When Christ-less Religion Meets God’s Grace
All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me.—John 16:1-3
What happens when fear, shame and guilt meet God’s unconditional love? Human history is a record of titanic struggles and classic confrontations. Biblically, we think of Moses and the seemingly defenseless Israelites, hemmed in by the mountains, with the Red Sea at their back, being pursued by the finest, most well-equipped and trained army in the world at that time. We also think of that classic Old Testament story of David vs. Goliath.
Historically, we might remember the epic story of the armies of Alexander the Great, numbering some 35,000, defeating the 200,000-strong army of Cyrus and the Persians in 331 BC. When we consider those who have stood for the right and the true, we think of Abraham Lincoln as he confronted the evils and hatred of a nation torn apart by a bitter battle about slavery and racism.
In a similar context, we also think of the courage of Martin Luther King Jr. And of course we recall the “original” Martin Luther, who withstood the Catholic church and all of its earthly powers, traditions, religious affluence and influence when he declared that he was saved by grace alone. Of course, we will never forget Gandhi, with his peaceful, non-violent resistance, facing down the might of the British Empire.
When our minds turn to historic confrontations, we might remember some of the military encounters of the 20th century, such as the Battle of the Bulge or Midway. Some may remember one of the battles of the American Civil War— such as the Battle of Gettysburg.
When it comes to showdowns, some may think of the good guy/bad guy western movie standoffs featuring John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Sports fans may think of storied athletes or teams who faced down one another on the field, court, gridiron or pitch. And let’s not forget the fictional confrontations Batman had with The Joker. When it comes to epic confrontations we may think of the phrase, “the irresistible force meeting an immovable object.”
Of course the greatest conflict and confrontation of all time happened on the cross of Christ, when Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, took all human sin and evil—past, present and future on his own shoulders. Out of his love for you and me he paid the price of all corruption and depravity. It was truly the epic confrontation of all!
After Jesus died on the cross and was buried in his tomb it initially appeared, for all intents and purposes, that hatred and violence had defeated God’s mercy and grace. But love truly does conquer all! He rose victorious from the grave—and it is because of him, because of his victory—because of the new life he gives to you and me that we are able to be free in Christ, counted as righteous, on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
In John 16:1-3 Jesus speaks of the all-too-frequent historical reality when humans kill others thinking that it is a service to God, murdering those who do not subscribe to their brand of religion. When religious traditions, rituals, ceremonies and cherished beliefs are threatened, people kill each other in what they justify and define as an act of service to God—which is actually an act of service to their religious taskmaster that enslaves them. It was religion, after all, that crucified Jesus.
In John 16:3 Jesus says that humans commit such atrocities “…because they have not known the Father or me.” Murder and mayhem in the name of God happen because people who think they have a relationship with God have nothing more than a relationship with an institution or a denomination. They have a relationship with a human corporation. They have a relationship with a religious country club and the religious doctrines of that country club that keep outsiders on the outside looking in. They have a relationship with rules and regulations—with ceremonies and rituals— but they don’t know God.
I was recently reading a brief essay by an unknown author—let me share some of it with you:
Religion enslaves; Christ liberates!
Religion condemns; Christ pardons!
Religions brings pain, heartache and tears; Christ heals and wipes the tears away.
Religion searches for meaning in life; Christ, who is our life, is the meaning of life.
Religion teaches its cherished and unique truths; Christ is the truth.
Christ-less religion convinces its followers that they have a need to be right on all the issues, and further, according to religion (especially fundamentalist religion) its followers believe that they need to categorize all those who differ with then as having less religious value than themselves. Out of such warped thinking come terms like heathen, heretic, unsaved, unbeliever and pagan—words that are used to describe the “other side.”
• Christ-less religion dehumanizes anyone who does not believe in its version of legalism.
• Christ-less religion demonizes all those who refuse to follow its dictates and doctrines.
• Christ-less religion panders to the human need to be better, to be correct, true and right—and therefore humans are easy prey for a religious system which will assure them that they are better, more correct and more “right” than anyone else.
And when those who are deceived by Christ-less religion into thinking they are spiritually superior than others confront others who are “inferior”— they cast them out of their religious assemblies. Religious zealots want nothing to do with low-life sinners—after all, if “others” don’t agree with “the truth,” they must be wrong! Sadly, religious condemnation does not end with simply judging the hell out of others, disassociating from them and gossiping about them.
As Jesus says in our keynote passage, his disciples would be killed by those who would see such killings as a “service to God.” In a book titled The Lion’s Den author Nina Shea offers documentation, proving that more Christians were persecuted, tortured and killed—simply because they were Christians—during the 20th century, than during all of the previous 19 centuries.
She does not address the fact that many legalistic, Christ-less religions that fly the flag of Christ are no more in Christ that those outside of Christendom, and are themselves guilty of massive attacks, savagery and brutalities of others—simply because “others” do not appear to be Christians.
We must not forget the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the bloody wars in Europe centering on the Reformation and afterwards. We must not forget the attempt to “evangelize” pagans by the various Christian empires of Europe as they attempted to colonize the not-so-advanced areas of the world —like Africa, India, Asia, North and South America.
Several centuries ago the largest church within Christendom felt justified in bringing people into what it called “the kingdom of God” by the sword—by torture, by brutality, by mass murder. We must not forget that the Bible has been used—and for that matter, is still being used by sincere individuals, as a club—a weapon. The Bible is used by some to threaten, to intimidate and to prove others wrong. The Bible is used by some to justify their know-it-all status as being spiritually superior to others.
Religious zealots who populate Christ-less religion, to use the words of a man named Reinhold Niebuhr, spend much of their time focused on “the temperature of hell and the furniture of heaven.” They can think of little else than the grand rewards that they believe God will lavish on them as a result of their hard work—and the eternal torture to which they presume he will subject others, who fail to meet their religious standards.
What happens when Christ-less religion meets God’s grace is told, in broad brush strokes, in the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is a story of the battle between good and evil. It is a story of governments and powers, both of the state and religion, which oppose the Lamb of God.
The book of Revelation describes a fallen woman—a great whore—who controls the history of the whole world. Ironically, some take great comfort in reading and interpreting Revelation in such a way that they identify the great whore as another religious denomination other than their own. But that’s completely missing the point!
The book of Revelation describes all Christ-less religion—no matter what its name or specific rules and regulations and teaching may be. Christ-less religion, according to the book of Revelation, is this great whore—it deceives, controls and degrades people. Christ-less religion, according to Revelation, is the problem—it is the enemy of God and his amazing grace.
Christ-less religion, according to the book of Revelation, bewitches, just as a seductive woman may bewitch a physically powerful man. The book of Revelation paints a picture of the evil enemies of God as being religious traditions, philosophies, inventions and innovations, skills and efforts—as contrasted with the goodness of God, his amazing love and incomparable, unconditional love.
The book of Revelation insists that the titanic confrontation of all history happened at the cross of Christ. The book of Revelation, along with all of the New Testament, teaches us that the epic confrontation of all time happened on the cross of Christ when Jesus, God in the flesh, the Lamb of God who came to take away the sin of the world, paid the price for all corruption and depravity—including, of all things, Christ-less religion.
Yes, Jesus died to save those who would persecute, torture, brutalize and murder others—in his name! He said to his own murderers, from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they have no idea what they are doing.”
So, by way of conclusion, let me ask you, are you living in the triumph and victory Jesus provides you, or are you finding yourselves sucked back into religion? Do you bring your burdens to Jesus, and live in his rest—or are the burdens of religion overwhelming you? Are you overcoming, through Christ, the fear, shame and guilt of Christ-less religion, or is religion enslaving you?