Sunday, January 22, 2012


    It seems that the blogosphere is all abuzz over a recent YouTube video entitled "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." The producer is a 22 year old "spoken word" poet named Jefferson Bethke, and the video was an instant sensation. It was viewed 10 million times in its first ten days.

    Bethke's poem begins with a provocative question: "What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion . . ." He then goes on to attack "religion" for starting wars, neglecting the poor, and condemning divorcees, and says "It's just behavior modification, like a long list of chores." Jesus, by way of contrast, offers love and forgiveness.

    We have often heard people say that "Christianity is not a religion but a relationship," but have often thought that the claim was a little disingenuous. After all, what is a "relationship with Jesus" if it is not religion? But Bethke is using the word "religion" in a specialized sense. What he means by "religion" is "self-righteousness, justification and hypocrisy." It is obviously a caricature, and yet the fact that the video has gotten so much attention shows that there is a widespread perception that the church is not what it should be. A recent Barna Group survey showed that large percentages of young adults in the US think that Evangelical Christians are judgmental and hypocritical, as well as too involved in politics and insensitive to others. Partly in response to these perceptions the "Emerging Church" movement, with which Bethke is connected, has arisen, arguing that the church needs to take a new, more "post-modern" approach, stressing relationships over abstract doctrine.

All of this raises a pertinent question: what is Christianity supposed to be like? What did Jesus intend the church to be like? In a nutshell, the answer given in the Bible is this: Christianity is a message, a relationship and a way of life.

In his Epistle to the Romans the apostle Paul begins his magisterial description of the Christian faith by saying "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes . . ." (Rom. 1:16; NKJV). Here it will be seen that Christianity if first of all a message, "the gospel" or "good news," a message to be proclaimed. It involves certain propositions about God, man and salvation, and Paul spends the next seven chapters or so expounding this theology in detail. Thus doctrine is very much an essential part of Christianity.

But it is also certainly true that Christianity involves a relationship as well. Significantly Paul called the gospel "the power of God. . ." But how is this "power" realized? Paul explains in chapter 8. Comparing Christianity with Judaism he said "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son . . . that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:3,4). Paul then goes on to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer: He gives us an assurance of acceptance with God, helps us to pray, and intercedes on our behalf. As a result God guides us and protects us through His providence. This all begins with the "new birth," a kind of mystical experience in which God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, comes to reside in the believer's heart, producing spiritual life from within. But this relationship is one that must be cultivated: we must "walk according to the Spirit" – consciously seeking divine guidance and help. We know God only to the extent that we seek Him.

But Christianity is also a way of life. The relationship changes the way we live. Paul said that the gospel was "the power of God to salvation," or "for salvation," as it might better be translated (NASV, ESV). "Salvation" is more than just the forgiveness of sins; it is freedom from the power of sin as well. And so Paul goes on to describe in the latter part of the epistle to describe the practical aspects of Christianity. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:1,2). How one lives his life is definitely a matter of importance to God.

The problem with the modern church, then, is not that it has too much doctrine or too many rules. If anything it is noticeably lax in both doctrine and discipline. It is the quality of the relationship that is lacking. The real problem with the church is its lack of vital piety. We honor God with our lips but our heart is far from Him (cf. Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:7,9). We complain about prayer being removed from the public schools, but cannot find it in our churches. The traditional Wednesday night prayer meeting has been deserted. Our churches have become mere social clubs for the comfortable middle class. Is it any wonder that the world charges us with hypocrisy?


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