To consider Christianity solely—even primarily—as a religion is to separate it from its message and lose its essence entirely. Non-Christians, at least in the U.S., see Christianity as “just another religion,” and American Christians wonder why the influence of Christianity seems to be on a sharp decline in their country, but they don’t realize that they are only perpetuating the decline by confusing their faith with religion. When Christ came, he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). But many Christians have lost this fullness of life that Christ promised amidst a religious fog. Christianity is not, nor was ever intended to be, a religion. Religion is lifeless, but Christ promised life. Religion is all about our efforts to reach God, but Christianity is all about God’s efforts to reach us. Jesus himself was no friend of religion and he did not come to establish a new religion (or to change and old one, for that matter). In fact, religion claims only our intellectual and behavioral assent, but Jesus Christ claims our total and absolute commitment.
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Religion, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is a lifeless, man-made thing, and has nothing to do with the essence of Christianity. The first Christ followers simply called it “The Way.” Not a way, as the postmodernist would have it, but The Way. In his incredibly well-researched book about Jesus and the movement that began as a result of his life, Who is this Man?, John Ortberg points out that The Way originally “was not simply a different religion to Rome; it involved a different idea of religion, one that might threaten social structures rather than strengthen them” (Ortberg 53). When this movement began, Rome didn’t know what to do with it. Religion was something that the state controlled for the state’s purposes. Christianity was not. Christianity was not considered a religion until Constantine adopted it as the official religion of the Roman Empire hundreds of years after it began.
Bonhoeffer would say that “The Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, paradoxical as that may sound” (Metaxas 83). Religion, as Bonhoeffer saw it, is a system in which man, by his own efforts, is taught to attempt to climb a ladder to heaven and reach God in his own moral strength. The drastic, core difference between religion and The Way is this: the Christian faith teaches that instead of God expecting us to climb the ladder upward, God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to climb the ladder downward to us. This Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8)! Because of what Jesus Christ did on behalf of all mankind, no man has to earn salvation—no man can earn salvation. Indeed, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). There is no religion that teaches of a God so loving and merciful that he would do such a thing.
It is quite clear that Jesus did not come to establish a new religion. “If you were reading the Gospels without bias or assumption, you would have no trouble whatsoever coming to believe that religion is the enemy—or in the hands of the enemy” (Eldredge 8). Almost exclusively, Jesus’ harshest words recorded in the Bible are reserved for religious leaders. One of the best examples of this can be found in Matthew 23, where Jesus condemns the religious leaders in a 23-verse-long rant in which seven times he begins a sentence with “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29) and tops it all off by calling out, “You snakes! You brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33)! It was the religious leaders that frequently peppered Jesus with loaded questions, that opposed his teachings in any way they could, and that ultimately had him crucified.
Jesus was no friend of religion, he was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). If what the Bible says is true and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), then the same is true of him now. Christians claim Christ as Lord, and according to Bonhoeffer, “Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment” (Metaxas 83). Those seeking to follow Christ will not accomplish this by simply subscribing to any religious organization.
Religion demands good deeds and weekly church attendance, allowing people to stay in control of their own lives, but the way that Bonhoeffer saw it, following Christ demands everything, including our very lives. As Jesus said, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). It stands to reason, therefore, that we must give our whole lives to Christ if we wish to receive the fullness of life that can be found in him—religion isn’t going to cut it.
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