As humans we seem to have an in-built tendency to religiosity and rule-keeping, often leading to a false notion re God, if not idolatry. Paul gives a good example of this in speaking of the religiosity of the Athenians in Acts 17:16ff. Contrast this with his magnificent introduction to the ‘good news of grace’ in Rom. 1:1-7, and his ‘pride’ (litotes) in v. 16-17, viz. the ‘gospel’ that declares man’s salvation arising from a revealed and alien righteousness, reckoned to believers by God, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last…” This is why in his Galatian Letter he argues so cogently against Pharisaism (rife in the contemporary Church); we began by faith in Jesus, we continue by faith in Jesus, and we finish by faith in Jesus!
Just think of the emphasis on ‘performance’ and ‘excellence’ promoted directly or indirectly in so many churches today, all to the neglect of gracious relationship with God through Christ.
Here in South Africa, with its nominal Christian heritage, people will often say to me, “But I’m trying to be a Christian…”
There is such a thing as ‘a Christ-Less Christianity.’ So many ‘Christians’ are still trying to satisfy God by what they do. When will they fully ‘please’ God? When is ‘enough’ enough? (Rom. 3:23).
This kind of Christianity is joy-less and severe. It produces insecure and defensive Christians, because they look to themselves rather than to Christ. The ‘good news’ is that Christ has dealt with our past, present and future! (Rom. 5-8).
Does this mean irresponsible living? Of course not, for the simple reason that we live from relationship and gratitude, certainly not from religious performance. Think of the parent who parents by rules rather than relationship, and of the child who obeys parental rules but fails to love his/her parents…
Further good news is that as we live for God and others out of relationship, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit Who indwells us – again by grace. We are able to obey because we have been given the Spirit! (Rom. 8:1-4 especially).
Therefore we do not focus on ‘rules,’ church activities, sheer discipline, ‘not sinning,’ etc. but on the risen Jesus and His ‘good news.’ We bring ‘good news’ to a sad world, we live out of a love-relationship with Jesus. How do you and I come across to non-Christians, or even fellow-believers? Religious, pedantic, judgmental or gracious, generous and accepting?
Prof. Jack Deere, in his ‘Surprised by the Power of the Spirit,’ tells his story of an encounter with God amid a professorship at a renowned evangelical seminary in the USA. In his book he makes some strong points about Pharisaism in the Church:
- As threatening as occultism and the New Age movement are to the Church, there is a greater threat from within the Body: legalism, pharisaism and enslavement to tradition. (my own comment – whom did Jesus hit the hardest in the Gospels? The Pharisees!)
- Even knowing the Bible is not the same as knowing God, loving the Bible is not the same as loving God, and reading the Bible is not the same as hearing God. The Pharisees did all the former things, but they did not know, love, or hear God.
- Some have even put the Christian life over Jesus. Deere cites seminary students who were converted to a way of life, but not to Jesus. They loved Christian ‘fellowship,’ ‘going to to church,’ giving to worthy causes, etc. However, Bible study, witnessing, caring for the poor, caring for the sick, and spiritual gifts must never replace Jesus. “Jesus is not a doctrine, a theology, an abstract principle, a ministry, a church, a denomination, an activity, or even a way of life. Jesus is a person, a real person. And he demands that we put him above all these good things. None of these things died for us; the Son of God did.”