Deep inside each of us, we think that there is something about us that makes us acceptable to ourselves, to others, and to God. This is the reality of human nature. Perpetually, we rely upon some kind of spiritual resumé to make us worthy.
For some, those resumés are built on religious things. Perhaps we look to our church attendance, or our generosity. Perhaps we look to our kind or caring personalities. Maybe we look to our practice of spiritual disciplines – how devoted we are to studying the Word or fasting or prayer. Often this process is sustained by comparison: we look at our pagan neighbors and think, I’m not like that, so I must be acceptable.
Others among us build our spiritual resumés not through religion, but through irreligion. While religion’s basic message is, follow the rules, irreligion’s creed is, follow your heart. Or, be true to yourself. Religion says, do what God says. Irreligion says, do what feels right.
Ironically, though these two roads are quite dissimilar, they have the same ends – estrangement from God and crippling, devastating pride.
Neither religion nor irreligion can justify us before God. Jesus taught frequently against the Pharisees’ many efforts to justify themselves (see, for one example, Luke 18:9-14). Religion can never make you right before God, he claimed. But neither can irreligion. Jesus also taught that his true followers were those who abide in his word (John 8:31). Disciples of Jesus are not saved by their obedience to Christ, but their obedience to Christ is real nonetheless. So both religion and irreligion leave us estranged from God.
Religion and irreligion also leave us wrecked by our own pride. Religious people look down on others who aren’t as holy or godly as they seem to be, ignoring the issue of inner motive that is key to the Bible’s teaching. Irreligious people look down on others who aren’t as “liberated” or “enlightened” as they seem to be, ignoring the issue of Christ’s authority which is also key to the Bible’s teaching. Religion puffs us up through rule-keeping; irreligion puffs us up through rule-breaking. But in the end, both puff us up.
Religion puffs us up through rule-keeping; irreligion puffs us up through rule-breaking. But in the end, both puff us up.
Yet the good news is that Jesus died to save us from our irreligion and our religion, from our tendency to reject his authority through irreligion and from our tendency to reject his mercy through religion. When we consider the gospel, we realize that, no matter how religious or irreligious we are, we were so bad that Jesus had to die in order to save us. But at the same time, we realize that we are so loved that Jesus wanted to die in order to save us. Only when we hold those two ideas together can we “think with sober judgment” about ourselves (Romans 12:3).