The Right Religion

coincidenceAre you able to accept the fact that, had you grown up in a Muslim family, you would most likely be a Muslim now (and similarly for any other belief system)? You would be knowledgable of the scriptures, teachings, and apologetics of Islam, have had experiences that confirm the reality of your belief system (because you would be conditioned to interpret them in such a way), and be as ignorant as you are now of most other religions (except, perhaps, for their broadest details).

If not, you are likely ignorant of or downplaying the significance that your upbringing has on your beliefs (that is, you mistakenly think that your beliefs are relatively free from the influence of the limited languages, experiences, information, people, etc. you were exposed to growing up, thinking that the conclusions you have drawn are for the most part rationally based).

(Just consider the fact that almost no one believes in a religion they’ve never heard of (except for those who start their own). You might object, “well if they don’t know about it, then of course they can’t!” This demonstrates, however, that belief systems are generally not fundamentally rational but rather experiential. For if they were fundamentally rational, people should be able to arrive at belief systems deductively.)

If you are able to accept that fact, however, how is it reasonable for a god to expect human beings to get their beliefs exactly right (and punish them otherwise)? In particular, why do the gods of Western religions seem so obsessed with right belief, anyway? As expounded by the psychological theory situationism, it is not even clear that the person plays a more influential role in determining their behavior than the situation that person is in (in other words, what if beliefs are influenced more by external, situational factors rather than internal traits or motivations?).

Everybody wants to think that, by the grace of God, they happened to be born in a family that believed the “one and only truth” and belonged to the “right faith.” What often happens as a result is that people subscribe to whatever criteria for determining truth set forth by the group they belong to. The internally self-perpetuating cycle of self-validation of the group is thus continued.

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Unconditional Salvation (Part 3)

Part 2

The previous posts will be hard to believe for some because they want a part to play in their salvation, to have something that they can claim they did to get themselves saved, some condition that they had personally fulfilled. Thus you hear people say things like “I chose God,” “I found God,” “I put my faith in God,”  “I believed the Gospel,” or “I asked Jesus to come into my heart.”

But the good news is the exact opposite of these things!

You didn’t choose God; God chose you.

You didn’t find God; God found You! You were the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable, and he’s the shepherd who searched for and found you.

Your faith doesn’t save you; Jesus’ faith does. Or do you really think that the difference between those who get to spend eternity with Jesus and those who don’t is that the former made superior choices? In that case, we really are saved by our own righteous acts after all!

You didn’t believe the Gospel. You couldn’t; it’s too good to be fully believed. Jesus believed it for you.

You might have asked Jesus to come into your heart, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there until you did so. Indeed, he was there all along, waiting for you to realize it.

From His point of view we were found before we were lost – He found us in Christ before He lost us in Adam. We were given grace before the fall. He was simply waiting for the opportune time in which to appear – in which to reveal what has always been: the reality of our salvation in Christ Jesus. – Andre Rabe

Salvation is always God’s initiative, not people’s, which is religion. Religion will tell you what you must do to achieve salvation, enlightenment, heaven, perfection, happiness, etc., but the Gospel declares what God has done for us to achieve it on our behalf.

The salvation of God is unconditional.

Your efforts are not needed.

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18).

“So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).

Being “born again” is a term used synonymously with being saved. Once again, it is not anything we do that gets us born again; it was caused by Christ’s resurrection. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3, emphasis mine). Think about it – who ever made any kind of contribution to their own birth? Nobody. The work fully belongs to the mother.

“Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:5). We were saved when we were dead in our transgressions, not when we decided to turn to God. That is precisely why we were saved by grace (i.e. by what we could never earn and is only according to God’s unmerited favor).

Reconciliation took place when we were still enemies; “…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God…” (Romans 5:10). God didn’t reconcile us after we had chosen to become buddies with him. Even after we were reconciled, we remained enemies (in our own minds) until we realized that God was never our enemy. So reconciliation must have taken place for all humanity (unless you would like to hold to a theory of limited atonement, where God reconciled only those he knew would believe later).

We do not accept Christ into our lives; He has already accepted us into His! Any accepting done on our part is simply accepting the fact that He has already accepted us. – Christian Erickson

If you reject Him, He will reject your rejection of Him. – Andre Rabe

You can exclude yourself, but you can’t stop him from including you. – John Crowder

The New Testament generally credits even repentance (2 Timothy 2:25), faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), and belief (Acts 13:48) to the work of God within.

You have no part to play in the actualization of your salvation.

You do, however, have a part in the experience of your salvation. Indeed, it is you who experiences it. It is you and your choices that determine when and how you experience the salvation that Jesus has made fully available to you. Salvation is objectively real independent of us, but subjectively real (i.e. experienced) only through our participation by faith.

…Salvation – or happiness… – is by faith and not by works. Since the repair job is already done, all you have to do is believe – to trust that it’s done – and you’re home free; because except for your unbelief, you were home free already. – Robert Capon

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Also see:

The Religiosity of Sacred Writings

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In this post I want to take a look at the concept of sacred writings – writings designated by people as special in a way that other writings are not. For example, the Old and New Testaments in Christianity and the Quran in Islam would be considered sacred writings.

Sacred writings are usually believed to be texts that reveal truth. As such, they are also often considered to be a special way by which deities communicate with humans. This is particularly the case in the Jewish tradition and the subsequent Christian tradition.

Here are the propositions concerning the Torah (scriptures) from the Jewish “13 Principles of Faith,” which those belonging to Orthodox Judaism were obliged to believe in.

  • I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both those who preceded him and those who followed him.
  • I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.
  • I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, Blessed be His Name.

(Note: there was and is significant variation in Jews’ understanding of what constituted revelation as it relates to the scriptures, but I think the above was and is pretty universally held among them.)

Notice that the claims above are all assumptions. They are not even statements that God made to the Jews.

The concept of sacred writings originated in the Old Covenant. It began with the giving of the Law, which, supposedly, was a word for word download from God to Moses.

Later, however, the Jews decided to add to the scriptures, not God. They created a canon (a collection of writings considered as sacred) and included in it whatever they wanted to. In other words, even if it is true that God spoke through prophets, inspired the authors of the Psalms, etc., God himself never commanded that those writings be considered inspired or be added to the canon. Rather, they were human decisions.

The closing of the canon was also a decision that the Jews made. God never said, “there will no longer be any written revelation.” Rather, some people decided to place God in their box labeled “God doesn’t speak anymore.”

M. James Sawyer nicely summarizes the Jewish view of their scriptures:

The Jews viewed Revelation as complete in Moses. The Torah was seen as having emanated in its entirety from God, every verse and letter. This revelation was complete and final; the Rabbis had no conception of progressive revelation. The Prophets and the Hagiographa were seen to add nothing to the Torah given to Moses. Rather these later writings served to reinforce, repeat, amplify, and explain the Torah.

But the Jews were wrong.

Jesus was the greatest revelation of God.

He was the fulfillment of the Torah. But their doctrine regarding sacred writings hindered them from seeing that reality.

The same is still true today. Jesus is still the greatest revelation of God, and he has made his home in us. It is the person who is the revelation, not the book about him. Yet bibles are often treated as the ultimate source of truth or the number one way God speaks to people.

Back to the Jews, let’s look at the broader perspective of God speaking in general.

God has always wanted to communicate regularly and directly with humanity. This is what he did with Abraham; he just straight up talked with him. The same way of relating continued with Abraham’s descendants until Moses came along.

After God gave the ten commandments to the Israelites, they “trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die’” (Exodus 20:18-19). Notice that the people were wrong because God had just spoken to them and yet they had not died. They chose to become afraid of direct communication with God.

jesus never saidThus, the idea that only special people could communicate with God was born.

After this incident, direct communication with God generally ceased. The people preferred to have Moses as a mediator.

Yet later in history, a few caught a glimpse of the heart of God and began communicating with God directly again. Many of these people were known as prophets (although there were others such as David as well). It is a common occurrence in the scriptures for God to speak through prophets.

But have you ever noticed how there were no prophets until Israel began to become an institutional religion instead of simply being a community of God’s people? This is because prophets are only among people who believe they cannot communicate with God themselves and need someone else to communicate for them.

Yet another shift took place after the Jews were sent into exile. This time the mediator became writings instead of people. The general idea was, “God had already said all he wanted to, so we just need to look at what he has said in the past.”

[The post-exile Jews] hung the whole weight of their identity on the text itself…The time of the Exile and afterward is most likely the period of the final editing of the interpretation of the text as the task that lay closest to the bone of their identity. Most notably of all, it was during [the post-exile] period that the Synagogue was first invented – and it was now that the Synagogue replaced the Temple as the center, for all practical purposes, of Jewish life. Tradition replaced institution as the binding force; and the rabbis, who became the expounders of that tradition, replaced the priests and prophets as the authenticating voices of Judaism. – Robert Capon

Thus, the writings became sacred, the very words of God himself (and doctrines such as the inerrancy and inspiration of the scriptures also emerged with it).

This narrative demonstrates the religiosity of sacred writings.

religious books

What I mean when I say that sacred writings are religious is that they bypass relationship. Written documents replace (or at least take precedence over) God speaking to us through his Spirit in us. Ritual replaces relationship.

Some people claim that God doesn’t speak to us through the Spirit anymore and instead only speaks through the scriptures. Others say that God still speaks through his Spirit but that what he says will always line up with what is written in the scriptures. Ironically, neither of these claims can be found in the scriptures themselves (in fact, they seem to say the opposite!).

We must stop using the Bible as though it were a potpourri of inerrant proof-texts by which we can bring people into bondage to our religious traditions…We must no longer use the Bible as the Pharisees used the Torah when they gave it absolute and final status. Christian biblicism is no different from Jewish legalism. It is the old way of the letter, not the new way of the Spirit. – Robert D. Brinsmead

The Law is now written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Making the scriptures sacred is creating a replica of the system of Law in the Old Covenant (like has been wrongly done with the sacrificial system and the theory of penal substitution, the limited priesthood and the modern clergy, temples and church buildings, tithes and pastor salaries, etc.).

Claiming that the canonization process was valid is one thing (although even that is questionable). Saying that there should be an established collection of sacred texts in the first place (which is necessary for there to even be a canonization process) is quite another.

The whole idea of having sacred texts was born out of the human desire for a feeling of certainty. People want something absolute to believe in, something tangible as their foundation. This is also why the Israelites built the golden calf, for example, even right after God had performed the crazy miracle of splitting the red sea for them.

We have to keep in mind that the idea of having sacred writings are a Hebrew invention. God never commanded it. It is a man-made tradition. Further, the Jews were only following the pattern they observed in the a nations around them (just like they wanted a king). Indeed, this is born out in pretty much every religion (at least where its adherents are literate). Sacred writings are a mark of religion. But Jesus came not to start a new religion but to bring an end to all religion.

Elevating the status of the scriptures to “sacred” is a rejection of the mystery and uncertainty inherent in relationship. It is a return to religiosity.

Us Christians are unreservedly scared to become “free thinking” and allow the winds of the Spirit to blow where it wants. We crave a written guideline (just like Israel craved a king to rule over them) in order to prevent us from straying. We want to have a “standard” that draws a line in the sand between what we believe and what other religions or even other Christians believe. We seek a physical, tangible object we can hold in our hands and look at so that we won’t need to be utterly reliant on the Spirit. It makes us cringe to think that we can only have Christ as our Head. Christ without the Bible is a dangerous, perilous road that is doomed to lead to deception and bound to end up in a cult. I wonder what Jesus (who had no Bible Himself) would have to say about this? – André van der Merwe

Let’s not repeat the history of how Israel related with (or, more accurately, failed to relate with) God.

Don’t base you relationship with God on a book.

Let it be based on the only trustworthy foundation, the cornerstone.

Jesus.

Effortless Christianity

A story of extravagant grace in my life.

How Jesus saved me from do-it-myself religion.

How God jacked me up with joy, and still does every day.

How Holy Spirit showed me the good he put in me that I was unaware of.

During my Junior year of college I was doing a bunch of good things. I set time aside to explore the bible and talk with Jesus daily, led a Christian fellowship, did outreach in my neighborhood, helped at a homeless shelter, etc. I don’t remember all that I was doing, but I do remember that I was doing a lot of stuff. Good stuff.

I wasn’t burned out, nor was my mindset to do works to earn salvation. My thinking was, “I’m going to try to do my best to do good works because I’m so thankful to Jesus. I’m going to do things for God even when I don’t feel like it. I’m going to deny myself and finish this race strong.” Sounds good yeah? Like a good little Christian boy.

But hidden in that mindset I had was distrust in Christ’s saving and transforming work.

One day God told me to quit everything I was trying to do. I was like, “No way! If I do that, I’ll end up not doing any good works. Why would I quit trying as if that’s bad? The only reason I do good works is precisely because I try!” He responded, “Tyler. You don’t trust our union. You don’t see how deep it goes. I’ve placed my desires in you so that even the good works that you do don’t have to be born out of effort but purely out of desire. Give yourself time to recognize your true desires.”

I was scared. How could I believe that I would actually start to do good things purely out of desire? I didn’t see it and I didn’t feel it. Surely I am not that good. If I didn’t try to do stuff, I wouldn’t do anything! So I thought.

It took me a while to decide to fully give up everything I was trying to do, but I eventually gave in. After I threw in the towel, I just hung out with Jesus all the time. Just as I suspected would happen, I wasn’t doing any good works. But Jesus kept reassuring me, telling me to rest in the works that he had accomplished and not my own, and to simply learn to enjoy him all the time.

It’s kind of nice to have your Daddy tell you over and over that you don’t need to do anything. After some time I learned to relax and simply enjoy being with Jesus. Any worries I had about “not doing enough” faded. And as I continually set my eyes on Jesus and his works, something amazing started happening.

Jesus was right!

I began to do good works.

At first I didn’t even realize it. I was doing them only because I wanted to, so it was entirely effortless. I was not “intentional” at all. It was more like “if I don’t do this good thing I’m gonna explode!” I saw the fun and joy in whatever it was, and because of that I was exponentially more fruitful than I previously was when I was caught up in my own hamster wheel of effort.

That’s when I first experientially realized that sweet reality Paul spoke of, that I no longer live but Christ lives in me.

My old self always tried so hard to do good by its own willpower and missed out on the party Jesus had prepared. It just took me a while to realize that that old man always was and always will be completely dead! He doesn’t even exist anymore.

I knew my death with Christ had brought freedom from sin, and I was avoiding sin effortlessly. I had lost all interest in sin. But that was merely avoiding the bad. I had not experienced the pleasurable compulsion to live righteously and to do good.

I already was who I was all along. I was born again. I was a new creation. The old had passed away and the new had come. My identity wasn’t dependent on anything I did but only what Jesus did. I just didn’t see the full extent to which I had been transformed.

So I continued to act like I needed to try to do good, not knowing the righteous desires God had planted in me.

But Jesus helped me see what was already true of myself, what I am really like, and what he had transformed me into.

And this is why Christianity is easy, effortless in fact. Because it’s all about giving up and being guided by the desires of Jesus, which are infinitely gratifying.

Glorifying God and enjoying him are one and the same thing.

The effort is all his. My job is to trust, give up, and enjoy.

For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. – Philippians 2:13

A Religious God? – The Abolition of Religion

religion-is-like I remember back in one of my classes at my “Christian” high school where we compared major religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and of course Christianity. “God or divinity is like this in each religion; this is how each religion understands salvation; these are the foundational principles they require you to abide by,” etc.

LOL.

Looking back, I can laugh at this way of viewing Christianity, but it also makes me very sad because it shows what most people, believers and unbelievers alike, consider Christianity to be – that it’s just another religion among many.

How dare Christianity be called a religion, as if it were even comparable to religions? It is nothing like religions. Some say, “But there are similarities, like believing in the existence of a deity or having a moral code to live by.”

Get this: Christianity is not a belief system or a way of life. And calling it a religion is tantamount to equating it to those things. Because that’s pretty much what religions are.

Here’s the first two definitions of “religion” that I came upon in my dictionary: 1. A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny 2. An institution to express belief in a divine power.

Once more, Christianity is not theology or an institution. Let me highlight some differences between religion and Christianity:

  • Religion tells you what you have to do to be saved, the story of the Old Covenant in which it was all about you and your own efforts to follow the Law. But Jesus tells you what he’s done for you to get you saved.
  • Religion tells you to do something so that God will respond to you. But the gospel tells you what God did for you and empowers you with the freedom to respond.
  • Religion requires you to try to earn your blessings. But Holy Spirit shows you that every spiritual blessings has already been freely given to you.
  • Religion makes you strive after an impossible standard. But the bible tells us that Jesus achieved it for us and continues to do so in and through us.
  • Religion tries to motivate you through fear. But the Father motivates you in love.
  • Religion reduces knowledge to intellectual facts. But the good news is that we can have intimacy with Jesus on a personal level.
  • Religion is bad news. But the gospel is good news.

Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion but rather to proclaim the end of all religion. – Robert Capon

This begs the question – what is Christianity?

Most of you have probably heard this before, but it’s true, so I gladly repeat it: Christianity is not a religion but a relationship, namely a relationship with Jesus. And it is a relationship that affects all our other relationships with everyone and everything in the world.

Awesome.

So why the big fuss over this one word? For the people who don’t know that it’s a relationship. The fact that unbelievers perceive Christianity as a religion rather than a relationship with Jesus is a symptom of an underlying problem among those who claim to be Christians, namely that they themselves do not truly understand the nature of their relationship with Christ. Calling Christianity a religion only perpetuates their misunderstanding. We end up with a bunch of self-proclaimed Christians that in fact do not have a living breathing relationship with Jesus. For most of my life, I was one of those people. And churches tolerate this, acting as if “Christian” is a title anyone can give themselves (instead, in the bible, unbelievers called believers “Christians”; Acts 11:26).

Unbelievers see this toleration and conclude that anyone who says they are a Christian is in fact a Christian. Because it all comes down to having the same set of beliefs, right (cough, sarcasm, cough)?

god has no religionWhat people claim to believe is not always what they really believe. You can only truly know what someone believes by how they live. You will know a tree by its fruit. As John Crowder puts it, “Religion kills, but Jesus thrills.” The world knows and understands the first part of that phrase, but they haven’t got a clue about the second. And it’s about time we show it – not just talk about it – to the point where it’s so obvious that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship that it doesn’t need to be stated.

I am allergic to the “Christian” religion and I have two symptoms: anger and hostility toward its lies, and love and compassion toward those who believe them. I encourage you to do yourself and everyone else a favor and never call Christianity a religion again, and to not let other people call it that either.

Religion is not the solution; religion is the problem. There was no religion in the Garden and there will be none in the City. Jesus is the end of religion. – Paul Ellis

By the way, Jesus was the greatest anti-religion dude of his day (and since he never changes, he still is). You can read all about it in the bible. Sometimes you have to upset established religious orders to bring the Truth to light. Ian Thomas sums it up well:

There are few things quite so boring as being religious, but there is nothing quite so exciting as being a Christian!…Most folks have never discovered the difference between the one and the other, so that there are those who sincerely try to live a life they do not have, substituting religion for God, Christianity for Christ, and their own noble endeavors for the energy, joy, and power of the Holy Spirit. In the absence of reality, they can only grasp at rituals, stubbornly defending the latter in the absence of the former, lest they be found with neither!

Here’s a video most of you are probably familiar with, but worth posting:

And finally, for those who, like me, like long but meaningful quotes:

The entire human race is profoundly and desperately religious. From the dim beginnings of our history right up to the present day, there is not a man, woman, or child of us who has ever been immune to the temptation to think that the relationship between God and humanity can be repaired from our side, by our efforts. Whether those efforts involve creedal correctness, cultic performances, or ethical achievements-or whether they amount to little more than crassly superstitious behavior-we are all, at some deep level, committed to them. If we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by dint of our doctrinal orthodoxy, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Ruler of the Universe kindhearted, softheaded, or both…The point is, we haven’t got a card in our hand that can take even a single trick against God. Religion, therefore-despite the correctness of its insistence that something needs to be done about our relationship with God-remains unqualified bad news: it traps us in a game we will always and everywhere lose. But the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is precisely Good News. It is the announcement, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that God has simply called off the game. – Robert Capon

I’m tired of religion – and to be entirely honest I know of nothing quite so boring as Christianity without Christ.  Have you ever tried to start a car without fuel, and there wasn’t a spark left in the battery?  Then you will know exactly what I mean, for there a few things more frustrating than the car that will not go. Everything is nicely greased and in its rightful place, and all the working parts move dutifully, but try as you may, there isn’t the suspicion of a kick, the tiniest evidence of life in the engine.  You might just as well dump the thing, for the chance you have of getting it to move!…Countless people have stopped going to a place of worship simply because they are sick of going through the motions of a dead religion.  They are tired of trying to start the car on an empty tank!  What a pity that is that there are not a few more people around to tell them that Jesus Christ is alive.  I spoke of nothing more boring than Christianity without Christ, but I know of nothing so utterly exciting as being a Christian – sharing the very life of Jesus Christ on earth right here and now, and been caught up with Him into the relentless, invincible purposes of an almighty God, and with all the limitless resources of deity available for the job. – Ian Thomas

Yay for the end of religion!