The gospel will surprise you and thrill you when you see its true dynamism. The gospel can paradoxically create and abolish religion. Sounds impossible, but it’s true.
Pastor Tim Keller captures the dynamism of the gospel when he writes:
“The gospel calls us out of religion as much as it calls us out of irreligion.”
This statement sounds confusing. Isn’t Christianity a religion? Doesn’t the gospel promote and produce religion?
Well. Um. Kinda sorta.
It all comes down to what we mean by the term religion.
The term religion generally refers to a set of beliefs usually related to morality and a higher power or reality. In this generic sense, Christianity certainly counts as a religion. But Christians sometimes use the word religion in a negative sense.
In the negative sense, ‘religion’ denotes the customs, mores, and traditions surrounding Christian faith bereft of any actual relationship to or with God. This would include stuff like Christian merchandising, dressing up on Sunday, lighting candles, and so forth. These kinds of things are not the thing itself. They are not Christianity, and yet people often confuse these customs with the message about Jesus.
The message about Jesus, the gospel, is the core of Christianity, and it is not about any of these exterior, religious trappings. The gospel says we can be forgiven because of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. It says God will accept you because you call on Jesus in faith and not because of the way you act, dress, talk, or look. So in this sense, the gospel is almost irreligious. It abolishes typical concepts of religion…religion as a set of customs, mores, and traditions.
Out of Religion
The apostle Paul confronted this same confusion in the first century. He had preached the religion (definition one) of Christianity to the people in the region of Galatia and had established some churches in the area. But after leaving these churches, another set of itenerant preaches came through Galatia distorting the gospel message. These errant teachers added to the simple gospel message a complicated religion (definition two). To the simple idea of faith in Jesus, they added an unnecessary set of rules and traditions. In particular, they told the Galatian believers they must be circumcised and observe other religious rites.
When Paul heard about this conflation of the Gospel, he was furious. He wrote:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:6-9)
Paul worries the believers had abandoned the true gospel for a condemnable counterfeit, one filled with manmade rules and regulations.
We next see the content of the false gospel and its antidote a few paragraphs later when Paul writes:
“[W]e know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
Here we see the message of the false gospel, that people may be saved (i.e. “justified” – declared righteous) through keeping religious laws, like dressing a certain way, eating certain foods, observing certain religious ceremonies, and even getting circumcised. This is the essence of religion in the bad sense. And so, Paul calls the believers back to true religion, back to faith alone in Jesus alone.
Out of Irreligion
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
Because faith in Jesus is heart wrenching and heart changing, it also calls people out of sinful irreligion, that is, because Christianity is not contingent on someone’s ability to keep rules and regulations but is based on the work of Christ, it has the most potent effect. Christianity changes people from the inside out, not through human merit but through redemption in Jesus and the new Spirit he gives us.
Paul explains this idea later in his letter. He writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). Thus, Christ himself redeems us from the laws of religion, and he gives us a new Spirit, a new inner reality and directive. God’s Spirit living in us is infinitely more powerful than any set of human rites and rituals. For this reason, Paul says “…Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:16, 18).
If then you are dependent on the Spirit of God, you will walk in a most virtuous way but quite apart from the outward constraints of religion. You will have an inner compass guiding you. This inner change makes you profoundly religious (i.e. holy), yet in a very irreligious way (i.e. without rules and rituals).
So over against religion defined as rules and rituals stands Christianity, the religion of faith in Jesus. This core element of Christianity, faith in Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, makes Christianity unlike any other religion. It makes Christianity so radically different that the term religion often seems unfitting and even misleading.
Is Christianity still technically a religion? Yes. But it is the most irreligious religion you’ll ever find. Or perhaps we should say it’s the most religious irreligion you’ll ever find. Either way, there’s nothing like it.