On Religion


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When you consider the many world religions and the vast diversity they represent, it's hard to imagine how any one definition could encompass them all.  And yet for every religion from polytheism to atheism (1) there is actually one general definition that takes into account all the apparent diversity and provides one basic principle from which all arise. Webster's New World Dictionary (2) provides an inclusive definition of religion as follows: 

"Any specific system of belief, worship, conduct, etc., often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy." 

Though stated in a very general form, this definition contains the kernel from which all religions originate; that being the idea that we must do a certain thing or think a certain way in order to be in right relationship with God, the universe, ourselves, others, or whatever we decide to venerate. The focus is on what we do or think as measured by a set of rules.

Such a life principle is thought to be like a balance scale; one side for doing wrong, the other for doing right. The goal is to counterbalance the bad with the good – that is, good works compensate for sins. The way most people assess how they are doing is much like a school report card. Here you have a system where someone might get an "A" another an "C," neither one of which represents a perfect record for the subject at hand. Those things which would limit us from keeping a perfect record are taken into account as natural limitations, "After all nobody's perfect."

Here it really must be asserted that Christianity is not a religion at all. Though it has many external features in common with some religions, the point at which it differs with all is this idea that we can establish or maintain a right relationship with God by our works.

Now in order to see this crucial difference it is necessary to consider the key elements in the religious man's world view. First we need to understand that the nobody's perfect excuse simply can't explain away sin. The Bible explains that we are not in some kind of school of life where some are "morally gifted." Instead, all people are born with a conscience, "the law written in their hearts" (Romans 2:15, ESV). Therefore, we can never explain away our willful wrongdoing by saying we didn't have enough information, or we didn't have enough time to study, or that we are not gifted enough in the subject.

Next we need to understand that a relationship with God is completely different from any grading system where an "A" does not signify perfect knowledge or performance.  You see, for a personal relationship the standard for faithfulness is incomparable to that for any set of rules.  For example, imagine a husband coming home from a business trip and saying, "Honey, out of the ten times I could have been unfaithful, I was actually faithful nine times." Well, as we all know, at this point the relationship is broken and it will never be the same again. There is a separation the Bible warns is the natural consequence for sin. In the same way, when we sin against God we are separated from him and there is no sense in trying to make up for our willful wrongdoing with "good works" like the husband who tries to buy off his wife's pain, grief, and justified anger with an act of bribery.

Of course, there are those who object that they don't believe in a God or the moral standards given in the Bible and, therefore, they will live by their own standards (Thank you!). However, a personal code of ethics is no better than any other for establishing or maintaining a right relationship with anyone – not even oneself. A practical example of the futility of using any standard as the basis for a right relationship is found in the traffic laws. Consider whether you have ever heard of someone getting awarded the "Key to the City" for obeying traffic laws. This is of course absurd since the chief time we become concerned with the law is when we break it, for which we expect to pay a penalty. So it is with any standard and especially God's standard, none of which could ever provide a means for a right relationship. In fact, the only thing standards can do is prescribe the penalty when we do wrong which we are all certain to do. Further, if we just lower our standards to escape the guilt of doing wrong, we must realize this act is punishment in itself. This is the definition of degeneracy which either stops at some broken-down standard, or spirals down to self destruction. Finally, for those that believe that only the "truly evil" people are condemned to hell – the final place of separation, the question is, "Where is the line drawn? How many sins am I allowed? How can I know if all hope is lost?" An insightful paraphrase of Romans 3:23 sums this up in saying, "All have sinned and are far away from God's saving presence."

The Christian response to all the world's religions, whatever form they may take, is found in Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV):

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.."

It is because of God's grace – his unmerited favor – and through the faith in Christ which he himself provides, that we are saved both from the life pattern of sin, as well as the consequence of death, which is eternal separation from God. Christianity alone has correctly diagnosed the condition of man who would begin from the position of a broken relationship with God and then boast of good works that are used to buy him off. Jesus Christ unlike any other showed that unstained good works are the result, not the cause of a right relationship with God. For all others the only hope of either establishing or maintaining a relationship with God is through the new beginning of forgiveness found in the death of Christ on the cross.

The world is full of religions and philosophies, each of which offers a different path on which we can work our way back to a right relationship with God. Christ, however, said, 

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13,14, NIV). 

Then Jesus showed by his sinless life that he was that narrow gate, and in his death he paid the penalty for our sin-stained works, and finally he was vindicated by God in his undeniable resurrection. Therefore, Jesus can say with all authority,

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6, NIV)

By faith, Christians recognize that Jesus has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.

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  1. For the purposes of this essay, atheism, Secular Humanism, and other non-theistic belief systems (Bubhism, Toaism, etc.) generally operate by a code of ethics and therefore constitute a form of religion as defined above.
  2. Webster's New World Dictionary, 1960.

Scriptural Quotations:

  • NIV: The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984, Zondervan.
  • ESV: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001, by Crossway Bibles, Good News Publishers.

Tim Nordgren