Real Salvation: How to Be Freed from Religions Filled with Rules

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One of the effects of multiculturalism amid globalization is that more and more people are exposed to the often strange belief systems of others. And regardless of what others may say, everyone has a belief system. You may insist you don’t believe in anything or anyone—no gods, goddesses, gurus, or guides—but that very lack of believing is itself a belief.

The problem with most belief systems: almost every one of them has a core understanding that to be a faithful believer in that belief, one must do something to be shown acceptable or holy. And in almost all cases that means one must keep doing that holy practice. In those few cases when a practice may be done once, it is simply replaced with another practice to perform, ad infinitum.

In short, almost all the world’s religions consist of little more than sets of rules.

Sometimes, those rules become headscratchers. Take, for example, this one:

 
So, the religious rule is never to carry items on the Sabbath day or else that is considered work and not God-ordained rest, although carrying inside the house is OK. So make your house larger by erecting walls in the wider community and call them part of your house. And then when upkeep on masonry or lumber gets too burdensome, convert the wall into a string. Presto, you have an eruv.

Doesn’t it seem sad to you that your standing or mine with a deity would depend on whether or not we are carrying a package on a certain day on the correct side of a piece of string? Doesn’t the mere idea of this fill you with a sense of despair that we amount to so little in that deity’s eyes that we must keep jumping through such hoops to please him? Or that he would be so easily fooled by our clever loophole? (Or 18-mile, loop-of-string-wall, to be perfectly holy in exactitude.)

Jesus ran into that kind of man-made holiness and was not impressed.

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’  they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

Religious rulekeepers get offended easily. In Jesus’ day, He drove the rulekeepers batty. They tried to pin down Jesus by their rules, but Jesus would tolerate none of it. He countered by quoting the prophet Isaiah and noting the rulekeepers had made a scandalous “holy” rule that if they devoted their stuff to God, they had no responsibility to use it to help their parents.

Jesus called these men “hypocrites” not because they were violating their own rules but because they thought their rules were making them holy—when those rules were actually doing the opposite.

Most religions are rules made by men. They trap adherents in a maze of do’s and dont’s that only lead people into despairing pits of precepts and farther away from God. Rules upon rules, and men and women trying desperately to keep an endless string of them, almost always failing, if not by the letter of the law then by its spirit.

The Christian faith is utterly different. The Christian faith rejects any idea that anyone can abide by enough rules or keep them well enough to be seen as holy in God’s eyes, to be good enough to merit God’s favor. We might as well try to blow out the sun as ever get to a place by our own works and religious efforts where we can stand before the presence of a holy, spotless, perfect God.

But a Way exists, and it’s not by following rules but by faith in a person, Jesus Christ. He WAS perfect. He kept all the holy rules. He never erred, never sinned. And in dying on the cross, He imparts to all who receive Him that same holiness, through grace. Jesus finished all the holy work so that we will never have to. By grace, through faith, we can be covered for all responsibilities for holy works through the finished work of Christ alone.

That is what Jesus meant when He uttered His final words on the cross: “It is finished.” He completed the religious tasks. He met all the goals. He checked every checkbox so that those who place their faith in Him can be freed from rules made by men, and even those rules made by God to show how impossible it is for a human being like you or me to keep those rules and be holy by our own efforts. Thankfully, Jesus DID keep them all, and the requirement on us has been satisfied by Him forever. This is the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To learn more about the Gospel—how Jesus has satisfied all the rules of the Law on your behalf, freeing you from religious rulekeeping—please, please, please take 15 minutes to listen to this life-changing truth:

Suicide and the Church of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey

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This weekend, I listened to a podcast from a well-known Christian organization that featured the banter of two notable hosts. The subject was not banter material, though, because it focused on the alarming rise in the last few years of suicide.

The hosts attempted to pin some of the blame on economic realities. This is no doubt true. One demographic to experience an alarming rise in self-harm: men in their 50s. For most men, the early 50s are imagined as peak earning years. When a job loss or income drop happens at this time, the results can be catastrophic, especially since 50 is the new 70 in the eyes of the corporate world.

When the hosts shifted into talking how the Church should be the answer to people who are looking for hope amid economic misfortune, I wondered if they listened to their own show. Why? Because something telling betrayed their response. It’s the reason why economic realities are not the greater portion of the problem of suicide and its rise.

All throughout the podcast, the hosts mentioned their individual, personal brands. They dropped the names of the top schools their kids attended. They talked titles and honors. In doing so, they broadcast a sub-message greater than the Gospel—at least greater in its ubiquity. It’s the message that powers America and drives people to pull the trigger, cut the wrists, and take the pills. It’s the message of the Organ Grinder’s Monkey.

Organ Grinder and MonkeyI’ve never seen an actual organ grinder and his monkey. Italian men with handlebar mustaches come to mind, wearing Tyrolean costumes, while a capuchin or spider monkey gambols about his feet in a cute, little red vest and fez.

The one thing about the monkey: It never stops doing its shtick. Fact is, it can’t. Gotta keep dancing so long as the organ music plays.

I visited the website of a well-known church growth leader, and the one thing that impressed me most about his message was how often he begged people to retweet it, buy it in book form, and share his name with friends, neighbors, the neighbor’s dog, the fleas on the dog, and the mites on the fleas.

Because you gotta keep dancing.

Gotta be number one.

Gotta have name recognition.

Gotta be flogging that personal brand. You.

Gotta get those kids into a name school.

Gotta hold down that title, that chair, that fellowship, that thing that will justify your use of air.

Gotta. Because the organ is grinding, the music is playing, and it’s dance or Antonio finds another monkey.

You have to be “on.” All the time.

Do. There is no do not.

If we think we can go to the Church for an answer on this non-stop performance, we can’t. Because so many churches are enmeshed in trying to stay alive that they do everything they can to enhance their brand, their name recognition, their “product.”

Everywhere you turn, it’s perform or die.

Don’t make a mistake.

Don’t relax.

Don’t stop selling.

ABC—Always Be Closing.

The problem is that the Gospel comes along and it’s 180-degrees in opposition to the lifestyle of the organ grinder’s monkey. The Gospel’s freedom comes in not having to dance unendingly. People are no longer slaves to the music the world pipes. God doesn’t give a rip about your personal brand because you’re a mess and will be until you draw your final breath. Your personal brand is just another load of skubalon. So stop with the charade. Grace.

Why do people despair enough to end their lives? I think too many feel that they can’t let their guard down, can’t stop dancing, can’t stop performing, and just can’t shill for even one second more for themselves or for whomever their organ grinder might be. They simply cannot keep up.

When I listen to a Christian podcast and the message sounds like the organ grinder’s music, I don’t wonder why people are not in the seats on Sunday. Because there’s no relief. If the Church can’t tell people they can stop being an organ grinder’s monkey—and give them actual help to cease the tarantella—then no one will. Freedom in Christ will remain high concept and low reality.

We can talk all we want as a Church about grace, but until we stop with the performance mentality, we’ll sit back and watch the suicides pile up and blame them on everyone and everything EXCEPT the real cause.

We took a cruel world and fed into it a bunch of performance lies that make it even crueler. It’s time, Church, to help people throw off their monkeydom and embrace the freedom that comes from being identified by more than our performance.

The Gospel’s Good News–And Why Even Some Christians Don’t Believe It

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In trying to usurp the role of God, Man walked away from God and created a rift. To counter, God showed Man what it would take to cross that rift and return home to Him. That answer was called the Law. All Man needed to make the Law succeed was to do all of it perfectly.

Problem with the Law: No one got it right. Ever. In the end, what the Law accomplished more than anything else was to show the impossibility of doing it. The Law was a bridge too far, and no one could cross. God showed Man what was needed to make it across, but Man failed utterly.

Peace and rest in JesusExcept one man, Jesus. He kept all the Law perfectly. He achieved the holiness that comes from doing all the Law correctly. And when He had crossed that metaphorical bridge over the rift and reached the other side, Jesus announced, “It is finished.”

Except a lot of people don’t believe it is finished. Even Christians. Therein lies the problem.

Every Sunday in churches across the world, people sit in chairs, pews, and even on the bare ground and wonder what they need to do to cross the bridge. Because the rift is still there, and if they don’t cross the bridge, they remain separated from God. The rift they know. It’s that the bridge has been crossed for them that they fail to grok.

This sitting in church Sunday after Sunday and sometimes days in-between and wondering how one is going to cross that rift is one of the greatest plagues on the modern Church. It’s a sign that even though the Church has the Good News of Jesus, it’s not sinking into people.

The major difference between Christianity and nearly all other religions is that those other religions demand people cross the bridge using their own power, their own religiosity, their own supposed holiness. What methods people use varies from religion to religion, but one thing stays the same: people utterly fail to cross the bridge on their own.

In the Christian faith we have the Good News, or what we call the Gospel. That Good News first heard by the people of Palestine 2,000-plus years ago proclaims that Jesus has come on our behalf, and He will cross the bridge for us. He will keep perfectly all the Law, and not only this, but He will be the sacrifice of blood demanded as recompense for Man creating the rift in the first place.

Jesus came, lived, ministered, and accomplished.

Jesus did it all. It is finished. No more recompense necessary. No more need to cross the bridge on our own. Jesus did it all for us.

The question is of holiness, that which is required to approach a holy, perfect God who has set a bridge across the rift. The answer is in Jesus. His holiness in keeping all the Law and satisfying the debt becomes your holiness and mine. For those who come to Jesus as their hope for crossing, Jesus imputes His holiness. By being in Jesus, we have crossed the bridge and been counted holy and debt-free because God sees what Jesus did for us, not what we try to do for ourselves.

In the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the stoner rock band releases its newest album the band members believe will be bigger than The Beatles’ White Album. Spinal Tap’s album is entirely black. No band name. No title. No cover information. Nothing but blackness. Trying to wrap their heads around the concept, they ask, “How much more black could this be?” To which comes the answer, “None. None more black.”

How much more holy can a believer in Jesus be? None. None more holy. Jesus did it all on His own for us. Nothing we can do on our own can make us more holy, more acceptable to God. It is finished. We can’t add to what Jesus did, either. Jesus took care of it all. Our ridiculous contributions add nothing. The Bible calls our feeble attempts “dirty rags.”

The fancy word for trying to cross the bridge on our own religious merits is Pelagianism. It should be better known as AbjectFailure-ism. Weirdly, while some people reject Pelagianism, they’re OK with a modified form of it. Saying that Jesus got us mostly there but adding our own merits boosts us all the way across is the mockery of Jesus’ “It is finished” known as Semi-Pelagianism.

Those who love what Martin Luther started in the Protestant Reformation get a hoot out of mocking–for good reason–the stupidity that is Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

Except…

You see, we have this problem of should-ing in the Protestant Church. Christians who say they believe Jesus when He says He finished it all don’t actually believe. Instead, Church leaders and other well-meaning busybodies tell us we should tithe, should volunteer, should read our Bible ___ number of times a day, and should pray ___ times a day too. We should have a monthly date night with our spouse, should avoid the wrong kinds of movies, should do this thing or that action. Should, should, should. The result? Too few Christians believe that Jesus said He finished the job and paid the price so that we can lay down all these shoulds and live truly free. Instead, we get a message that shoulds all over everyone.

That’s not Good News. It’s removing the chains of the Old Testament Law that Jesus said He fulfilled and freed us from and putting on chains we make out of a mistaken reading of the New Testament. We exchange one imprisonment for another. We’ve just added a coating of Jesus to the chains.

That’s the crazy thing about the Gospel. You and I don’t have more lawful requirements to fulfill. This is what makes the Good News a scandal. The idea that we can’t add anything to what Jesus finished galls people. It angers because we want to be proud of our own religiosity.

The group Jesus opposed more than any other were the Pharisees. They insisted they had crossed the bridge on their merit. When Jesus pointed out that they’d failed miserably, they sought to kill Him. That’s how much they worshiped their own religious pride.

Each of us has his or her own Pharisee inside that insists we can keep the Law and not fail. There’s an American version of that Pharisee too, one that tells us we have other laws to keep such as being beautiful, successful, empowered, in control, and masters of our own American Dream.

Whether an American Phariseeism or the old-fashioned original kind, that Pharisee in us is both deceived and a damned liar.

Jesus condemns this self-righteous, “don’t need your help Jesus because we’ve got this bridge crossing thing covered on our own” Phariseeism every time He can.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the younger son tells his father that he wishes dear ol’ dad were dead and demands his inheritance, which he then blows on hookers, booze, and partying. Eventually reduced to coveting slop intended for pigs, he crawls back home demoralized.

At first sight of the prodigal, his father runs to him and tearfully welcomes him with open arms because he loves that messed up ingrate kid so much.

Meanwhile, the elder son stands by dad, pissed, because he never whored around, didn’t squander his inheritance, and was here at home all along, dutifully keeping his own nose clean.

Which of the two sons gets the stern lecture from the father? You’d think the younger, but you’d be very, very wrong.

Jesus also tells the story of a farmer who hires some men at the first of the day to come work in the field after those early risers agree to the wage. But the work is too big, so later in the day he hires more. Then even more. Near the close of the day, the farmer is still hiring.

Finally, the day ends. The farmer pays everyone he hired the same money, but the men who worked from the early morning, who agreed to work for that amount, are hacked off. They insist they acted like the best kind of workers and not like those who frittered away most of the day and only came out to work near sundown. How can the farmer give everyone, fritterers included, the same pay?

In both parables, Jesus points out self-righteousness: We’re scandalized by God’s ignoring of what humans do to try to cross the bridge, incredulous that He looks only at what Jesus has done.

Like the father of the prodigal, God stands at the end of the bridge over the rift with His arms open. In fact, when we hear the fancy spiritual word repentance, all it means is that God has His arms open and simply wants us to cross the bridge and come home to Him. And because the bridge was already crossed by Jesus and the bridge itself paid for, being in Jesus means we’re already considered to have crossed and paid. There’s nothing more to do but rest in the arms of Father God.

No more tragic figure exists than the person who believes Jesus is God but who spends all of life trying to be a “good Christian.” To him or her, I say this: Stop trying! It is finished. Jesus did it all. Rest in Jesus’ success. If you try to perform on His behalf, you’re usurping the role of God again, which was the very error that started this mess!

Some folks will object to this post on the grounds that we need to be slaving away to perfect ourselves to look more like Jesus. But the promise from God is that because of Jesus’ finished work, that’s not our job but God’s alone. He is both the author and finisher of our faith. It’s all on Him to make us look more like Jesus and none of it on us. Can the pot mold itself? No, only the Potter can mold it as He sees fit.

It is finished. All we have to do is acknowledge our failure to get across the bridge on our own and our desperate need for Jesus. Then we can head home and fall into the embrace of our Heavenly Father.

And that’s the Gospel’s Good News.