Tuesday, January 31, 2012


It's a little late, but a lot of you probably noticed the spurt of religion-bashing that went through the Christian circle of Facebook a couple weeks ago, beginning with a spoken word rap titled "Why I hate religion, but love Jesus." Not gonna touch that today: A much brighter mind than I has already dissected it literally line for line and demonstrated why it's a terrible piece of theology. No, my beef is with something I saw a few days ago on facebook: a quote from Roy Gustafson reading, "Religion is the story of what a sinful man tries to do for a holy God: the gospel is the story of what a holy God has done for sinful men."

Now, this is not necessarily meant to bash organized religion... but, coming as it did on the heels of the aforementioned, extremely popular video, that's how I took it. And it irked me.

Read it again. It's got a nice flow to it. A nice compare/contrast, good repetition of key words, which combine to make it easy to say, easy to remember, and, in turning a popular notion on its head, easy to agree with: All of which, as I have pointed out in a previous post, are qualities that are highly sought after in the evangelical catchphrase department. Unfortunately for us all, just because a phrase is catchy doesn't mean it's accurate.

Now the intent of this phrase seems to be to create a dichotomy between "religion" and "the gospel." Religion is portrayed as ultimately futile: What a sinful man tries to do for a holy God. The gospel is the opposite of religion: it is what a holy God has already accomplished for sinful man. The point, it seems, is that religion is not only unnecessary, but useless and even counter-productive in the face of the gospel.

Now, to some extent this is, obviously, true. Religion is, on some level, an attempt by men to do things for a holy God. And the gospel is certainly what God has already done for man. The problem is the implicit conclusion that in the face of the gospel, religion is futile, useless, and a hindrance to all good followers of Christ (the term "Christian" being deemed too religious). The problem is thinking that you can separate the good news of Jesus Christ from religion for even a second.

"Religion is the story of what a sinful man tries to do for a holy God: the gospel is the story of what a holy God has done for sinful men." However, the gospel is also the story of a holy God participating in religion with his people, as the very Word of the Father is baptized (a religious practice), participates in ceremonial worship and teaching in the temple (in a somewhat religious manner), and partakes of a yearly, highly ceremonial meal absolutely loaded with religious significance.

And let's not forget about the rest of the New Testament: How about when Paul includes moral instructions in his letters? What about when he tells Titus to teach sound doctrine and train people to be self-controlled and pure? What about when he tells Timothy to reprove and rebuke those who don't teach sound doctrine, or when he gives Timothy exact specifications for elders and deacons and men who serve the church?

Aren't all these things instructing fallen man how to better "do things" for a holy God?

And what is wrong with such an attempt? Are we not told by James that faith without works is dead? And what are works, if not this very definition of religion that Mr. Gustafson gives us? What are works if not "what a sinful man tries to do for a holy God"? That means that, accepting Mr. Gustafson's definition, faith without religion is dead. There is a necessary correlation between what a holy God has done for sinful men, and what sinful man does for a holy God: for the works, the religion, are a sign and result of the saving work of Christ.

My gospel is not one of human passivity. My gospel is not one in which Jesus goes around talking to all the static people telling them to sit tight, that they don't need to do anything. My gospel is one in which Jesus is the center of whirlwind of activity, a whirlwind of teaching and ceremony and asking and seeking and knocking, feeding the poor and taking communion and gathering together to pray...

My gospel is the story of a holy God saving sinful man, and then teaching that sinful man how to do religion right. You cannot love Jesus but hate doing things for him. You cannot take the religion out of Christianity.


  1. Alright, gave your post a read.

    Let me preface what I am about to say with this: I agree with everything you said. I found the video to be pretty poor theology, and it wasn't even an amazing spoken word poem (I've heard much better, and could recommend them if you'd like).

    All that said, you sound pretty angry in your post. I'm not opposed to fire in a post, but your use of italics and rhetorical questions make it sound like you are overflowing with anger. The topic is probably worth a bit of fire, but I was surprised by the tone of it.

    Your points are solid, though. Just wondering how you felt your tone was.

  2. Huh. Reading it again, I can see how it could be read as angry. However, my intention was merely to be earnest, and the italics were put there only so one could not skim over them and miss them. I was irritated when I wrote it, and I grew more irritated at some points (like when I was thinking about people who say they're not a Christian, they just follow Jesus), but I don't believe I ever felt sincere anger at these people.

    That said, thank you so much for your comment. I suppose need to become better at conveying appropriate tone in my blogs.
    As always, James, it's a pleasure hearing (or reading) your thoughts.