When Your Sin Plays Dead

Your Sin Deceives You

Sin is like a master but in Christ we have died to sin (Romans 6:11). However, sin’s presence has not yet been eradicated and its desire is still to rule over you (Genesis 4:7; Galatians 5:17). Deceit is one of its go-to tactics used to gain a stronghold in your heart. Obadiah, Paul, and the author of Hebrews all attest to the deceitful nature of sin:

Obadiah 3 – The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?” (ESV; see below).

Ephesians 4:22 – to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires,

Hebrews 3:13 – But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

How Does Your Sin Deceive You?

In order to fight sin we must understand the intricacies concerning exactly how sin deceives. Sin’s toolbox is fully outfitted and ready to wreak havoc on any Christ-follower at any stage of his journey. Sin knows the contours of every weak and vulnerable spot in your heart and it has a carefully devised plan to revisit and expand its footprint. Its deceitful ways are custom built and person specific.

This being said, we know that sin is said to be deceitful because it plays to our pride (Obadiah 3), entices and lures us (James 1:14), and because it attempts to convince us that the source of our temptation is God (James 1:17). Another way in which sin is deceitful is evident when we consider Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (1 Cor. 10:12). We must ‘take heed’ because one of the deceits of sin is that it pretends to be weak or dead. When a sin pretends to be dead it often has the look and feel of a sin which has lost all of its allure and grip. The believer considers the sin and it appears as if the sin has retreated and is no longer plaguing him as it once did.

Every believer experiences this particularly deceitful tactic of sin and its devastating toll. Theologian, John Owen (1616-1683), captures the danger we face when our sin is playing dead, “When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still”. (Overcoming Sin and Temptation, pg. 51; see below).

Why Does Your Sin Play Dead and How Do You Fight Back?

Sin plays dead for two reasons. First, your sin pretends to be weak or dead as a defensive survival tactic. If a particular sin is weak or dead it does not need to be challenged or attacked. It looks harmless and not worth confronting. It has been declawed, so to speak. Second, your sin pretends to be weak or dead for an offensive advantage. Sin floats, slithers, and creeps so as to go unnoticed but all the while it’s plan is to suddenly spring into action at an opportune time much like a Venus flytrap. When you perceive sin to be weak or dead it goes unchallenged and it is able to grow in an imperceptible way, gaining strength and further extending its tentacles around more chambers of your heart. 

The God-pleasing response to the seemingly harmless sin(s) which used to master you is to never turn your back on it/them. It is in the moment that you think yourself strongest that you are often actually the weakest. Even when reason tells you to move on to fight some other sin because victory is apparent or at least imminent you must continue to put your sin to death. Again, remember Paul’s call to ‘take heed.’ You must recognize that the sins which used to rule you are still active and crouching at the door waiting to destroy. You must not let down your defense and you do not stop attacking. You must ‘take heed’ and consider carefully your sin by observing its patterns and methods. John Owen called this the work of “[tracing the] serpent in all its turnings and windings.” (Overcoming Sin and Temptation, pg. 77). Then, once the sin has been carefully considered, you fight back. By God’s grace as made available through His Word, His Spirit, His Church, and your prayers, you “consider yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:11) and you fight your sin until Christ returns.

Credits

Photo by NO NAME on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Obadiah 3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Owen, John, Overcoming Sin and Temptation. (2006). ed. Kelly M. Kapic & Justin Taylor Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

The Church: Imperfect, but Beautiful

Last week my wife returned to teaching as her summer break came to an end. The day before school started a friend from church called to let us know that she had dropped off a cooler with pre-made breakfast meals for the whole week. The next day there was another meal from another church member waiting for me at my office. These acts of kindness are simply two recent instances in which I’ve seen God’s grace through the thoughtfulness and sacrifice of others. 

I could go on and on about ways I’ve been immeasurably blessed by people in the church. From the day I first walked into a church at the age of 16, I’ve been around the most generous, gracious, and loving people I’ve ever met. None of this is to imply that the church is perfect, but it is to say that she is beautiful (by “church” I mean all those who have united to Christ by faith who then gather into local congregations all over the world).

The Church is Imperfect

The church has its flaws. God’s Word even anticipates and makes provision for the imperfections of the church. Commands like “bear with one another” and “forgive one another” clue us in to the fact that we will both be sinned against and sin against others in the church (Eph. 4:32). Further, Jesus instituted a process by which unrepentant church members should be removed from the congregation (Matt. 18:15-20). The New Testament contains a realism about the church. It doesn’t deny that the church will be filled with imperfect people, even at times wicked people. 

Thus, my intention in writing is not to deny anyone’s pain or suffering at the hands of church people. It is undeniable that some churches, whole denominations, or even eras of church history have been responsible for terrible sins. I’m not writing to defend any abuse or hypocrisy or hurt. Instead, my goal is to balance out the narrative a bit. As it is too easy to point out all the flaws in another person and deny their good qualities, in the same way, it is too easy to criticize the church without praising her virtues.

The Church is Beautiful

In the New Testament, the church is described as the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9), the family of God (2 Cor. 6:18), the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17), and a people purchased by Christ’s sacrifice (Acts 20:28). What is absent from the Scriptures is the sort of attitude that is prevalent today, that the church is a burden, full of hypocrites, or inconsequential in the life of the Christian. Despite this common narrative, the church has been an undeniable force for good in history as well as the present day.

Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times and an avowed agnostic, has become an unlikely defender of the evangelical church. He writes, “Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, ‘evangelical Christian’ is sometimes a synonym for ‘rube.’ In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly…Yet the liberal caricature of evangelicals is incomplete and unfair. I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics. But I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.”

Kristof’s defense of Christians stems from something he has noticed in them, a self-sacrificial service to others as well as a generosity of time and resources. He goes on, “I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests… Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.”

I appreciate Kristof’s observation and kind words about the church. His opinion matters. However, there is one whose judgment means infinitely more. Let’s not forget God’s verdict of the church. Christ purchased her with his blood, he loves her, and will one day return to gather her up as his bride. Let’s make sure that our words about the church are consistent with God’s. If the church is the bride of Christ, we should tread carefully in attacking her. As Ed Stetzer has said , “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife.”

Credits

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Nicholas Kristof, “A Little Respect for Dr. Foster,” New York Times, March 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster.html

Stetzer, Ed, “You can’t love Jesus and hate his wife,” Twitter, 10 Aug 2019, https://twitter.com/edstetzer/status/1160378867955187713

Jesus Our Shepherd

“On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”

G. A. Smith

Shepherding imagery abounds in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of Israel’s greatest leaders were shepherds (Moses and David). Israel’s spiritual leaders were criticized as poor shepherds for serving themselves instead of providing for the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1-10). In light of this failure, God himself promises to take up the shepherd staff and rescue the scattered flock (Ezekiel 34:11-24). In the New Testament, those who lead the church are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:4). 

Most importantly, the shepherd of ancient Israel provides the perfect metaphor for God’s involvement in the lives of his people. Like a shepherd leading his flock, God demonstrates care, provision, concern, protection, and guidance for his sheep (Psalm 23). As God in the flesh, Jesus willingly adopted and applied the title of “shepherd” to himself. We see this teased out several ways in the New Testament.

Jesus is the compassionate shepherd who longs to rescue his sheep

As Jesus traveled from city to city preaching and healing the afflicted, he drew quite a crowd. Matthew records Jesus’ response to the mass of people, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The problem with a crowd being characterized as “sheep without a shepherd” is that sheep do not fare well without their shepherd. They are defenseless animals, vulnerable to attack unless the shepherd provides protection. Even in the absence of predators, sheep are still in danger as they need to be shown where to eat and drink. They are completely dependent on a shepherd for their care and safety. 

As Jesus peered at the crowd, he saw beyond the physical bodies that made up the assembly. He looked into the heart and saw a people that were in great spiritual danger. They were scattered, lost, and in need of rescue. To compound the matter, they lacked any resources in and of themselves to provide such a rescue. As a result, Jesus had compassion for them. This compassion moved him to act in ways that would characterize an ancient shepherd. He would act; he would act at great cost to himself; he would act on behalf of the sheep. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep

In John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. He is contrasting himself with a “hired hand” who has no real attachment to the sheep. The primary difference? “… the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11) while the hired hand flees at the first sign of danger (see v. 12).

Shepherding can be a dangerous form of employment. Before David was king of Israel, he had to slay a bear in defense of his flock (1 Samuel 17:34-36). However, this type of danger was probably quite rare and a shepherd would never intentionally die. Jesus goes beyond the metaphor and points to himself as the one who doesn’t simply put his life at risk, but intentionally lays it down. D.A. Carson summarizes this point well, “Far from being accidental, Jesus’ death is precisely what qualifies him to be the good shepherd.” 

In Jesus, we see that the good shepherd is also the lamb slain in our place. Jesus bore the wrath of God so that we might be credited with his perfect obedience. We, who were once lost sheep, are rescued at the cost of the shepherd’s life. Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Jesus is the great shepherd who cares for his sheep

The fundamental issue in the book of Hebrews is whether readers will remain faithful to Christ or return to the Law in a futile attempt to earn their salvation. In other words, believers are called to persevere in their faith. However, this is not something that a person can do in his or her power. That is why the author of Hebrews prays and asks God to produce good works in the reader through Jesus Christ. The author prays, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).

Jesus is not only able to save us from our sins, but he will keep us. He provides for us by bringing about in us something we could not achieve on our own. God the Father, through the great shepherd Son, gives us everything we need to do his will by working in us a desire and ability to glorify him. 

Jesus is the chief shepherd who is coming again in glory

1 Peter 5:1-4 is a reminder to local church pastors that they are not their own authority. They are not their own standard. Instead, pastors are to be servants of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. One of the motivations for pastors to shepherd well is the future reception of the “unfading crown of glory” when “the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4). Peter pushes pastors towards faithfulness by pointing them forward to the coming of Christ. Soon, Jesus will appear in glory and faithful shepherds will receive their full reward from him. 

This hope is not limited to pastors. Peter gave a similar encouragement at the beginning of his epistle, telling all believers, “… set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). The same shepherd that had compassion on the crowds, that laid his life down for the sheep, is returning to rule and reign in full authority. 

We can have real hope today as we anticipate the coming of Christ where he will complete the good work he began in us. We long for that day, knowing that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Credits

G. A. Smith Quoted by Timothy Laniak in Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57.

Photo by joseph d’mello on Unsplash

D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 386.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 10:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Fight for Joy: “No Condemnation”

I am not a fan of lengthy quotes from people who lived hundreds of years ago and talked in a way that is difficult to understand. With that said, please read this lengthy quote from Martin Luther (1483-1546) about how the devil’s reminders of our sin can actually be used against him as we fight for joy in Christ.

What Luther Said

“Let us therefore arm ourselves with these and like verses of the Holy Scriptures, that we may be able to answer the devil (accusing us, and saying: You are a sinner, and therefore you are damned) in this sort: ‘Christ has given Himself for my sins; therefore, Satan, you shall not prevail against me when you go about to terrify me in setting forth the greatness of my sins, and so to bring me into heaviness, distrust, despair, hatred, contempt and blaspheming of God. As often as you object that I am a sinner, you call me to remembrance of the benefit of Christ my Redeemer, upon whose shoulders, and not upon mine, lie all my sins; for ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,’ and ‘for the transgression of people was he stricken’ (Isaiah 53:6, 8). Wherefore, when you say I am a sinner, you do not terrify me, but comfort me above measure.’” (Luther, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 38-39, as quoted by Bob Kelleman.

Here is the TL;DR (‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’): when Satan reminds us of our sin we can use that accusation to remind ourselves of what Christ did on the cross for us.

Luther’s point serves us well in our fight against sin and our fight for joy. When the Enemy is poisoning our thoughts, we’ve got to remind ourselves of specific Gospel truths.

Paul Said it First

Luther did not just pull this thought from thin air. His point is grounded in Scripture (Isaiah 53 and “like verses”). In Romans 8:1 Paul makes the statement, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (ESV). Paul is speaking directly to those who feel the suffocating weight of Satan’s unhelpful reminder of their sins. The Deceiver’s goal in these reminders is to create a fog between us and the grace of God. His reminders of our sins are meant to disorient us in such a way that God appears far away because we begin to believe that God has moved himself away from us because of disapproval and disgust of our sins, whether past or present. This type of thinking is demonic in origin and in direct contradiction to the Gospel truths of Romans 8:1.

Two Truths to Consider from Romans 8:1

There are two truths we need to lean on in this Scripture. First, Paul says “there is therefore now no condemnation.” This means that God isn’t just promising the removal of condemnation for some future, more Jesus-like version of yourself (thank you to Ray Ortlund for pointing this out). The verdict of ‘no condemnation’ is a present reality. It isn’t tied to who you are or what you’ve done or not done. It’s tied to who Christ is and what Christ has done (see next point).

Second, the ones who are no longer condemned are those “who are in Christ Jesus.” This idea of being in Christ means that if you have placed your faith in Christ then you are spiritually united to Christ. It is as if who you are in your inner-man has been welded to who Jesus is. Your identity can no longer be defined without thinking and speaking of who Christ is and what Christ has done in you.

These truths never grow old or redundant because Satan is like a relentless prosecutor. However, Satan’s pieces of evidence and line of argument used to condemn us is not based on present facts or present realities. He dredges up past sins (and even present sins) to obscure our blood bought freedom. He has a PhD in all of our faults and is weaponizing them to compound their damage against us. The Enemy is not just interested in the one-time damage caused by sin when initially committed. He is playing the long game. Satan’s desire is for you to be hurt by your sin again, and again, and again, through timely reminders. He is in the dirty business of recollecting all of our sins despite the verdict of ‘not guilty.’

But, because God is gracious there is no sin that can separate us from the love of God if we are in Christ (Romans 8:35). God’s closeness to us is static because He resides in us. The only thing that can change is our perception of that closeness.

In Closing

When I think of Luther’s words I’m oddly reminded of the weird dynamic which exists between salty and sweet foods. Have you ever noticed how certain salty foods, like popcorn, make you crave something sweet, like soda? Likewise, Satan’s reminders of our sin, although bitter, do not have to redefine our relationship with God or even obscure other spiritual blessings of being in Christ. These intentionally unhelpful reminders can become on-ramps for us to taste again the sweetness of Christ’s redemptive work. This was Luther’s point and it comes directly from Scriptures like Romans 8:1.

Credits

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Romans 8:1 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Ray Ortlund. Sermon: “GOD’S GRACE – BETTER THAN WE THINK – 1” – ROMANS 8:1-2. https://www.immanuelnashville.com/resources/multimedia/details?id=1622906.

The Exhaustion of Having Control

Having control of our lives feels good. We love and crave control because we hate surprises. The allure of control is that the details and quality of our future can be predicted and altered as need be.

The thing about control is that our appetite for it is insatiable especially when envy comes into play. Our tendency is to look out at the lives of others with envy in regards to control. It’s not that we believe everyone we know has more control of their lives than we do. It’s that there are many we know who seemingly have more control over some aspect of their lives and envy can begin to poison our attitude. Experiencing exhaustion as a result of pursuing more control of our lives is inevitable.

How much control do I (or any of us) actually have?

The thing about control is that it doesn’t exist (at least not the way we often think it does). The way God talks about the type of control we desire is that it is something He alone possesses.

In Proverbs 16:9 Solomon writes, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” We are volitional and cognitive beings who make “plans.” However, God presides over us in such a way that ultimately He is the one “establishing” and directing our steps.

Similarly, in Ecclesiastes 7:13 Solomon calls us to, “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” There are things in your life that are “crooked,” which you desire to change, and conversely there are things in your life which are “straight” (good) which you wish to never see change. The point is that we are incapable of truly altering the outcome of those things which God has made crooked or straight. Any change that comes as a result of our actions happens because God allows to happen according to His plan.

As finite beings it is impossible for us to fully-grasp how it is that we make plans, decisions, and choices but yet God is in control. Our grasp of cause and effect is simply insufficient in terms of accounting for God’s sovereignty.

The Danger of Control

Recently I heard a song called If You Want Love by Nathan Feuerstein (‘NF’) and a couple of lines stuck with me. Feuerstein sings, “I’ve always tried to control things; In the end that’s what controls me.” He is spot on. Control is like a drug which once tasted has the ability to take control over us. We never feel as though we have enough control because control is absurdly addictive and for good reason.

Our sinful hearts sell us the lie that control is necessary because God operates according to a rigid sense of retribution. Within this framework of a rigid retribution we wrongly believe that God immediately and proportionately rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness. Solomon goes on to confront this wrong way of viewing God in the next few verses of Ecclesiastes 7:14-16. Unfortunately, this way of thinking distorts the very nature of God’s grace and mercy. By definition grace is God giving us what we do not deserve and mercy is God NOT giving us what we deserve.

How do we respond to God’s control? Faith, not Apathy

Someone could argue that a high view of God’s control (sovereignty) results in people being given over to indifference/apathy. The rationale being that if we aren’t truly in control in the exact way that we want then why even bother trying and doing.

A balanced view of God’s sovereign control recognizes that God in His sovereignty utilizes and accounts for our decisions, plans, and choices. Yes, we are to yield to God and His control of all things meaning that we relinquish our grasp (or at least our perception of having a grasp) on our lives. But this surrendering does not lead to indifference or lack of effort on our part. Just the opposite is true. Our responsibility to live and move in faith is unchanged and we strive to make choices, decisions, and plans which are God-pleasing.

With Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:10 we proclaim, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

By grace we live by faith.

Credits

Photo by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Obadiah 3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Jesus was Thirsty so You Don’t Have to Be

I love lemonade. Sweet, cloudy, pulp-filled lemonade. I love it so much that sometimes I am (almost) motivated to mow my lawn just so I can feel like I deserve a glass. The more thirsty I am the more I enjoy this dew that descends from the mountains of Zion.

In God’s kindness He designed our bodies not only to feel thirst, but also to experience the sweet relief of having that thirst quenched by our favorite beverages. One of the interesting ways that our human experience tracks with Jesus’ words and ministry is in regards to this idea of thirst.

In John 19:28 we have this seemingly insignificant detail recorded that right before Jesus died He uttered the words, “I thirst.” Of interest to us is: (1) why did Jesus say this and (2) why did John see fit to record these words when arguably every word and action John records serves the purpose of making a larger theological point?

Why did Jesus say “I thirst”?

There are a few reasons why Jesus said these words. First, Jesus said “I thirst” because He was literally and legitimately thirsty. Jesus had been tortured and was under the hot Sun. The Son of God is not only 100 percent God but also 100 percent man. He experienced things like hunger and thirst no differently than the rest of us. It is actually safe to say that Jesus knew thirst in a way that we will never know thirst.

Second, Jesus said “I thirst” because He was intentionally fulfilling Scripture which is why John says “[Jesus] said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”” These words connect back to Psalm 69:21 (“for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink”) and offer another Scriptural evidence that Jesus of Nazareth really is the promised Messiah.

One more reason that Jesus utters the words “I thirst” is so that John could record these words and show us deep theological truths about Jesus.

Why did John record Jesus saying, “I thirst”?

There is a theme of our thirst and Jesus quenching that thirst that builds throughout the book of John.

In John 4 we find Jesus interacting with the woman at the well who is thirsty. This woman is thirsty in ways she doesn’t fully understand. Her thirst isn’t primarily physical but spiritual. This spiritual thirst is evidenced by the fact that she has had five husbands and the man she was currently with was not her husband. What Jesus saw in this woman was an emptiness and discontentment that only living water could fix. This thirst is thirst that speaks to the heart of every person born in a sin riddled world. As we begin to see ourselves depicted in this woman our ears become attentive to what Jesus is offering.


Then in John 6 Jesus teaches that His “flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” and that “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (6:55-56). The connection between John 4 and John 6 is that the living water promised to the woman at the well is revealed to be the sacrificial work of Jesus made complete and sufficient through His death on the cross. It is only through consuming Christ (His completed work) through faith in Christ (6:40) that the woman’s spiritual thirst (and our thirst) can be quenched.

This necessary suffering is why Jesus in John 18 rebukes Peter for drawing his sword and attempting to use physical force to protect Him. What Jesus understands that Peter does not is that He must drink from “the cup” (18:11) of suffering. What drives all of Jesus’ suffering, including His thirst, is that He is willingly submitting to plan of the Father to suffer for our sins.

Jesus was thirsty so you don’t have to be

Standing back and looking at John as a whole it becomes clear that in order for Jesus to quench our thirst, He must thirst for us. His thirst is literal and legitimate but at the same time representative of His suffering.

Without Jesus being crushed by God’s wrath, we would inevitably be crushed instead of quenched. In the Father’s infinite wisdom He saw fit to pour out His wrath on His very Son so that we wouldn’t have to be.

Are you thirsty and leaning on someone or something else to quench that thirst? This thirst can only be quenched by Jesus.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Obadiah 3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Does God Really Hate Religion?

“Inconceivable!”

“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:

  1. 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.’”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Credits

PhPhoto by Marie Bellando-Mitjans on Unsplash

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.