True Religion

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

James 1:27

You can find many blogs and books written against religion from Christians and skeptics alike. What I find strange is the self-professed Christians who rail against religion and even claim Jesus came to do away with religion. I understand their sentiment in some respects. Many have used religion in order to divide people instead of bringing people together. Jesus came against such religionists in his own time in the sect of the Pharisees.

No matter their sentiment I am frustrated they have thrown out the word “religion” along with the traditions of those who would abuse it. They’ve thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

The reason it frustrates me is the Bible itself uses the word religion, and even gives us what the Lord calls true religion.

James gives us two marks that we can use to determine if our religion is true religion and not a tradition made up by humans. First, we are to visit orphans and widows. Second, we are to keep one’s self unstained from the world.

The second mark, keeping one’s self unstained from the world, is the one many anti-religionists would rail against. It smells too much like what the religionist was preaching. Jesus was consistently preaching against the “holier-than-thou” mentality of the Pharisees. They were more concerned about their holiness, and their traditions than they were about the poor and needy.

That is Jesus’ point in his preaching against the Pharisees. It wasn’t they were too religious; it was that their religion was too one-sided. Jesus said to them, “You… neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These [religious things] you ought to have done, without neglecting the [weightier matters],” (Mt. 23:23).

This is why James, who famously said “Faith without works is dead,” brings together both holiness and charity. What we would consider “religious” (doing holy things) should be coupled with loving our neighbors.

Religion is not bad, in fact, it is encouraged in our Scriptures as defined by our Scriptures.

What is Repentance?

I came across someone’s definition of repentance on social media the other day. It said, “Repentance Defined: ‘Admit it, quit it, and forget it.’” This is basically how I have understood repentance growing up. As a pastor, I’ve even taught that repentance is basically confessing your sins (1 John 1:9) and not sin anymore (John 8:11). So simple a child can understand.

Until that child discovers they can’t stop sinning and falls into despair.

Church folk believes they are teaching the truths of Scripture by quoting verses about God’s hatred for sin and his wrath. The solution they have for sin is “quit it.” When someone who can’t stop sinning hears these words from church folk they feel frustrated, outcast, and condemned. Paul illustrates this frustration and despair in Romans 7, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The people who would preach “quit it” would do well to see how even Paul was unable to “quit it”.

Repentance is more than just “Admit it, quit it, and forget it.” The Greek word translated as ‘repentance’ is metanoia. It means “to know after, to change one’s mind.” Repentance is a re-orientation of your thoughts and actions. You turn away from how you’ve always thought, how you’ve always done things, and turn towards how Jesus thought, how Jesus did things. So, when Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” (Mk 1:15) he was saying, “The kingdom of God is here! Change your mind from doing things your way and doing them the kingdom way.”

Though Jesus doesn’t expect you to do this on your own. He sends his Holy Spirit to help us.

This is why Paul in his despair can say, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord, I am delivered.” He said those who are led by the Spirit have a new mind. They think about things of the Spirit and not things of the flesh. Later in chapter 12 of Romans, he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

How are you transformed? By being in Jesus (Rom. 8:1). By abiding in Jesus (John 15:5). By relying upon the one “who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless…” (Jude 24).

We cannot quit sin on our own power. We need Jesus.