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It has become quite the fashionable thing these days to bash religion. Sadly, this is almost as common amongst Christians as it is non-Christians. I’m sure many of us have heard the phrase, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”
Don’t get me wrong. I get it. I know what people mean when they utter this phrase. The problem is it’s simply not true, nor is it biblical. The Bible speaks of religion, and not in negative terms. Certainly, there is a wrong way to be religious, and a right way…But isn’t this true of everything? James, the brother of Jesus, in his letter to Jewish Christians says this:
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:26-27
So James here isn’t speaking ill of religion. What James is speaking against is false religion. People who fail to bridle their tongue. People who are outwardly religious, but don’t have the heart to match. People who claim to be religious, yet are not doing the things that Scripture commands of them. As James says in 1:22, we are to be “doers of the word, not hearers only.” Basically, James is referring to people we like to refer to as hypocrites. John the Baptist and Jesus spoke against these same people.
So, you see, religion isn’t the problem. The problem is false religion. The problem is religion that doesn’t come from the heart of one who has been changed by the Gospel of Christ. R. C. Sproul in one of his books defines religion as what springs forth from theology. Another way to say it would be religion is what we do in response to what we believe about God. So, our religion (and ALL of us are religious because we all believe something about God) is our response to God.
Jesus was not anti religion. In fact, Jesus was probably the most religious man in the history of the world. Why? Because he knew God the Father perfectly. In the same way, Jesus being sinless, his response to God was always perfect. Obviously, this isn’t the case with us. Our religion is often very defiled…Our religion is often quite stained by the world and it’s ways. Very rarely do we practice pure religion…because our hearts aren’t pure. Yet, the problem isn’t with religion…the problem is with us.
We are sinful. Sinful to our core. We never graduate from this point. The Apostle Paul referred to himself as the “chief of sinners”, and he did it in the present tense (1 Timothy 1:15). If Paul, one of the Godliest men ever refers to himself as the chief of sinners…what does that make me? In Romans 7 Paul refers to his own struggles with sin and doing what he ought to do. Paul never ceased to be a sinner in his earthly life…Neither will we. This being true, our religion won’t always look like it should. Our churches won’t always look like they should.
So yes, sometimes religion looks pretty ugly. It would be very easy to write it off and say that religion is the problem. The problem is though, like I said, it simply isn’t true nor biblical. The Bible doesn’t tell us to stop being religious, the Bible tells us what religion is supposed to look like. This picture of pure and undefiled religion is what we are to be striving for on this side of eternity. As is always true though, we don’t do it perfectly. This is why we rest in our relationship with Christ.
It is through our relationship with the one who was perfectly religious that our hearts are changed and we are able in some measure to get closer to the biblical picture of right religion.
I suppose the first thing I should clear up is that the title of this post really isn’t very fair. The things I’m going to talk about aren’t isolated to the world of Calvinism. You see it throughout the religious landscape. In fact, many times Calvinists themselves are actually the victims. Yet, Calvinists are my people. Their blogs are the blogs I frequent. Their books are the books I most often find myself reading. Most of my friends are from this tribe. Even doctrinally, I certainly still consider myself within the Calvinistic fold. All of these things being true, this is the world I know, so these are the things I can speak to.
Sadly however, I have recently discovered that I am a bad Calvinist. I guess it’s been happening for a while. I had my own suspicions. The other day a non-Calvinist friend of mine actually told me I was a bad Calvinist. I think it was because he and I agreed on too much stuff…That and I like to quote The Message translation of the Bible. Of course, it was translated by a man(Eugene Peterson) who also considers himself a Calvinist.(He’s a bad Calvinist too though, from what I’ve been told.) Even though my friend accused me of bad Calvinism, I still sort of shrugged it off . It wasn’t until this past week however, that it really hit home. I really am a bad Calvinist.
Why you say? What brought me to that realization? Well, sadly, it seems that many of my Calvinist brethren aren’t happy unless they are critiquing someone’s theology or pointing out the error in it. Certainly there are occasions that warrant this, but it has become increasingly obvious that we can’t even leave the minor points, or maybe it better to say the secondary points, alone. We leave no stone unturned. In fact, we are quite quick to even turn on our fellow Calvinists! The big debate this week has been over law vs. grace. Even though each party agrees on much more than they disagree, if only they would take a minute to listen to each other, but apparently it has become a major issue of debate. It’s simply the latest issue to be put front and center. In a few weeks there will be another.
We are even quick to point out who are the real Calvinists and who aren’t. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that since I lean Baptist, I’m not really a Calvinist. Baptists can’t really be reformed. Sure, you can have a Calvinistic soteriology, but you aren’t really and truly an honest to goodness Calvinist. Even some Presbyterian denominations are more Presbyterian than others. The old school Calvinists don’t like the “Neo” New Calvinists. Oh, and you have to use the correct translation of the Bible. It’s all gotten quite ridiculous.
A strange thing has been happening with me though. I’ve just kinda stopped caring. I used to be ready to go toe to toe on any theological debate. Like I said, there are still times for it…but when it comes to secondary issues…You know what guys? I’ll let you fight it out. I’m done. With so many people desperate for a breadcrumb from the table of grace, it seems silly for us to be fighting over who gets the biggest portion at the table.
So, there you have it. I confess it…I have become a very bad Calvinist. I pray Jesus might still have mercy on my poor wretched soul.