Christianity is so much more than just another religion.

This blog post is the first in a series using the word “MORE”, which was used in my post on “What Jesus Expects of His Followers.” He always expected more than the Law required, and He also promised more to those who obeyed Him, who followed Him, even all the way to the cross. Jesus was a living example of the “extra measure.” He always went the “extra mile.” He loved more! He gave more! He forgave more! He cared more! He sacrificed more! “Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, that we through his poverty might be made rich” (II Corinthians 8:9). He told His disciples, “Those who seek to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their life, for my sake, will find it” (Luke 8:35). Jesus asked His disciples WHAT MOREthey were doing than others? The question is the same for all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus: what more are we doing than those who are not followers of Jesus? Also, is Christ satisfied with what we are now doing, with how much we are loving, with how much we are caring, with how much we are giving, with how much we are forgiving, with how much we are affirming and encouraging others in His Church, and with how much we are doing to share our faith with non-believers (i.e not just “keeping the faith”, but also “giving it away).

alexei-scutari-560667-unsplash

We need to understand that Christianity is more than a religion, more than negative morality (i.e. “don’t do this” and “don’t do that”, so you will escape God’s judgment) — it is also more than reward morality (i.e. “do this” and “do that”, so your life will be pleasing to God, and you will receive God’s blessing). Suffice it to say, Christianity is not a “do- it- yourself” religion. There are too many people who make their religion the object of their faith. They believe they can earn God’s favor by being a faithful adherent to the essential tenets of their particular religion, including Christianity. However, history teaches us that religion is not necessarily a good thing. Some terrible things have been done in the name of religion, including Christianity, especially radical fundamentalists, critical moralists, white supremacists, and political extremists (the extremes of both left and right). “Christian” politicians have always tried to”co-opt” Jesus in their campaigns, using religious rhetoric (i.e. Christian language) to gain the support of Christian voters, whether “conservative” (i.e. “evangelical”, although that label has “fallen among thieves”, and been robbed and stripped of its original meaning), or “liberal” (another label that has been demonized by the far right). Suffice it to say religion itself should be labeled “Warning: religion can be dangerous to your spiritual health.”

Religion can so easily be used and abused for selfish purposes, even for evil purposes, such as justifying some wars as “holy, or endorsing unbelievable forms of violence such as acts of cruelty and terrorism, strapping bombs to indoctrinated and brainwashed adherents, all in the name of their god (little “g”). As far as Christianity is concerned, many who bear the name of Christ believe and teach that believers can use (actually “abuse”) prayer to obtain what they want from God (including “health and wealth”, “prosperity and property”, “privilege and power”) if we have enough faith, if our faith is great enough. To say the least, that is an alien gospel, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ!  Furthermore, that is presumption, not faith!  The purpose of Christian prayer is not to get what we want from God, but to ask and discover what God wants from us!  Also, this teaching is dangerous and damaging because it encourages believers to put their faith in their faith, which is misplaced faith! It is not the greatness of our faith that makes the difference, but rather the greatness of our God!

The value of our faith is determined by the object of our faith! God alone should be the object of our faith (i.e. the true and living God, the God of creation, the God of salvation, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Jesus also taught His disciples to pray to God the Father, asking “Thy will be done” (vs. 10). So I share this related warning: there is always the danger of praying selfishly, “lured and enticed by one’s own desires”(James 1:14), “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your own pleasures” (i.e. to use what you receive selfishly — James 4:3). Let it also be said that one’s religion can so easily become a synthetic substitute for the real thing, which is a personal and intimate relationship with God, an experience of the “Father heart” of God, God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance., and the desire to know and discover the will of God. Jesus had one sustaining passion during His earthly life and ministry, to do His Father’s will, and He told His disciples He had given them an example, so they would know what God required of them. He modeled God’s unconditional and unending love, and the New Testament teaches us that “…we love because God first loved us” (I John4:19). It is our experience of God’s love that constrains us to love one another as He has loved us in Christ, and that compels us to become doers of the word” and “not merely hearers” (James 2:22).

However, believers are always faced with the temptation to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:1). In our self-absorbed society (i.e. a culture that is obsessed with the “self”, self-identity, self-realization, self-gratification, self-fulfillment) it is always easy to become much more “self-centered” than “God-centered” (Christ-centered) when we are simply religious people, rather than followers of Jesus. Religiosity, respectability, and a righteousness “gained” from keeping the moral law is never enough!  There is always the danger of becoming proud and self-righteous, and that kind of righteousness is always wrong! We need to be aware of the fact that there are two spiritual dangers related to the self, self-conceit (i.e. thinking of ourselves “more highly” than we ought to think), and self-contempt (i.e. thinking less of ourselves than we should), not realizing we are spiritual beings made in the “image of God”, as well as men and women for whom Jesus died on the cross. Furthermore, all of us have been blessed with God-given possibilities and unrealized potentialities, capable of becoming “children of God”, Christ’s own “workmanship” (John 1:11-12; Ephesians 2:10). Once our minds have been renewed to understand these spiritual truths, when we know “by faith” who we really are, as “sons and daughters of God”, we are finally able to understand what Jesus meant when He commanded His disciples to “love one another as I have loved you” (i.e. your brothers and sisters in Christ – John 15:12), and the other command to “…love your neighbor (i.e. everyone else) as you love your-self” (Matthew 19:19). For something else has happened, something totally unexpected: we have fallen in love with ourselves! That is why we are finally able to grasp the meaning  of those words “…love your neighbor as you love yourself”, for the love we have for ourselves will be the measure of love we have for our neighbors (especially anyone in need).

Which brings us to the subject of obedience and disobedience, and the importance of taking sin seriously (i.e. ignoring and breaking the commandments of God, refusing to live in conformity to God’s will, manifested most fully in the life and ministry of Jesus). It is significant that Jesus had very little to say about the “sins of the flesh.” It was the “sins of the spirit” that He condemned the most! How quickly we forget that Jesus had His greatest problems with the “self-righteous” religious people of His day, who were more concerned for the “letter of the law” than the “spirit of the law.”  According to the teachings attributed to Jesus in the gospels, it is possible to be very religious, but very far from God! Leaders in Christ’s Church must especially always heed the warnings of Jesus about being more concerned for the praise of men than for the approval of God: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). I confess that, as a young pastor, I was too concerned for the approval of others, and one of the most important prayers I ever made proved to be, “God, deliver me from the fear of public opinion” — and He did! Did you know that the words Jesus used most often were “fear not”? Also, He told His disciples and others who were listening to His words, Do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:25 — often  translated Do not be anxious), Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1) —  “Do not look dismal like the hypocrites(Matthew 6:16 — consider His words, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in youJohn 15:11), Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you (John 14:27). Suffice it to say Jesus was very concerned about our mental state, our emotional health, our thought life, our attitudes.  

Which leads me to ask, do you realize that there is no such thing as “little sin”, for there is no little God to sin against? Nevertheless, we have a tendency to “catalog sin”, because the Church has talked about “cardinal sins” for so many centuries, and we forget that the sins Jesus was most concerned with (study His parables) were “sins of the spirit”, such as greed, pride,  an unforgiving spirit, a judgmental and condemning attitude, the lack of compassion, injustice, abuse (including the abuse of power), love of money (“mammon”), neglect of the poor and powerless(“widows and orphans”), indifference toward those who were considered “the least of these” (Matthew 25), the neglect of those who were labeled as “unclean”, and treated as “outcasts”, for God is “rich in mercy”  and His grace is “immeasurable” (Ephesians 2:4-6). Therefore, all of these practical matters related to our daily living, our attitudes and actions, our values and priorities, our verbal and non-verbal communication, our lifestyle and relationships, are essential to an understanding of authentic Christianity. Believers need to understand that Christianity is more than a matter of simple faith in Jesus for your own personal salvation. It is more than just putting your membership in some local church, although the local church is the most important unit of ministry and mission in Christianity. It is more than simply sharing in the support of a local church to which we belong, for as Christians we are also members of the universal Church (i.e. the “world-wide Body of Christ“); we are connected, “members one of another.”

That is why we pray with believers everywhere who pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Give US this day our daily bread…forgiveUS our debts as we forgive our debtors…lead US not into temptation…deliver US  from evil” …for we belong to each other in Christ’s Church, and we worship as a “community of faith”, a “company of the committed”, a “priesthood of believers” (I Peter 2:9), and have been both “called” and “commissioned” to share in “the work of ministry” with all the redeemed in this world (which is our “mission field”), with Christians of “all nations, all races, all cultures, all tongues” (Revelation 7:9 — knowing that we also belong to an immortal fellowship, and are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (i.e. the redeemed of the ages – Hebrews 12:1) who are now in the Church Triumphant (i.e. the “invisible Church” in heaven), made up of all the heroes and heroines of the past who are now praying for us, and will continue to do so until we too have received “the crown of everlasting life” (II Timothy 4:8– also referred to as “the crown of glory that never fades away”I Peter 5:4). Until then, with al the redeemed in the “visible Church” throughout the world we join in joyful Christ-centered worship with the realization that Christianity is so much more than each of us individually in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day, singing the hymns, joining in the responses, reciting prayers, sharing in unison affirmations of faith, and making an occasional contribution (i.e. the practice of religious habits: “They do it every Sunday, they will be all right on Monday, it’s just a little habit they have acquired”). To be sure, there is nothing wrong with any of these spiritual exercises, for they are all valuable “means of grace“, but none of them, not even all of these spiritual disciplines combined define Christianity. Of course, if it does not begin there then it does not really begin at all, for there is no such thing as a “solitary Christian.” If it ends there, then it ends!

 

 

Many hands together

Why? Because Christianity is so much more than a matter of being personally religious. It is far more than just “Me and my wife; my son, John, and his wife, us four and no more.” The Apostle James said it best, Faith alone, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). Faith without works is not the kind of faith that “pleases God” (Hebrews 11:6). It is for that reason that the brother of our Lord added these words to his letter to the young church: “Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works. ‘Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith'” (vs. 18). A faith that doesn’t work is counterfeit faith! On the other hand, works apart from faith are also dead! Suffice it to say, they go together, like “love and marriage” as an old song says.  They are inseparable in biblical Christianity, not only a personal “profession of faith”, but also a shared “practice of faith” not only as a “gathered community” of believers on the”Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday), but also as the “scattered Church” wherever we are the rest of the time, at home and/or in the vocations of our common life, representing Christ at all times and in all places, bearing witness to Him by our character and conduct, by both word and deed, PLUS (there is always a“plus” in Christian discipleship and stewardship) not only supporting the work of Christ’s Church locally, but nationally and internationally with our gifts and prayers. For we have been called to help fulfill the “Great Commission” of Christ (Matthew 28:19-20), which none of us could ever do alone. It is a task that can only be accomplished when all of us as followers of Jesus join together in our common calling to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ not only in our own “Jerusalem” (i.e. right where we are), but also beyond the boundaries of where we live and work (i.e. in “Judea and Samaria” , other regions near by, close at hand), but also “long-distant” evangelism as well (i.e. “all nations” vs. 19). We have been commanded and commissioned by our Lord to take the whole Gospel (i.e. not only the “personal” Gospel, but the “social implications” and applications of the Gospel as well) to the whole world!

However, permit me to sound another warning. Do not believe that you will be saved by such efforts, by your own good works, by your own personal discipleship and stewardship. There are too many believers who have been deceived into believing they can work their way to heaven, that all their “good works” will be sufficient “treasure laid up in haven” to merit God’s blessing, to deserve God’s reward, to achieve their own salvation. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth, for salvation is not an “achievement.” The New Testament makes this abundantly clear: We do not work to be saved, we work because we are saved! We are saved by “grace alone” through “faith alone” (Ephesians 2) by grace because as sinners we could never deserve God’s loving forgiveness, we could never earn God’s acceptance by our good works, any more than faith by itself is enough. Do not put your faith in your faith! Do not put your faith in your good works! Put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation! Saving faith is simply our essential response to God’s grace, our trust in what God has already done for us in Christ Jesus (i.e. what we could never do for ourselves). It is our acceptance of God’s acceptance of us, God’s unmerited favor, made possible by the atoning death of Jesus on the cross and His victorious resurrection, His victory over sin and death). Salvation is the “free gift” of God. It is received by putting our hand into the hand of God to accept His grace gift (for it has no “price tag” attached. The price has already been paid “in full.” That is why we sing such hymns as, “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe””, and “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee…In my hand no price I bring, simply to The cross I cling. Naked, come to Thee for dress, helpless look to Thee for grace; foul I to the fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die” — and “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Salvation is. “…not the result of good works, so that no one may boast”, which makes us His workmanship” (Ephesians 2:6-10). In other words, Christians are not “self-made” individuals; we are “Christ-made.”

So, suffice it to say, being good is not enough. So many people believe that the purpose of Christianity (i.e Christianity as a religion; the teachings of Jesus) is to make us good, good enough to deserve God’s forgiveness and acceptance, because of our Christian character. However, we are not saved by our Christian character; we are saved for Christian character! However, no matter how good we are as those being re-created in the “image of Christ”, here is the bottom line: although none of us may ever be as bad as we could be, none of us will ever be as good as we should be! This explains why salvation is a “process”, for each of us as a follower of Jesus is always a “work in progress.” There are tenses to salvation. If anyone asks you, “Are your saved?”, the proper response is, “Yes, I am saved, I am being saved, and I shall be saved.” That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “…deliver us from evil”, and why we are admonished “keep alert…for like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith” (Luke 11 and I Peter 5:8-9), “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles (i.e. in this world) to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (I Peter 2: 11), so as obedient servants of our Servant Lord we will be able to say we are “…confident  of this, that the one who began a good work in us will being it  to completion (I.e. the completion of our salvation – Philippians 4:6), when we are raised with Christ and stand before the throne of God clothed in His righteousness,  “…robes  made white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7: 8-14), with “palm branches” in our hands” (Rev. 7:9 — the symbol of victory, our victory over sn and death) , joining in the singing of the great Te Deum” of heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb…Blessing and glory and wisdiom and thanksgiving and honor and power to our God forever and ever. Amen.” (Rev. 7:10-12).

Male and female hikers climbing up mountain cliff and one of them giving helping hand. People helping and, team work concept.

 

Suffice it to say, Christianity is more than a religion, more than a philosophy — it is a person, the person of Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” , who lives and reigns forever as Lord of heaven and earth! It is the person of Jesus, the unique and solitary Son of God, the eternal Word that was made flesh, born of woman that we might be born of God, who makes Christianity different from all other religions. Jesus never gave the impression that the purpose of His mission was to establish a new religion. He visited this plane to proclaim the kingdom of God, “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), to “give himself as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28), with the hope that those who heard His claims, witnessed His mighty deeds, observed His sacrificial death and listened to the testimony of “eyewitnesses” proclaiming His victorious resurrection, “…might come to believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing they might have life in his name” (John 20:31). Furthermore, His mission was to begin building His Church, as an outpost of the kingdom of God in this world, saying “…and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Many people interpreting this text see Christ’s Church in a defensive posture, like a fortress under attack by the powers of hell, but the Greek of the New Testament makes it clear that the picture Jesus gave His disciples was that of His Church on the offensive, battering at the very “gates of hell”, which will not be able to stand against it! It is certainly true that the “powers and principalities of evil” that have been arrayed against the Church since the beginning are strong, but they are not omnipotent, and they will not be able to stand against the kingdom of God and His righteousness! It was the late Elton Trueblood, a well-known and highly respected Quaker theologian and author, who pointed out in one of his books, The Incendiary Fellowship, that the metaphors Jesus used for His Church were revolutionary images that had one thing in common, the idea of “penetration.” The “light” penetrates the darkness and dispels it, the “salt” penetrates the meat and preserves it, the “keys” penetrate the lock and open it, etc. Christianity is all about penetrating the social and political structures of this world with the power of the Gospel of the kingdom of God, and actually living the metaphors of Jesus!

But this is a far cry from the brand of Christianity adopted and proclaimed by so many in the contemporary Church who do not take the social dimensions of the Gospel seriously. These are the believers who are only interested in a “born again” Christianity, and in religious dogma (i.e. doctrine, theological issues of belief). This often includes a separation from this world, with the conviction that believers should not become involved in all sorts of social issues that are not central to the “Good News” Jesus proclaimed. They either choose to ignore, or have eyes that cannot see in the teachings of Jesus the call and challenge to bind up the wounds of victims, to speak against the abuse of power, as Jesus did in His own day — confronting the political and religious powers that were oppressing God’s people, and defending the rights of the poor and powerless, the maligned and marginalized – to be a partner with all compassionate and caring people in the world-wide effort to assist and support those who are displaced, disadvantaged, deprived, and disenfranchised, and understandably terribly depressed, feeling helpless and hopeless, wondering if anyone really cares about their plight, even wondering if there is really a God who cares.

Surely those Christians who want only a comfortable religion, the assurance of their own salvation, and freedom from such involvement and engagement in these social issues, with their political implications, are asking the impossible from Christianity. For we have a mandate and a mission! We have so much more to offer, and there is so much more for which we will be held accountable at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25).

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