While many are well-intentioned in saying, “I hate religion, but I love Jesus,” or, “It’s not about a religion but a relationship [with God],” it seems the word ‘religion’ itself has come under intense fire as a source of all kinds of evil, particularly amongst the evangelical landscape. There is some validity to this assumption looking back upon our history as fallen sinners (or even the present day), where in the name of religion, many horrible things have been done to others. And in the last 50 years there is more weight given to this view that the concept of religion is a bad thing based upon the kinds of Christian groups who picket absolutely everything the world does they don’t like, or which threaten their reign on things of this world.
However, those wise men of old who have gone before us to be with the Savior knew the problem wasn’t with religion itself. The problem is sinful man and the work of Satan have distorted what the Puritans called ‘true religion,’ that is a living faith granted by the living God in which we do that which is pleasing to Him, initiated by and through the work of Christ’s grace alone. One of those men who has gone before us (though not a Puriran per se, but certainly within the same tradition) was Louis Berkhof.
There is a sort of religion where man is the starting point. And to be fair, this is the type of religion that has received such a bad name. And rightfully so, because this distorted view of religion exalts the power and achievement of man. But then there is true religion, in which God is the starting point, from beginning to end, all things coming from Him, appropriated through Him, and all of this coming back to Him, for His glory. True religion is a work of God in the sinner whereby we are made right with God and reconciled to Him unto holiness, not a work of the sinner to make himself right with God through ‘works of the law’ or forms of self-righteousness.
So the problem isn’t so much religion as a concept. The problem is our concept of true religion is so marred and skewed by sin and so we broad brush it as something inherently wrong and thus we may be tempted to throw the whole concept out. But I believe that to be unwise on the basis that we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
What we need is a recovery of true religion in the church, not to throw ‘religion’ out altogether. We need the common practices of the faith: teaching of the Word, prayer, corporate worship, teaching and proper understanding of Christian doctrine; we need a regular common practice of Scripture reading, and fellowship in our personal and communal lives; and all of this, as 1 John makes clear amonst other places, needs to work itself out into all the other areas of our lives, in which we are intentional about practicing our truth and doctrine by upholding and practicing the law of God (Romans 3:31) on the basis of faith in Christ.
Louis Berkhof develops the nature of the origin of religion, what has gone wrong with it, and the nature of true religion in a thorough yet concise way in the first chapter entitled Religion from his book Summary of Christian Doctrine:
1. The Nature of Religion. The Bible informs us that man was created in the image of God. When he fell in sin, he did not entirely cease to be the image-bearer of the Most High. The seed of religion is still present in all men, though their sinful nature constantly reacts against it. Missionaries testify to the presence of religion in some form or other among all the nations and tribes of the earth. It is one of the greatest blessings of mankind, though many denounce it as a curse. Not only does it touch the deepest springs of man’s life, but it also controls his thoughts and feelings and desires.
But just what is religion? It is only by the study of the Word of God that we can learn to know the nature of true religion. The word ‘religion’ is derived from the Latin and not from any word that is found in the original Hebrew or Greek of the Bible. It is found only four times in our translation of the Bible, Gal. 1:18, 14; Jas. 1:26, 27. The Old Testament defines religion as the fear of the Lord. This fear is not a feeling of dread, but of reverent regard for God akin to awe, but coupled with love and confidence. It is the response of the Old Testament believers to the revelation of the law. In the New Testament religion is a response to the gospel rather than to the law, and assumes the form of faith and godliness.
In the light of Scripture we learn to understand that religion is a relation in which man stands to God, a relation in which man is conscious of the absolute majesty and infinite power of God and of his own utter insignificance and absolute helplessness. It may be defined as a conscious and voluntary relationship to God, which expresses itself in grateful worship and loving service. The manner of this religious worship and service is not left to the arbitrary will of man, but is determined by God.
2. The Seat of Religion. There are several wrong views respecting the seat of religion in man. Some think of religion primarily as a sort of knowledge, and locate it in the intellect. Others regard it as a kind of immediate feeling of God, and find its seat in the feelings. And still others hold that it consists most of all in moral activity, and refer it to the will. However, all these views are one-sided and contrary to Scripture, which teaches us that religion is a matter of the heart. In Scripture psychology the heart is the central organ of the soul. Out of it are all the issues of life, thoughts, feelings, and desires, Prov. 4:28. Religion involves the whole man, his intellectual, his emotional, and his moral life. This is the only view that does justice to the nature of religion.
3. The Origin of Religion. Particular attention was devoted during the last fifty years to the problem of the origin of religion. Repeated attempts were made to give a natural explanation of it, but without success. Some spoke of it as an invention of cunning and deceptive priests, who regarded it as an easy source of revenue; but this explanation is entirely discredited now. Others held that it began with the worship of lifeless objects (fetishes), or with the worship of spirits, possibly the spirits of forefathers. But this is no explanation, since the question remains, How did people ever hit upon the idea of worshiping lifeless or living objects? Still others were of the opinion that religion originated in nature-worship, that is, the worship of the marvels and powers of nature, or in the widespread practice of magic. But these theories do not explain any more than the others how non-religious man ever became religious. They all start out with a man who is already religious.
The Bible gives the only reliable account of the origin of religion. It informs us of the existence of God, the only object worthy of religious worship. Moreover, it comes to us with the assurance that God, whom man could never discover with his natural powers, revealed Himself in nature and, more especially, in His divine Word, demands the worship and service of man, and also determines the worship and service that is well-pleasing to Him. And, finally, it teaches us that God created man in His own image, and thus endowed him with a capacity to understand, and to respond to, this revelation, and engendered in him a natural urge to seek communion with God and to glorify Him.