Can You Separate Jesus From Religion?
By alastair bryan sterne
June 12, 2012
A disconcerting popular theology and rhetoric lately involves contrasting the Gospel with religion. It goes something like this:
“Jesus saves; religion condemns.”
“Jesus loves me; religion doesn’t.”
“I love Jesus, but not the church.”
“We just have to get back to Jesus and skip all this religion.”
I never know quite what to say to the very earnest people saying these things. Because the fact is this: Jesus was really religious.
To such a horrific statement, one might gasp, “No! He confronted the religion of His day. Look at all His interactions with the Pharisees. His harshest words were for the most religious of His day!” Which is true. Jesus did have a lot to say to people who distort religion for their own purposes and gain. Yet His critique was not so much of their religion as what they had done with it. He called out their motives and their corrupt hearts.
We must clearly hear Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17 ESV). Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the history of God working through Israel—a religious people. So often it seems people would rather flip the words and insert into Jesus’ lips, “I have not come to fulfill the Law but to abolish it.” They contend that Jesus fulfilled the Law in such a way that He ended it altogether—which is just a different way of saying He abolished it.
I don’t think this was Jesus’ intention.
Jesus lived within the Judaism of His day. He was religious through and through. The Gospels present Jesus’ parents raising Him in the Jewish tradition. He was surely circumcised. His ethnic identity was undoubtedly His religious identity. They were inseparably intertwined. As an adult, Jesus participated in the Jewish feasts, most notably the Passover. He followed the structures of Judaism: teaching in synagogues, teaching as a rabbi, calling disciples, etc. He knew the Scriptures of Judaism inside and out. Jesus lived and breathed Judaism. And in fact, Jesus did not consider His religion inherently bad or something to condemn but rather something ordained by God to be fulfilled by Him. Jesus saw all of Judaism—a particular religion—as pointing toward Himself. Judaism found its deepest meaning and purpose in Him. Jesus would take a religion distorted and broken by humanity and turn it into something more. Jesus saw Himself as the climax of what this religion had set out to do.
For the most part, people easily agree at this point. “Yes," they say, "Jesus was Jewish, for Nooma has told me so.” But they seem to think His religious side was somehow abandoned after His resurrection—that Jesus was Jewish only for the Incarnation and had no intention of creating another religion. He gave us His life. He died for our sins. He was raised for our salvation. This is the Gospel. This is what He came to create.
This is true.
Yet we must not stop short of the fullness of what Jesus instituted. He commanded us to baptize people into the life of the Triune God. He instituted the Eucharist. “Do this in remembrance of me” is the language of intentional repetition. He taught Christians to pray in a very specific way through the Lord’s Prayer.All of this sounds like the makings of a religion, does it not? Even on a practical level, the evangelical mantra today is, “Preach the Gospel to yourself everyday.” If that does not describe a religious action, I don’t know what does.
Ultimately, Jesus did not abolish religion but fulfilled it. He brought us true religion. Jesus took Judaism and made us dig deeper into it. He showed how corrupt hearts misuse religion as a way of establishing one's self before God (legalism) or as a way of establishing one's self before others (moralism). Jesus undoubtedly abhorred this sort of religiosity. Yet we cannot look at what was birthed at Pentecost—and the history of the church since—and say that Jesus didn’t come to institute a religion. He did. He instituted what many religions hope to accomplish in some form or another: a way to God.
It would be so much more accurate and so much more reflective of Jesus’ heart if people were to say instead:
“Jesus’ religion saves; humanity’s religion condemns.”
“Jesus’ religion loves me; humanity’s religion doesn’t.”
“I love Jesus and His bride, the Church.”
“We just have to get back to Jesus’ religion and skip all of humanity’s religion.”
Tim Keller has aptly stated, “Religion says that if we obey God, He will love us. The Gospel says that it is because God has loved us through Jesus that we can obey.” I really do agree with Keller. I only wish we could revise the paradigm. I think it is more accurate to say, “We can distort religion, thinking if we obey God, He will love us. True religion says it is because God has loved us through Jesus [the Gospel] that we can obey.”
This is not just about semantics.
I have found that when I say something cliche like, “It’s not about a religion; it’s about a relationship” to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus, they look at me with a blank stare—and not because they have never fathomed a personal relationship with God but because they assume most religions are about relating to the divine in some way. They really hear me saying, “I’m not religious; I’m religious."
It’s time we as Christians get over our fear of religion and embrace the fact that we are a part of a religion, one with a long messy history but also a history filled with beauty, justice and goodness. We need to step up and own it and stop pretending we are not a people of religion. Sure, we are not legalists, and we are not moralists; we are rooted in the Gospel. That is our religion. Our religion at its best shines brightly with the light of the Gospel and Jesus, the One who birthed this movement.
Yes, Christianity is personal. Yes, Christianity is about a relationship. Yes, Christianity is the Gospel—the way to God.
And yes, Christianity is a religion. It’s unique and different among every other religion—we believe it is the true religion. But it is a religion.
Alastair Bryan Sterne has a master's degree in biblical studies from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside, a church plant in Vancouver, B.C. Sometimes he writes stuff on their website, like the original version of this article. He is still waiting to say something original on Twitter.