Burdened With Religion, But Not Born Again

“You religious or something?” Greg Stier, founder of Dare 2 Share tells the story of a random meeting in a coffee shop with a goth’d out guy who asked him that question with a bit of a sneer. Greg responded wisely, “No man, I can’t stand religious people. They make me sick!” His reply sparked a dialog that eventually had the guy cheering for the Jesus who was killed by religious leaders.

Greg’s story reminds me of one of the more famous dialogues in which Jesus participated in the gospels occurs in John chapter 3. He met at night with a member of the Sanhedrin named Nicodemus. (I can’t help but think of the old prophetic rat in The Secret of NIMH every time I hear that name.) I think both conversations highlight one of the most important truths for us to remember today: Religion is a burdensome, hopeless counterfeit for being born again.

Before we continue, let me make a distinction. The Apostle James points out that “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27 NLT) Here, James uses the word religion to describe how our faith displays itself in good works. What is more sinister is religion the way we typically use the word – to describe a particular institutionalized version of faith filled with rules and rituals that substitute for the relationship Jesus wants to have with us.

Jesus’ great word to Nicodemus was “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3 NLT) We don’t know what Nicodemus did with the conversation. Did he ponder and process it until finally following through and trusting his life to Jesus? Or did he walk away forever wondering if Jesus was right? What would be most tragic is if this highly religious man had the privilege of meeting the Redeemer face-to-face but never actually coming to know him in a personal way.

And that’s still the great tragedy of our day. Millions will reject Jesus. Some will do so out of ignorance and others out of willful intent. Some will blame science, others textual criticism, and still others will hold responsible the church itself, which has certainly been guilty of a thousand inconsistencies with our faith over the last two thousand years. And then there are those, perhaps most tragically of all, who will have heard of Jesus, believed the facts of the gospel, and upheld to the best of their human ability the righteous requirements of the law, but will never have actually trusted in him and entered a relationship with him.

Religion is heavy. It’s burdensome. It’s crushing. And Jesus came so that we could escape it and find our rest, our peace, and our joy in him. The question isn’t “you religious or something?” It’s “Do you know Jesus?” Have you met him? Have you asked him to save you? To take the rest of your life and make it what you could never make it in your own effort?

Today is a good day to stop being religious and finally be born again.

Become a Radical: 3 Rules You Should Break Today

Funny SignRebellion is bad, right? In the sense that we are all born bent away from God toward sin, yes. But when God gets hold of us, changes us from the inside out, and sets an entirely new agenda for our lives, it is then time to become a radical and rebel against everything our old nature would have driven us to do and everything the culture pressures us to do.

This is especially true when we are tempted to live out the new life in the pattern and power of our old nature. In other words, when we reduce life to a list of rules and rituals rather than seeing it as an ongoing, life-giving relationship with our Creator, it’s time to rebel. Here are some rules you and I ought to start breaking today…

1. The Prayer Rule.

Wake up. Pray. Check it off the list.

If that’s your pattern, throw the list away! Tim Keller put it this way, “To fail to pray, then, is not to merely break some religious rule – it is a failure to meet God as God. It is a sin against His glory.”

Instead, pray because God is worthy of seeking, powerful to respond, and a delight to have as a close friend. Prayer isn’t a rule to keep, it’s a relationship waiting to blossom. Break the prayer rule. Start a praying relationship.

2. The Church Rule.

Dress up. Get to church. Smile no matter what transpired on the way. Check it off the list.

I don’t need another thing to do every week just because people expect me to do it. What I do need is community. I need fellowship. I need practical, biblical teaching. I need people to do life with and with whom to join in God’s mission together.

It’s entirely possible to enjoy gathering with God’s people. It can be rejuvenating and encouraging, especially when I decide to go with the ministry of encouraging others on the forefront of my mind. It’s also possible that the assembly of God’s people can be a place where we get real about our struggles together rather than mutually upholding a mere facade of outward, performance-based holiness.

Break the church rule. Start leaning into your forever family, wherever they gather each weekend.


3. The Bible Rule.

Read 3.5 chapters. Check it off the list.

It’s always sad when I take the most exciting story ever written and treat it as a mere classroom textbook.

Got through Leviticus again! I don’t remember any of it, but it’s DONE!

The Bible is the written record of God’s redemption of lost mankind from utter desolation to life and heaven through the blood of His sacrificed Son. It’s filled with adventure, with wild men and women doing crazy things for God, with people who blew it and recovered, with wisdom for every situation we’ll ever face. It’s a story of up’s and down’s and all around’s. We’re disheartened over defeat in the lives of its godly characters, then delighted in the victories that inevitably occur, culminating in a mysterious picture of the final, eternal destination of all who trust the Redeemer of the story.

It’s a living book. A life-giving book. A holy book. A God-breathed book. And it’s useful to make us everything God knows we can be in our new relationship with him.

Break the Bible rule. Don’t just read it. Lie asoak in it. Be drenched in the drama of redemption. Be changed by its challenges and shaped by its truth.

If you aren’t praying yet, start. If you don’t have a church to gather with that feeds your faith and causes you to flourish, find one. If you aren’t spending time daily in the Word, start afresh. But resist the temptation for these things, and dozens of others like them, to become the end, rather than the means to the end, which is more of God and more of his blessing.

Let’s Fight FOR Worship!

Old PewsEverybody worships. Not everyone believes in God, or in gods, or in the God of the Bible, but everyone worships. Everybody ascribes worth to something, which is one of the basic definitions of worship.

My favorite book about worship, outside the Bible, is Warren Wiersbe’s Real Worship: Playground, Battleground, or Holy Ground?. Wiersbe offers this concise definition of worship…

Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will, and body—to what God is and says and does. This response has its mystical side in subjective experience and its practical side in objective obedience to God’s revealed will. Worship is a loving response that’s balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better.

As my favorite Worship Pastor on the planet likes to say, “worship is both revelation and response.” It’s tuning in to listen to a holy God, and it’s responding to what I hear and see. Genuine worship results in a net increase in my personal awe of God and ultimately changes my life in a way that is contagious. It makes me craveable, as Artie Davis might say.

Jesus once had an argument with a woman about worship. It’s recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter four, but the short version is that when Jesus got personal with her, she brought up an argument about the “right way” to worship as a diversion. Funny how the subject of worship often becomes the source of conflict when we’re trying to avoid the real issues of the heart. This woman’s understanding of worship was pretty normal.

  • Worship is confined to a time a place (hence, a “worship service”).
  • Worship is defined by our rituals and traditions.
  • Worship is the sum total of the goodness I offer up to God.
  • Worship is about receiving or “getting a lot out of” an experience.

Jesus challenged all of her assumptions – not with answers rooted in Jewish tradition, but answers rooted in the eternal fellowship He had enjoyed thus far with the Father. Out of that experience, Jesus revealed a different and better way to approach the subject of worship.

  • Worship should be an everywhere, all-the-time activity.
  • Worship happens in truth (the “real” world), but also in spirit (the “unseen” world).
  • Worship is the response of sinful creatures to a holy God.
  • Worship is about giving or offering up, which is far more blessed than receiving anyway.

When we fight about worship, we’re usually fighting like the woman in the argument. We’re fighting about when, where, and how. We’re arguing about externals, traditions, and preferences. When we fight for worship, we’re fighting with the heart of Jesus, who sought to establish a connection between broken humanity and a healing Creator.

John Piper is credited with saying that “missions exists because worship doesn’t.” Right now, on planet earth, there are literally billions of people who are worshipping the creature more than the Creator (see Romans 1). They don’t know the One who showed up at the well that day, and we who do know Him are responsible. The woman at the well that day, out of the overflow of her worshipful spirit, brought an entire town to meet Jesus. Once she “got it,” she fought for worship. I want to fight for it too. He’s worth it.

Can You Just Heal My Boy?

Boy“I begged your disciples to cast out the spirit, but they couldn’t do it.” (Luke 9:40 NLT)

The disciples had plenty of great experiences to boast about. They were in the inner circle. They had been hanging out with one of Israel’s most popular rabbis. But on this day, they were powerless. They had religious solutions to offer, but this man wanted just one simple thing… “Can you just heal my boy?”

Sometimes we have a ton of great answers to offer, but no one is asking the right questions. Broken people are the worst. They never quite understand the importance of our religious ceremonies, liturgies, and traditions. They don’t seem to care about our denominational structures, our political schemes, and our battles over buildings and secondary doctrines.

Instead, they have the nerve to ask questions about their enormous, real life struggles. From their point of pain, they seem to ignore our list of programs and ask questions like… Can you heal my boy? Can you help my marriage? Can you help me stop looking at pornography? Can you help me find forgiveness for my abuser?

Maybe we should start answering different questions.

Photo By Christian Haugen

We Need That Old Time Religion!

I’m writing this article to a generation that might never have heard the old song, Old Time Religion (so I included a clip from an old movie for you). I grew up in an old-fashioned church. We had an old building, built in 1833, and an old cemetery with civil war era headstones. We sang old songs on old instruments and most of the old people that were my heroes when I was younger have gone on home to heaven.

You may be preparing yourself for one of those “we need things to be like they were in the old days” articles, but that’s not what is on my mind. In fact, I think we need churches to ignore the opinions and criticisms of their surrounding Christian subculture and do whatever it takes to communicate the gospel in the context of the present generation. This will, in most cases, require louder music, fewer pipe organs, and a big surge forward in the area of living with integrity and character.

In that song, however, is a lyric that keeps ringing through my mind today… “makes me love everybody.” My wife read a quote to me this morning from Greg Surratt (the book is coming soon) that caused us both to pause and think. He said that “spiritual growth shouldn’t be measured by how much we know, but by who we love.” And if we’re really growing, we’ll love more people.

Before you assume we need to return to an early-American, westernized version of Christianity we often think of as the “old time religion,” let me remind you that it was in the name of that old time religion that we “churched” (and old word for kicking people out) people for dancing, segregated God’s family by race, and chased the “savages” away from their homes to steal their land. In other words, while the song had some great lyrics, I’m not so sure we really understood what we were singing. I’m not sure we understand it today.

Think of that phrase for a second… “makes me love everybody.” If that phrase were to describe a maturity church, what would the dynamics of such a church be? Could we really grow in such a way that we came to love everybody? Could we love the terrorist as much as the victim of the terrorist’s plot? Could we love the homosexual as much as the traditional family? We could if we were really growing in our love for Jesus.

Jesus once met a woman at a well and loved her in a way that five of her husbands hadn’t. He rescued a young lady from a stoning and loved her into a changed live when some rock-carrying legalists were ready to mete out justice by angrily pelting her to death. Jesus promised a crucified thief a spot with Him in paradise while his partners in crime mocked him.

I often wonder what the church would look like if it really accepted the challenge to love everybody. I don’t have all the answers, but I think we would…

  • Give until it hurts so that the gospel could be proclaimed to all the nations.
  • Find a way to stand for moral absolutes without declaring a verbal war on those with whom we disagree.
  • Open our doors to people of every race and socio-economic status and practice for the day when people from “every tribe, tongue, and people group” gather to offer praise to God.
  • Pick up the pieces of broken marriages and help restore families.
  • Create a safe place for addicts to come for honest confession, support, and forgiveness.
  • Weep when tragedy strikes the human family, even on the other side of the globe.
  • Remember that everyone has a past, and that our present unhealthy choices are often the result of deep, leftover pain.
  • Sit with the sick and dying.
  • Give up the closest parking places, help carry groceries, and give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.

The “old time religion” we need to emulate isn’t the Ozzie and Harriet era “golden age” of the 1950’s when western culture was experiencing a new level of prosperity. It isn’t the 1920’s, the frontier era, or the time of the Great Reformation. The old time religion worth emulating is found much further back, in the era of the New Testament when Jesus was recruiting, discipling, and commissioning His church to go, teach, and baptize.

How would your church look different if it really embraced that old time religion?

Just Turn To Jesus, It’s That Simple

Confession: Christianity is a mess! But that’s the tendency of religion isn’t it? We have too many denominations, too many moral failures among leaders, and too much quibbling over secondary issues. We argue about music styles, dress codes, and politics. Let’s admit it.

And while we’re admitting, let’s admit that we’ve also messed up the message of the gospel. We either water it down or muddy it up. We either leave out the parts about Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection and our faith and repentance toward Him, or we throw in extra and often confusing terminology and rules. Some who are inquisitive about the faith may walk away thinking that turning to Jesus is more difficult than filling out a tax return.

So let’s straighten this out:

  1. You and I have sinned. We all have. No denying it. We’ve broken the rules of our Creator.
  2. We deserve punishment for our sins, separation from God in hell to be exact.
  3. God loves us in spite of our sins and willingly allowed His Son Jesus to come to earth and to die on the cross to pay the penalty of our crimes. He died for us.
  4. He rose again.
  5. Turn to Him and trust Him as your Savior, and you’ll be saved forever.

Continue reading Just Turn To Jesus, It’s That Simple

I Think It’s Time To Be Concerned

I’m deeply concerned. Jesus made a bold statement once about the influence of believers when He said, “If the salt loses its savor, it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under the foot of men.” I’ve just finished reading an article by Al Mohler that gives an articulate voice to a rising concern within Christianity – are we losing our savor?

Continue reading I Think It’s Time To Be Concerned