Yesterday, I got to preach on an encounter that a disciple of Jesus named Philip had with an Ethiopian eunuch on a desert road. Through Philip’s witness, this eunuch was moved to faith and to baptism. In my message, I answered some common questions people have about baptism, but there was much I wanted to say about baptism that I didn’t get a chance to. So, in the interest of further exploring the richness of what baptism offers, I figured I’d repost some thoughts on baptism that I wrote several years ago. I hope you enjoy!
What is baptism?
Baptism is a divine ordinance, instituted by Christ Himself, whereby He makes disciples through water combined with God’s name. Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The participle “baptizing” can be translated as a participle of means. Baptism, therefore, can be seen as a means by which disciples are made.
It is important to recognize that baptism is something God does for us and not something we do for God. This is why Paul says of baptism, “We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). Notice the passive voice of the verbs: “buried,” “raised.” These are divine passives, indicating that God is the One burying our old, sinful natures and raising us to new life in Christ. We are passive in the matter. This runs contrary to the teaching of some who describe baptism merely as an act of obedience while denying its divine power. Consider this quote from a large denomination’s confessional statement: “Baptism is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” Two things are especially notable about this statement. First, while obedience is emphasized, the blessings of baptism are not mentioned. Second, this statement references Romans 6:4, but relegates Paul’s language concerning burial and resurrection to that of symbolism, emphasizing the believer’s faith rather than God’s action. Paul, however, nowhere indicates that he is speaking symbolically in this verse. Rather, his language indicates that he has a lively confidence in an actual new life, offered by God through baptism.
Does baptism save?
Yes, baptism does save. Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him” (1 Peter 3:21-22). Peter could not be clearer: Baptism saves you. However, it is important to note not only that baptism saves you, but how baptism saves you. It saves you “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Without the resurrected Christ, baptism is emptied of its power and promise.
There are some who object to the teaching that baptism saves, saying, “Faith in Christ alone saves you!” They often quote Scripture passages such as Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” They then argue: “Paul says that faith in Christ saves you and nowhere mentions baptism in Romans 10:9. Therefore, faith in Christ, and not baptism, saves you.” This type of argument engages in what I call “Bible Verse Battleship.” In this game, people line up their favorite Bible verses to support their favorite pet positions and then, when shown Scriptural testimony which calls into question their position, rather than seeking to reconcile the verses and take into account the whole counsel of God’s Word, they simply declare, “Because my pet Bible verse is true, you must be incorrect! My Bible verse sunk your Bible verse!” We should never use Bible verses to “sink” other Bible verses. Rather, we should assume that all Scripture speaks with one, harmonious, voice concerning the one, true Christian faith. Thus, when Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” in 1 Peter 3:21, we ought to take his words as complimentary, and not contradictory, to what Paul says in Romans 10:9.
So then, how do we understand Romans 10:9 and 1 Peter 3:21 harmoniously? Like this: baptism does not save simply because it’s baptism, but because it has the promise of Jesus’ presence attached to it (cf. Matthew 28:19-20). This is why baptism is regularly referred to as a “means of grace.” God works through simple things such as water in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and words on a page in Holy Scripture to speak to, meet with, and provide gifts for His people. Martin Luther explains wonderfully: “Without God’s word the water [of baptism] is plain water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.” Thus, to say that baptism saves you is simply to say that Jesus saves you because Jesus is doing His work in and through baptism!
Why do Lutherans baptize infants?
Lutherans are not so interested in baptizing infants as we are interested in baptizing all people in accordance with Christ’s commands to baptize “all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The Bible teaches that all are born into sin and deserve God’s condemnation (cf. Psalm 51:5). Therefore, babies need the salvation Jesus gives in baptism just as much as adults do. The Bible nowhere prohibits baptizing babies. In fact, we are told specifically that the promise of baptism is indeed for children: “The promise [of baptism] is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).
There are some who maintain that a profession of faith must precede baptism. And because a baby cannot profess his faith in Christ, he should not be baptized until he is old enough to make such a profession. In response to this objection, I would point out three things. First, I would question the assumption that a profession of faith is a necessary prerequisite of baptism. It often happens that that a person in Scripture confesses his faith before he is baptized, but common occurrence doesn’t always necessarily indicate a divine mandate. Just because the Bible offers a description of certain things and events (e.g., a person offering a profession of faith before baptism) does not necessarily mean that the Bible is mandating a universal prescription. Second, I would question the assumption that children cannot confess their faith. The Psalmist reminds us, “From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2, cf. Matthew 21:16). Children can and do praise God, even if it is with broken grammar and babble. Finally, from a historical perspective, from the early days of the Christian Church, it was common practice to have parents or sponsors confess the Christian faith on behalf of their children. The Roman theologian Hippolytus writes this concerning baptism in AD 215: “The children shall be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.”
Baptism is a joyous gift from God. For through it, God meets us with His gifts. Luther sums up the joy and promise of baptism nicely when he writes: “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.” Thus is the blessing and gift of baptism!
 Luther’s Small Catechism, “Baptism,” 3.
 What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 61.
A couple of weeks ago, a scientific discovery significant enough to merit coverage in The New York Times was revealed. Geologists have discovered the world’s oldest fossils in Greenland. According to these researchers, the fossils are around 3.7 billion years old and are thought to be stromatolites, which are formed by the growth of layers of cyanobacteria, a single-celled microbe that lives in shallow water. But the discovery has posed a problem for scientists. Nicholas Wade explains:
The great age of the fossils complicates the task of reconstructing the evolution of life from the chemicals naturally present on the early Earth. It leaves comparatively little time for evolution to have occurred and puts the process close to a time when Earth was being bombarded by destructive asteroids.
For years, scientists have struggled to date the age of and construct a prehistory of the earth. Just when a consensus about the earth’s age seems to emerge, new evidence surfaces that forces scientists to rethink the prevailing wisdom. Theories of the earth’s origins and the origins of life are constantly being modified.
Part of the trouble with the discovery of this fossil is that it forces the origins of life, from an evolutionary perspective, back to more than 4 billion years ago. This timeframe coincides with cataclysmic meteor events on the earth, including a hit by a meteor so big that it tore out a chunk of our planet that spun into orbit and become our moon. As Mr. Wade notes in his article, “It is difficult to see how life could have begun under such circumstances.” It is difficult, indeed. That is, unless there’s more to life than evolutionary chance.
Whenever a discovery like this is made, it points not only to the wonder of the earth, but to the problems that emerge with what appears to be a designer planet when one denies any sort of a Designer. This is why the Bible opens its pages with a declaration of one Designer: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Whatever one might think of fossils that are purported to be billions of years old, this much the Bible says we can know: the fossils, and the life they represent, did not happen by accident. Someone formed life and, through whatever this planet has endured, has sustained life. This is why some researchers struggle so mightily to reconstruct earth’s origins. They work out of a worldview that will simply not allow an author and sustainer of life. They may study fossils to date them, but they do not take the time to marvel at the very existence of them.
The question each of us must answer is this: am I wedded – philosophically and academically – to a universe that is constrained by naturalism? Do I believe that there is no cause of anything save what we can see and measure? Or, as Christianity claims, am I open – philosophically and academically – to a universe that bears the marks of supernaturalism? Do I believe that what we see is simply too fantastic to be described in merely mechanical terms? Do I believe that things can also be described in theological terms?
Christians should by no means be closed off to scientific study and discovery. Curiosity, after all, is hardwired into the human spirit. But scientists also should not close themselves off to God. For if one is subscribes to sheer naturalism, he may be able to accumulate lots of information about what he sees, but he will still be left with little meaning as to why it’s all here.
Christianity tells us that everything is here because, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He is why everything exists. He is why we exist. And that means He is worth at least considering in any theory of origins.
The fossils got here somehow.
Last week in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof penned a column calling on his readers to rethink Christianity. His thoughts are based on a new book by famed former Evangelical, professional provocateur, and author Brian McLaren. Mr. Kristof summarizes the thrust of Mr. McLaren’s book by quoting a few lines:
“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”
What is being argued for here is a wresting away of Christianity from a prescribed set of beliefs and a reinventing or a recapturing (depending on your perspective) of Christianity as a call to action.
Except, that’s not what’s really being argued for at all.
The reader is clued into this fact by the way in which Mr. McLaren describes traditional Christian beliefs. He asks, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs?” It turns out that the trouble with traditional Christianity is not that it espouses beliefs, but that it espouses beliefs that are, in Mr. McLaren’s words, “problematic.” Mr. Kristof notes a couple of these “problematic” beliefs in the opening of his column:
Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays.
This is only the second sentence of his article, but Christian beliefs concerning human sexuality and abortion have already made an appearance. I should note that it is indisputably a problem – both theologically and humanitarianly – to, as Mr. Kristof puts it, “demonize gays.” But I can’t help but wonder what he means by “demonizing gays.” Does he mean treating a whole group of people as sub-human? Or does he mean calling sexual activity outside of a marriage between a husband and a wife sin? To do the first is to be vicious and wrong. The do the second is to tell the truth.
Ultimately, any attempt to portray Christianity as a series of actions as opposed to a set of beliefs is bound to fail because such an attempt simply does not reflect the way of Jesus. Jesus was committed both to doing and to doctrine. This is why Jesus taught on a whole host of doctrinal issues such as money, worship, the nature and character of Scripture, the end times, His divinity, and yes, even human sexuality.
There is an old phrase, coined by Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, that has long been used to describe much of the worship life of the Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi. “The law of praying is the law of believing.” The idea behind this phrase is that a person learns how and what to believe in worship. In other words, the worship life of the Church is meant to form and inform the faith life of Christians.
But there is a second part to this slogan: Lex credendi, lex vivendi. “The law of believing is the law of living.” That is, what a person believes necessarily forms and informs what a person does. This is why the apostle Paul can exhort a young pastor named Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). Paul knows that doctrine and doing go hand in hand.
Mr. Kristof and Mr. McLaren know that doctrine and doing are, in reality, inseparable. This is why, even as they issue a call to action while wryly downplaying the value of doctrinal standards, they cannot help but point to and act on their own theological commitments. Their beef, even if it is presented otherwise, is not with the fact that Christians believe, but with what Christians believe. I would simply remind them that, eventually, if we act on what we believe as Christians, people will want to know why we do what we do. And we should have an answer to give to them even as Scripture has given an answer to us. And for that, doctrine still matters.
A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend who was going through a difficult time. He was struggling relationally, vocationally, and financially. And yet, throughout his struggles, he had managed to keep a remarkably clear head about what was most important. “No matter how bad things may get,” he told me, “I still want to find ways to help and serve others. It helps me take the focus off my own pain and remember just how important other people really are.”
I could not agree more. This is wise insight from a good friend. Serving others is a surprisingly great salve for a troubled soul.
In Philippians 2, the apostle Paul writes about the difficult times Jesus endured – specifically, His most difficult time of dying on a cross. Paul also explains that as Jesus endured these times, He did so with the heart of a servant:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)
The Greek behind this passage is interesting and worth a moment of our reflection. The passage above is taken from the ESV, which notes that though Jesus was God, He became a servant. The ESV translates Jesus’ servanthood concessively. That is, the ESV makes it sound like Jesus’ divinity and His servanthood are somehow logically antithetical to each other, or, at the very least, in tension with each other. Jesus is God and has all the power, perks, and privileges that go along with being God, and even though He could have retained all those power, perks, and privileges when He came to this earth, He conceded them to become a servant.
The actual grammar behind this passage, however, is more ambiguous. The word for “though” in Greek is hyparkon, a participial form of the verb “to be,” which, at the same time it can be translated concessively as the word “though” as the ESV does, it can just as easily and legitimately be translated causally as the word “because”: “Jesus, because He was in the form of God…emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant.”
If I had to choose between a concessive or a causal translation of hyparkon, I would opt for the causal translation. Here’s why.
To translate hyparkon concessively makes it sound like somehow the nature of God and the nature of a servant are at odds with each other. But what if God is, in His very nature, a servant? What if, as John Ortberg says, “When Jesus came in the form of a servant, He was not disguising who God is, He was revealing who God is”? What if the grandeur of God and the servanthood of Christ don’t conflict with each other, but correspond to each other? What if Jesus not only explaining His mission, but revealing God’s nature when he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28)?
Sometimes, we can be tempted to treat service as a bother, a burden, or, worse yet, as something that is beneath us. But being a servant should never conflict with who we are. It should reveal who we are. Jesus was a servant not in spite of who He was as God, but because of who He was as God. God is a servant at heart and so it only makes sense that Jesus would comes as a servant! Likewise, we should be servants not in spite of who we are as business people, managers, or people who can command respect, but because of who we are as God’s children.
This is what my friend understood when he talked to me. He wanted his service not to be incidental to his life, but core in his life. May we want the same.
Late last week, word came that more than 50 people had been killed at a wedding party in Istanbul when a suicide bomber walked into the party and blew himself up. In a nation that is always on high alert because it has seen so many of these types of terrible attacks, how did a terrorist slip into this party unnoticed? Officials estimate that the suicide bomber in question was between 12 and 14 years old. In other words, no one noticed the bomber at the party because this bomber was, in relative terms, a baby – a child. And children are harmless – or so we think.
Exploiting kids to kill its enemies has been a longstanding and and cynically promoted strategy of ISIS. Reporting for USA Today, Oren Dorell, citing the expertise of Mia Bloom, a researcher at Georgia State, explains:
In the initial seduction phase, Islamic State fighters roll into a village or neighborhood, hold Quran recitation contests, give out candy and toys, and gently expose children to the group. This part often involves ice cream…
“To desensitize them to violence, they’re shown videos of beheadings, attend a live beheading,” Bloom said.
Then the children participate in beheadings, by handing out knives or leading prisoners to their deaths, she said. The gradual process is similar to that used by a pedophile who lures a child into sex, “slowly breaking down the boundaries, making something unnatural seem normal,” she said.
In another article that appeared in USA Today last year, Zeina Karam explains how ISIS teaches kids to behead their victims:
More than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.
A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.
“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his Islamic State captors, told the Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the Islamic State training camp.
All of this is ghastly, of course. The thought of children being trained to commit brutal acts of murder feels utterly unthinkable to us. But why?
Scripture is clear that all people, from the moment of our births, are sinful. To cite King David’s famous words: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). So that a child could or would commit a sinful act should not be particularly surprising to us. Little kids commit all kinds of sins – everything from lying to defying to hoarding – all the time. But the thought of a child committing murder seems different.
Theologically, the thought of a child committing murder seems different because, at the same time all people are born sinners, we are also born as bearers of the image of God. In other words, at the same time we all have sinful inclinations, we also have a righteous Creator who has endowed us with a moral compass. When this moral compass is violated, guilt ensues, for we cannot fully escape the mark of our Creator.
God’s mark proves to be particularly poignant when it comes to the sin of murder. This is why God’s image is specifically invoked against the taking of a life: “I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5-6). To watch one person kill another person is so completely incongruous with who God has created us to be, it cannot help but startle us.
In a human, then, there are two tugs – one that is of sin and the other that is of righteousness. And these war against each other. ISIS has fanned into a giant, roaring flame the inclination to sin in the lives of little children. This is sadly possible to do because of humanity’s sinful state, but it will not escape the judgment of God. In the words of Jesus:
Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:1-2)
Christ does not take kindly to those who intentionally and systematically lead children into sin. After all, He made them in His image and He cares for them out of His love. May His little ones be saved from those who would harm them.
 Oren Dorell, “Here’s how the Islamic State turns children into terrorists,” USA Today (8.23.2016).
 Zeina Karam, “Islamic State camp has kids beheading dolls with swords,” USA Today (7.21.2015).
In our household, I am the one who usually gives our kids their baths. And last week, while I had them both in the bath one evening, my daughter decided it would be fun to start hitting her daddy – playfully, but strangely forcefully – while my son was fussing loudly in his infant tub because he had just filled his diaper.
Ah, the perils of parenting. Yes, it is tiring. Yes, it can be dizzying and overwhelming. Yes, it is ridiculously time consuming. And yes, I am very much aware – and a bit fearful – that, as my kids grow older and begin to assert their independence in sometimes dangerous and derelict ways, parenting can also grow to be heartbreaking. And yet, parenting is nevertheless wonderful. I would not trade my vocation as a father any more than I would trade my vocation as a husband or my identity as a child of God.
As it turns out, however, not everyone feels the same way I do.
A revealing article appeared in the National Post last month featuring Calum and Tina Marsh, a married couple who is repulsed by the idea of having children. In fact, “repulsed” is probably too weak a word to describe their loathing. Calum, the author of this piece, writes:
A few weeks ago one of my oldest and closest friends told me that she planned to have children. Or rather she mentioned it, almost in passing, with the idle nonchalance of a remark about the midday heat: she planned to have children – and she planned to have them soon. I was dumbfounded. Children? Those fleshy barnacles of snot and mutiny? Those extortionate burdens? Those shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors? Not for me, thank you. And not – I rashly assumed – for anyone else in my peer group. That my friend could want a child seemed to me unthinkable. It was as if she’d said she planned to invade Poland.
It used to be a given that, barring some radically extenuating circumstance, having children was considered to be a generally natural outcome of marriage. But according to Mr. Marsh, children are nothing short of “extortionate burdens” and “shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors.” Wow. What kind of trouble could any child possibly cause to earn such an awful reputation? Mr. Marsh explains:
I value my lifestyle, and I like having the means to maintain it. I value my free time. I’d like to re-read the complete works of Shakespeare, and get around to tackling Proust; I’m keen to learn Latin and modern dance; I wouldn’t mind visiting Locarno, Ankara and Bucharest. I also enjoy the freedom from responsibility childlessness affords me.
Let me try to sum up Mr. Marsh’s explanation as to why he does not want to have children and why he thinks they are “shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors” in two words: he’s selfish. In other words, Mr. Marsh has things he wants to do, money he wants to spend, and places he wants to go, and kids would throw a wrench into his plans and desires. For Mr. Marsh, the most important thing in life is, well, Mr. Marsh. Mr. Marsh is extolling selfishness, not as a vice, but as a virtue – a posture toward yourself that allows you to enjoy life more fully.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are good reasons why a couple may not have children. Sometimes, it is a heartbreaking medical condition that prevents a couple from having children, even when the couple may desire them. Other times, a couple may not have the means to provide for a child. In certain instances, foregoing the raising of children may even serve a spiritual purpose. Both the apostle Paul and Jesus Himself did not marry and did not raise children because of particular calls God had placed on their lives. There are plenty of good reasons not to have children. Mr. Marsh, however, does not provide us with any of these reasons. He simply wants to live his life for himself unencumbered by anyone who would ask much of anything from him.
One of the paradoxical principles of Christianity is that it is selflessness – not selfishness – that leads to a fulfilling life. Indeed, this is the very pattern of the cross. Christ emptied Himself in His death for us so that we could be called, coincidentally enough, His children (Galatians 3:26), and through that emptiness was exalted to the Father’s right hand as One equal to God (Philippians 2:6-11).
The apostle Paul is clear that Christ’s way of emptying Himself should be reflected in our lives as well:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)
Children offer a unique opportunity to practice ruthless selflessness because they demand so much more than a passing act of a service – giving a donation here, or joining a relief effort for a couple of days there. They demand that one places his own priorities aside daily for the sake of someone else. This is not an easy way to live, but it is a good way to live. Indeed, one of the more troubling questions raised in my mind by Mr. Marsh’s article was this: if Mr. Marsh doesn’t want kids because they are an inconvenience to and an inhibitor of his preferred lifestyle, how would Mr. Marsh react if Mrs. Marsh were to become an inconvenience and a drag on his dreams? Selfishness, you see, has a funny way not only of preventing relationships – like the relationship you could have with a son or daughter – but of destroying the relationships you already have.
Mr. Marsh concludes his article by saying:
I can’t begin to imagine the burden not only of time and money but of authority and influence – of being accountable for a human life. It’s lunacy that so many people are comfortable with it.
I have news for Mr. Marsh: no parent is ever comfortable with being responsible for his child’s life. Just ask any parent who has reached over to his daughter’s basinet in the middle of the night and put his hand on her chest just to make sure she was still breathing. Being comfortable isn’t the point when you’re raising children. Loving and caring for a life that God has given you is. And that’s a privilege I’ll take over comfort any day.
 Calum Marsh, “‘Children? Those shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors? Not for me, thank you’: Why fatherhood is not for everyone and shouldn’t have to be,” National Post (7.15.2016).
Last week, as I was going for my morning run, listening to music, a song with this lyric started playing on my Pandora station:
I still hate religion. Why you think I’m a Christian?
I’ve heard this distinction between religion and Christianity used before used by pastors, pew sitters, and Christian artists alike. This Christian artist explained the distinction between religion and Christianity as he continued:
The peace between God’s been broke for my sinning.
Religion is man using his good deeds tryin’ to close the distance.
But we could never reach Him,
Only Jesus came to get His men.
Religion, according to this artist’s definition, is people trying to reach God by their works. Christianity, on the other hand, is God reaching people in Christ.
Now, it is most certainly true that trying to reach God by means of your own works – regardless of your religious affiliation – is a futile effort. And it is true that the hallmark of the Christian faith is that rather than waiting for us to reach up to Him, God has reached down to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Still, exegetically, this kind of distinction between religion and Christianity troubles me because religion is not so widely panned in the Bible like it is in this song. If you ask the brother of Jesus what he thinks of religion, he will tell you:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
If you ask the apostle Paul about the importance of religion, he will explain:
If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. (1 Timothy 5:4)
In both instances, religion is cast in a positive light. Religion, at least according to Scripture, is not always bad.
But my concern with the distinction often drawn between religion and Christianity is not only exegetical. It is also missional.
If a non-believer asks a Christian whether or not he is religious and he responds by saying something like, “No, I’m not religious; I’m a Christian,” he is really doing little more than pulling a bait and switch in his witness. Here’s why.
For most people, the word “religion” carries with it particular connotations. People who attend worship services are religious. People who read holy books are religious. People who pray regularly are religious. And Christians do – or at least should be doing – all these things. So for a Christian to claim that he is not religious sounds like little more than a verbal sleight of hand to an unbeliever. To say that you are not religious because you are a Christian probably sounds to someone who is not a Christian like a distinction without much of a difference.
Rather than quibbling over whether or not Christianity is a religion, perhaps it’s time for us to explain to people who are not religious why we are religious in the way that we are. After all, Christianity, even as a religion, is utterly unique. Most other religions are generally concerned with making people better by means of their own efforts. Christianity, by distinction, is concerned with making people righteous by the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection. The difference in Christianity is not found in whether or not it can be classified as a religion. The difference in Christianity is found in what it confesses about God and His Son, Jesus Christ. This is what we ought to be emphasizing.
Allow me to offer one additional thought on the uniqueness of Christianity. Jesus was clear that people would know who His followers were not because of some semantic game that distinguishes Christianity from religion, but because of their love (John 13:35). Unfortunately, whether they are called “religious” or “Christian,” people who claim to follow Jesus are not always known for their love. They’re known for their self-righteousness. They’re known for their hypocrisy. They’re known for their raging fury at our secularized culture. If this is what believers in Christ are known for, it matters little whether people think we are “religious” or “Christian.” People’s opinion of us, no matter which word is used, will remain negative.
In some instances, a person’s opinion of Christianity may be negative simply because he doesn’t like Christ and His teaching. Jesus Himself taught us to expect hatred from others when He said to His disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first” (John 15:18). Sometimes, we are hated through no fault of our own. But let’s do everything we can to ensure that a person’s opinion of Christianity is negative because of Christ and not because we are acting foolishly, selfishly, arrogantly, and sinfully. Let’s do everything we can to instead be known for our love. Because then, whether people think of us as “religious” or “Christian,” they will ultimately move past us altogether and look to Christ Himself. And that’s the goal. He’s the goal.
The goal is not a game with words. The goal is to point people to the Word.