“We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men but to look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, an image which, by its beauty and dignity, should allure us to love and embrace them.”
― John Calvin.
Religion, or better yet being religious, is the anti-gospel. Religion says by works you can gain salvation and acceptance before God. Being religious is applying a standard (the law) to others when you are unable to fulfill the same standard (law). It is the opposite of everything that Jesus taught but Christians still struggle with this. When our hearts say, “Show them love” our actions often speak words of hate. Instead of trusting in the God who created every living thing on earth, we lean on our own understanding and play fixer to whatever situation seems broken. We are hypocrites, idolaters, and liars. It’s in our very nature to be religious.
I believe it was Matt Chandler, pastor of Village Church in Texas, who gave the perfect analogy of the human struggle with religion. Imagine a pendulum swinging back and forth. On one side you have religion and the other end perfection (Jesus). In the middle or downward swing, well, that’s grace. As the pendulum’s arm swings, it spends just a moment pausing on one side just before it slowly, or sometimes quickly, swings to the other.
The pendulum is constantly swinging. There are times when we work out of religion. This is where our sinful desires, hypocrisy, and works-righteousness reside. We tell others to live a life different than the one we are living. We set rules, expecting those around us to follow each one perfectly, while secretly we are the worst transgressor. We dole out hate, not grace. We hold on to anger and seek vengeance, forgetting the grace that saved us. To put this it into New Testament terms, we are Pharisees. (Matthew 23:1-36)
But in a moment the pendulum swings back towards Christ. Here when we are hurt, we forgive. When we hurt others, we seek forgiveness. We do not pursue ways to please God by our actions but instead walk out the Gospel with effortless grace. We are gracious, loving, kind, and self-controlled. But after a while the pendulum begins to swing back towards religion.
This swing can happen in a moment or a blink of an eye. It could last for days or weeks but eventually it will swing back. But in the middle of the swing we see grace. The middle is when we aren’t living out a Christ-like perfect life or Pharisaical religious hypocritical ways but walking out the understanding that we are neither perfect nor religious. We acknowledge our faults, and the faults of those around us, but as James said in chapter 2 we show no partiality. Our faith is not dead because our deeds are motivated by a Christ-like love for others and a realization that we are all in desperate need of Christ. The middle is the Cross.
James chapter 2 is a gut punch to those who live with bias and prejudice, which are at the very heart of religion. Bias allows us to hold favor for one group over another, while prejudice is an ignorant, preconceived opinion of a person or group (a.k.a. partiality). This partiality is what drives wedges between families and divides cities (and churches) down racial lines. We refer to people by the color of their skin, the music they listen to, how they worship, how they dress, or by what car they drive. As a society we are perfectly fine with bias as long as the people in our inner circle agree that “those people” are always wrong and “we” are always right.
But the gospel breaks down these towering walls of bias and religion we’ve allowed to build up in our churches, homes, and cities. The gospel says there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) The gospel says we are all sinners, we have all fallen short, and yet we are all saints.
And if the anti-religion, the direct opposite of bias, prejudice, racism, and partiality is the gospel then truly the only hope we have to heal our broken nation and communities is the message of the gospel. And by message I don’t necessarily mean the proclamation (spoken word) of the gospel but the life changing transformation of mind, body, and soul way of life that 2,000 years ago forever changed the world.
The gospel can change our city. It has the power to heal your marriage or relationship with your sibling. It is the “power of God for salvation to all who believe”. The gospel, the simple gospel, changes everything.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
- Matthew 28:18-20
- Lyell Walker