First off, before going any further, I have nothing against organized religion as long as it doesn’t establish itself to the point to where it becomes the focal point and far more important than Christ whom it is suppose to be focused on and built around. Religions need to remember that when it comes to the Church, Christ is always the Head and we are the Body. When that gets lost in all the rules and laws of any religion, this is then when trouble brews.
Being Religious Can Be Dangerous
The actual danger of being religious can go as far back as Adam and Eve and their fatal mistake to try and be more like God. This mistake wasn’t that they stopped believing in God instead it was because they started believing in a way that God had forbidden.
Even Cain their first born son tried to trust God in his own way and on his own terms. Because of this God rejected his bloodless sacrifice but turned to Abel and honored the sacrificial lamb he offered God. Because of this we all know that Cain became insanely jealous and killed his younger brother, which in the end destroyed his own life with this action.
Let’s not forget about the people of Israel who also got in trouble with God when they tried to worship Him on their own terms. Such as when they were on the threshold of the Promised Land when some of the Jewish men accepted an invitation from some local women to be their guests at their pagan religious event. It only took hours for thousands of Jewish people to end up dying.
Then there is Saul who was the first king of Israel, he was no different. The reason why he lost his kingdom is because he made religious mistakes. When the priest Samuel didn’t show up in time to offer a pre-battle sacrifice Saul thought that he needed to do the sacrifice himself, but he found out he was wrong with that decision.
And of course there was David who also got in trouble for being religious. After he became King of Israel he called for the sacred chest that held the Ten Commandments of God. With great enthusiasm he led all of Israel in a grand procession to bring the holy object to Jerusalem. Then the oxen that were carrying the ark of the covenant tripped and stumbled the priest Uzza tried to keep the ark from falling and he was killed. When this happened David grew angry with a God that could do such a thing. It was only after he reread the Law of God that he finally realized that he had done the right thing but he just didn’t do it in the correct way.
The way in which we honor God is important to Him. He would rather we worshiped him from a heart that is responding to the truth about His love and grace. He wants people who will worship Him in spirit and in truth, not ritualistically and with ignorance.
It really isn’t that much He’s asking of us. All He wants from all of us is to simply know and love His Son, we do that and good religion will then follow.
So What is the Real Difference Between Christ and Religion?
Both religion and Christ are not mutually exclusive however, they are very distinct from each other. James one of the New Testament writers wrote this, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) Religion can be a lot of very good things but it truly cannot be a substitute for Christ, no matter what.
Religion is Something That is to Believe and to Do:
- Going to religious services.
- Enrolling children in religious schools.
- Showing true acts of kindness.
- Avoiding immortality.
- Believing in God.
- Having a certain religious affiliation.
- Being baptized.
- Receiving holy communion.
- Studying the doctrine.
- Reading scriptures.
- Praying to God and praying for others.
- Teaching religious classes.
- Helping the poor.
- Being seen as a godly person.
Christ is One We Must Know and Trust:
- He is always near.
- He has the authority to help us.
- He has the authority to forgive us.
- He has the authority to declare us righteous.
- He can bring us to God.
- He can include us in His will.
- He is someone who can and should be our example.
- He is someone who can teach and guide us.
- He will never leave us alone.
- He can always be trusted.
- He is one who will defend us.
- He will intercede for us.
- He can enable us.
- He can and will respond to our emotions.
- He can feel and understand our pain.
- He can give us joy.
- He can give us peace.
- He can give us hope.
- He has already proven His love for us and continues to do so.
- He has died for us.
- He rose from the dead for us.
- He can live His life through us if we let Him.
- He is the one that can take us all the way home to the Father in heaven.
- He is the one who can assure us of heaven.
Religion in the Days of Christ
Jesus sure knew the real dangers of religion. After all He was hated by some of the supposedly most religious people of Jerusalem. Then on the other hand He easily attracted the sinners and all the outcasts of society, all those marginalized flocked to Him. It was all the religious such as the Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees and priests, except for a handful, were His enemies.
That didn’t matter to Jesus and had no problems with not flattering these religious leaders. He made sure that He left no room for the notion that they were godly men who simply had made a mistake about Him. In fact He told them that if they really had known His Father then they would have known Him. To their faces, He had no problem with calling them all hypocrites and blind leaders leading the blind.
You would think that logically Jesus might be an enemy to the atheists, criminals and secular thinkers of society but that just wasn’t the case, they had no issues with Him and liked Him. The people of the streets were immensely attracted to Him and His message. Sinners were His friends, heck, even Pilate gave Him more consideration and a benefit of a doubt compared to the religious of the day. Instead they were always trying to discredit Jesus and they had no use for Him whatsoever and believed the world would be a better place without Him.
Not all of them were all bad. In fact some of them were respected as some of the most godly and most spiritually committed of all the Jews, it’s just that the Pharisees took some wrong turns in their attempt to make the Law of God relevant and practical to Israel. The made a conscious effort to try and show what the Word of God “looked like” in daily life and their concrete applications actually became an end in themselves. It didn’t take long before they were totally lost in all the specifics and then according to Jesus, were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). He knew they had become too focused on the details and they lost the heart of their religion and faith.
Jesus Was Thought to Be a Threat to Organized Religion
The religious of Jesus’ time saw Him as being dangerous. This is because He caused a commotion that threatened to destabilize the delicate religious and political balance of power in Israel. Jesus had the reputation for doing a lot of unexplainable things. He also taught with a distinct air of authority and He shifted the attention from the external matters of religion to the internal attitudes of the heart. He also taught that God was not and is not looking for people who are doing well in their religion, but was looking for those who were:
- The poor in spirit and understood their dependence on God in every area of life.
- Those who mourn, grieving the nature and the results of sin their lives and in the lives of others.
- The meek who were willing to live under the authority of God.
- Those who hungered for and had a thirst for righteousness and accepted the rightness that comes from God.
- Those who are merciful who give undeserved relief to others in the face of misery.
- The pure in heart who are clean on the inside.
- The peacemakers, who are working to reconcile people to God and to each other.
(Matthew 5: 1-9)
He also was a threat to the religious because all those who truly accepted Him would really never need the actual man made religion of the Pharisees. Sure the Pharisees were good at detailing obedience to the Law, but Jesus taught that God would forgive even the worst of sinners. Years later, a former Pharisee, Paul would argue that religious laws never had, never would, and never could save anyone from sin. Paul reasoned in the New Testament that the Law was given to show us our need of a Savior who is superior to any religion in every way possible.
Proof He is Superior to Religion
- He is the Creator and eternal Word who was not only with God from the beginning, but who actually is God (John 1: 1-3).
- He is our coming King and Judge who will one day rule the earth and judge every heart. (Acts 1: 6-11; Romans 14: 7-12).
- He is our Savior and Lord who alone can reach down and save us while at the same time provide a lordship that is loving and wise (John 3: 13-16; Phil. 2: 9-11).
- He holds us in His own hands as our Provider and Sustainer (Col. 1:16)
- As we turn to the “right” to see what is morally correct, He becomes our Teacher and Example (1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).
- As we turn away from what is “right”, and therefore to what is wrong, He becomes our Intercessor and Advocate (1 John 2: 1-2).
- He is our Life, our Peace, and our Strength (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27).
This is the true and all encompassing Person of Jesus that the Pharisees totally missed. And just how could they miss Him so easily? How could they wait all that time with the rest of Israel for the coming Messiah and then turn around and just want to kill Him when He did arrive? You can find the answers in some of the things Jesus said about them.
In Luke 11 we see Jesus pointing out several of their faults which tells a lot about the Pharisees and maybe even a little bit about ourselves. One fault He pointed out is that they settled for “looking good”.
Jesus said to them “You Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you.” (Luke 11: 30-41). What Jesus was referring to was their careful and technically exact ritual of handwashing they practiced before sitting down to a meal. They washed before eating and between courses not for cleanliness reasons, but because they prided themselves in fulfilling their ceremonial law. Jesus knew, however, that the “ritually clean” religion of the Pharisees didn’t go any further than the surface. They had a good image but their act was bad.
In truth, religion itself never will change the heart of the actual problem. It only deals with the surface issues. This is why on a different occasion Jesus told a Pharisee and the ruler of the Jews that he needed to be born again, an internal spiritual birth, if he was ever going to be part of God’s kingdom.
Prayers, holy communion, confirmation, baptism, volunteering are all good things but they also can become things to just make us look good on the outside. But if these things are only being used to make you look good on the outside, you might be fooling the world but there is no fooling God. Jesus once said “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) Truly receiving Christ in the world can do everything that all the religions in the world could never do.
When we truly put our trust in Christ it will change our hearts. It will bring the Source of love that is within us out. It is a very humbling experience and it means we must acknowledge the worthlessness of our eternal clean ups and giving ourselves over to the mercy of God and completely trusting Him to do through the Spirit of Jesus Christ what we could never do for ourselves on our own.
Another fault that Jesus pointed out about the Pharisees was that they always made much out of little. “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. (Luke 11:42) He’s saying that little things have their place in life as long as they don’t get in the way of the truly important issues.
The Pharisees made a science out of making sure they carried out the Law to its logical conclusions. They prided themselves in their abilities to think matters through down to even the smallest detail. When they tithed for example they gave a percentage of all their increases. If they owed God 10% of everything, including herbs, even though the Law specifically said hat it was not necessary to do so. OK, so their willingness to do more than required was not bad but their mistake in this was that in attending to details they forgot to love. According to Jesus, this meant they ended up missing the entire point of the Law. (Matthew 22: 37-40)
Even today, as good as religion can be and as necessary as it is, it still can fill us up with the lesser details that can easily get the bigger part of our attention. This is a problem that is very difficult to detect during the process of getting good at the fine points like Bible study, prayer or giving can really feel like it is working when in reality it really may not be. This is because there is no substitute for a heart that is truly filled with love and justice and reflects a right and good relationship with God Himself.
Another fault Jesus pointed out was that the Pharisees loved to receive the approval of others. Religion then and now has had the ability to be a really big ego trip for many. After all what plays more to our sense of self-importance than be thought of as a person God approves of? It is because it may seem like it is much better to be seen as a good person instead of a godless person. After all it is better to be called a pastor or priest than a pornographer or a prostitute, right? Well, maybe not, at least not according to Jesus. Jesus came right out and told the religious that unless something changed, the Pharisees were going to the same hell as the godless. He reserved His strongest criticism for religious people who were using their spiritual reputation to get social attention and honor. He told them the following: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:43)
We all like to be appreciated by others and want to be approved by others. The bad thing about this is that when we allow the opinions of others become more important than the opinions of God. When we do this, it is dangerous because like a drug it can become addictive and it can also numb us to the love we should have for others and even numb us to the presence and mind of God.
Being good and following the rules of religion will get us the praises of men however, submitting to Christ is the only way that any of us will have the favor of God. We can’t allow our religion to grandstand and push God out of the picture. We should never concern ourselves with what others think about us. Sure criticism can hurt but we should not allow it to overshadow the only opinion that should matter to us and that is Gods opinion of us. We should learn to accept criticism with grace and let Christ help us realize that human recognition, opinions and honor really doesn’t count in the end. All that really matters is hearing Christ tell us “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Another fault of the Pharisees that Christ pointed out to them was that they practiced coverup and not disclosure. Often humility is missing in religion and this can give church goers a disconnected sense of being with people who aren’t real. They may be shoulder to shoulder but feel totally apart from them. They just go through the motions on Sunday and act as if there is nothing wrong in their lives and many like it that way. But they miss the ones who are crying out inside “Wait, this isn’t right, this isn’t real. We’ve all got problems and issues. We need to admit our struggles, we need to admit we are broken, hurt, angry, are ashamed.” It’s true, we need to admit it to each other that we are broken, we need to humble ourselves and encourage one another, comfort one another as well as hold each other accountable as well.
Jesus would more than likely agree because here is what He said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like graves which are not seen, and the men who walk over them are not aware of them.” (Luke 11:44) Too many of us put out too much effort trying to gloss over our problems with different religious activities using it as a self-protective reaction to our pain which goes all the way back to the beginning of human history. Just like after Adam and Eve realized they had lost their innocence they hid from the Lord. This is what people often do, hide from the Lord behind their religious activities. Instead of humbling themselves, ourselves and honestly admitting that we need Christ’s saving death and saving life, we often try to do enough religion to try and compensate for our sin and pain. When we do this, we are hiding ourselves from Christ. He offers His mercy only to those who humble themselves in their need and brokenness.
Yet another fault that Jesus pointed out about the Pharisees is that they continually added to life’s burdens with all of their complex religious laws. They attached hundreds of additional obligations to the Law of God. Yet they themselves very often did not follow these laws because they were masters of the loophole. Jesus on the other hand consistently upheld the high ideals of the Law but at the same time He was more than willing to make merciful provisions for the repentant sinner. He truly understood the healthy tension there was between the holiness and the love of God. He said “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 28-30)
Another fault was that they deceived themselves. Jesus said that the Pharisees prided themselves on both honoring and building memorials to the prophets. Irony however is that when they met a real one, they wanted to kill Him. They honored the dead prophets with tombs and memorials but they always dishonored the living prophets by persecution and death. Jesus told them this “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘I we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.” (Matthew 23: 29-32)
The Pharisees had fooled themselves and didn’t think of themselves of as prophet or Messiah killers. They simply didn’t realize that their empty religion actually made them enemies of God. No matter how good a religion might be it cannot restrain the self-centered, self-protective obsessions of the flesh. It is only through the living Christ that a human heart can change.
Jesus even accused the Pharisees of making converts to hell through their religion. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!” (Matthew 23:15) He may have said this harsh statement because often times new converts would be more zealous for their faith than those who take their faith for granted. They are often far more ready to make major life changes and are a lot more ready to defend and promote their faith with much more enthusiasm. They know they don’t have all the answers so they are more than willing to listen and trust their leaders who may be leading them in the wrong direction and when they discover the truth of this it’s too late. Jesus said they were like “the blind leading the blind.”
Jesus assured both the Pharisees and their converts that they were headed for a terrible awakening. He told them this: “I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
It is important to note that if followers of a religion let the rules of application become their sole principles and their religious actions replace the true attitudes of the heart then it could be that this religion has replaced Christ instead of being a religion that serves Christ.
Religion is Important But Can Become Worthless
The Bible is full of indications of the importance of religious practices but only if they truly point us to God or give us a way for expressing our relationship to God. Old and New Testaments are full of religious laws, beliefs and principles that God the Father would like for us to follow in order for us to honor Him. These are ones that help us to show our reverence for and our desire to please God. God makes it clear that religion gives a pattern of doctrine and belief (Timothy 2:1), shared experiences (Acts 2: 37-47; Hebrews 10:25) and outward show of inner faith.( 1 John 3: 17-18)
Religion however, can become worthless if we depend only on external actions we perform to make us right with God. No amount of religious knowledge or religious action is going to save us. This can only give us a way to express our personal faith in Christ. This means that we really should avoid trying to earn our salvation ( Eph. 2: 8-10). Avoid any thoughts of perfecting ourselves (Gal. 3: 1-3) and finally avoid anything that tries to replace Christ. (Col 2: 6-8)
Yes, religion can be dangerous, not because it is something bad but, because sometimes it can often be good enough to actually turn our trust away from God and have us focusing on and trusting more in the religion we follow than Christ whom we should follow first above all else. This is because we, as humans have a tendency to replace and reject what Jesus can do for us and instead go with what we can do for ourselves.
Your Application for Heaven
So, imagine that you have an application in front of you for your entrance into heaven, would you put the following?
- I have always believed in God.
- I’m thought of as a very religious person.
- I have really tried to live a good life.
- I have been baptized.
- I always go to church.
- I have participated in as many activities as I can at my church.
- I have always tithed.
- I haven’t done anything really bad.
- I have many friends who will vouch for me.
May sound good on the outside but what does it really say? Is this the kind of application that would be accepted at the gates of heaven? Well, if you look at it closely, it really might not be something Jesus would be all that impressed with, sounds a lot like the Pharisees, doesn’t it?
Here’s another application to take a look at:
- I can cite no merit of my own.
- I have been a sinner from birth.
- I am coming not in my name but in the name of Jesus Christ.
- I believe He is the Son of God and my Savior.
- I have accepted His sacrifice for my sins.
- I believe He rose from the dead.
- I have put my trust in Him to save me.
Rest assured this application would be far more noticed by God than the first one.
I leave you with the confidence of the apostle Paul who, to try and distinguish between religion and Christ wrote the following
“By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (pure religion), which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2: 8-10)