“You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So goes the dialogue in one of the most memorable scenes of perhaps the greatest comedy ever made, The Princess Bride.
I believe you could level the same critique at the way the word “religion” is used in Christian circles today. Whether on a podcast, on social media, or in a sermon you have probably been exposed to more than one person proclaiming that God hates religion. Or maybe you’ve heard that God wants a relationship, not religion. Or, Jesus came to abolish religion. It has become common for Christians to use the word “religion” in a strictly negative sense. It has become synonymous with legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. Religion is understood to be all law and no grace.
What is the problem with equating religion with legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness? The Bible doesn’t allow for such a simplistic understanding. James 1:27 speaks of religion that is “pure and undefiled.” If Jesus hates religion, he forgot to tell his brother James. In the Bible, religion can devolve into a legalistic routine, rote ritual, and self-righteous attitudes, or religion can be pure and undefiled. What makes the difference?
What Is Pure Religion?
Pure religion has three necessary components: true faith, proper ritual, and godly living. This can be seen in James 1:26-27 wherein the brother of Jesus contrasts worthless religion with pure religion. James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Let’s look at each of the three aspects of pure religion from this passage:
- True Faith. Pure religion before God begins with a proper understanding of Christ and a proper response to his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. John Piper argues that “religion” in James 1 is synonymous with “faith in Christ” in James 2. He states, “The reason I think he means ‘faith in Jesus’ when he uses the word ‘religious”’(1:26), or talks about ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27), is that this is what he continues with in the next verse (2:1): ‘My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.’ There is no break in the flow between 1:27 and 2:1; so there is good reason to think that ‘pure religion’ is ‘faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
- Proper Ritual. In v. 26 James is critiquing those who engage in religious activities (praying, fasting, and worshipping in community) but are divisive with their words. James is not being critical of religious activities themselves, he is simply pointing out that engaging in these activities is pointless if they aren’t bracketed by true faith in Christ on one side and godly living on the other. Jesus himself was often engaged in religious observances. He taught the Scriptures in the synagogue (Luke 4:31-37), he engaged in prayer often (Luke 5:16), he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:12–26) and church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20), et al.
- Godly Living. The main point of James’ critique is that true faith, presumably accompanied by meaningful engagement in religious worship, will produce godly living. Specifically, it will produce a deep concern for orphans and widows. David H. Peters writes, “true piety helps the helpless, for God is the God who secures the rights of those who have no hope.” True religion, James goes on to argue, also produces a separation from the evil influences of the pervading culture.
What Does God Hate?
Now we are in a position to better consider what it is that God hates. He certainly doesn’t hate what James has called “pure and undefiled” religion–True faith in Christ, proper engagement in religious practices, and godliness. What God hates is religion that is lacking in one or more of the three areas listed above. He hates legalism–believing that we can earn God’s righteousness through being good–because it fails to properly understand and trust Christ. He hates hypocrisy because it claims to believe rightly about Christ, but doesn’t result in a deep concern for others or separation from the world. He hates self-righteousness because it tries to obey outwardly but lacks true worship and reliance on God through prayer, fasting, and worship.
It is not that God hates religion, he hates religion that is in clear defiance to his good will.
One of the reasons that the motto “God hates religion” is so attractive to us is that it gives us the illusion of having all the benefits of Jesus without all of his demands. It allows us to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we should submit to and which parts are just a little too “religious” for our relationship with God. It is tempting to cast off all the commands of Scripture we don’t like and label them as mere religious legalism. However, if we do that, we are actually participating in the very thing we are decrying, namely, a religious system that God hates.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (James 1:26-27 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
John Piper sermon quoted above can be found here: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/visiting-orphans-in-a-world-of-aids-and-abortion.
David H. Peters, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1982) 103.