Gospel Centered Religion

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.

The Problem

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
If this is really how the Bible speaks of the situation, we need to adopt biblical language in our own discussions.

Gospel vs. False Religion

The five chapters of the book of James is replete with favorable statements on the "doing" that is consonant with a gospel-saturated lifestyle:
  • "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)
This final passage is most relevant to our discussion: James 1:26-27 contains over half of the NT uses of the Greek word for "religion" (threskeia), and the connotation is certainly not negative.
Even in James' day, there were abuses of religion. There was worthless religion, impure religion, and defiled religion. So, did he punt the word? Did he conclude that "religion" was therefore the opposite of the gospel? No, he took the time to explain what true religion looked like.

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

The word "religion" has been hijacked in 21st century western culture. When people hear it, they think of rules and dos and don'ts. I get it. I don't agree, but I get it. What I don't get, however, is the current trend for believers to attack the biblical term!
Perhaps it is for the sake of cultural relevance. Instead of fighting for a biblical definition, many believers have acquiesced and allowed the word to be redefined wholesale. In my experience, it's a short leap from rejecting "religion" to becoming anti-church. I've seen it happen.
Why revive "religion"? Another way to put it: "Isn't it just semantics?" First, "just semantics" is a pretty big deal. Councils have been called, martyrs have been slaughtered, and wars have been fought - "holy" and otherwise - over the definition of words. More importantly, no, this isn't just semantics. Words do have meaning in context. If our cultural context is moving toward unanimously defining "religion" as evil, we need to take note. (Thankfully, we're not there yet.)
This perspective can easily morph into the before mentioned "spiritual but not religious" trend, which takes serious issue with rules. After all, Christianity is a relationship not a religion, right? We must acknowledge that being against rules is often code for bristling at the mention of obedience, accountability, and discipline.
Obedience is important. I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that there were more rules for riding a bus in Dallas than there were for joining a church. You can get kicked off a bus, but don't try to institute church discipline!
There are plenty of places in the NT where believers are admonished towards obedience. It's an obedience that flows out of the gospel and not to the gospel. Some of Jesus' last words were for his disciples to teach their disciples to obey everything he had commanded (Matt 28:20). This implies both that Jesus had commanded some things that needed to be obeyed and that this obedience was an important part of the Christian life.
There are directives within Christianity for which we need not apologize. These don't save you, but they're essential for a gospel-centered lifestyle within the Christian religion.
To conclude:
  • 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.
As a friend recently told me: "We shouldn't conceptualize faith as opposed to 'doing'; rather, we should more carefully define what 'doing' God expects of us."

Final Disclaimers

I agree with the importance of attacking the enemy that the Gospel vs. Religion proponents are attacking. I'm for the gospel! I'm for obedience that flows from faith in Christ, not obedience that somehow leads to a relationship with Christ. I am also fully convinced that the Gospel vs. Religion camp agrees with the importance of obedience in the Christian life; they're not antinomians. We are on the same team. I just think they've given the wrong label to the enemy they're fighting, and there might be some unfortunate unintended consequences.
Jason Seville (Th.M) lives in Memphis, TN with his wife, Kim, and daughters, Sydney & Sophie. They are members at First Evangelical Church, and Jason is on staff with Downline Ministries, where he writes curriculum, teaches, and heads up Downline Builder. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonCseville

For more thoughts on gospel centered religion, check out Tony Merida’s Proclaiming Jesus.

For more free articles on this topic, read: How to Respond to Religious Pluralism, by Jonathan Dodson; and What Is Gospel Centered Ministry, by Winfield Bevins.