Morning Musing: Matthew 6:1

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. Otherwise, you have no reward with your Father in heaven.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

This past Friday we talked about righteousness. I shared some of the thoughts I had first shared with our Bible study group here a couple of days before. The conclusion then was that righteousness is a status that is given to us by Christ when we place our faith in Him. We cannot achieve it on our own, and there is nothing we can do toward that end – and especially no religious deeds – that will change that. Well, if religious deeds can’t move us in the direction of righteousness, why bother doing them? More than that, why bother with religion in the first place? Who needs the Christian religion or any other religion when what we really need is just a relationship with Jesus? This morning, let me share a few more thoughts on the purpose and value of religion in light of the truth about righteousness.

If you want an easy applause line in some circles, you just need to offer up a few lines bashing on religion. That trick works outside the church, of course, where our culture’s view of the church and religion in general is as low as it has ever been. But these kinds of applause lines also play well within the church in some circles. I can remember listening to a popular preacher a few years ago who said that his goal was to eradicate the religion of Christianity from the earth. He was very high on Jesus, and committed to the Christian worldview, but he consciously styled himself an enemy of religion over the higher good of relationship. In the first couple of decades of this century, that kind of talk both within the church and without became incredibly popular.

And there’s good reason for this. Religion has often had a pretty bad reputation across the annals of human history. It should. It’s often worked really hard for that bad reputation. I don’t mean this work was intentional, but it was effective nonetheless. People pursuing one religious system or another got themselves a little bit of power and set about seeking to force anyone who hadn’t yet signed up into conformity with the help of a complicit state apparatus. Well, people don’t much like being forced to do anything, especially when it comes to religion and fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality. As a result, they tended to come to resent these kinds of efforts fairly vigorously. One religion or another gradually became viewed as the enemy of all kinds of things, but particularly positive societal advancement. Religions and religious people tend to want to conserve a particular way of life or status quo over and against efforts to introduce new ideas or directions. Thus religion becomes the enemy of progress. And in a culture where progressivism is popular, religion tends not to be.

And the things we were talking about Friday when it comes to righteousness and a relationship with God seem to play right into all of this thinking. Is that true? Is religion part of the problem when it comes to our being right with God? Not necessarily so. It certainly can be and often is, but in its purest form, religion is simply an organized attempt to engage with the divine. You can fill that “divine” blank with just about whatever you want. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The danger lies in when we start to believe our organized attempts do anything to establish or maintain that connection – in other words, when we start to believe that by our efforts we can establish or maintain the status of righteousness. This is such a grave danger because it is incredibly easy for us to begin to believe that our organized attempts to connect with God are effective in this way.

They are not.

If this is the case, though, what purpose does religion actually serve? If the danger is this great, why not get rid of it entirely? Well, there are a couple of responses to this. First, we are not going to get rid of religion entirely because we are an incurably religious people. Humans have always created religions. Always. From the very beginning we have had a sense that there was more to this life than we could interact with using only our five senses. And even when we have limited ourselves to our five senses, we have still sought out something bigger than ourselves (ever wonder why and how politics becomes ultimate for so many people?). To put this another way: We have always had a sense of the divine. And because we have always had this sense, we have always sought to reach out to it to make contact and benefit from its power. This has always and will always take the form of religion. We are never going to get rid of religion entirely because it is part of our operating system.

The second response here is that religion can serve an incredibly important purpose in our lives if we understand properly what its role is in light of the Gospel. And what is its role? Well, if our connection to God is established and maintained through our relationship with Christ and not any of the religious things we do, this leaves us rather naturally wondering why we would do them. What purpose do they serve? Because righteousness is an imputed status and not something gained through our efforts, the things we normally do to gain the position of righteousness don’t work to that end. But this doesn’t mean those things have no purpose at all. They are still good and right things to do. We simply need to readjust our understanding of why we do them.

Instead of doing any of these things with an eye toward establishing or maintaining our relationship with God, we do them out of the overflow of our gratitude for the relationship we have with Him in Christ. We do them out of obedience to Christ’s command to love one another. We do them in an effort to deepen our faith and our understanding and application of the Christian worldview. In this, we are doing all the same sorts of things someone who is still completely misunderstanding the purpose and nature of religion is doing, but we are doing them from an entirely different position.

Religion can help us in all of these regards by giving us an organized approach to doing them wisely, well, and in community. It helps us make sure we aren’t missing anything, and that we aren’t falling into a rut. It helps us more effectively engage with the needs of the people around us. It helps guide our worship in ways that are properly ordered and Scripturally sound. All of this is the real and right purpose of religion. Any efforts, on the other hand, to use religion to justify ourselves before God are illegitimate.

So, yes, religion has a purpose. It has a point. There is a reason not only that it should exist, but that we should be actively, intentionally incorporating it into our lives. We simply need to make sure we understand what it is, what it’s for, and what its limits are. When we do that and grasp the Gospel along the way, we will find ourselves with a powerful tool to help us grow in our embrace and application of the Christian worldview. If you’ve rejected religion, you probably rejected something worth rejecting. May I invite you to embrace something that is entirely more worth your time? If you get it right in the context of a community committed to getting it right, you’ll be glad you did.

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