. I have no reason to be suspicious, but false attributions happen online often. Perhaps there is a bigger context to Keller’s statement that is missing here that is very important to understanding. No matter who said it, what this quotation communicates is a position held by much of the Church today, and it simply is not true. This quotation is wrong on important two accounts. 
This idea is wrong about how “religion” works and it is also wrong about the Gospel. The above quotation does not accurately communicate the biblical idea of religion, and it does not accurately communicate the biblical Gospel. 

Religion is Not a Bad Word: 

We as Christians need to allow the Bible to speak clearly and define its own terms. The notion that religion is the idea that man attempts to earn righteousness before God flies right in the face of the Lord’s brother, an inspired writer of our New Testament Scriptures. 

“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Here James speaks very highly of religion. He does not associate anything at all to it other than it is pure, faultless, acceptable before God, and that it works. If one were to ask our modern culture, “What does religion look like?” many Christians would shout back “Works righteousness!” (as seen above.) Yet, here the Holy Spirit, through James, has answered that question, “It takes care of orphans and widows and remains unstained by the world.” That’s religion. All Christians should want that. 

What James has done with the mantra in question is identified it as a category error. In other words, works righteousness is not to be accepted by Christians, but it is not to be rejected as “religion.” James in this text has compared two things, he has set up a cage-match exhibition, but it’s not Religion VS Gospel. James’ battle royal is between Pure Religion VS Defiled Religion. 

In verse 26, James says if anyone thinks himself religious, but does not bridle his tongue deceives his heart. That word is very important. It is clearly insinuating that the hypothetical person in view is not actually religious. Thus, defiled religion is code for “not really religious in any meaningful way.” This is right on the heels of verse 22 which commands us to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.” Another good word for this is “hypocrisy.” 

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17

Our faith, our Gospel believing faith, is promised by God to be effectual and to do something. God is a perfect gardener, and the Gospel seeds He plants and grows are just those; Gospel seeds. Therefore, they will produce Gospel fruit. Without them, the faith we claim is alive is actually dead. And those fruits, James doesn’t call “relationships”, he calls those works “religion.” 

The entire book of James is to teach Christians what their faith should do. What should faith look like? James tells us it’s called religion. And pure religion, which is acceptable to God, is not hypocritical. It actually does. It does what it says it ought to do. Thus, the final battle promotion can be thus titled: Religion VS Hypocrisy. Not Religion VS Gospel. Religion is the fruit of believing the Gospel; pure, acceptable religion, that is. 

Religion works. Religion is the outworking of our faith. Religion is what we do with our faith, and that’s commanded, it’s acceptable, and it’s pleasing. James is saying religion is a working kind of thing, but never does he suggest that this is for self-righteous gains in meriting salvation. Thus, Christians should want to be religious.

The Gospel:

The next issue is not only that the idea expressed above is wrong about what it claims religion is, but it’s also wrong about the Gospel. The Gospel is not “I’m accepted by God.” Where did any Apostle preach that to the masses during their discipling of the nations? Being accepted by God is the fruit of believing the Gospel, it is not the Gospel itself. How is it that a holy God could accept a sinner and not surrender His justice in the process? The answer to that is the Gospel. Thus, for redundancy’s sake, being accepted by God is not the Gospel, it’s made possible by the Gospel. 

The Gospel is what God has accomplished in Christ Jesus. The Gospel is what Jesus has done for sinners. That’s the good news. In acts 4, when preaching to the Jews, Peter says nothing about them being currently accepted by God. He does mention the deity of Christ (14), their sin (14-15), the death of Christ (15), the resurrection of Christ (15), and the call to repent of sin and believe in this Jesus for forgiveness (19). That’s a Gospel presentation. 

The Gospel is that the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus, took on flesh and became a man, lived a perfect life, died a sinner’s death, rose from the dead on the third day, and ascended to the Father’s right hand receiving all power, dominion and authority. That’s the Gospel. And when sinners repent and believe that, they are made right with God, they are then accepted. And yes, their acceptance will ignite action. 

Should works righteousness be condemned? Absolutely. But condemn it the way the inspired authors do. In the book of Galatians Paul is dealing with the Judaizers, and they were doing that very thing; promoting works-righteousness in that they were teaching that circumcision was a necessary work for the Gentiles to be saved. Did Paul condemn them for bringing religion in the Church? Did Paul condemn his congregation for becoming religious

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the Gospel of Christ.” – Galatians 1:6-7 (emphasis added)

Here works righteousness is not being condemned for being religion, it is condemned for being a false-gospel. The poster above is making a category error. It is true that meriting God’s favor is not biblical, but it is unpleasing because it is a false-gospel, not because it is religion. 

Thus the poster should look like this:

Religion: I consistently obey God’s Law and pursue holiness because through the Gospel I have been saved.

Gospel: Jesus took on flesh, died for the atonement of all the Father gave to Him, raised from the grave on the third day, and was seated at the right hand of the Father. 

False-religion: Inconsistent and hypocritical worship or working for idols. 

False-Gospel (distorted Gospel): I work so that God will accept me.

The Overall Sentiment: 

The overall sentiment of this message is good. It is biblical and it is true. The idea that the religions of men require their adherents to earn/merit the righteousness of God is true. And the fact that Christianity stands alone in believing such an exalted view of God’s holiness and revealed Word that we would never dare believe such a thing is also true and important to communicate. Our Gospel is unique in that faith and faith alone achieve the righteousness of God through Christ’s imputation of it on that basis (Romans 4). However, that’s not religion. Religion is good.

Tricking People into the Kingdom:

The real force moving this evangelical thought-train is comes from an incidental denial of Romans 1:16. Much of the American-Christian culture at large is in the business of making the Gospel cool. We attempt to make the Christ and His Gospel relevant and attractive. Douglas Wilson pointed out this backward logic when he reminded his listening audience that we are supposed to be making sinners acceptable to Christ, when we are actually trying to make Christ acceptable to sinners. Thus, in this game of hip-Christianity, we recognize a lot of our target Gospel audience have a bad taste in their mouth from organized religion (as they call it). Now, when we are faced with people who dislike religion (often times for good reasons like coming out of a background of a defiled, impure one) we are forced with two options: 

1) Present to them something that isn’t religion since they don’t want that.

2) Believe the Gospel is the power of God to change their heart’s idea about God’s religion. 

Sadly, many take the former. And because of this, we truly end up trying to trick people into the faith. We try to convince them they aren’t getting themselves into a religion. Comforted by that, one of two things happen. 

They passively claim to accept Christ, yet there is no fruit, the kind James says is required from a genuine faith. Thus, they never go to church, they don’t die to themselves, they don’t change their hearts, minds or ways, they never read Scripture and don’t think twice about the Lord on a regular basis. When confronted with this, they charge whoever it is with legalism, and remind accuser that they were told it’s about relationship, not religion. They don’t need to go to church to be in a relationship.
In other words, we comfort people in their unbelief and false profession while when they need conviction.   

Or…

they are willing to try our “non-religion thing” out, and learn to distrust us, because it doesn’t take long to realize that the Christian life we told them wasn’t a religion feels and looks a whole lot like a religion. It only takes one Sunday where they go to church (religious) see people worshiping a God they don’t see (religious) see people praying (religious) see people reading Scriptures (religious) and maybe even hear talks of how people have been trying to win their community to Christ (religious). And all of that’s before they are invited to a Bible study (religious). Slowly, they grow weary of trusting us because we clearly weren’t honest. 

Instead, let’s take the word back. Our religion is beautiful and it is pleasing to God. We ought not to be ashamed to be religious people who do religious things. And if people don’t like it, let’s comfort ourselves with Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation.”

The Gospel can give people eyes to see and ears to hear the difference between pure and false religion. The Gospel can change their heart attitudes about religious things. Let’s believe the Gospel can do that: no tricks, no games. 

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