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The Editorial

Same old, same old

‘Religion’ now has a very bad name.

John Benton, Editor

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A friend from church was recently out for a meal with work colleagues. With the terrorist threat from jihadists now a given in modern life, the conversation turned to the evils of ‘religion.’ To their surprise, my friend, whom they knew to be a Christian, said he agreed with them. How come?

It has often been rightly said that Jesus came not to bring a new ‘religion’ but a new relationship. His hallmark was introducing an almost new name for God – ‘our Father’. He brings us into the family of God, spiritually by new birth and forensically by justification and adoption (Galatians 4.4-7).

Blind, boasting bullies

The evidence shows the Lord Jesus was vehemently against ‘religion’. ‘Religion’ focuses on us. It majors on us keeping rules, following the right example, doing good in order, supposedly, to gain favour with the Almighty.

The Pharisees were the great religionists of Jesus’s day and he rebuked them in no uncertain terms. Religion burdens sensitive people and crushes them because they know they can’t make the grade (Matthew 23.4); It turns people who think they can be good enough into boasting hypocrites (Matthew 23.5,7); It blinds people to themselves as they persuade themselves they are good enough (Matthew 23.24); It encourages people to be bullies and persecutors – ‘those who don’t keep the rules deserve to be shot’ (Matthew 23.33, 34). Instead Jesus spoke about a new heart, grace and knowing God.

The trouble is that real Christians can have a tendency fall back into ‘religion’. That’s why Paul wrote to the Galatians. That’s why he had to oppose the apostle Peter to his face. That’s why, it would seem, the Galatians had lost their joy, (4.15); were ‘biting’ each other and had become conceited and envious (5.15) – all classic marks of ‘religion.’ And when Christians are just religious, thinking non-Christians, understandably, find us and our faith repulsive.

Where’s the gospel?

With this in mind I have been disappointed by some of the reported statements from Archbishop Welby over the last month. He made headlines as he endorsed a scathing report on the economic state of Britain claiming that the Government had ‘left the poor behind’. Then came a call to clergy to resist the urge to be ‘nice’, to be more than simply moral and follow the radical example of Jesus and get our hands dirty to help the needy in society. At one level, of course, such things need saying. But where’s the gospel? When it comes down to it, these diatribes are just the same old stuff of ‘religion’ – follow the example, do the right thing, but with a bit more radicalism this time.

The truth is that Christ does call us to a radical lifestyle, but only on the basis of having personally experienced the radical grace of God in the gospel. Yes, we are to live out the Sermon on the Mount and give our cloak as well as our tunic, and love even our enemies. But this is only on the back of seeing our utter spiritual poverty and being joyful recipients of God’s blessing through which we are shown mercy, receive righteousness and become his children with which the sermon starts. Yes, we are to exhibit the true religion which cares for orphans and widows and keeps itself pure, (James 1.27). But that can only be genuine if God has given us spiritual birth through the word of truth (James 1.18).

Oh that the gospel might make the headlines, rather than the same old call to ‘do good’!