The Unreligion

The rest of the world will always have a hard time understanding you because it has such a hard time understanding faith.    At times you don’t understand faith much, either.

You Might Make A Pretty Good Muslim

Ravi Zacharias once related a conversation he had heard about between a Muslim sheikh and a Christian missionary.  An Israeli court had found four Palestinians guilty for crimes against the state (presumably terrorism), and sentenced them to death.  The sheikh had retaliated by ordering the deaths of eight Israelis.

The missionary asked, “Who appointed you judge and jury and gave you the authority to order such killings?”  The sheikh replied, “I am not the judge and jury.  I am merely an instrument of God’s judgment.”  The missionary asked, “What place is there, then, for God’s forgiveness?”  The sheikh said, “Forgiveness is only for those who deserve it.”

Think about the contradiction in that last statement.   If someone needs forgiveness, then they don’t deserve it.  That’s why we call it forgiveness.

The sheikh didn’t see the contradictory nature of his statement, but then again, a lot of Christians don’t, either.  We routinely fall into the same trap of thinking grace is for those who deserve it (contradiction), forgiveness is for those who deserve it (contradiction), or justification by faith is for the morally and spiritually deserving (contradiction).  That’s why, when you think about acceptance with God, it’s possible for you to be more of a Muslim, or Hindu, or Jew, than a Christian.

All across the spectrum of religion, the most general understanding holds that as long as the worshiper is faithful to his religious teaching, then the god associated with it (whether he, she, or it), will recognize the merits of the worshiper and accept/bless accordingly.

“My god responds to my good” is an assumption so enmeshed with global creeds, that if you don’t have it, then you may not have a valid world religion at all.

No wonder Paul spent so much time in Romans arguing with the Jewish readers of this book.  They called themselves Christians and believed in Jesus, but still thought according to the global template of meritorious salvation.  In Romans 4:1-12, the apostle continued to make the case that faith transcended everything else, including any kind of human work.

The Moment When the Whole Universe Seemed to Stop

In 4:1-3, Paul establishes that faith is foundational to any real relationship with God:

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 

By asking this question, Paul hoped to draw Jewish attention to Abraham, their forefather, the person in whom they were most likely to boast.  It was a great point of pride that they should be descendants of this man, whose life is the first in the entire Bible to be recorded in such great detail, and who was called “The friend of God.”  They could truthfully say their race sprung from one who was tight with the Creator of the universe.

But what did this man gain?  What was his claim to fame?  Many say his obedience, his goodness, his righteousness.  To these responses, Paul would disagree, saying,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 

Even if Abraham had packed his resume full of things he could have bragged about, none of them would have moved God to account him righteous.  Even the most exemplary mortal who attempts praiseworthy righteousness will only impress as much as the guy who can almost juggle.

Instead, the Bible recorded a freeze frame moment in Genesis 15:6, where the universe seemed to stand still, and Abraham believed God, and God, in turn, called his faith righteousness.  You might read right over the verse.

Abraham wasn’t doing anything particular when God called him righteous.   He wasn’t saying anything.  He wasn’t praying or sacrificing or making any vows.  God made him a promise and he believed it.  Bang.  Connection made.    It was a heart level transaction, and so faith became the primary factor of his righteousness.

The Jewish readers of Romans needed to understand the rich irony.  Though their entire nation was steeped in Mosaic Law and heritage, at the root of it was an individual justified by faith.

Coca-Cola, KFC, Skyline Chili, and Abraham

Faith, you might say, was Abraham’s secret ingredient, precisely the thing that made him what he was.  We’re always trying to find the secret ingredient to something.  For about 125 years, the formula for Coca Cola was the most closely guarded in the industry, and it was said that never more than two employees at a time were allowed to know it.  Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret blend of eleven herbs and spices is kept in a vault, while Skyline chili likewise hides its recipe from public view.

Why such vigilance in each of these cases?  Because the secret ingredient makes those products what they are, and if they’re not kept confidential, rascally consumers might duplicate them for themselves in their own homes.

We’re right for wanting to isolate and identify what made Abraham what he was, specifically so that we can duplicate it and have it in our own homes.  Thankfully, his secret ingredient isn’t much of a secret.  It’s a secret in plain sight, because Genesis 15:6 has been in writing for thousands of years—“Abraham believed God.”  Once established in the heart, every wonderful thing will begin to blossom upward from a foundation of faith, every lasting thing, and every heavenly reality.

You’re Better Off with a Freebie

Because of our resilient desire to medal in religious achievements, Paul continues his case, progressing from faith’s primacy to its utter superiority over works.

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 

The apostle warns all the decent, noble, “spiritual” folks who think it better to work for God’s approval that they will get what is due them, never more.  They will only get what is coming to them.  This begs the question that, given your spotty track record with consistent righteousness, Do you want what you deserve?

Paul presents the superior alternative:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 

Why is faith so much more effective?  Because faith indicates that one does not work, but stops believing in self, and transfers his trust to someone else—to Him who justifies.  This is a better thing by far, because God does not justify the deserving, but the ungodly. 

God counts our faith in Him as righteousness, because it is no longer self-centered, orbiting around the foibles of a sinner.  Now it syncs with the perfect work of Jesus on the cross.  And so the Christian life, from that time onward, becomes the story of someone else’s perfection, the obedient death of One who will never fail to move the heart of God and satisfy His righteous counsel.   Faith, then, is superior to anything we can cook up on our own.

It is superior as well in terms of blessing:

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Take a look at the blessings mentioned here.  They’re all clearly forensic in nature, but with definite relational value.  If you’ve ever been in debt to a best friend, you know what I mean.  Maybe you borrowed their car, or laptop, or clothing, and six months later, you haven’t given it back.  The air is full of tension, because they know that you know that they know that you owe.  Clear the debt, and everything changes.  The sky turns blue, and the relationship normalizes.  That’s the blessing experienced when God forgives our lawless deeds, when He erases a debt we could not afford to pay back, but Jesus paid for us.   This will no doubt seem strange to the person who has lived all his life underneath a relentless layer of gray, but it’s a blessed strange.

Likewise, it is a blessing to have sins covered.  If a damaging, dirty secret about you has ever gotten out, especially one that wounded a close friend, then you know the sense of irretrievable damage and finality.  You wish there was a way it could be covered, not simply hidden, but with the actual hurt dissipated, the shame and offense removed.  In the human realm of affairs this often proves impossible.  But not with God.  Christ covered our sins with His blood, diffusing the righteous wrath of God.  He didn’t hide our offenses.  He answered them with the cross.  When that sense of deep, dark wrong between you and God subsides, it’s not lucky, it’s blessed.

We’re also blessed not to have our sins counted. If you’ve ever had someone keep a running list of your shortcomings, this will especially resonate.  Your “biographer” knows exactly how many times you were late, or used profanity, or cheated on your diet.   As your count increases, it reinforces a sense of mounting condemnation.  But do away with the list and the ominous mountain flattens into a green grassy pasture.  This is God’s work, in Christ.  He no longer counts.  In fact, He discards the previous list.  It’s a blessing to restart our sin count at zero and because of God’s justification, to stay there.

All of this happens through faith, which again, makes it superior to works.

Because It’s Difficult, It Must Be Effective?

No matter what, we still admire efforts at self-justification, and the more dramatic, the better.

In 2003, a Buddhist priest finished a seven-year marathon that totaled 24,800 miles.   According to its particular code of honor, this trek, once undertaken, cannot be discontinued, or else the participant must kill himself.  Each year of the seven year journey has requirements.  The first year calls for wake-up at midnight, and a run of 18 miles a day with 250 stops for prayer for 100 consecutive days.

The following year demands double that requirement, with each year building upon the earlier expectations.  By the seventh year, the priest must run 52.5 miles per day for 100 straight days, 18 miles for another 100 days, and finish the 234 mile trip back home.  Throughout this time, the priest must chant mantras for days on end without food or water.  The monk did it all for the sake of receiving enlightenment.

We tend to judge these impressive works as legitimate, simply because of the sincerity involved.  Surely, we think, God must notice this man and respond to his devotion.  Yet such things are no more effectual than the self-mutilation of the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18.  Paul would say, “Friend, suspend your pride, rest your tired soul, and enjoy the blessing of faith in Him who justifies the ungodly.”

This is exactly the message he has for the rest of us who are, in our own ways, also trying to prove ourselves to God, to receive absolution or some speck of blessing.

What the Gate Guards Need to Know

Even though faith is primary and blessed, radical legalists such as certain first century Jews found it an overly convenient approach for the lawless gentiles.  Even today, well-meaning Christians can act like gate guards, shielding the faith from riff-raff who are eager to have their sins forgiven.

Charges of easy-believism, and insincerity, while sometimes warranted, can actually underscore the sinner’s feeling of not being qualified even for faith in Christ.  Paul proceeds to demonstrate that justification by faith is available to everyone.

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised”—that is, those who bear the mark of being one of God’s people—“or also for the uncircumcised?”—that is, for the outsider who has had no standing with God, or past history, or attempts at holy living?  The controversy had to be settled, and the apostle used more of Abraham’s life to make the point:

For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness, 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?

A simple answer to “before” or “after” will make evident whether God is constrained by a man’s personal merit.  Abraham was an uncircumcised gentile before he was the first circumcised Jew.  By religious reckoning, God should have commanded him to be circumcised, to show his commitment and sincerity, before God declared him righteous.   Yet:

It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.

In Abraham’s case, the separation line between righteous and unrighteous was not circumcision or any other religious work, but faith in God alone.  After Abraham crossed this line, God commanded him to be circumcised not to be righteous, but to show that he already was.  Religious minds typically get it backward.

Nor was Abraham’s spiritual chronology accidental.  It was supposed to be a template for all who followed after him:

“…The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Our faith walk should have this man as a point of reference.  He had been an uncircumcised member of the dark, pagan nations of the ancient world.  But having believed God’s promise, his faith was counted as righteousness without any religious props, ceremonies, or achievements.   His ensuing life was built upon that foundation.

Something Different than Mere Religion

This is the message God intends for us.  And before anyone mistakes the walk of faith as something comfortable and easy, then we should know that faith is something foreign to our mortal dispositions.  I recall the time directly after I had been justified by faith in Christ.  I found that walking in the footsteps of Abrahamic faith was like a new pair of shoes, fresh and exciting, yet uncomfortable.

For twenty-one years I had walked in the footsteps of an indifferent sinner.  I was used to it.  I even knew the ropes of good-boy religion, with all its appearances, secrets, rule-bending, and “acceptable sins.”

Faith was something different.  The games were over.  But so was the drain of doing my best to keep God happy, which always had the same shelf life as diet and exercise routines.   I learned that faith shoes were meant to be worn daily, not just on Sundays, and that they would last the rest of my life and into the next age, because they were not made with my own shoddy materials.

“Christianity is the unreligion. It turns all our religious instincts on their heads ….The ancient Greeks told us to be moderate by knowing our inclinations. The Romans told us to be strong by ordering our lives. Buddhism tells us to be disillusioned by annihilating our consciousness. Hinduism tells us to be absorbed by merging our souls. Islam tells us to be submissive by subjecting our wills. Agnosticism tells us to be at peace by ignoring our doubts. Moralism tells us to be good by discharging our obligations. Only the gospel tells us to be free by acknowledging our failure. Christianity is the unreligion because it is the one faith whose founder tells us to bring not our doing, but our need.”1



 1 Dane Ortlund, Defiant Grace (EP Books, 2011), p. 38.


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