by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, January 16, 2012 at 2:33pm

QUESTION: There is a video going around called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus: Spoken Word.” Do you have any comments on it?

REPLY: A lot of this is very good. I discuss this distinction myself near the beginning of my seminary course on the doctrine of grace. One problem, though, is the ambiguity of the word “religion,” to the point that it becomes mostly a matter of semantics. If you define “religion” up front as false, hypocritical, works-oriented, external-only, self-centered activity in the name of God, then it is obviously (by definition) wrong. Many have used the term in this sense and have done exactly what this video does, though not poetically. (See below.) Most of the video seems to take this approach.

But herein lies the problem: such a definition of religion is arbitrary, and not everyone uses the term in this sense. Thus it is likely that the poet will be misunderstood by many, who will conclude that “religion” in a generic sense (at least in terms of all external acts of worship) is wrong as such. This would be a huge mistake. Serious, sincere, God-centered “religious” activity (e.g., prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting, church activity) is good and is not in conflict with Jesus or with Christianity as such.

When religion is used in the generic sense of God-oriented activity per se, the Bible (OT and NT alike) makes a clear distinction between false religion and true religion. True religion is in no way in conflict with Jesus or with Christianity or with Old Covenant worship; false religion certainly is. The video should make it more clear that it is talking about false religion, or that it is using the term “religion” only in this latter sense.

In my course on grace I discuss briefly how many do in fact use the word “religion” only in the sense of egocentric or false religion. The following is how I do this, as taken from my book, “Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace,” pp. 28-30:

We can distinguish two ways of relating to God: the egocentric (self-centered) and the theocentric (God-centered). Some characterize these two different ways of relating to God as a contrast between religion and Christianity. In a widely-used little book called How To Be a Christian Without Being Religious, first published about 1970, Fritz Ridenour popularized this distinction. At first glance, one might think, “This sounds great! No more religion! No more prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, all those ‘religious’ things! And I can still be a Christian!”

But this is not the point. When Ridenour uses the word “religious,” he is not thinking about religion in the general sense of “doing religious things,” or things done in conscious worship of and service to God. These are all still necessary. He is using it in a more specific sense, i.e., a religious activity is something one does for the specific purpose of working his way into the presence of God, for the purpose of earning and deserving God’s blessings. It has to do not so much with the activity itself, but with the motive and goal one has for engaging in such activity. Ridenour’s point is that Christianity is different from all world religions and all “religious” activity, because it focuses not on our works as ways of making ourselves right with God, but on God’s works through Jesus Christ whereby he makes our relationship with him possible.

In his original introduction to How To Be a Christian Without Being Religious, Ridenour explains it this way: “Christianity is more than a religion, because every religion has one basic characteristic. Its followers are trying to reach God, find God, please God through their own efforts. Religions reach up toward God. Christianity is God reaching down to man. Christianity claims that men have not found God, but that God has found them. To some this is a crushing blow. They prefer religious effort—dealing with God on their own terms. This puts them in control. They feel good about ‘being religious.’ Christianity, however, is not religious striving. To practice Christianity is to respond to what God has done for you.”

This distinction between Christianity and religion was emphasized by Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics I/2 (T. & T. Clark, 1956). In section 17 of this volume Barth expounds upon “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion” (pp. 280-361). By “revelation” he is referring primarily to Jesus Christ as (in his view) the one true revelation of God. Another influential writer who spoke of “religionless Christianity” was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially in his Letters and Papers from Prison (English tr. 1953). See also Jacques Ellul, in Living Faith (Harper 1983): “The opposition between religion and revelation can really be understood quite simply. We can reduce it to a maxim: religion goes up, revelation comes down” (129). This last quote sounds a lot like Ridenour, but these writers do not necessarily mean exactly what he is saying. See Leon Morris, The Abolition of Religion: A Study in “Religionless Christianity” (London: Inter-Varsity, 1964).

Here is a practical test by which the reader may determine whether his relationship to God is just “religious” or is truly Christian. It is a question often used by the late D. James Kennedy in his writing and preaching ministry. The question is simply this: “If God were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” Do you have an answer prepared, in case such a question is asked? What kind of answer would be acceptable to God? Unfortunately, the answers many people have in mind are “religious” (egocentric) in nature, while others are truly Christian (theocentric). The former may be considered wrong answers, the latter right answers. For example, see the two prayers in Luke 18:9-14. (Sometimes I call this parable “Two Men Rehearsing for Judgment Day.”)

My point is that anyone who is burdened by a merely religious relationship with God, whether in reality or in perception only, will have a weak or even nonexistent assurance of his or her salvation. To one who has the mindset of religion, how can he ever be sure that he has climbed high enough on the mountain of holiness to be acceptable to God? There will always be doubts.

Personally, I choose not to use this contrast between “religion” and Christianity, simply because of the ambiguity mentioned above and the possibility of being misunderstood. I prefer to use the contrast between LAW and GRACE. These are the terms the Apostle Paul uses in Romans for the purpose of delineating this distinction; they are roughly equivalent to egocentric vs. theocentric, and religion vs. Christianity.

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