These days, it's not polite to speak of the gospel and religion in the same sentence without a "versus" in between. This trend of thinking is unfortunate. In the final tally, we lose more than we gain. Religion is not antithetical to the gospel. Let's unpack this truth.
Pitting the gospel against religion stems from two very real and very dangerous problems: self-righteousness and an attempt to please God by good works or good merit. These problems are certainly anti-biblical and need to be called out wherever we notice them.
The False Solution
One popular solution offered in recent books and viral YouTube videos is to castigate religion itself. To show how the gospel of Jesus Christ is actually the antithesis of religion. For the uninitiated, this is what's at play when you hear things like:
"I love Jesus but hate religion." "Jesus hates religion." "Christianity is a relationship, not a religion."
And so on. Note: Being "spiritual but not religious" is related to this discussion as well, though this mantra suggests a rejection of both religion and the gospel.
The Problem with the Solution
The problem with "Gospel vs. Religion" is that it misses the point. This is a case of rightly seeing the problem, but coming up with the wrong steps to eradicate it. Moreover, it is not the perspective of the biblical writers. The Bible never speaks of religion as being bad, in and of itself.
If the problem is self-righteousness, we should couch the discussion using more biblically faithful polarities, such as:
- Gospel vs. False Religion
- Gospel vs. Self-Righteousness
- True Religion vs. False Religion
Gospel vs. False Religion
- "faith without works is dead" (James 2:14-17)
- "be doers of the word, and not hearers only" (James 1:22)
- a doer who acts "will be blessed in his doing" (James 1:25)
- "pure and undefiled religion" (James 1:26-27)
The other two instances the word threskeia occur in Acts 26:5 and Colossians 2:18. The word in Col 2 is typically translated as "worship." Most agree that worship is good, though there can be true worship and false worship. For instance, worship of angels (Col 2) is certainly wrong.
Likewise, in Acts 26, Paul used threskeia as a defense for what a good Jew he was. He certainly wasn't saying his strict observance of religion was bad. It was simply incomplete.
Gospel vs. Self-Righteousness
Passages like Matthew 6:1-24, Romans 9:30-33, and Matthew 23:23 teach on practicing righteousness. In my blog post on Matthew 6, I explain that the problem against which Jesus is warning his followers is not practicing righteousness itself, but one's motive behind practicing righteousness. Don't be afraid to practice righteousness; just be sure to check your heart for the impetus therein.
Similarly, Paul explains why Israel did not arrive at the righteousness they pursued: "Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone ..." (Rom 9:30-33). If our works is the path to righteousness, we will stumble over ourselves. Jesus is the only true way to righteousness.
True Religion vs. False Religion
- We believers should concede no more ground and fight for a return to a biblical understanding of religion. Can religion and gospel be at odds? Sure. But it doesn't have to be; the two aren't necessarily opposed.
- Some words are worth intentionally and unequivocally defining so that people know what we truly mean by them. This is what I've tried to do in my ministry and I have not noticed a surge in people giving in to legalism and self-righteousness as a result. If we are too quick to discard "religion", the net result might be discarding obedience and a healthy ecclesiology along with it.
- We should draw a distinction between true and false religion (cf. James 1). The contrast is between believing and doing things that God desires of us (submission and obedience to Christ) and what is not required of us (e.g., don't dance or drink or watch rated-R movies). This is the distinction all believers should strive to make. It is another thing when the contrast is "faith vs. obedience," which are two things the Bible never pits against each other.
- The gospel is the beginning and foundation of one's journey in discipleship. It is the first step toward true obedience. I'm in full agreement that practicing empty rights and rituals in order to please God is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, most young believers, new believers, or even non-believers I know don't easily separate empty rights and rituals from all rights and rituals.