Originally published in The Banner, January 2010.
I’m about to say something just a bit shocking. It’s highly controversial.
Here it is: We Reformed people are religious. The Christian faith is a religion. There, I said it.
Why is that so controversial?
It’s because “religion” has become a bad word in Christian circles. People outside the church want to be spiritual but not religious; and people inside the church want to have a relationship but not religion. In his wildly popular book The Shack, William Young has Jesus say, “I’m not too big on religion, and not very fond of politics or economics either.” It has become common for Christian leaders to claim that the good news of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with religion.
But it’s a mistake to talk about religion like that, a big mistake, with big consequences. Religion refers to the universal human characteristic of making something, or someone, ultimate in our lives, and pursuing the object of our devotion as the ultimate good. Every person, then, is religious. God made all people with a religious receptacle at our core.
Because we are designed to be in relationship to God, designed for worship and reverence, people are inescapably religious. But because of our sin, our rebellion against God, we seek to replace God with something or someone else. We direct our religion, our devotion and reverence, toward created things rather than the Creator. We create self-serving spiritualities because sin has tainted our religious longings, just as it has tainted our politics and economics and sexuality. We create alternate stories to explain the world and our place in it.
But that doesn’t mean religion is a bad word. We are religiously broken, but God’s good news in Jesus Christ enables us to experience religious wholeness. The gospel is not the enemy of religion but its true form. The gospel is the answer—a surprising and radically unique answer—to our deepest spiritual longings.
If I say that I am spiritual but not religious, what I really mean is that my homemade religious opinions are better than yours. If I say that I am rational, not religious, I mean that my faith in science is much more respectable than your belief in a God who has never made an appearance in any photos from the Hubble telescope. If I say I prefer a personal relationship with Jesus to “organized religion,” I likely mean that I have a self-centered, private kind of religion and have little use for the messiness of living in a community of worship and discipleship.
Even though all people are religious, many people deny that aspect of their humanity with an almost evangelical passion. All people have a “seed of religion” buried in their hearts, John Calvin said. Left to grow wild that seed ends up yielding nothing but weeds. But watered with the gospel and cultivated by God’s Spirit, it grows into devotion to God, blooms into discipleship, and bears fruit in service to the least and the lost of the world.
It’s extremely important for our witness to the world that we reclaim the word religion. Why? Because the gospel calls people to find the answer to their deepest longings, their religious longings, in Jesus Christ.
When Paul brought the good news to the sophisticated people of Athens, he grabbed their attention by saying, “I notice that you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). Paul used the universal human longing for relationship with the Creator—our desire for a story that makes sense of the world and history and human life—as an entry for the story of Jesus. Then he introduced the Athenians to the one God, the “unknown God,” who created them, loved them, and sent his own Son to die for them.
Rather than a human effort to obtain salvation, the Christian faith is the one religion in which God seeks us out and finds us. It is the one religion in which God comes to broken people and makes them whole again. It is the one true story about the meaning of life in this world, and it turns out to be a love story.
1. What does the word “religion” mean to you? Why does it have a negative effect on some people?
2. What does it mean to be “spiritual”?
3. How is the word “religion” tied to our Christian identity?
4. How can we reclaim this word?
5. How can we best cultivate the “seed of religion” buried in people’s hearts?