Faith vs. Religion?

In our day, unlike in the days of generations past, we have much too simplistic a view of what it means to believe something. In the world today, many people use the word “believe” to describe their feelings about something or describe a fleeting wish or hopeful desire. But as we consider the word belief, or faith, in its fullest biblical sense, we see that the word implies God’s gracious act of giving and our humble act of receiving and resting on Christ alone, which involves our entire being: the heart, the mind, and the will.(1)
Although we use the word belief in conjunction with all areas of human experience, usually when we use the word it is in the context of religious belief. The word “religious,” however, and all its derivatives, has fallen on hard times recently due largely to its longtime inappropriate use among those who understood neither the true Christian religion nor the genuine relationship with Christ by faith alone on which all Christian doctrine is established. Thus, preferring to emphasize their personal relationship with Christ over and against the religion that comes as a necessary and appropriate consequence of that relationship, many Christians, with the best intentions, have relegated their faith to one area of life rather than allowing their faith to overflow into every area of life, which is the essential nature of faith itself–to encompass all of life by acknowledging, affirming, and applying the Christian doctrine we believe, confess, and proclaim.
In the New Testament, James (1:22-25) repudiates the “worthless” religion of those who are merely “hearers” of the Word without being actual “doers” of the Word, writing,
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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 1:26-27).
James’ point is simple–if our mouths (v. 26) and our lives (v. 22) do not demonstrate the authenticity of pure and undefiled religion then we are simply deceiving ourselves and deceiving our hearts (vv. 22, 26).(2)
While it’s certainly easy to understand why some speak of religion in a pejorative way, we must be careful to use words in their appropriate contexts in accordance with their historical definitions. Even Charles Spurgeon often used the word religion in an appropriate way to describe the all-encompassing Christian faith and life. In a sermon on Deuteronomy 32:47, “For it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life… (KJV),” Spurgeon criticized the merely outward, ceremonially superstitious religions of men (as did the apostle Paul in Acts 17), but then went on to employ the word religion positively when he said,
But with all these allowances, we still this morning assert most positively that the religion of Christ Jesus, that which has been revealed to us of the Holy Ghost by the apostles and prophets, and specially by the Messiah himself, when truly received into the heart, is no vain thing.(3)
In the best and most appropriate sense of the word, religion is a helpful word we can use to describe our faith, which encompasses every aspect of our Christian lives, rooted in and flowing out of our spiritually regenerated new hearts and minds and established on the relationship that God has established with us.
In the fourth century, Augustine advocated using the Latin word religio by highlighting its etymology re-ligare, which means, “to join together” or “to bind together” as in a covenant bond between man and God.(4) The word religion, rightly understood, joins together everything we believe as we live it out in all of life. Furthermore, if we consider the lexical definitions of the word religion, we observe that religion describes not only a person’s system of belief but also what a person practices, observes, and devotes himself to. As Herman Bavinck writes: “Religion must not just be something in one’s life, but everything. Jesus demands that we love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength.”(5)
When the sixteenth-century pastor John Calvin wrote an all-encompassing systematic theology of the Christian faith, he titled his work, in Latin: Institutio Christianae Religionis, which can be translated, Institutes of Christian Religion, or, Institutes of Christian Piety. For Calvin, a man’s doctrine is the foundation of his entire religion, and a man’s religion is not isolated to one segment of his life but has implications for all of life. We cannot restrict our doctrine as many attempt to do. Rather, our doctrine will, by its very nature, branch out into every sphere of Christian piety and practice. In other words, a man’s doctrine is a man’s life.
What we believe inescapably influences what we think, what we do, and even our motives of why and how we think it and do it. Those Christians who try to isolate their doctrine to their intellects so that it doesn’t interfere with their daily lives are attempting the impossible. Either they do not possess true faith in Christ alone, or they will find that their doctrine refuses to be confined and instead begins to spread into all of life–from their hearts, to their souls, to their minds, and with all their strength. Mark Dever points out that if our religion is genuine, it will naturally affect everything, including our care for others as well: “If our religion is real, if our faith is saving, it not only affects our actions, but affects our actions towards others… Real religion cannot remain simply a ‘vertical thing’ between me and God. It must affect the way I deal with others.”(6)
Christian doctrine, by its very nature, is an all-encompassing religion established on the entire system of doctrine, piety, and practice set forth in Scripture itself.(7) It is crucial that we grasp this if we are to understand the nature of creeds, our use of creeds, and the church’s need for creeds. If we fail to see the all-encompassing nature of Christian doctrine, we certainly will not see the all-encompassing nature of creeds, which exist not only to affirm, confess, and proclaim the elementary matters of our faith, but to set forth the entirety of the doctrine, piety, and practice of the Christian religion.
NOTE: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming booklet Why Do We Have Creeds? by Burk Parsons (P&R, 2012)
Burk Parsons serves as an associate pastor at St. Andrew’s in Sanford, Florida, and is the editor of Tabletalk magazine. He and his wife, Amber, live in central Florida with their children.
1. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 72) answers, “What is justifying faith?” this way, “Justifying faith is a saving grace, wrought in the heart of a sinner by the Spirit and Word of God, whereby he, being convinced of his sin and misery, and of the disability in himself and all other creatures to recover him out of his lost condition, not only assenteth to the truth of the promise of the gospel, but receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness, therein held forth, for pardon of sin, and for the accepting and accounting of his person righteous in the sight of God for salvation.”
2. The word that James uses, translated rightly as “religion” is the Greek word thréskos, which means simply “pious” or “religious.” However, the word the apostle Paul employs in Acts 17:22 sometimes, wrongly, translated “religious” is the Greek word deisidaimonésteros meaning “fear-driven superstition by a confused concept of God.” Similarly, the word the Paul uses in Colossians 2:23 is the compound word ethelothrskeía properly translated as “self-willed religion,” and thus not true God-willed religion.
3. C.H. Spurgeon, “Religion: A Reality,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 8 (1862).
4. Augustine, “Of True Religion,” Earlier Writings, ed. J.H.S. Burleigh (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 282. Wayne Baker summarizes the word religion culling teaching from Heinrich Bullinger: “Two or more place themselves under obligations or bind themselves to conditions. Therefore Christianity was called religio, from religare, to bind. God made His covenant with the human race from the very beginning, binding himself to man and agreeing to certain conditions with us which He explained to the blessed patriarchs, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, revealing himself from time to time more and more, clarifying and renewing this covenant or testament.” J. Wayne Baker,Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant, (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980), 76.
5. Herman Bavinck, “Philosophy of Religion (Faith),” Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 29-30.
6. Mark Dever, “Pure Religion,” in Tabletalk, (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, March 2005).
7. B.B. Warfield writes, “The revelations of the Scriptures do not terminate upon the intellect. They were given not merely to enlighten the mind. They were given through the intellect to beautify the life. They terminate upon the heart. Again, they do not, in affecting the heart, leave the intellect untouched. They cannot be fully understood by the intellect, acting alone… No man can intellectual grasp the full meaning of the revelations of authority, save as the result of an experience of their power in life.” Benjamin B. Warfield, “Authority, Intellect, Heart,” Benjamin B. Warfield: Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John Meeter (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 671.

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