I have become
theologically eclectic in my Christian walk over the years. I was
born and raised Catholic; had an evangelical born again experience
at a Young Life youth camp; attended a charismatic college; broadened
my library with the early Fathers, Catholic saints, Luther, Wesley,
and Calvin; and am currently doing the nondenominational thing.
In short, I have studied and seen a good bit within our Christian
family. It is from this perspective that I have come to the sobering
reality that much of the church has allowed itself to become seduced
by a false gospel. No one particular branch is more susceptible
than another, and though this false gospel may look different it
is really two sides of the same coin called religion.
Now I know much
has been written and said proclaiming the evils of "religion" in
recent times, but this is not an attempt to climb on the bandwagon.
Quite honestly, I stay awake at times mournfully pondering the situation
we have gotten ourselves into as the church, and have a good healthy
fear of the Lord for what it may require of Him to shake us from
this path. I have said that we are looking at two sides of the same
coin, that the false gospel of religion can look different in various
places. In fact, many times this same problem manifests itself in
what would seem to be completely opposite patterns of thought and
On one hand,
you have the error of legalism. This is what most think of when
the topic of "religion" is brought up. Rules and regulations prescribing
every thought and action conspire to suffocate any life and joy
from the way of Christ. As a former Catholic (though not a bitter
or disgruntled one) I can attest to the power and hold of legalism.
The Catholic Church has roughly twice the number of canons, or laws,
than the Pharisees of Jesus' time. However, I have come to learn
that Catholics, by no means, have a monopoly on legalism. There
is a political correctness with many Christian circles just as manipulative
and controlling as the secular college campus thought police. Many
have succumbed to reducing the gospel of Jesus to mere behavior
modification and decent, moral citizenship. The clothes we wear,
the length of our hair, the television and movies we watch, the
music we listen to, books we read are all predetermined by the self-righteous
as being either good or bad, virtue or vice, sacred or secular.
No self-respecting member of the new school of Pharisees would ever
be caught going to an R-rated movie or listening to secular radio.
Even the food we eat has come under scrutiny as Christian health
food enthusiasts use the bible as a club to beat the red meat out
of you. The cozy bedfellow of this brand of legalism is a form of
priestcraft that steals the priestly birthright of every Christian,
and reserves power to a chosen few. Like the Pharisees before them,
many do not enter the true freedom of the gospel-kingdom life and
they prevent others from doing so as well.
I can certainly
understand the allure of this particular form of religion. A world
of ever increasing immorality is a scary, foreboding place in which
to live or raise a family. For many a preoccupation with their own
fallen sinfulness, and a sincere lack of self-trust coupled often
with a view of God as a scornful judge-or perhaps colored by the
love not received from their own fathers-can find in a legalist
religion a safe harbor. In many ways the peer pressure of the Christian
subculture lifts the burden of moral choices from them. They need
not worry about being corrupted by the media or destroying their
bodies with preservatives. The folly in this way of thinking is,
of course, that external behavior equals internal righteousness.
All too often, friends and family are taken completely by surprise
when the secret vice of a normally outward appearing righteous brother
or sister finally becomes known. The tragedy is that the very religious,
legalistic community that such a sinner has chosen to be part of
often lacks the ability to gently restore someone who has fallen
from grace, and so restoration may never take place. Meanwhile,
the legalistic community eventually recovers from being deceived
by the so-called believer and convinces itself that the problem
is not in their misunderstanding of the gospel, but that the person
who fell was never a true believer to begin with. This is often
motivated by the fear of being corrupted by a "sinner" or as an
act of denying the fear that they are no better.
The polar opposite
of legalism is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. Yet,
it is really just another form of religion. In cheap grace religion
no one is ever challenged to "live a life worthy of the calling
they have received" (Eph. 4:1). Dallas Willard calls this phenomenon
the gospel of sin management. In reality, it takes the new life
promised in the gospel of Jesus and reduces it down to the act of
removing sin-guilt. The goal of the Christian life becomes avoiding
hell rather than experiencing fullness of joy and life. This has
had a tragic impact on the way we live and preach.
gospel of sin management is only concerned with removing sin-guilt
in order to go to heaven, we have redefined what it means to be
a Christian. Cheap grace removes any burden on the bearer to count
the cost of following Jesus because it often promises no cost at
all. Salvation is reduced to reciting a prayer. For many, once you've
"prayed the prayer" there is nothing left to do but wait for the
day when, as Willard says, you get scanned on the big checkout line
in the sky and your bar code says "saved". This has bred a form
of evangelism that is numbers-driven and seeks to further reduce
the gospel to simple catch phrases and formulas that are easy to
remember and repeat. The command of the Great Commission to make
disciples has been replaced by the push to make believers. We measure
our success in ministry by how many people we can get saved, and
we will sugar coat the Christian life making all sorts of misleading
promises to get someone to say that prayer. We will tell them that
they don't have to go to church. They don't have to have a prayer
life or study scripture. They don't have to do anything (except
maybe tithe). This concept, that one can be a believer without living
the life of a disciple, is completely foreign to the New Testament
and the history of the church. In scripture and church history,
we are warned to distinguish between mere belief and following after
Christ, for even the demons believe (James 2:9).
of false grace is a reversal of the scriptural understanding of
discipline and judgment. On more than one occasion in more than
one church, I have seen the same person express disdain and outrage
at the behavior of a non-believer, yet turn a blind eye in the name
of grace when a Christian continues in deliberate sin. We often
feel that it is not our place to judge a fellow Christian. This
may be due to a desire to avoid conflict or offense, or it may be
a result of the improper understanding of salvation illustrated
above. Scripture however is clear that we are to hold each other
accountable and to confront a brother or sister when they stray
from the path. In fact, Jesus himself went so far as to lay down
guidelines on how to properly confront a fellow disciple (Matt.
In many ways
this is just as much of a reaction to legalism as many aspects of
legalism are to the loosey-goosey ways of cheap grace. These are
both two expressions of the same false gospel of religion. Neither
truly embraces all that Christ taught his disciples. Both take snippets
of the truth and push them to the extreme while denying the whole
gospel message. One sacrifices grace and mercy for overbearing discipleship;
the other sacrifices discipleship for cheap grace and mercy.
that His way is narrow (Matt. 7:14). When we attempt to follow Jesus
while holding to forms of religion we will either make his way so
narrow that no one can pass through, or so wide that no one could
possibly be left out. When I read the gospels I see Jesus demanding
higher standards than had ever been previously required (Matt. 5-7).
At the same time, I see Jesus extending love, grace and mercy to
all that desire to follow him even though they repeatedly fall (Matt.
18:22, Luke 5:20, John 21:15). I see a Jesus that rebukes the Pharisees
for their external righteousness (Matt. 23) while at the same time
restoring the sinner with a warning to sin no more (John 8:1). Being
a follower of Jesus requires much, it requires your very life (Matt.
10:39, Matt. 16:25), yet he has promised to make it bearable (Matt.
11:28). Jesus never weakened his message, never lowered his standards,
never chased after someone who didn't want to follow (Matt. 19:16),
never passed on an opportunity to share love and healing (Luke 18:35),
never refused a contrite sinner (Luke 7:36).
It is by grace
through faith we are saved. Grace means that our salvation begins
and ends with God. He is the one that calls to us, that woos us
to him. He offers forgiveness, mercy, and redemption purely from
his heart of love. He promises to make up all that is lacking in
our feeble efforts to follow. Faith is our response, but is a response
that goes beyond just a mere intellectual agreement. It is a faith
that is proven and evidenced by our works, our lives. It is a response
that literally means placing our trust in him. Saving faith is an
active faith that compels us to live life leaning completely on
him. Saving faith is not just saying a prayer, though that may be
a valid start, and it may even be present without a specific born
again experience as we have come to think of it. A faithful response
to God's grace means that we are agreeing to live a new life, or
rather that we agree to die to ourselves and let Christ live in
us. This saving life is lived by the Spirit of God living in us.
It is the Holy Spirit who was given to us to convict us of sin and
remind us of the way we are to follow.
Jesus said that
the entire Law can be summed up and fulfilled by loving God and
loving each other. If we spend our lives doing these two things
we will not need to worry about falling into sin or the clothes
we wear and the foods we eat. If we spend our lives doing these
two things we will not fear living the life of a disciple and practicing
spiritual disciplines. If we completely loose ourselves in these
two activities we will truly find Life.