Being a pastor and having served in ministry for many years I will have to admit that at the core, there is nothing wrong with religion that is centered upon the worship of the true God, which we find in the Bible. This is worship that is born out of a supernatural and miraculous work of God alone in salvation which moves the individual to worship in “spirit and truth” as Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4. But on the other side of this coin is a dangerous serpent of self-sufficiency which has struck many with its deadly poison of delusion and deception.
Religion is properly defined by Merriam-Webster as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; a cause, principle or system of beliefs held with ardor and faith.” So according to Mr. Webster, everyone holds to a system of beliefs, even the arduous atheist does by this definition; but my focus and concern is not with those who will admit they do not believe in God, it is with those who sit (or have sat) under my charge and the charge of my brothers in the pulpit. You see, we are attuned to live lives that are adjusted to the climate of our particular environment in society. We do not wish to stand out. So, if we have individuals who attend churches, then their outer morality will often match what is expected and seen among the others in the church. This problem among the contemporary church members is the same issue that Jesus addressed in Scripture; religious conformity that is separate from a love of God.
In Matthew 5:20 Jesus made the statement to the crowds that “unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Their “righteousness” was that of being able to meet the religious standard of morality and practice. They “walked the walk” so to speak. They conformed to the idea of what it meant to worship God. But this religious practice was all show and did not come from the heart (see Matthew 6:1-5, 16-18; 15:1-20). Theirs was a religion that centered upon the ability to meet expected standards but did not honor God. This satisfied the Pharisee. It was enough to ease his conscious to the point that he would even boast to God that he “was not like other men” (see Luke 18:9-14).
The central problem with this approach to religion is that it promotes outer change with no inner change in the heart of the individual towards God. The church (or society in general) can create a standard of “good” which falls well short of God’s standard. We feel that as long as we do not offend our fellow man and live respectable lives that we qualify as “good.” The problem with this approach is that it does not consider God at all. But Jesus makes it clear that the sum of God’s commands and Law are centered upon both these dimensions of loving God AND our neighbor (see Matthew 22:36-40). Religion will often focus on change towards our neighbor (be it spouses, children, church members, or society in general) but real change that honors God is firstly a change towards God. It is not enough to change our lives to be socially good, we must have change that is satisfactory to God.
True religion (in the Christian sense) is based upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone. It must be born out of a work of God in the heart of the individual through the power of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Isaiah was very clear when he said, “our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). A religion that promotes man’s righteousness falls into this category which will fail God’s test of righteousness. This is why we see the rebuke upon the Pharisee’s righteousness, it fell woefully short of God’s standard. But God, in His grace exposes the great need for true righteousness and then supplies it through Jesus Christ to those who place their faith in Him. Our problem today with religion is that we will often promote a paradigm of acceptable living which is divorced from the reality that the righteousness that saves is found in God alone.
This is what separates Christianity from all other religions of the world. It is a religion of pure grace. It is by grace that God grants the acceptable righteousness of Christ to those who believe. Every other religion (and in some cases, even modern evangelical practices) promotes a works-based acceptance of the individual. A works-based acceptance relies upon our ability to be acceptable to God; this was the mistake of the Pharisees. Let us not look to ourselves to be found acceptable in His sight, because no amount of good works will complete this task. We must look to the righteous life of Christ and then put our complete confidence in His righteousness alone to save. If you find yourself in a place where you are prompted to “act right” instead of trusting in God to make you right, then you are on the path of problematic and ultimately fatal religion.