Monday, October 6, 2014

Religion, Relationship, and Righteousness

“Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship” is an attempt by well-meaning believers to drive home that the life of faith is one of daily repentance, active obedience, regular worship, and good works, as opposed to those performing deeds to attain a particular status before the object of devotion, to salve the conscience over inadequacies, to fulfill a cultural obligation, or some combination of these.  The problem is a misunderstanding concerning religion and relationship before God.  Each person coming into the world has a relationship with the Lord.  Those who believe on Him are elect sons of the Father; unbelievers are enemies of Christ.  Both groups have a relationship with God, but with opposite outcomes.  What began as a desire to promote active belief has become cliché and a target of derision.  For instance, earlier this morning I read the following on Facebook:
Christianity isn't a religion, it's a…  Oh wait, I was thinking sandwich.  It's not a sandwich.  It's clearly a religion. – Les Lanphere
This meme is biting and correct.  The attempt to separate deeds from intention and rapport is invalid.  Christianity is the standard for true and undefiled religion (James 1:27; see James 1:19-27), which has been the consistent understanding through church history.  From the early fourth century, we have an example from the North African, Lactantius:
Truly religion is the cultivation of the truth, but superstition of that which is false.  And it makes the entire difference what you worship, not how you worship, or what prayer you offer.  But because the worshipers of the gods imagine themselves to be religious, though they are superstitious, they are neither able to distinguish religion from superstition, nor to express the meaning of the names.  We have said that the name of religion is derived from the bond of piety, because God has tied man to Himself, and bound him by piety; for we must serve Him as a master, and be obedient to Him as a father.  And therefore Lucretius explained this name better, who says that He loosens the knots of superstitions. – Divine Institutes, 4.28.2
Lactantius has been comparing pure, true religion that God desires to the superstitious routines of false religion (cf. John 4:20-24).  He concludes that true religion comes from being bound by faith to Christ frees us from empty rituals, which are not really religion, but notions of personal or social appeasement.

More recently, nineteenth-century German theologian Heinrich Schmid wrote:
The subject of Theology is accordingly, Religion.  Religion is the way and manner in which God is worshiped.  That is a false religion in which God is worshiped in a manner that does not accord with His nature and will; that is the true and right religion in which this is done in the manner He regards as right and which He prescribes, so that hereby man, estranged from God, is brought back again to Him, and secures his salvation.  This proper manner is taught in the Holy Scriptures; and thus the true religion, more accurately defined, is that in which God is worshiped in the manner therein prescribed, and therefore the Christian Religion is the true one.  The proper manner of worshiping God must, accordingly, first of all, manifest itself in that disposition of soul towards God which is agreeable to Him, and secondly, in love toward our neighbor and the practice if all the virtues enjoined by God.  In the widest sense, therefore, Religion embraces all that God commands to be believed and to be done. (Doctrinal Theology, 21)
These two examples help demonstrate that Christianity, properly understood, is religion par excellence.  Jesus, Paul, and James are three voices from the New Testament texts that give the Church fresh teaching bolstering what YHWH gave Israel at Sinai for pious conduct in all of life, which is our worship as demonstrated in practical ways (see Rom 12:1-2; 1 Tim 5:1-16).

The difficulty for us as baptized believers is that we still sin, and to make up for any deficit, we call for believers to have more diligence in their effort.  Jesus has done what he is going to do in this relationship in making me righteous initially, but now the maintenance and growth is up to me.  Our attempts to get life in order lead to the empty ritual we were attempting to avoid—the rules are followed but nothing is benefited.  Christ causes the growth: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).

Why do we try to do the Lord’s work for him?  We want to take some credit.  We want the bragging rights.  We realize anew that in the desire to do right, evil is close at hand (Rom 7:21).  We are wretched in ourselves, needing deliverance, but it is God through Christ Jesus who will bring it to pass.

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