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


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:

The Dreaded Christian To-Do List


Pile, inbox, list, to-doMy son and I are reading through the New Testament together this summer. Though I’ve read through the NT many times previously, the word of God is rich, my life circumstances change, and people grow and see with more spiritual vision over time.

One truth is hitting me hard this time around.

If you are a parent of a child who has gone through public or private school, you received notes from teachers about your child. Some addressed issues in your child’s life that required fixing. Others were updates on the school or its activities.

In reading the NT again, I was struck by how Paul’s letters to the churches often resemble those notes from a schoolteacher. They contain correctives, do’s and don’t’s, progress info, and so on.

But here’s the thing: If I were try to recreate an image of my child, would those letters he brought home from teachers be sufficient to tell me who he is?

I see this tendency in churches to take the Scriptures and make lists of do’s and don’t’s, form an image from those do’s and don’t’s, and then call them The Gospel™.

Problem is, compiling lists and performing what’s on them is not the real Gospel and never has been. Ironically, there exists a list of 10 To-Do items meant for “religious” people and those religious people found it a bear to do them. Even more ironic, the Giver of those 10 items concurred with the people: Yes, those 10 were impossible to keep perfectly.

And yet for most people attending a Christian Church in America, what comes out of the pulpit on Sunday is almost always a list of more “spiritual” things for them to do. It’s three, five, 10, or 12 bullet points (depending on how long-winded the preacher is) that we must now perform to have perfect





prayer lives,

Bible-study skills,

and on and on.

We have exchanged 10 items impossible to do for innumerable items impossible to do.

Preachers love to mine the Old Covenant for these items, despite the fact that covenant has been replaced by a much better one. Then they look at the better one, read all the “Notes from Teacher” letters of Paul, and use those corrective letters as additional fodder for more lists. (If anything, those corrective letters are intended more for Church leaders themselves to wrestle with. Sort of a “Teacher, teach thyself” sort of thing. But then how many preacher/leaders look at them that way?)

Funny thing  is, though the post-apostolic Church has loved its lists, the early Church knew better. When the issue of lists of Christian things to do came before the apostles and early Church leaders with regard to the gentiles, an astute James said there was no reason to frustrate those believers with a massive spiritual To-Do list. In the end, the leaders kept that list sane and super-short.

Even wilder? Those same apostles and leaders called the spiritual To-Do lists they’d had to contend with their entire lives “trouble” and a “burden.” You can read about this in Acts 15.

Jesus didn’t like lists either. When someone tried to force a list of approved behavior out of Him, He said all you needed to do was to love God and love your neighbor.

You know what? I think I can remember a list of two items. (Still, even those two are tough to keep!)

And yet today, the lists multiply and lengthen.

In Ecclesiastes, the narrator complains of the endless making of books and the weariness that comes from studying them. In our self-help, active, To-Do-centered culture today, books now equals lists. Because, hey, we’re too busy with our lists to focus on anything as lengthy as a book.

As someone 50 years old who has been a Christian for 35+ years, I’ve had enough Christian lists spoken to me over the years to gag a T. Rex. Actually, more like a herd of T. Rex. How many of those lists do I remember? None.

But if I really think about it, that statement may not be true. I do remember those lists—in a way. They bubble and churn under the surface of my spiritual life like so much hidden acid reflux and manifest as a case of spiritual heartburn. Not spiritual conviction, just a feeling like I swallowed something that’s stuck in my throat. Something akin to a millstone.

You know what? I don’t need more lists. You don’t either.

What we need more of is Jesus. And He never was and never will be a To-Do list.

True Freedom in Christ: Breaking the Bonds of Legalism


UnshackledIn my previous post in this two-part series, I claimed that while many Christian talk about freedom in Christ, few live that talk. As I get older, I increasingly see why this is.

One reason that few of us truly experience Christ’s freedom is our desperate fear that we will not be liked, that we’ll be rejected and tossed by the world into a class of people labeled losers. So we play the world’s restrictive and ensnaring game, and all reality of freedom goes out the window. The world pipes, and we dance. Only by dying to self and to the world do we experience genuine freedom.

The other reason for restrictions on freedom come from within the American Church, not without.  That solution, too, starts with dying to self, but in a more oblique way that not everyone sees.

Theologian Karl Barth, when asked to sum up his knowledge, was said to reply with the words of a simple song too often relegated to children, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

What I’m realizing is that my learning often gets in my way of being a simple Christian. I can get bogged down in Greek verb forms, or I can tussle with distinctions between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. I start thinking too much. I go off on tangents and wander in weird places.

Simplicity is not the ideal state in the minds of most people in the West. We love our complexity. Set a simple task before a half dozen business people, and the next thing you know, tasks forces arise, due diligence models erupt, and the original task, perhaps something as simple as “we need to refill this pitcher of water,” becomes a fiasco. The cartoon Dilbert is one of the most popular today because it deflates the pomposity and stifling adherence to rules that make so much of modern day business practice so ineffective.

The problem for the Church in America is that we are often worse than the hapless business world of Dilbert. We pile all sorts of junk onto the mission of Jesus, then we wonder why the mission goes awry and the people who are a part of it seem to reflect the opposite of “the joy of the Lord.”

Jesus summed up Isaiah:

“‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.'”
—Matthew 15:8-9

How often do we run the test to see if our everyday practice of the faith is nothing more than “rules made by men”?

We can build systematic theologies out of anything, but Jesus fought against that tendency. When a lover of complexity attempted to corner him on doctrine, here is how Jesus responded:

Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
—Matthew 22:37-40

Do we get the profundity of that final sentence? Jesus says that everything that has been revealed by God on how we are to live comes down to loving Him and loving others! I see a lot of Christians who burden themselves and everyone else with their busybodyness. They use their own systematic theologies to gleefully point out everyone’s errors, but they forget that everything they supposedly know is meant to add up to loving God and loving one’s neighbor.

That tendency explains why so much of the Church is at war with itself and why church splits are the norm rather than the exception.

In the words of the great orator Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

No, Rodney, we can’t—as long as we are bound up in legalism and judgmentalism.

Anymore, the only rules I impose on myself in this walk of faith are

Am I loving the Lord?

Am I loving other people?

I’m letting everything else go.

The ability to ask those two questions has to start in dying to self—again. Because asking those two questions, finding the answer, and putting that answer into practice demands that I not live for myself. I cannot love if I am at the center of that love.

I quoted a lot of Scripture verses yesterday on the positives of dying. I left some to use for today:

For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
—Romans 7:5-6

(That’s one of the most neglected verses in the Bible, if you ask me. Too many of us remain prisoners of  the “old way of the written code” and seem to have no comprehension of what it means to “serve in the new way of the Spirit.”)

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
—Galatians 2:19-21

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—”Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
—Colossians 2:20-23

I look around at the state of Evangelicalism today and it seems to have descended into little more than mouthing “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” And we can complain about whether that’s truly the case or not, but sometimes it’s all about perceptions. If you ask an unbeliever enough questions in this regard, you’ll probably hear people sum up Christianity as a religion for folks who are against doing stuff.

Fact is, Christianity is not defined by the rules of what it is against, but by the truth of what (and whom)  it is for.

But Dan, you say, what is Christianity for? Here’s a simple theological answer: Love the Lord and love people. I can sum that up in a couple verses too:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
—Philippians 1:21

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
—Ephesians 2:10

No matter how poor our memories might be, I think each of us can memorize those two verses.

I’ve reached the age that I’m not so worried if I wear white socks with black shoes. I’ve stopped caring what other people think of me. I’ve died to all that. The only thing that matters is what the Lord thinks.

In fact, I’ve reached the point where I no longer care what the religious people think, which means I don’t care what many fellow Christians think. Too many religious people are busybodies who don’t understand Christianity at all because they’re mired in rules, laws, and trying to conform to a misplaced sense of righteousness. I feel sorry for them, actually.

When I read the Bible, this Christian life comes off so much simpler than what we have made it. This life is not about how long our quiet time is and when. It’s not about looking good before the religious people.

Freedom in Christ is letting everything else go, letting it die, so that we can live by the Spirit.

And when our physical bodies finally wear out, we won’t be judged by God for how much we know or for how well we applied “godly principles” and rules to life. As Jesus Himself said, it will all come down to whether we lived a life that showed we loved Him and loved other people.

That’s true freedom.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
—Galatians 5:13-18