“We Made Jesus into a Mere Religion” Part 1


For those of you who read my blog regularly, first thanks!   Second, I apologize for not keeping up my commitment to write every day of Lent.  Last week was difficult for me personally and this week has been challenging pastorally.  Internally last week, externally this, I simply didn’t have the time or energy to write as much as I’d hoped.  I knew I was biting off a lot, but I also imagined I might be able to write some shorter posts.  Apparently, my thinking consistently runs to a certain length/number of words.

A couple of questions I’ve been pondering this week: Are we changed from the outside in or the inside out?  Which is more important in relationship with God, consensus in our beliefs or cooperation in our actions?  

The first assignment I give my senior Bible class is to draw a circle inside which they are to write their list of salvation non-negotiables, those things about which we must agree for salvation.  That is, we are both followers of Jesus as long as we both believe X.  Outside the circle, they give examples of important issues over which we can disagree and dialogue without questioning one another’s salvation.  On one level, this is probably humorous, because whatever else salvation might or might not be, it isn’t based on the list we make.  But one purpose of the exercise is to help us recognize that we can discuss some serious things without resorting to “How can you believe that and be a Christian?”

At some point, a significant number of people within the church came to understand “being a Christian” as consent to a certain list of propositional statements.  If we all believe these truths, we are Christians.  So if you believe that “Jesus is God” and “God is triune” and “people are sinners” and “salvation comes only through Jesus,” for example, you are a Christian.

I know I’m getting into dangerous territory here, but I’m going to plunge on because I think this is important and fitting in Lent.

Jesus does not say that we merely have to believe some truth statements. He says we have to follow him to be his followers.  That kind of makes sense to me.

So what does “following Jesus” mean?  Historically, people have given a number of differing, sometimes conflicting, answers.  I’m neither hoping to recite the multitude of views nor to propose the “right” way.  But I am going to wade in this far: following Jesus means doing, not just consenting.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the rudest of my seminary professors said, “Your values are what you do.”  You can’t claim to value reading if you have a bunch of books but never open one.  Or, you can…but then you’re wrong.  And possibly a hypocrite.  Sorry.

Jesus has precious few conversations in which he discusses what people believe apart from their actions.  You might be challenged to find one.  After the lawyer comes and tries to quibble with Jesus about what he must to do inherit eternal life (we might say “be saved,” though the Kingdom is bigger than that) and Jesus slices to the heart of the issue by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Well, the Samaritan was, of course, not the two “righteous” guys who walked past and left the bleeding attack victim to die.  Jesus concludes their conversation–not just the story, but his exhortation on the subject–with this:

“Go and do likewise and you will live.”  

The two righteous-looking, god-knowledgeable men in this parable, a priest and a Levite, they knew the right stuff.  Compared with a lowly, filthy, god-betraying Samaritan, they were the ones who held the right beliefs.  But Jesus tells no stories about believing the right theology, which they think they do.  “Go and think likewise and you will live.”  He never says that.  

Instead, Jesus seems to hold up the compassionate actions of a theologically questionable person.  Do like him.  No, Jesus doesn’t say, “So see, it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you act in love.”  But neither is this the only time Jesus tells such of story.

The tax collector and Pharisee in the temple parable may be even more convincing.  The danger of suggesting we have to do instead of “just believe” in order to follow Jesus is that some will object that this is anti-grace.  But if you’re tempted to make this suggestion, take a moment.  The Pharisee prays and rejoices in God for his blessed, superior position.  He has certainly studied Holy Scripture more than the tax collector.  He likely has carefully gone about tithing his herbs and counting how many steps he takes on the Sabbath day to avoid breaking their prohibition to work.  That’s what trying to impress God with action looked like in their time and culture.  Jesus objects to these practices and the twisted heart behind such scrutiny on minutiae while missing God’s heart.

Tax collectors were sinners by definition.  They worked for the occupying Roman army, collected the taxes imposed by the Roman governors on their fellow Jews, and then got to skim off basically however much they chose, often however much they decided “the market could bear.”  They had the armed might of the occupying Roman soldiers to enforce their extortion.  If we called them the “Vichy Tax Collectors,” that would just begin to give the notion of what they did and how they were viewed.

Jesus describes the Pharisee who boasts in prayer, who, in one translation, “prays to himself.”  Then he describes the tax collector who will not even look up toward heaven, will not dare make eye contact even in the presumed direction of God, but drops his head and beats his chest.  He’s sick and he knows it.  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus teaches that the proper thing to do is cry for God’s mercy.  Which of these two do you think went home justified, Jesus asks.  Only one did, he implies.  It wasn’t the guy who did more religious-looking stuff.

Do we change from the outside in or the inside in?

Jesus, who said more shocking things than he’s given credit for (because it’s easier to tone down what he said than try to do all that crazy stuff), said you won’t get figs from briars. Stinging nettle doesn’t grow on grapevines; grapes do.  You’re not getting good fruit from a bad (i.e. nasty, stinging, non-fruit) tree nor bad fruit (i.e. thorns, stings) from a good tree.

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks

You will know them by their fruit.   

Going back to our original questions, that seems to answer them, albeit with an answer we might not find comfortable.  What is the external evidence that shows the content of ones heart?  When Jesus takes on the scribes and Pharisees’ rules directly, he explains that sin comes from what is in our hearts, not, for example, by eating unclean foods.  Again, when we’re reading with life change in mind, many of Jesus’ answers are uncomfortable.  Maybe most.  Possibly all.

Jesus seems to argue that we need both changed hearts and outward actions that reflect our hearts.  I think we can change our actions and have that seep into our hearts or have a heart change that leads to changed actions.  The direction may matter less than that the change happens.  But just “believing,” i.e. acknowledging, without accompanying response and change, isn’t what Jesus has in mind.*

Perhaps I’m naive, but I think the balance between doing and believing is simple to describe, though wildly difficult, i.e. impossible, to perfect:  put our hearts and all we’ve got, our honest, sincere oomph, into carrying out our best understanding of obeying and being like Jesus, and throw ourselves on God’s mercy and grace when we fail (so, constantly).**  If we’re all in, we’re going to have moments like the tax collector’s in the temple, when we are utterly sickened by the vile stuff we see in our own hearts.  Giving our utmost to follow Jesus doesn’t leave us puffed up and arrogant, it makes us see how deep our darkness and sickness runs.

The flip side of this coin is that, if we’re honest, we’ll eventually have moments of being the Pharisee in the temple, where we catch ourselves being self-congratulatory on how well we’re being righteous, especially compared to that one or those people.  That’s hard to admit.  But if I’m judging them, it implies I’m holding up me.

“We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation.”  –Richard Rohr

“Belonging and believing” instead of “transformation.”  This quote sent my mind galloping with all the implications–for ourselves and the church–if Rohr is right.  

I have heard people take these words of Paul–“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”–and make this into an argument that “all” we must do is believe in resurrection and acknowledge that Jesus is God, say some appropriate, scripted prayer of confession and conversion, and maybe go to church where we sing songs about how great it is to believe this stuff.

If that’s it, we are–here we go–not following Jesus.***  We’re also ignoring the plain sense of how words function.

What can it mean to believe that Jesus is “Lord” except to make the heart and mind commitment that what Jesus says, goes.  “Lord.”  Twisting Paul’s writing to defang this into some intellectual assent of Jesus’ position (“Yep, that’s definitely his rank.  Lord.  I get that.”) is ludicrous.  If you keep reading in Romans, Paul writes two chapters later, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  Unless you read Paul as encouraging suicide (literal self-sacrifice), then he is teaching obedience and journey toward God and transformation.

Rohr suggests that “worshipping Jesus instead of following him” took us in the wrong direction.  I don’t think Rohr is denying the deity of Christ here (and I’ve read other works of his, plus in the two preceding paragraphs he writes that Jesus is “very God yet very man,” and “human yet divine.”); instead, Rohr differentiates between a worship that sets Jesus at a distance and a following that continuously sends us in a godward direction.  “Wait,” someone asks, “what direction is godward?”  In whichever direction you need to move, right now, to follow Jesus, to do the things he says and be more like him, to be today more who he made you to be, that is the godward direction for you.

The difference between “religion” and “journey toward God,” as Rohr describes it, is your next question:

“But who is my neighbor?”


“Jesus, what’s next?”



*James writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.”  We could also make this same argument from James chapter two.  

**Don’t worry, even when writing about how there’s no relationship with God without obedience, this is still Grace Is Greater.  

***I’m oversimplifying to make a point, as writers do (and must). What I just described may be the utmost faithfulness for a profoundly broken person and exactly where God has led them thus far in following Jesus on his path.  If so, that person will continue beyond this point, as well.  And if so, the distance they’ve traveled to get here is journeying toward God.  Again, my concern is making following Jesus into an acknowledgement and ritual, rather than a life-transforming praxis. (You read the footnotes, you get the fancy words.)   

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