Two days ago, I posted the new Jefferson Bethke spoken-word video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus”. Ever since, my blog traffic has sky rocketed – which is sweet. Everyone is watching this video; just look at your recent Facebook news feed. And while people are watching it, many are also fighting about it (via blogs). The debate, it seems, stems from the word “religion”, Bethke’s use of it, and the fact that his “gospel message” is flawed.
But is Jefferson really wrong here? I don’t think so. Here’s my two cents.
The word “religion”
No one should argue that Jesus didn’t uphold the law. He did. Take Matthew 5-7 for instance. Jesus makes a bold statement at the beginning of His sermon:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
For an in-depth look at this passage, read this excellent article by Robin Brace. Here we read Jesus upholding the validity of the Old Testament (The Law). He spoke it into existence, and He is calling for His followers to continue upholding it. However, He challenges them (and us) to go further than just “being good.” This is the main reason for His sermon in Matthew 5-7, to explain the deeper meaning of what God spoke so long ago. It wasn’t enough that they kept the law, but that their hearts and lives were transformed by the Spirit (i.e. stop hating one another, stop lusting, stop arguing, seek reconciliation, live as examples, etc).
So, yes, Jesus upheld the Law. We should uphold the Law. Without it, Paul says, we don’t know we’re doing wrong actions. However, the Law does not bring Salvation; it brings us to Christ, who has paid our Salvation. The Law doesn’t save us, it condemns us; Christ saves us and redeems us as a new creation.
Christ is after heart modification, not just behavior modification. And that’s what He means about our righteousness surpassing that of the Pharisees. They knew God’s word, and they strived to uphold God’s Law daily. The problem was, the religious leaders, though Godly, were very legalistic in their living. Anyone who didn’t follow their exact example – not so much God’s but theirs – was tossed aside as a sinner and damned to hell. Christ came to turn things around – namely people’s mindsets and hearts. He came to destroy the legalism of the Law, and to bring us back to what God first initiated: a relationship.
While the Law brings us to awareness, legalism binds us in chains. While religion is good, religious duty doesn’t save us. Yes, our relationship with Christ – our faith – is evidenced by the fruit we bare (John 15, the Book of James), but our works do not “one-up” what Christ has already done.
This is the point, I believe, Jefferson Bethke is trying to make in his video.
The Overall Message
One of my favorite parables of Jesus is found in Luke 18:9-14, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus describes a scene at the Temple, during worship, that involved a “Christian” and a “non-Christian” – or a “self-righteous-Christian” and a “still-sinning-Christian,” take your pick. The story revolves around their prayer/worship to God. One boasts himself up before God as being the prize Christian. The other humbles himself before God, acknowledges his need for God, and asks for new mercy. Jesus ends the story by saying the sinner was the righteous one, while the other was not.
Here’s a true-modern example of this story. A teen is seen at church with an “un-Christian” t-shirt (it involves a skull and bones). A member of the church comments to a group, “What does he have on? Why are kids like him in this church?” This actually happened more than once. One was trying to grow in his relationship with Jesus, and one was worried about the outer appearance of another and what others would think.
One gives example of what Jesus came to establish, and one gives example of what Jesus came to change.
Maybe a better word Bethke and others (like myself) should use is “religious-legalism.” After all, legalism is what we’re talking about here, not the faith and practice of our relationship with Christ. Bethke is calling out the legalism that still exists in the Church today, and he should – we all should. Legalism has no place in religion. It has no place in our relationships with Jesus and others.
Bethke, like myself, loves the Bride of Christ. We want to see the Body of Christ transformed into what it should be, according to scripture. No one is saying “Let’s throw it all out,” rather we’re saying, “Let’s get rid of legalism and bring back the Law of Christ. Let’s move past just being good and let’s be transformed by the Presence and Spirit of God!”
What’s to argue about this message?
Further reading: Jesus and the Law, and How Jesus Used Religion to Destroy the Power of Religion. Both pieces are from Robin Brace.
Additionally, read this review of the video by Tullian Tchividjian, Religion and the Gospel.