Monthly Archives: February 2014

Is “religion” a bad thing? And what is it anyway?

Last week I asked the question “Is too much religion a bad thing?” My goal was to follow the line of apologetic reasoning spelled out by Tim Keller in Reason for God and illustrated by Martin Luther King in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” My main argument was that while religious zeal based on moralism can be a force for evil in the world, a true understanding of, and devotion to, the gospel is a force for peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In my post I used the term “religion” ambiguously and it was the use of this word that several of my readers reacted to.


The word “religion” means different things to different people. But, among many in evangelical circles, it has become a negative and derogatory term. Tim Keller himself uses it this way when he contrasts “religion” with “gospel” as one of two ways to respond to God. For Keller, religion means trying to please God through living a moral life. The gospel, by contrast, says that we cannot please God through “following the law” but through receiving by faith God’s gift of salvation. In Keller’s scheme, “religion” and “gospel” are opposed. Gospel is good. Religion is bad.

This same use of the word has also been popularized by Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” Again, Bethke essentially uses the word “religion” to mean “works based salvation” or, perhaps, “legalism.” I have also heard the term “religion” contrasted with the term “relationship,” as in, “we don’t have a religion [rules based system] but a relationship [with God].”

I understand why Keller and Bethke use the word “religion” in the way they do, and I think it has something to do with their evangelistic ministries. They want to show the contrast of the gospel (grace based) with the kind of moralism (law based) that is often construed as Christianity.

I am sympathetic to using the word “religion” in this way, but I am not enthusiastic about it either.

I don’t prefer to use “religion” in this derogatory way for one main reason: Because “religion” is such a broad term, when I say I don’t like religion, unless I am narrowly defining the term (as Keller does) I end up saying I don’t like a lot of things I actually do like. There are two biggies that tend to get lumped in with the word “religion”: Institution and Religious practice.


When some people say they don’t like religion they mean they don’t like “institutional” religion. They don’t like the Church. Or, more specifically, they don’t like church. Institutions are wooden, authoritarian, and restrictive. This is probably true in a lot of instances but, overall, I think institutions are both Biblical and good.

I am thankful for the various institutional structures that exist at my local church – for its constitution and bylaws, for its leadership structure of elders and deacons, for its stable programming, for its mechanism of raising finances, for its process of spending money. These institutional markers make it possible and easy for us to gather together for worship, to regularly hear the Word of God, to come together in prayer, to reach out to the community, and to keep each other on track for the sake of the gospel.

The “institutional church” is not the heart of Christianity. If it becomes an end in itself, that’s when you fall away from the gospel. But, the “institutional church” does contribute to the spiritual development of both individuals and communities of Jesus followers.

“Religious Behavior”

Some want to put a wedge between “love” and “obedience.” Judah Smith, in Jesus Is, tells us not to take our sin too seriously because it’s covered by grace. Many of us have, as Kevin DeYoung puts it, a Hole in our Holiness. In an effort to combat legalism (a worthy cause) sin is deemphasized and obedience is seen as something we shouldn’t really worry about. After all, Christianity isn’t about religion (rules, religious behavior) but about a relationship with God.

Again, I agree that religious behavior is not the heart of Christianity. When we make this a means of trying to win salvation, we are moving away from the gospel. But, obedience to God’s law is still a part of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus says in John 14 “Anyone who loves me will obey might teaching.” Love and obedience go together.

Additionally, we are encouraged in Scripture to participate in several distinctly religious activities such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, worship, tithing, Scripture reading, prayer, and giving to the poor. These are all components of true religion, though they do not earn us salvation.


I prefer to use several alternatives to the term “religion” when I am speaking about a systems of works-based-righteousness. Here are my favorites:

#1: False religion: By this I mean religious practices that is disconnected from the heart. It is characterized religious behavior but that behavior only serves as a mask to cover a heart of stone.

#2: Legalism: By this I mean the religious theory that we can earn our salvation through good works.

#3: Moralism: By this I mean the belief that Christianity (or other religions) are primarily about “being good.”

Each of these terms, in my mind anyway, is far more precise than the word “religion” which means different things to different people.

What do you think? Is the term “religion” used in too negative a way? Or, do you prefer the terminology of Bethke and Keller?



Was Dr. King an “Extremist”? And, is too much religion a bad thing?

Was Dr. King an Extremist?

One fascinating part of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmangham Jail” is his defense against being labeled an “extremist.”  Against this charge he argues:

“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need to emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is a more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”

Dr. King rejected the “extremism” of what he describes as the “black nationlist” but he also rejected the complacency of many in the white church. He wanted to affect change to bring about justice, but he wanted to do it through non-violent protest. And so, he argues, he was not an extremist, at least not with the connotations often ascribed to extremists – hatred and violence.

Later in the letter, though, he captures the term for his own purposes, embracing on his own terms:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Is too much religion a bad thing?

In Soul Searching (review), Smith and Denton observed that, among Christian teenagers, there was a fear of being “too religious.” Tim Keller, in The Reason for God, makes the same observation:

“Perhaps the biggest deterrent to Christianity for the average person today is… the shadow of fanaticism. Many nonbelievers have friends or relatives who have become “born again” and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to express loudly their disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society… When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerance and self-righteous.”[1]

People tend to view Christians along a spectrum, with “nominal Christians” on one end and “fanatics” on the other. “Fanatics” are those who are seen as prone to “over-believe” and “over-practice” their Christianity. In this view, the best kind of Christian is the one that falls somewhere in the middle. This Christian practices his faith, but not “too much.” Keller points out that “the problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically form of moral improvement.” If that were true, then this kind of “over-practiced” moralism really would be something objectionable. In fact, these “high powered” moralists had a name in Jesus’ day: Pharisees.

But mere “moral improvement” is not the essence of Christianity. “[T]he essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us.” The people who are considered “fanatics” (those who view Christianity primarily as a form of moral improvement) are not fanatics “because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed enough.” Those who fully committed to the gospel and understand the nature of grace will not be marked by self-righteousness and pride, but by humility and grace.

Moralistic “fanaticism” is a constant problem within the Church but the solution is not to “tone down” your faith but to gain a better grasp of the nature of the gospel.

This brings us, and Keller, back around to Dr. King.

Keller notes that there have been times in history when Christianity has had to self-correct. The ostensibly “Christian” continents of Europe and North America bear much responsibility for the slave trade and the subsequent segregation and injustice of the South. But, it was also strong Christians who led the charge in the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements.

Keller observes of Martin Luther King Jr. regarding “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “[H]e did not call on Southern churches to become more secular… He invoked God’s moral law and Scripture. He called white Christians to be more true to their own beliefs and to realize what the Bible really teaches.” He didn’t call for moral relativism or secular ideals. He called down the words of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). The answer to racism wasn’t “toned down” Christianity, but a better understanding of the gospel.

“Extremism,” as it is used in today’s vernacular, as something that leads to violence and hatred, is a terrible thing and religious extremism is the worst. But we should confuse “extremism” with what it means to be fully committed to the gospel and the Word of God. Jesus was intense. He was marked by zeal and absolute obedience to God and to Scripture. But, his zeal did not lead him to hatred, but to an unparalleled act of love. It led him to the cross to sacrifice his own body for the sins of an undeserving world. And it is this “extreme” love that we are called to both receive through faith and emulate ourselves.

[1] All remaining quotes are from The Reason for God by Tim Keller, Kindle version, chapter 4.


Why Church?

Church attendance does not save you. It doesn’t earn you any favor with God. You can find better preaching and worship music on the radio or on the Internet. So why bother with church? Hey, you can just as easily eat coffee and cookies at home.

The book of Hebrews answers this in two broad ways:

First, a church needs you: The commands in Hebrews concerning “gathering together” are active/participatory rather than passive/consumerist. The pastor says in 3:13 “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that you may not be hardened by sins deceitfulness.” Again, in 10:24 he says, “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” And in 10:25 he gives the command, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” When this is combined with the uniqueness of spiritual giftedness, we can see each individual within the church has a unique ability to encourage others toward love and good deeds. Somewhere, a local church needs your abilities and encouragement.

Second, you need a church: The early Christians were besieged by persecution (as are many Christians around the world.) For them, participation with a local church was dangerous. Gathering together made them vulnerable to attack. Indeed, some Christians were “publicly exposed to insult,” sent to prison, and robbed of property (10:32-34). This produced a strong incentive for the Christians to either abandon the faith all together, or at least abandon others who did.

The writer of Hebrews, however, wanted something more for them than mere safety. The promise for those who persevered by the grace of God was worth for more than what they would give up. It was not a loss to give up earthly possessions in order to gain eternal ones (10:34). Indeed, it was even worthwhile to give up one’s life, for the sake of a better resurrection (11:35).

To be able to stand in the face of this persecution the pastor saw only one sufficient resource – the grace you can receive in the very presence of God. Only Jesus is able to draw us into the presence of the holy God. In approaching the Holy of Holies himself, through his perfect, once-for-all sacrifice, he saves us completely. Then he beckons us to follow him. We are told to “approach the throne of grace” with confidence” and “draw near to God with a sincere heart.” But what does this actually mean? There may be several ways to do this, but at least one thing the pastor had in mind was the act of corporate worship – the people of God coming together to praise God.

It is clear the pastor believed that if the people of God gathered together for worship and mutual encouragement they would avoid the fate of the wilderness generation that experienced the judgment of God, something he explicitly states in 3:13 saying “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that you may not be hardened by sins deceitfulness.” I’m not sure if you noticed, but it’s getting hostile out there and we need one another in order to cultivate our faith.

Find a community of faith where you can “set your hand to the plow” and get to work. That church needs you, and you need that church.

Selective Hearing

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time at my friend C’s house. His dad had some seriously selective hearing. If we were in the same room as him we had to practically shout to be heard. But, when I would spend the night we would often stay up late watching TV. The TV was in the living room downstairs and C’s dad slept upstairs. We would turn the TV down as low as possible and sit really close. Even then, it seemed, C’s dad would come down stairs and tell us the sound of the TV was disturbing his sleep. I think we eventually resorted to using those wireless TV headphones, sharing a single pair, straining to hear the improv show In Living Color.

I realized recently, though, that sometimes I get a bad case of spiritual selective hearing. I find myself wondering – God, why can’t I hear you? What are you trying to say? More often than not I discover later that God has been speaking, he just hasn’t been saying the things I want him to say. My autonomous self only wants to hear those things which are particularly comforting to me or puff me up. I don’t want to hear the voice of rebuke, of judgment, of warning, or of self-denial. So I close my ears and then blame God for being silent. This is nothing less than rebellion.

This Sunday I’m preaching on Hebrews 10:19-39. It’s a passage not only do I feel uncomfortable hearing, it’s one I feel uncomfortable speaking. It’s a word of warning. It’s a strong word of warning. Here’s the particularly jarring passage:

26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  – Hebrews 10:26-31 (NIV)

It’s got everything that flies in the face of our prevailing culture – a God who judges, hell, the exclusivity of Christ. This isn’t a “comfortable” Christianity. Yet, it’s the Word of God. I can’t tell God he’s being silent and yet fail to listen to what I don’t want him to be saying.

Lord, help me both have open ears, and an open mouth, this Sunday.

Wherein a misreading of Sola Scriptura gets you into trouble

A friend of mine passed along a book on counseling for me to read and critique. On the surface, it appears to be a Bible-centered approach to counseling which made it attractive to me. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize the author espoused a view of Scripture, and knowledge in general, that is problematic, both for how we counsel and for how we read the Bible. Here was my response to my friend after reading about a third of the way through the book:


I am only a little way into How to Counsel God’s Way but I already want to respond to one of Hoekstra’s fundamental assumptions. First, I really like what he affirms – God is the counselor, counseling is about discipleship, and counseling has to be about the process of sanctification. I also like that he emphasizes the central importance of the Bible in counseling. I agree with him on those points.


However, I am not comfortable with what he condemns. He regularly states that counselors should “exclusively” and “wholly” use the Word and should disregard so-called “human wisdom” or “psychological theories.” He regularly states that the Bible has everything counselors should use in counseling.


I think I know what he’s worried about. He’s worried that the psychological theories – many of them based on naturalistic and humanistic assumptions – are “replacing” the Bible. Many of these theories are counter-Biblical. They say the opposite of what the Bible teaches or simply rest of faulty assumptions. If that’s all that he’s against then again, I agree. But, his problem seems to be more theological in nature, particularly his view of God’s revelation and the nature of Scripture.


I think there is a common misunderstanding about the Bible which Hoekstra picks up on. Echoing in his words is the call of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone. But, he means something different by Scripture Alone then what the reformation means. He seems to mean, “The Bible is our sole source of knowledge” (at least when it comes to counseling). More accurately, though, the doctrine of Scripture Alone means that “the Bible is our sole source of authoritative knowledge.” That key word “authority” makes all the difference. We don’t learn everything in the Bible, but what we do learn is authoritative. It affirms or denies other sources of knowledge. This is true in any field of knowledge – from science to psychology, ministry to engineering. There is a lot we know that we have learned from a source other than Scripture. That doesn’t demean Scripture in any way or make it “less than.” Scripture still plays the role it is intended to play – it allows us to filter other sources of knowledge to be able to discern clearly what is right and wrong.


Furthermore, it acknowledges the breadth of God’s revelation. Theologians think of God’s revelation as either “General Revelation” or “Special Revelation.” Special revelation is God’s Word. It is authoritative and specific. It is “everything we need for life and godliness.” Theologians also understand Jesus as part of God’s special revelation. God’s general revelation is His creation. This revelation truly speaks about God (see Psalm 19:1). Through it we can see that God is God and that He is glorious. But, it’s not sufficient for our knowledge about God. You can’t know Jesus just by looking at God’s Creation. You need God’s special revelation for that.


However, just because God’s general revelation isn’t authoritative or sufficient (because it needs to be interpreted through the lens of Scripture) doesn’t mean it’s not useful or beneficial. Under God’s general revelation fall many areas of knowledge – science, technology, history, medicine, mathematics, economics, and, I might add, psychology. All of these things need to be filtered through the lens of Scripture, but they all also teach us things not taught specifically in Scripture. They provide us knowledge on their own. Again, this doesn’t reduce the role of Scripture in our lives.


The field of counseling/psychology is no different. The Bible gives us authoritative instruction on counseling. It gives us the basis for leading people in discipleship. It forms the basis and foundation for our thinking. However, God has also given us insights through his general revelation – knowledge of the brain, insights into the nature of addictions, etc. (From a Christian counseling perspective, think “The Five Love Languages,” something taught nowhere in Scripture but something that is by no means unbiblical.) It would be unwise (and unbiblical!) to throw out knowledge received from God’s general revelation. Likewise, it would be unwise and unbiblical to accept theories of that knowledge uncritically. It needs to be evaluated through Scripture and then either accepted or rejected on the basis of Scripture, but not rejected simply because that knowledge is not found in Scripture. The Bible doesn’t tell us everything, but what it does tell us is all together true and authoritative.


I’m going to keep reading the book, and it’s possible I am misreading him, so my opinion might change. But, in general, while I like what he affirms, I am cautious that he is condemning things that ought not be condemned.


Update: I continued to read the book after sending the email and the author does nuance his position a little in regards to general revelation, which he specifically addresses, but he still presents a radical distrust of it, particularly in regards to counseling, and he maintains his position that only the Bible should be used in counseling, and no other sources.

Book Review: Unstoppable by Nick Vujicic

In Unstoppable: The Incredible Power of Faith in Action Nick Vujicic, an inspirational speaker and evangelist who was born without arms and legs, tells stories of faith in action. He applies the principles he’s learned from those stories, with Scripture, to various life situations: Facing a personal crisis, relationship issues, career challenges, depression, bullying, etc. Unstoppable is content light but inspiration heavy.

The strength of the book is built on the strength of the person. Much of what he says would strike me as cheesy if I heard it from nearly anyone else, but Vujicic’s own personal struggles grant him credibility to speak about these issues. I’ve been reading quite a few stories of faith in books such as Seven Men (Eric Metaxas) and In Search of Deep Faith (Jim Belcher) and Vujicic’s story gives me yet another person to admire. These books, along with my regular reading of Hebrews 11, are helping me understand that I’m surrounded by a faithful community, both past and present.

I recommend Unstoppable to anyone in the midst of an especially difficult time or a transitional stage. Those are the times we need to remember to take steps of faith, trusting the God who lives us and has a plan for us.

Meanwhile, look up some YouTube clips of Nick Vujicic, or the trailer to Unstoppable.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this honest review.