In the 21st century, religion is kinda a strange thing.
The term religion is used broadly and is attributed to mysticism as well as bible believing Christians. There are religions which require works in exchange for divine reconciliation. There are religions that think actions and thoughts matter about as much as your next food choice. Neither of these are religion, not true religion anyway.
What is religion, then?
Well, religion formally defined is this: (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance. It can also be defined as this: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices (Merriam-Webster).
Religion, broadly defined, is a system consisting of beliefs and acts. Thus, a qualifying term we could place in front of religion is true, or pure religion. Pure religion is further distinct from religion in general. But is there a pure religion? Some may say that a pure religion ought to consist of pure people! Therefore, it is thought that people must prepare for and maintain this pure religious lifestyle. Others may think that pure religion is duty free, free from any obligations whatsoever. It is pure because it lacks the checklists and weird habits.
So, pure religion seems to be in the same boat as the term religion is! What are we to do?
Religion Defined and Defended
What, then, is religion?
Religion—pure religion—is this: a system that recognizes the truth about God, about the world and about man, and then provides the conditions for an adequate human response to these truths. The 2nd London Baptist Confession (LBCF) says this:
But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scriptures (22.1).
Addressing human response, or worship, the Confession states that God has instituted a way tp worship Him, which means He has spoken. At this point, the Confession assumes man’s ability, largely because it has already covered the effectual calling, justification, adoption, saving faith, etc. Is it the case, then, that my definition of religion, a definition consistent with the LBCF, expects human response without the right conditions? In other words, is man able to properly respond to the truth about God, about the world, and about His creatures spontaneously? The answer is, no.
Prior to the above, the Confession also says this:
Those whom God hath predestinated unto life, he is pleased in his appointed, and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God; taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace (10.1).
God, therefore, by virtue of His work made us able to properly respond by “taking away [our] heart of stone, and giving unto [us] a heart of flesh.” God, therefore, provides the conditions for our response, without which we would drive ourselves to hell—willingly.
The Bible supports the Confession, and thus the definition above. It says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:7, 8).” Those without the Spirit of God cannot please the Lord. Again it says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God (Rom. 3:10, 11).” What does this mean? It means that, in order for us to respond to God, God must provide the sufficient conditions (i.e. a new heart). We cannot supply these conditions on our own because, naturally, we hate God from birth! The Psalmist writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps. 51:5).”
Thus, God’s Word says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3).” And, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).”
I am not good enough to write this post!
According to God—without Him I would hate Him. If He didn’t birth me unto a new life, I would war against God until my final destruction (Jas. 1:18; Rev. 14:10)!
Coming Back to a Real Religion
Religion consists of duties to God, but it consists of duties we have been made to love. Without God, without His grace, we could not please Him. We would hate His standard of righteousness (Ex. 20; Deut. 5 throughout). Real religion recognizes our obligations before a holy God, but it recognizes those obligations within the context of God’s grace. In other words, God has changed us despite who or what we are. There is, however, an important caveat:
God hasn’t chosen His people without an intent to change them.
Our duty is to become like Christ as the Holy Spirit works in us to accomplish that very end. You’ll notice that our duty—after being made a new creation—is not to become like Christ on our own, but to become like Christ as the Holy Spirit works in us to conform us to His image (Rom. 8:29).
A real religion, therefore, is our response to God resulting from God’s grace in our lives.
We are simply not good enough to please God. God must first make us new in order that we may respond positively to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The problem with all other world religions is that, (1) they cannot provide assurance to their adherents; and (2) they cannot account for good deeds (i.e. loving one another, etc.). Religions are either predicated upon works (whether or not one is good or not), or they are totally unconcerned about human behavior (a total lack of justice for wrong doers).
In Christ, however, it is understood that people are at the bottom of the barrel. They are not good enough to please God, because they have fallen (Gen. 3 throughout). It is also understood that there exists a dutiful response to a holy and perfect God (i.e. right living and proper worship). Our duty as Christians is lived out because God has first worked in our lives (1 Jn. 4:19).
Religion is not antithetical to the Christian worldview. Rather, Christianity is the only religion that pieces together what the other religions shatter. God’s grace is the unifying principle by which our helplessness and rightful response converge. I am not good enough to write this post, none of us are. We all deserved to die, in Adam, before we were ever born. Humanity deserved to be extinguished with Noah’s world (Gen. 6:5). But God’s grace has been cast upon a certain people, and we are made right because of it, in Christ (who is our substitutionary sacrifice).
We are not good enough for God; but in His grace and mercy, we have been reconciled to Him in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sins upon Himself—He stood in our place on the cross—the Father, when we should have been crushed, crushed Him instead. He is our Sacrifice. But He lives. He lives at the right hand of God, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.