When I was an undergraduate at a secular university, I took a class on New Testament theology from a professor I considered rather liberal. As a conservative believer, I went into the course fairly skeptical about what he had to say. After one of the lectures, another conservative evangelical in the class asked the professor if he prayed routinely. The professor mumbled something to the effect that he didn’t pray, he meditated. At the time, I considered this clear evidence that he wasn’t a believer. I thought anyone who hesitated affirming that he prays routinely couldn’t possibly be a Christian.
The attitude I had then was wrong. The popular sentiment that righteousness necessarily involves some measure of religious piety isn’t biblical. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not replace Judaism with a new religion. Rather, it displaces religion, renders religion non-essential, and makes religion optional. Let me clarify my position by expanding it into three points.
1) You don’t need to be religious in any sense whatsoever to be a true Christian with genuine faith. In other words asking that professor whether he prayed routinely was not a legitimate test of his faith. There are other tests, but that is not one of them.
2) On the other hand, you do not need to be unreligious, irreligious, or anti-religious to be a true Christian with genuine faith. If you see Christianity as anti-religious, opposing any religion in any form, you have taken my thesis too far. We need not be anti- religious or without religion.
3) The true Christian with genuine faith and a true understanding of the gospel is what I call “religion-free.” In other words we are free to be religious or not, so long as to whatever extent we choose to be religious, we keep our religion in perspective. Keeping religion in perspective involves three things.
First, I don’t impose my religion on my brothers and sisters. I don’t insist that they follow my religious practices or values. Paul assumes this perspective in the book of Galatians. The Judaizers were believing Jews who felt that genuine faith in Christ must involve practicing the Jewish religion as an expression of that faith. They felt that Gentiles couldn’t really be children of God unless they embraced Old Testament Jewish religion as well as trusted in Christ. Paul opposed them. The entire book of Galatians is devoted to resisting their attempts to impose the Jewish religion on the Gentiles who had come to faith.
Second, keeping religion in perspective means I realize my religious practices have no intrinsic value before God. Religion is worthless when it comes to what life with God is all about. I think this point will become more clear after I’ve defined religion and ethics.
Finally, keeping religion in perspective means I don’t see religion as obligatory except as a personal or cultural commitment. I am free to discard religion just as others are free to embrace it. Though Paul was incredibly religious, he acknowledged some things are more important than practicing religion. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul says:
…To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul is saying if he has to discard religion to save people, love demands he discard it. He would be disloyal to God if he didn’t set religion aside in order that some might be saved. Why can Paul set religion aside so freely? Because he practices it out of a personal commitment, not because he believes he is obligated to practice it before God.
What do I mean by religion? In order to define religion, I need to define ethics. According to the Bible, there are four types of sin or wrongdoing.
1) Violating the law of love or what is often called the golden rule is wrong. Both Jesus and Paul said this principle sums up the whole law. We should treat others as we want to be treated. Adultery, lying, murder, stealing, and violence, for example, are wrong because they violate love. Most of biblical Christian ethics fall into this category.
2) Violating the created order, the structure of reality as God Himself made it, is wrong. For example, homosexuality is wrong because it violates the nature of human sexuality as God created it. Rebelling against God’s creation is a rebellion against God.
3) Violating trust in God is wrong. Despair falls in this category. Despair doesn’t necessarily hurt anybody, it isn’t necessarily unloving, and it doesn’t clearly violate the structure of reality. But it does clearly violate our obligation to entrust our lives to God. We despair when we cease to believe that God is capable and willing to save us.
4) Finally, the last category considered wrong–and I will argue it is only considered wrong in the Old Testament–is to violate divinely prescribed religion. Not keeping the Sabbath, not tithing, not keeping the festivals, ignoring the rituals built into the prescribed religion that God gave Israel was wrong. In the time of Moses, God struck people dead for disobeying various aspects of the ritual.
Using these four categories of wrong, we can see how religion or religious practices fit in. A practice is a religious practice (as opposed to a moral practice) if you consider it obligatory in order to be obedient to God, and yet it is not obligatory on the basis of the law of love, the created order, or the nature of faith in God. If it does not fall under one of the first three types of wrong, then it falls under the last category, and it is religion or a religious practice. It doesn’t matter whether the practice is part of the religion of Israel or part of a religion of my own making. If it is not immoral–ethically wrong because it is unloving, unnatural or disbelieving–then it is simply a religious practice. It is something I consider obligatory because my religion says so.
RELIGION VS. MORALITY
Thus we can divide biblical ethics into two distinct categories: morality (the first three categories) and religion (the fourth category). In various parts of the scripture a lapse in religious practice is considered just as wrong as a lapse in morality. But faithful religious observance and moral obedience are not equally valuable before God. This is a crucial distinction between them: a moral act has intrinsic worth before God; a religious act does not.
Even in the Old Testament, performing a religious act out of sheer obligation invalidated the act. The same is never true of a moral act. Performing a moral act out of obligation is appropriate. The very nature of ethics is doing something because I ought to do it. I’m accountable if I fail to do it. But performing a religious act out of duty makes the action worthless before God. God sent the prophets to tell Israel that offering sacrifices simply because they had to was useless. Without substance behind the sacrifices, they were just empty rituals.
But adultery, murder, lying, and stealing can never be empty rituals. If you haven’t murdered your brother, you have done what you ought to do. If you don’t hate your parents, you have done what you should. At least the act, if not your heart, is righteous and worthy.
So if under the Old Covenant both immorality and ignoring the religion given to Moses are sinful, how are things under the New Covenant? Most modern Christians argue that sin still consists both of unrighteousness and being irreligious. Often the maturity of your faith is suspect if you don’t practice a variety of religious acts: routine prayer or “quiet time,” baptism, keeping the Sabbath, routine church attendance, tithing, routine Bible reading, etc. While different segments of the church have different religious values and practices, all traditions have some sort of religion. It is very common to believe that sin consists both of unrighteousness and in not conforming to religion.
The rationale behind this view is that while the New Testament opposes the Jewish religion it doesn’t oppose religion per se. These Christians would argue very intelligently and thoughtfully that in the New Testament God instituted a new form of religion to accompany the New Covenant. They would argue that we are to leave behind the old things of Judaism and embrace not only the principles of the gospel, but also the various religious practices which make up our current Christian religion. The Christian religion which these Christians would propose (in whatever form) keeps the structure of the Old Testament Jewish Religion but gives it new content:
- The sacrifices of the Old Testament are replaced by the discipline of confessing our sin.
- The dietary regulations are replaced by taboos against alcohol and smoking.
- Circumcision gives way to baptism.
- Temple worship is replaced by church attendance.
- A Saturday Sabbath turns into a Sunday Sabbath.
- The reading and memorization of the Torah becomes the reading and memorization of the Bible.
EVIDENCE FOR THE VERDICT
My position is that under the New Covenant there is only one kind of sin: unrighteousness. Being irreligious is no longer sinful because religion is not mandatory under the gospel. How do I defend this? I have several pieces of evidence.
First, even in the Old Testament, where it is undeniable that religious infractions were considered wrong, religious sins are not intrinsically sinful. They were sinful only by convention and only in the context of God’s unique covenant with Israel: If you did not practice the religion of Israel, you did not trust God. In the Old Testament, you demonstrated who you trusted by what religious practices you embraced. If you offered sacrifices like the Canaanites, it showed you trusted the gods of the Canaanites. But if you kept the ten commandments and the other laws revealed to Moses, it showed you trusted Yahweh. Religious practice was simply and fundamentally a question of belief. The religion of Israel was mandatory because it was the prescribed way to demonstrate trust in Yahweh. So even in the Old Testament our four categories of sin collapse into three. The fourth category is really just the third category: To ignore the religion of Israel is a breach of faith. Jesus made this point in Matthew 12:1-8:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath!” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread–which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Among other points in the passage, Jesus said it is right for the priests to work on the Sabbath because working on the Sabbath is not intrinsically sinful. It’s only wrong because it violates the arbitrary prescriptions that make up the religion God gave Israel.
In his other example, Jesus commends David for taking the temple bread and giving it to his men because they were starving. Jesus says David realized God desires mercy much more than He desires sacrifice or religion in any form. God really wanted mercy and compassion. Religion is only a tool God used for a time to teach the Israelites and bring them to Him. God never intended religion to be on the same status as morality. God is more concerned with moral integrity.
Second, no New Testament passage ever explicitly teaches that the New Covenant requires a new revealed religion. The traditions that take this perspective are imposing a theological assumption on the New Testament. While it’s attractive to see an analogy between what happened in the Old Testament and what happens in the New Testament, nothing in the New Testament explicitly teaches that we should draw that analogy.
Third, the Bible actually opposes drawing that analogy. When Paul clarifies the gospel in Galatians, he argues that faith–not religion– qualifies us for the blessing of Abraham, the promise of the gospel itself. The Gentiles as Gentiles, he says, can be children of Abraham. In other words, irreligious people can be Christians.
Notice Paul does not argue that Gentiles need not practice the Jewish religion because it is sufficient for them to practice the Christian religion. Rather, Paul claims it is sufficient for the Gentiles to trust God through Christ for the blessing of Abraham. That’s all. If it’s not necessary for the Gentiles to practice the Christian religion in place of the Jewish religion, it follows that Paul would argue that the Gentiles need not conform to any religion for exactly the same reason; it is sufficient that they merely trust God through Christ for the blessing of Abraham. Trust is all we need to enter the kingdom of God.
Fourth, Paul explicitly claims that the Jewish religion is a “shadow” of the “substance” which is Christ (cf. Colossians 2:16-17 and Hebrews 8:1-10:22). Thus religion became obsolete once Christ was revealed. His point goes like this: Suppose you are standing next to a building as the sun is setting. At the corner of the building, you see a shadow. As you walk toward the corner, you examine the shadow, trying to figure out what the thing is standing around the corner. From the shadow you can get a vague outline of the thing, but you cannot get it exactly. Paul asks once you turn the corner and can see the thing itself, why stare at the shadow? It’s not useful or helpful any more. When you can see the thing God was trying to do throughout all the ages, why examine its shadow?
Note that the substance is Christ and the forgiveness he brings. Christ and the gospel were foreshadowed by the Old Testament, not a Christian religion. That means religion is not intrinsically worthwhile. It had a didactic purpose in the Old Testament. It was a finger pointing beyond itself to the reality of the eternal kingdom of God. Once the true kingdom was revealed, religion became obsolete.
My fifth piece of evidence comes from Acts 15 and the council of Jerusalem. Paul forced the apostles at the council to come to terms with this very issue. In that council, they decided it was not necessary for the Gentiles to practice the Jewish religion. (And I argue by the same rationale, it is not necessary for the Gentiles to practice any religion whatsoever.) They sent a letter to the Gentiles as result of the council. Toward the end they say:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality [literally fornication; most biblical scholars agree the word fornication here means a specific religious limit on who can marry whom]. You will do well to avoid these things.
The point that stands out in that passage is the phrase “not to burden you with anything beyond the following.” The apostles admitted they had no right to prescribe any religious obligations at all on the Gentiles. In calling these religious obligations “burdens,” they are recognizing that they are non-essential and extraneous. They are hassles to be endured, not part of the promise of the gospel to be enjoyed (as is the case with moral obedience). They felt that violating these specific religious requirements would so alienate the Jews that it would impede the progress of the gospel. For that reason, they thought the law of love demanded the Gentiles respect Jewish religion just to this degree.
My final piece of evidence is a collection of various passages in the New Testament which make it clear that piety, spirituality, and true “religion” should now be redefined. The focus of our spiritual lives, according to these passages, should be purely on moral integrity. By omission, religion has no essential part to play in true spirituality:
- James specifically redefines religion for his readers in James 1:27. He says true religion is moral integrity. “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.”
- In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul directly implies that the goal of the Christian life is the absence of “fleshly indulgence” (i.e. moral purity), not religious purity or dedication. Religious discipline, Paul says, is not even of any value in the fundamental goal of the Christian life, restraining the sinful indulgence in us which is born of our rebellious autonomy.
- When Paul lists the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21), thereby defining a lack of spirituality, he defines it entirely in terms of immorality. He cites no cases of being irreligious as a mark of the absence of the Spirit. Similarly, when he lists the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), he defines spirituality entirely in terms of moral obedience. Again, he cites no cases of faithful religious observance as a mark of the activity of the Holy Spirit.
- Finally, in Romans 12:1 Paul explicitly defines true religious ritual (or worship) as a sanctified life (i.e. a life given over to moral obedience and holiness). This is a radical claim. To define true ritualistic observance in terms of holiness is to displace religion in favor of moral obedience.
What God desires now and always has desired is righteousness of character. The revealed rituals of Old Testament religion have never been the response that God truly wanted from us. From the very beginning the rituals were merely symbols of the desired response–holiness. The substance and essence of religious ritual always has been the reality of moral obedience to which ritual pointed in one way or another.
THE GOSPEL AND RELIGION
Taking all this evidence together, the New Testament position should be clear. To live life as one who trusts in the gospel of Jesus Christ in no way requires a life of religious devotion. Religion has no essential place in the life of the Christian. To live as a Christian is purely and simply to pursue true moral goodness while trusting God, in time, to grant success. None of the religious and cultural trappings which we traditionally assumed are essential components of the Christian life are necessary. In terms I defined above, the believer who truly understands New Testament Christianity is religion-free. On the one hand, we are free to practice religion as a personal symbol of our commitment to righteousness and trust in Christ, recognizing that it is merely a symbol of that trust and commitment, not its essence. And, on the other hand, we are free to dispense with religion entirely. We could live perfectly non-religious lives and not be one bit lacking in spirituality.
It seems that no generation of Christians since Paul has fully come to terms with this biblical perspective on the nature and role of religious piety–not even the reformers. One way or another, religious piety has always entered into the Christian picture of the life of faith and obedience. As a consequence, the Christian message to the non- believing world has (to one extent or another) always included the message, “Trust in Jesus and he will make you religious.”
If what I am saying is correct, the non-believer is not attracted to such a faith; he is struck with the absurdity of it. As the Bible itself teaches, we are made for holiness, not religious discipline. The cry of our hearts is for goodness of character, not religious devotion. The need of mankind is for sinless perfection, not meticulously-observed ritual. The non-believer, intuitively sensing his or her true need, cannot help but dismiss as utterly irrelevant a version of the gospel that promises to make him or her religious.
The world needs desperately to hear the gospel in its purity, unadulterated by religion. Those non-believers around us who by the Spirit of God are beginning to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” need to hear the good news of Jesus: “Come to me and you will be filled.” Instead, too often, they hear, “Come to us and we will practice the true religion together.” If not for ourselves, then for the world around us, we need to take stock of the New Testament view of religion in all of its implications and adjust our lives, our attitudes, and our message accordingly. Paul, out of love, became to those who did not have the law as one of them in order to save whom he could. Does love demand any less today? We need to be as free to set aside our religious piety as we are to pick it up. Love demands it. The modern man is not under law today. Will we join him in order that he might be saved?
Copyright September 1998 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.