Over the past few years I’ve been noticing a somewhat disturbing similarity in how Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, noneoftheabove’s etc. talk about religion. My generation, at least those that grew up in American churches, were taught sayings like “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship” or perhaps the more “x-treme” (it makes it more extreme if you don’t add the ‘e’) phrase of “i hate religion! but love Jesus!” while people who grew up outside the church will say things like “i hate organized religion” or “religion is for hypocrites”. Are these phrases the same? No. Are they close? Scarily so.
Inside the church, I was never really sure what the speakers meant by saying “it’s not religion, it’s a relationship” but it certainly felt good to say it. Something about how “religion” was simply a set of rules and going through the motions somewhat akin to Catholicism (even though I’d argue that most people don’t even know what Catholics believe and how it’s different from Protestantism). Meanwhile a relationship was new and energetic and life changing! How was this to be life changing? Um…well…there’s…um…let Jesus change your life! Often the “Golden Rule” is appealed to here as saying that this is how a Christian life can be changed, after all, Jesus Himself said it in the gospels. However, is this what a life-changing relationship with the Creator of the universe is? Even if you look at the Luke account of the Golden Rule it seems to go a bit beyond the typical “just be nice to people” when he writes “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (6:27-31). That seems a bit excessive for the typical Golden Rule doesn’t it? I mean, if someone takes your cloak why should you also give them your tunic? Isn’t allowing them to have your cloak nice enough? Why the extra step? What is Christ saying that makes this particular mandate different from just “be nice to people in hopes that they’ll be nice back”?
At the very beginning of that set of verses is the command to Love your enemies, and there is another thing that Christ said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) which is the answer isn’t it? Well…yes and no. There are two important things to point out about this passage. The fist is the distinction between the greatest commandment and the second which is like it. The two are not on equal footing and this is an important distinction because it brings to mind other things Christ said such as “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15) and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27) which begs the question of just what does it mean to hear the voice of Christ and to follow Him, love Him, and obey His commandments? This brings me to the second thing the passage from Matthew brings out, and that is explained in the very next verse “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22: 40) The Greek word here translated as “depend” might be better understood if translated a little more literally as “hang or to hang” because what that means is that the Law and the Prophets find their bedrock foundation in these two commandments, but also they are encapsulated in them when the two are fully and truly lived out. Which is why Christ said “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).
Now what does that all mean? It means that you need to make sure that when you’re talking about Godly love and having a relationship with Christ, you are doing so from a Biblical standpoint and not from the “be nice” standpoint of the world. When you love the Lord with everything you are, and when you love your neighbors (and enemies) as yourself, you should be doing it in such a way that encapsulates and grounds all the Law and the Prophets. Think about that. It is a profound thing that Christ commands us to do.
Up till now you might be wondering why I bothered to write this or why I feel disturbed over the similarity between belief systems. The reason why I went into that much detail is to explain the difference between what a Christian should be mean when they refer to the “Golden Rule” and what a Non-Christian might mean. I understand that the Non-Christian label is a very large sweeping brush so let me narrow it down a bit into the general religious or spiritual belief of most of America; that is, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. For some people, that might be a new term and will need some clarification. Most people believe in a religion or spirituality that is moralistic in the sense that they have beliefs, like the golden rule, that help them lead generally good lives most of the time, at least better than person x over there, without taking too hard of a stand so as to not offend anyone and to make people happy. (just don’t ask them to define the words “good” or “happy”). Their beliefs are therapeutic in the sense that they like to hear things to make themselves feel better if they are feeling down or in a tough spot, and ultimately if they are a generally nice enough person, they’ll be let into heaven by god. Which leads to the third part as being deistic in nature. Basically this means that some sort of god created the universe and then basically went on a permanent vacation. The view is that there’s something out there, otherwise why would anything be here, and he really doesn’t do much other than help people out when they really need him, otherwise he absolutely won’t interfere with our personal lives. The basic tenants of MTD can be summed up like this:
1. A god exists who created the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Is this how you would describe Christianity? Is this what a relationship with Christ looks like? It certainly fits into the idea of the largely undefined Christianity that most of the outside world views the body of Christ as, and tragically this is how many Christians would define it as well. It is a profoundly deep and theologically sound thing that Christ wants a friendship with us, and I want to be clear that I am not speaking against that because that is a Biblical concept that I thoroughly believe in. The problem is when Christians tie this concept of Jesus wanting to be our friends with the anti-Gospel views of MTD. After all, if people are basically good, and the above tenants are true, and Jesus only wants to be our friend, then what need is there for a Savior? The Gospel itself becomes destroyed and we wonder why people don’t live like Christians or go to church or want anything to do with Christianity or don’t call themselves Christians or who aren’t becoming Christians because they don’t see the need.
The fact of the matter is, the Bible teaches that “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) which means that not only do we not live up to expectations, we are actually enemies of God from the day we are born. We were born into bondage to our sinful will and nature. We willfully rebel against the Creator of the universe and are absolutely condemned by the Law of God because “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12). Because of that we are all deserving of death and hell and eternal separation from God. However, that same God in His infinite love and knowledge, sent His only Son to be the permanent sacrifice for our sins. God humiliated Himself by becoming one of His own creation, a lowly human so that He could most perfectly be able to take on the sins of the world when He voluntarily gave Himself up to be crucified. The wrath of God was entirely directed on Christ on the cross, and Christ’s righteousness was imputed onto His people. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30) We are in desperate need of a Savior, and Christ is exactly the only One who can do that. He saves His people and radically changes how they live their lives and how they think and how they feel. That same Christ Jesus through whom all was created and who died to bare our sins is coming back soon. When He does the old will pass away and the new heavens and new earth will come forth and Christ will reign.
That is the Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria.