While You Were Sleeping is one of our favorite movies. It’s funny, yet romantic, quotable, and is filled with great characters. Joe Junior, Lucy’s landlord’s son, is no exception. Not the sort of person you expect theological insight from, but, it has happened.
You see, it seems I cannot escape from this plague within Christendom. What plague? The “Christianity is a relationship not a religion,” plague. It irritates me to no end. Not just because I’m an Anglican and I like deliberate, historical liturgy. No, I think there is a fundamental flaw in its presuppositions. Its theology is askew.
This post at a Catholic blog helped me to clarify what it is. The “Relationship not religion” (RNR) trope misunderstands, among other things, justification and obedience. Bottom line, the RNR position grows out of exaggerating the “faith not works” language of Paul. It reduces Christianity to “knowing a guy,” to put it a bit crassly. Need tickets to get into heaven? No problem, I know a guy….
That is essentially the underpinning of the RNR camp, I think. I’m not sure all who repeat the RNR mantra can elucidate that foundation.
Unfortunately, for the RNR crowd, scripture does not seem to support their position. Consider Luke 4:16 as an opener.
And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. (ESV, emphasis added)
Jesus, apparently, was religious. His custom, we are told, was to go to synagogue on the Sabbath, and even take part in the religious stuff going on there. This shouldn’t shock us too much.
It seems God, who supposedly looks down on religion, actually cares about it a great deal. If you’re doing a read-through the Bible plan this year, you’ll soon be hitting dozens of chapters of God explaining, in detail, to Moses and the Israelites, how to conduct their religion.
More to the point at hand, however, is this idea that Jesus actually does expect us to do things. Or else.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36 ESV emphasis added)
This is but one verse. If you want about more, search “whoever” in the Gospels. It will reveal at least 50 more instances where Jesus is telling his disciples that they (and everyone else) need to do something.
Yes, the scriptures speak against presumptuous religion, the kind that treats ceremony and liturgy like magic—if we do a, God must respond with b. The prophets rightly condemn the idea that we can do whatever we want and a few dead sheep and bulls will clear our account with God so we can carry on as we please. Ironically, in some ways, this attitude is closer to the RNR camp than they may care to admit.
We won’t be welcomed into heaven simply because “we know a guy.” (Even the demons know him!) We will be welcomed into heaven, and learn and grow in holiness along the way, because we follow our Lord. That takes discipline and commitment. That takes effort and humility. That takes service and devotion.
Do we “earn” our way into heaven? Of course not. But we demonstrate our faith by our works. We learn what God’s grace really is by leaning into it really hard and reaching for holiness and righteousness. Knowing Jesus is fantastic. Following him is what disciples do, and that looks an awful lot like religion to me.
I’d much rather take some religious cues from Rich Mullins than Joe Junior. I’ll finish with one of my favorite quotes from him.
When I read the lives of most of the great saints they didn’t necessarily feel very close to God. When I read the Psalms I get the feeling like David and the other Psalmists felt quite far away from God for most of the time. Closeness to God is not about feelings, closeness to God is about obedience… I don’t know how you feel close to God. And no one I know that seems to be close to God knows anything about those feelings either. I know if we obey occasionally the feeling follows, not always, but occasionally. I know that if we disobey we don’t have a shot at it. (Lufkin, TX 1997)