The appeal of religion

There is much talk about disdain for religion in America today—rightly so in a certain sense.

There is no question but that religion has been a pernicious and powerful force in much of human history. Christianity too has at times proven itself to be more misguided than a true representative of Jesus Christ. Even today, it is questionable if a significant portion of the Christian Church ought to be called Christian and the matter appears to be worsening. The conduct of Christians and Christian groups sometimes drives people to believe and say things about Christianity that is best described by German Jesuit priest and theologian, Karl Rahner, when he says, “The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim him with their mouths and deny him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.” There is some truth to Rahner’s statement and the subject deserves far more attention.

Yet in keeping with our discussion, we should reply. If much of religion is counterfeited by an intelligent and malevolent agent who seeks to misdirect people away from the truth, Christianity too will be infiltrated and false Christians will be numbered among the church. This is precisely the repeated warnings of the New Testament writers. Allow me to provide just two examples. The first can be found in Acts where Paul warns the members of the church at Ephesus to be on the lookout when he says, "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30 ESV). Since then the Christian church has seen many, repeat, many false teachers preaching and teaching false doctrine. Pulpits across America are filled with such teachers and it is said that at no other time in the history of the Christian church has the matter been so extensive and so pernicious. It should not surprise anyone.

Peter too issues warnings about the matter. One of those warnings is stated in his second letter: "But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them" (2 Peter 2:1 ESV). Peter and Paul could not have been more accurate and the problem continues and will continue.

The primary reason for unbelief

Nevertheless, as serious as this problem is, the primary cause of unbelief towards Christianity in the world is not the poor behavior and misguided doctrine of some Christians, but the inherent disbelief that leads to willful rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ by individual persons. Note how Jesus Christ explains the situation (italics added throughout)

“Whoever believes in him [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:18-20 ESV).

This is but one passage that explains that people do not come to God through Jesus Christ because people love darkness rather than light—their own way rather than submitting to the will of God—their own sovereignty rather than the rule of God in their life.

Religion still appeals

With this said, there is a certain appeal to religion that attracts many. Anthropologists and sociologists often cite such religious appeals as shared community, cohesiveness, and mutual shared spiritual experiences. These things are true. Yet, there is an even deeper appeal to religion that often escapes the view of many—that being the self-merit of people to attain spiritual goodness by their own actions.

There is a fundamental difference between all religions and Christianity. That is, all religions are based upon self-merit in order to be made right with God, self-merit to appease God, self-merit to gain eternal life. Biblical Christianity on the other hand is based solely on the merit of Jesus Christ and his completed sacrificial work on the cross, to be received by faith, as a gift, without human merit.

Bottom line—no one can earn eternal life through their own merit. Let’s take a look at the biblical claim of the exclusion of human merit and boasting.

Eternal life is a free gift from God

Eternal life is absolutely not based upon human merit. No person waits until seeing Christ at the judgement seat to know if he or she lived a life to a satisfactory level that he can be rewarded with eternal life. Many people believe this but the view stands in direct opposition to biblical claims. I added italics to highlight the appropriate words.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7 ESV).

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Eternal life is not by works of the law

Nor is God's willingness to grant eternal life to individuals a matter of keeping a prescribed set of rules, regulations, and laws. The Bible is most clear on this point.

...yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:16 ESV).

Personal righteousness before God is also not because of human merit

Even personal righteousness is a gift from God. While God certainly expects us to obey his directions and commandements as prescribed in Scripture, human beings are so entensively flawed that no self-production of righteousness is possible. In fact, Consider the following passage from Romans carefully.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26 ESV).

Biblical Christianity insists that forgiveness of sins, being made right with God, the gift of eternal life, including present righteousness in God’s eyes, is not based upon human merit but on the gift of God through the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ. There are two reasons for this.

    First, no person can pay the penalty for his own sins.
It is simply beyond the ability for people to be good enough to repay God for their sins.

Furthermore, God chose to not accept human payment for sin. In other words, the currency necessary to pay for our sins (if that were possible), is something we simply do not possess. God on the other hand has chosen to provide the necessary payment for our sins through Jesus Christ and him alone. Read how this is stated: "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross" (Colossians 2:13-14 NIV). And because God provided this payment for mankind's sin, Christ is the only authorized payment acceptable to God. That is why Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). And Peter later states, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV).

    Secondly, God alone receives credit for payment for sin on behalf of mankind
God has determine that no person is to boast over his own goodness and spiritual merit (emphasis added). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). Paul rhetorically asks the question about human merit in regards to God and eternal life, and says, “It [God providing the free gift] was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded (Romans 3:26-27 ESV). You see, God’s decision to provide forgiveness of sins and eternal life to those who come to him through Jesus Christ, places all the merit, efforts, and credit squarely upon his shoulders—not on any person. Therefore human boasting is excluded.

The greatest of gifts

Imagine the difficulty if forgiveness of sins and eternal life were based upon human merit and goodness. At what point would a person merit forgiveness and receive credit for a job well done—well done enough that is? How would God communicate such a repayment system to humanity? An impossible situation. But God, in his wisdom, bypassed all such problems and provided the gift free for all who believe in and place their faith in Jesus Christ.

The ultimate cause for the exclusion of human merit

You might ask why God has excluded human merit—a good question and the Bible provides an answer. Simply put, it appears that God desires that all created beings, angels and humans alike, understand that God alone purchased the price for the redemption for humanity (those who are saved through Christ Jesus), and that he alone is to receive glory for his work throughout all eternity. Consider Paul’s explanation on the matter located in Ephesians 2:7; 3:9-11 (emphasis added): that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus...and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So there you have it—a free gift provided to all who come to God through Christ Jesus. Through the gift and throughout eternal ages God will put on display his kindness for all to see because He alone paid the sin debt for humanity.

And what about religion? Well, first, religion based on anything except the free gift of God through Jesus Christ is only that—a religion—and the number of them is large indeed. Secondly, religion in its most basic form is little more than an attempt at human effort to merit God’s pleasure, forgiveness of sins, self-righteousness, and eternal life. But the Scriptures inform us that these most important of all things cannot be acquired through human merit—anything that points towards that direction is but a dead end—even a counterfeit to the true gift of God “...but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”