By Mary Kroeger
Religion! A well-circulated word. However very few think of what it actuality means. Is it important for us to be aware of its true meaning and the various forms it takes? How can we ascertain the validity of a religion? What is the common element that connects the various forms of religion? Are people inherently religious, or do they become religious by becoming members of an organization? Can religion change us? In order to answer our many questions, let's look at the meaning of religion.
Wikipedia defines religion as "a cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements." How interesting!
According to definition, religion is dressed in many different costumes and takes on many different forms and behavior patterns. Each religion has its own code of conduct and definition of what is good and what is evil. Each of the various cultures and organizations has its own rules and dogmas that have to be followed. Each has its own idea of God. Each has its own ideals and understanding of what happens to us after our physical death. Yet all seem to carry the promise of a utopia - paradise, nirvana, heaven, a better earth etc. - if the laws of their belief system are kept. The many different forms enables it to invade every strata of society.
The god or gods of the various religions have many demands, but none offer help to fulfill their demands. So the members have to rely on their own ability to please their particular god, and to function according to their belief system! We grow up thinking that the religion in which we have been trained, is the right one. Later, questions may arise. The real question is: is there a religion that is founded on truth? The source is so important! Without a firm foundation it will not withstand the winds of adversity. Is there a religion that is founded on truth - on Jesus Christ who is the truth?
In our search we have to understand that Christianity, that is, faith in Jesus Christ, is not a religion. It does not fit the definition of religion.
It does not bow to cultures and customs. Believing Jesus Christ and obeying Him is basic for Christian living!
So let's look at the source of religion, and when it came into existence. Since religion is so universal, we know that it must have an early beginning. We can recognize when it first came into existence because it needs man's ideas and decisions in order to flourish.
When did man first exercise his own idea of what he thought would be advantageous to him? Wasn't it at the time when he ate the forbidden fruit instead of obeying God? In disobedience to God's command, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. They did what looked advantageous to them. Obeying the serpent was more appealing to them than obeying God. In so doing, they became victims of believing false ideas. These lies now became their truth.
They now believed that God was their enemy. That left them in charge of their own destiny. They would now have to obtain righteousness by their own ability and right choices. In the discovery of their nakedness, they made aprons of fig leaves to cover themselves. A casual glance may make aprons appear as a covering. But they are very limited. Self-effort can never produce a robe of righteousness. Only faith in Jesus Christ can do that!
Adam and Eve's faith now rested in their own ability to reach godhood. The serpent's lie had become their truth. This was the birth of religion. Each religion depends on self-effort to reach its utopia. This rules out the need for obedience to God's directives. It puts the mind of the serpent, the mind that is against God, the mind that functions in the death realm, in charge of humanity's thinking. In its emphasis on the importance of self, its disobedience to God's command becomes irrelevant. The lie, that self is the master of our destiny, is hidden in every religion! This lie, imbedded in religion, has become humanity's truth!
Religion looks attractive because it appears to be other than it is. The fruit of the forbidden tree successfully hid its poison in the outward appearance of beauty. The serpent's promises that the fruit was nutritious and able to make them wise, made disobedience to God's command appear advantageous. The fruit consisted of both good and evil. The good and evil appeared to be separate fruits, so it appeared as though they could choose the good without touching the evil. It appeared as though there was choice.
But Jesus said that one tree CANNOT bear two kinds of fruit, so we know this was one fruit. It appeared desirable, but it contained the poison of death.
The fruit was not what it appeared to be, for it was the fruit of disobedience! Adam and Eve trusted the appearance instead of trusting God! They listened to a voice that was anti-God! This brought death into the world. It was not fruit that could be trusted; it was fruit produced by the tree of disobedience and false appearances! This fruit became known as religion!
Religion appears to be the answer to humanity's desire for godhood, for it enhances the ego. This is very appealing to humanity's selfhood. Good deeds, empowered by self, make the self-life appear righteous. Believing a lie does not change the lie into truth. For example, believing that the earth is flat does not change the shape of the earth.
Believing a lie gives us a wrong understanding of who God is. The lie is always against God; it is against the truth. The lie says God is against us. He is not our friend. He does not want our best. He only loves us if we don't sin. But if we sin, we've had it. Believing a lie brings separation between God and us, and we no longer trust Him. The lie tells us that we have to trust in our own ability to do works that will satisfy God. The lie says that we have to win God's favor by doing good works. These ideas and lies are incorporated in religion!
Dependence on the works produced by self-effort and self-centeredness, is the product of religion. It emphasizes the importance of making right choices - just as the serpent had said. So we see that the spirit of religion is the spirit of the serpent!
Through Adam we have all inherited the mind of the serpent, the mind of religion, the mind of death. "For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace, because the carnal mind is against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." (Rom. 8:6-8)
Since the natural, religious, carnal mind is always against God, it is always against the truth! But it does not appear that way to us. It appears as truth, and it looks advantageous to us. Therefore it is difficult for us to discern the deception. Only by knowing the truth and believing the truth, can we avoid being taken in by the deception.
Knowing God is knowing His absolute trustworthiness, for there is no deception in Him! Therefore we can trust Him over and above what our eyes see!! Religion wants us to trust our eyes instead of trusting God. God's ways are higher than ours, and we cannot see the end result. In the natural it feels as though we are facing an impossible situation! We need faith to believe that God has a solution! "Without faith it is impossible to please God",,."Whatever is not of faith is sin." (Heb. 11:6; Rom.14:23) Faith in God's ability to do His will and that His will is the best for us, gives us the victory over believing the lies hidden in religion's appearances!
Religion always masquerades in deceptive forms in order to lure us away from the truth. It even appears to desire truth by seeking for signs to prove the validity of truth. In unbelief, it wants truth to prove itself to be the truth. The Jewish hierarchy kept asking Christ for signs and more signs. Seeking signs does not get us to our destination. All the great miracles Christ performed were not enough to get them to believe in Him. Even His resurrection did not convince them. So they remained in their religious rituals of appearances!
Repentance is unknown to religion. Religion functions in blame instead of repentance. Adam and Eve demonstrated this. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. There was no evidence of repentance. It is foreign to religion, for it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. When Christians indulge in blaming others or the devil for their mistakes, they are demonstrating immaturity. They have not yet matured enough to live in the realization that the "I", the self-life, has been crucified with Christ, and that Christ is now living in them! (Gal. 2:20)
In religion, blame flourishes. Besides blaming others for our mistakes, we blame ourselves for our failures, and then wallow in guilt. This is like spinning our wheels. It takes a lot of effort, but it does not get us anywhere. We need to repent and receive forgiveness! Our failures are examples of the best our self-effort can produce. True sorrow leads to repentance and God's forgiveness.
The apostle Paul wrote, "I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, in order that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Corinthians 7:9-10) Our sorrow has to be according to the will of God. Sorrow that does not lead to repentance is in the death realm. It is the sorrow inherent in religion.
Religion always persecutes those who are walking in truth. It hates truth, for truth reveals the lies religion is trying to conceal. The exposure of its lies marks the end of its control over people. Religion is very passionate about being in control. To remain in control it has to do away with those who walk in the light. When Jesus Christ came on the scene, the truth revealed those who were ruled by religion, for they were against Him.
Religion is anti, or against Christ. The Antichrist, the man of sin, is revealed. (2 Thess. 2:3) It does not say that he is born. He could only be revealed after Christ came in the anointing of the Spirit! In Gal. 5:17 Paul put it plainly, "The flesh is always against the Spirit, and the Spirit is always against the flesh." Religion could not be revealed as being anti-Christ before Christ, the truth, was revealed.
A religious leadership fears those who speak the truth, for the truth will reveal their hypocrisy. Therefore it will persecute those who speak truth. This helps us to understand why Paul said, "They that live godly will suffer persecution." (2 Timothy 3:12) If the fear of persecution determines our continuance in the religious belief system, spiritual growth will be stunted. We are to come out of the religious system completely! Why? Because it is always against the Spirit! It is birthed in the carnal mind of man - the mind that has been inherited from the serpent. It falsely declares that man can achieve his own salvation and righteousness by making right choices and choosing the good. It trumpets a wrong image of God!
To grow in truth, we have to be willing to let go of the popular lies of religion that we thought were truth. The Jewish hierarchy was not willing to do this, so it crucified Christ, the Truth.
The crafty serpent's lies have not changed! It still tries to engage us in persuasive arguments in order to lead us astray. Conversation gives it an opportunity to extol the merits of its advice, and to discredit God. Eve conversed with the serpent and was deceived. Jesus refused to do that. Instead, when He was tempted He quoted scripture. He refused to be drawn into conversation. He refused the devil's demand for a sign, as well as his demand for worship. Christ obeyed God and therefore remained in life!
Humanity does not have the ability to correctly judge what lies beneath the surface of the appearance of religion. Therefore we have to rely on God's judgment and obey Him! Our obedience to the voice of the Holy Spirit will keep us in the right relationship with God! Words that do not have their source in God are in the death realm of religion.
Religion has successfully introduced substitutions for truth by elevating man's ideas and imaginations. Religion's substitutions look very appealing! They are dressed in costumes that appeal to man's ego, ideas, philosophies and imaginations. The serpent's crafty deceptions find a happy home in humanity's egoism and selfhood.
The serpent's methods of old still work. To draw Christians into self-importance, it feeds the ego! It truthfully tells us that we are not robots. We agree. Then the lie is introduced. If we are not robots, we must have a free will and make right choices. The scriptures tell us that we have a will, but it is not a free will. A will that is free, CANNOT be influenced. We know that our will is influenced by many things like fear, bargains, love, control, beauty, strength, honor, etc. Religion wants us to believe that our "free will" enables us to make right decisions. This makes us responsible for our own destiny. Heaven or Hell - it's our choice. This conclusion emerges from the lie that says we have a free will. It usurps the sovereignty of God, for then God cannot influence them.
Religion cannot understand spiritual realities. It tells us that God's kingdom will be established in the seen realm and ruled by a government established in the physical Jerusalem. Jesus said that the kingdom of God does not come by observation; it does not come in the physical seen realm. Instead, it comes in the spiritual unseen realm within us. This produces a change in us. Love is the evidence of Christ's rule within us! Love is manifested in selflessness - not selfishness!
Religion's emphasis on the seen realm keeps Jesus Christ in the limitations of the physical realm. He remains in the form of a man - as the man from Galilee. Even His coming again must be in the form of a man. This belief effectively denies the fact that He is now Spirit, and that we are now individually members of His spiritual body. By adding a "second" to His coming again, religion denies the fact that He came again in the Spirit at Pentecost. It denies the fact that He has promised never to leave us. How can He never leave us, if He has not come again? Religion refuses to admit that Christ has come again in the Spirit. Nor can it understand that Christ comes to us in every spiritual revelation we receive of Him.
To draw us into believing religion's deceptions, the religious mind of the translators have sometimes added words to the Greek documents. Sometimes these words help us to get a better understanding of the text, and sometimes they give us a wrong understanding. For example, in 1 Cor. 1:2 where Paul writes, "called saints" the words "to be" have been inserted in italics. This tells that they are not in the original. However, the natural mind thinks that sainthood will be achieved in the future, so we are "called to be saints". But Paul addresses believers as saints. He does not call them forgiven sinners, for that is the language of religion.
Religion seeks to bring God and Christ down to our image. It speaks about the person of God, the person of Christ, and the person of the Holy Spirit. It ascribes personality and characteristics to God. However, God is spirit; it does not say that God is a spirit; He is spirit! People have personality and characteristics. God always is! He never changes! He does not have a measure of love like we do - He IS love! Religion is in the business of always trying to downsize the very essence of God's being and bring Him down to our level of understanding. The truth is, that in Christ we are being ascended into His image!
Religion's lies cause us to believe that we can attain righteousness by keeping the rules of our organization. If at first we don't succeed, then just try harder. By our trying harder, we can achieve our own salvation and the fulfillment of our dreams. Self-effort appeals to the boastful pride of man. Pride overlooks our inability to cleanse ourselves from sin. It hides our need for help! Since religion is unable to provide help, it has to appear as though it is not in the need of help.
Man's attempts to attain righteousness can never substitute for the righteousness of God. Man's righteousness is founded on a lie. The adherents of religion are expected to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This is an impossibility! Failure inspires more self-effort!
Religion claims that God wants us to prosper and become wealthy in worldly riches. It trumpets wealth as the answer to comfort, pleasures, importance, and power. It also declares that we should rise up and take dominion over our problems. It tells us that we can do it if we try hard enough. It claims that God doesn't really want our best, so we have to trust in our own ability. Religion flourishes in the lies inherent in disobedience!
Religion only has the appearance of life and beauty, for it is rooted in humanity's ideas of good and evil. Religion's counterfeit portrayal of truth can only be discovered when it is examined under the light that Christ is. There is a big difference between faith in God, and faith in religion, the counterfeit. Outwardly, good deeds look the same. For example, helping others, being involved in missions, church projects, humanitarian relief work, etc., all have the same outward appearance. But when they are done to glorify self or to obtain righteousness, they are in the death realm. Those deeds have their source is in the deadness of self-effort that the serpent introduced to Adam and Eve. The lie, that godhood can be achieved by doing good deeds and making right choices, continues to be believed. The truth is that Christ has to be our righteousness, wisdom, sanctification and redemption! (1 Cor. 1:30)
Religion wants us to grow egotistically; God wants us to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18) Religion wants us to increase; God says He must increase!
God's plan of salvation is so much greater than religion's appearances! It consists of truth and life! The good news is that there is no death in Christ, but the death to sin. He invites us to freely eat of the truth that He is, and to receive grace to help in time of need! Believing the Lord Jesus Christ takes us out of our death in Adam and transfers us into the life of Christ. It takes us out of religion, the death realm of self-importance, and brings us into Christ, the life of love, faith and obedience! This is only made possible by the grace that is ours in Christ!
In summing up, we see that religion encourages the fulfillment of the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the boastful pride of life! These things that are not of the Father but are of this world. (1 John 2:16) Religion encourages the self-life to be its Savior. It fashions its lies to appear as truth. It flourishes in its appearance of the fulfillment of our desires for happiness, life and godhood. It focuses on feelings instead of truth. Its crafty lies bring a hearty "Amen" to humanity's belief in its own philosophies, wisdom, ideas and imaginations. These are against God and need to be cast down! (2 Cor. 10:5) Only the Holy Spirit of truth can lead us into all truth! So let us obey Him who is the truth!