Several decades ago Fritz Ridenour wrote a popular study of St. Paul’s epistle to the church in Rome, entitled How to Be Christian Without Being Religious. (1) The title was cleverly worded. Everybody knows how to be religious without being a Christian – you join another religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. To be a Christian without being religious, on the other hand, is a contradiction in terms. Ridenour, however, was writing in the ‘60’s, and the young generation he was writing to, were being portrayed in the media as rebels who rejected the society of their parents and its rules. Church and religion were part of the society they were rebelling against. To reach this generation with the gospel, Ridenour believed he had to separate the gospel and Christ, from religion.
Ridenour may not have been the first to distinguish between “Christianity” and “religion” in this manner, but he would certainly not be the last. It caught on like wildfire and today large segments of the evangelical church adhere religiously to the idea that “Christianity is not a religion”. Here, however, they have out-Ridenoured Ridenour, who opened his book by quoting Webster’s definition of “religion” as “a system of faith and worship” and saying that “Christianity is certainly that”.
Some evangelicals even go so far as to tell people that “God hates religion”.
What is religion?
People who separate religion on the one hand from the Gospel and Christ on the other hand usually define “religion” as “man trying to reach God through his own efforts”.
This is an incredibly tortured definition of religion however. It confuses an attitude towards religion, i.e., a belief that religion will make one righteous and acceptable in the eyes of God, with religion itself.
The defining element of religion is communal worship. Religion is people collectively, as a community, believing in and worshipping God. It, like marriage and family, is a universal institution of human society.
Does the Bible condemn religion?
No. In the Bible, God condemns certain kinds of religious worship, such as human sacrifice and the worship of idols (deities other than the one true and living God), and He condemns the hypocritical use of religion to mask unrighteousness and unbelief, but He never condemns religion itself. Indeed, in the Bible He established not one, but two religions.
In both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, as we shall see, there is a distinction between religion and righteousness. The Old Testament prophets warned God’s people of His displeasure over their sin, telling them that God preferred righteous behavior to the outward practice of religion.
In the New Testament, the Incarnate Son of God went even further. He preached that true righteousness is righteousness in the heart and not just outward obedience to the commandments. If outward righteousness is not enough to please God it is clear that neither religion nor righteousness can make a man acceptable to God, because all are sinners. That truth is fundamental to the Christian Gospel. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can make peace between a Holy God and sinful man. The Scriptures proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that God has shown His love to sinful mankind by giving us His Only Son Jesus, Who took the burden of our sins upon Himself as He died on the cross paying the penalty of our sins, and promises us that all repentant sinners who believe in the Risen Christ are cleansed from sin, declared righteous in the eyes of the Lord, and have everlasting life as the gift of God.
Does that mean then that if we have the Gospel we don’t need religion?
The New Testament clearly says that righteousness is not “optional” for the repentant sinner who trusts in Christ.
“What shall we say then?” St. Paul asks the Romans, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”
The answer is “God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”
The Apostle’s point is not that placing one’s faith in Christ makes one sinless in practice in this life or that good works help maintain one’s salvation after one has trusted Christ (the epistle of Galatians was written to refute the latter error). He is saying that we are not to use salvation by grace through faith as an excuse to sin. Grace does not operate by removing God’s requirement that we be obedient and righteous so that we are now licensed to sin. Grace operates by removing sin and guilt from the sinner who humbly repents and trusts in the salvation given in Jesus Christ.
If salvation by grace does not give us a license to be unrighteous neither does it give us a license to be irreligious.
Throughout the Scriptures we find God emphasizing that righteousness is more important than religion. In the sixth chapter of Hosea, God declares through the prophet “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” God Himself had established the Israelite system of sacrifice and burnt offerings as part of the Covenant He made with Israel at Mt. Sinai. When He says, therefore, that He “desired mercy, and not sacrifice”, this has to be understood as a comparative, as in the second clause “the knowledge of God more than burn offerings” rather than a disavowal of the religious system He Himself had instituted.
In the sixth chapter of Micah, God quotes Balak, King of Moab, as having asked Balaam:
Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He then approves Balaam’s answer:
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
Christ made reference to verses like these when He condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. When the Pharisees asked His disciples: “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?”
He responded by saying:
They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
In the 23 chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew we find Jesus rebuking the Pharisees by saying:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
The “weightier matters of the law”, according to Christ, are those which God is said to require of people in Michah 6:8, “judgment” meaning “justice” and faith corresponding to walking humbly with God. By saying that the Pharisees ought to have done these “and not to leave the other undone”, Christ is clearly saying that the fact that righteousness (justice, mercy, and faith) is more important than religion, does not mean the latter is unimportant.
That is not something that changed with the Cross and the establishment of the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant, however, God has established a different religion for His Church than that which He established for Israel in the Old Covenant.
At Mt. Sinai, God established a covenant with the people of Israel, in which He agreed to be their God, and they His people. He gave them a religion, which included a place of worship (the Tabernacle which was later replaced by the Temple), a priesthood (the tribe of Levi), sacrifices, holy days, and a special diet. The religion established in the Old Testament, according to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament, pointed to Christ. The Levite priesthood and the sacrifices of bulls and of goats, pointed to Christ’s eternal priesthood, and the sacrifice of His own blood, offered in the Holy of Holies in heaven, which effectively takes away the sins of those who trust Him.
In the Old Testament, God promised through His prophets that He would, when He sent the Messiah, provide a New Covenant, in which He would write His Laws upon the hearts of His people. This Covenant was accomplished by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This Covenant established a new spiritual community, the Church, led by Christ’s Apostles. As recorded in the Book of Acts, God led the Apostles in the early days of the Church, to decide that circumcision and the dietary requirements of the Sinaitic Law, would not be religious requirements for the Church. Baptism became the initiation ceremony for the Christian Church, symbolizing repentance from sin and union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Christ’s death was the effectual true Sacrifice, which once and for all took away sin, doing away with the need for future sacrifices. In the place of sacrifices in the Christian religion, Christ Himself instituted Holy Communion, as a memorial of His sacrificial death, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthian Church.
The idea that this does not comprise a religion is grotesquely erroneous. There is no sanction in Scripture for the idea that “Christianity is not a religion” or the notion that “God hates religion” any more than there is sanction for the liberal idea that religion is a “personal matter”. God created man with a need to worship his Creator, and He created man, not as a multitude of independent individuals, but as a social being, existing as families, communities, and societies. Man’s need to worship is an aspect of his collective as well as his individual existence, and thus man needs institutional, established religion. Salvation, is a gift of God, which we receive as repentant sinners, through faith in Jesus Christ. It is a gift God has given us, because He loves us and because we as sinners, need it. Religion is also a gift of God, given to us because He loves us, and because we need it.
(1) Fritz Ridenour, How To Be a Christian Without Being Religious, (Regal Books: Ventura, CA, 1967). Regal Books is an imprint of Gospel Light.
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