The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that. (Romans 8:2, 3; The Message)
Day forty-four, in a 90 day reading of the New Testament, hangs on the passage above.
And it succinctly explains why religion will always fail.
But, let’s define religion for a moment.
Religion is a human-authored theology that is attached to the message of grace. It is any system that becomes exclusive in its belief, to the point that it places anyone in a state of judgment if there is any disagreement.
That definition, by the way, is completely biblical. It is fashioned from Jesus’ conversations with the Pharisees. And it’s fashioned here, by Paul’s words in Romans 7 concerning the “Law.”
But what is the “law”? It was part of the covenant, given by God to the Israelites, when God rescued them from Egypt. It was their part of the covenant that was to be kept.
God rescued them. They followed the law’s demands. And heir law was also a religious requirement, but it was so heavy, with animal sacrifices needed often for transgressions, that it was abandoned within three generations of its giving.
After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:10, 11; NIV84)
It failed. And that was the point. It couldn’t be completely kept. Here are Paul’s words, from our reading today.
For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (Romans 8:17-20; The Message)
But the fault wasn’t the law. The fault belonged to the human race. We are incapable of following, completely, any law. Which means that we are incapable of following, completely, any religion.
Earlier, Paul even called the law good. Holy. And it was. It was given by God — yet given by a God who knew his own creation couldn’t keep it.
But many of us still hold on to our religion, and we hold it tight. I dare say that most quibbles, in church fellowships, come from people who haven’t completely separated grace from their religious belief.
Want to know why? I think it’s because religion is predictable. It’s a standard. It’s the way of our parents and grandparents. It’s so heavy, and so comfortable. It never changes. And any new life breathed into religious establishments is met with heavy suspicion.
Can’t have too much excitement while leading worship. We can only sing the hymns. We can only sing the contemporary songs. Can’t preach about giving. Every public assembly must have an altar call. Women should only teach children. But a sixth-grade boy, who is a Christian, can lead a public prayer. We must have a five-day, four-hour-a-day VBS, every summer. We must teach the “essentials” of salvation in every bible class. We are musically minded, and we need musical notes with our lyrics. All men must wear a tie to church. And khakis. Women need skirts. And we’ve got to hammer these truths to our kids when they are old enough to walk. By the way, I give my money here, so I expect my demands to be met.
See what happens, though? We make our religion an idol. It takes the places, and quick, of the amazing, crazy, redemptive message of grace. Grace frees us from these things! Or, at least, it should.
It’s no wonder that the American church is losing members. Religion is an idol no one wants to follow. People have enough restrictions in their lives. They don’t want it when they come to Jesus.
Yet we’ve turned places of worship into controlled systems at the expense of grace.
This law, this religion, became a force of sin, too, for the Israelites. If we exalt in our own lives, religion will become a force of sin for us, too. Paul wrote as much.
The law code, instead of being used to guide me, was used to seduce me. Without all the paraphernalia of the law code, sin looked pretty dull and lifeless, and I went along without paying much attention to it. But once sin got its hands on the law code and decked itself out in all that finery, I was fooled, and fell for it. The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. So sin was plenty alive, and I was stone dead. (Romans 7:8-12; The Message)
But God did something special through Jesus. He crucified religion. He sacrificed himself to atone, fully, for every requirement and demand of the law.
And our tendency to create religion, again, in our own towns, is our failure to fully grasp the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, he was sacrificed for sin, even the sin produced by religion.
It was as if God said, “Enough.”
And this is the new life we’ve been given. Not merely a new life, free from sin. But a new life, free from religion.
If our fellowships add anything to the requirement of a life transformed by Jesus, then those requirements are religious, and therefore, by the sacrifice of Jesus, deemed unnecessary. And even sinful. Because when we make those additions, we make our own fellowship an idol.
Our ministries, our programs, and our ideas should, right now, be sacrificed at the altar of grace. Projects and calendars make our fellowships look more like pagan organizations than the gathering of transformed people.
People, transformed by grace, through the spirit of God, will always supersede any calendar filled with events. Our church fellowships will stop maintenance for the believers, and instead make disciples that will transform lives, families, churches, and neighborhoods.
The spirit of God, by the way, is what does constant maintenance in our hearts. We shouldn’t need a church fellowship, preacher, worship leader, or pastor, to do that. That is the job of the Comforter.
How about a moment of assessment. Are our programs making disciples? Or are they just attracting people to our church from another church?
We look, somewhat, like the Jewish people in Paul’s letter. Here are his words:
And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. (R0mans 9:30-32; The Message)
What more can we add to grace, though? Nothing.
So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture:
They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.
None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. (Romans 8:31-39; The Message)