Religion has become like a chubby seventh-grader lately. Every day it’s getting “pantsed” in the locker room of ideas, never to be seen the same way again.
You could say it started with Jefferson Bethke and his Internet-breaking Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus video, but preachers across the country already cultivated most of the content in that video.
Bethke’s video placed a distinction between the gospel and religion that has rapidly gained favor among young evangelicals. The distinction is often communicated in this way:
There is, in fact, a gloriously firm distinction between false religion and the gospel. False religion is hopeless. The gospel is the hope of the nations. False religion brings destruction. The gospel brings freedom. False religion exalts the work of man. The gospel exalts the work of Christ. Bethke and others do us a service by keeping this distinction in view.
But we must be careful that in our desire for and delight in the gospel, which is indisputably the better, truer story, we do not trample true religion. By "true religion" I am not primarily referring to James 1:27: "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." I am certainly not saying less than this verse but, rather, building on the principles in James 1:27, I am arguing that there is value and delight in Christian piety.
What is piety, you might ask? John Calvin calls piety “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits enjoins." Read that again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
To put Calvin's words into more current language, piety is the loving worship and obedience that is produced when a person truly knows God. Our forebears in the faith, those faithful men and women who came before us, considered the concepts of true religion and piety to be identical.
Here is the main issue: We, as Christians, must find a way to dismiss the confusion and hollowness of the term “religion” without also ridding ourselves of the gem and delight of Christian piety. Piety is the cultivation of a gospel-centered life. Over time, some of the best parts of piety, as our forebearers understood it, became corrupted under the tyranny of false religion. The reverence that piety helped to cultivate became perverted into a morose and sour disposition. The knowledge of God that piety encouraged in the life of the believer became an end in itself, and we began to seek knowledge not in order to know God but to know more than the next guy did.
But the gospel liberates us from the burden of false, do-it-yourself religion. The gospel doesn’t just bring us out of “false religion” but it brings us into “true religion,” which is accompanied by the fruit of the Spirit, the worship of Christ and the desire to know Him and make Him known. Allowing neither the false freedom of license nor the false religion of legalism, the gospel applies the true freedom of the atonement and enables the true religion of joy-motivated piety.
With that understanding, I can faithfully say, “I hate false religion, but I love true religion.” It is good and right in all places to despise and shame false religion. But true religion—the piety of a changed heart expressed in loving obedience—must never be rejected. It should be given a place of honor in the lives of those who have tasted the grace of the gospel.