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The end of religion.
Robert Capon on Jesus’s gospel as the death-knell for salvation via religion.
You are no doubt familiar with that Christianese phrase, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” Part of me loathes that phrase for its overt kitschy-ness. Of course, there are religious elements in what we know as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The apostle Paul spends a good bit of his epistolary writing explaining the ways in which some of the churches he helped get off the ground were getting the religious part horribly wrong. He didn’t ignore those faults and foibles and give the Corinthians, for example, a hearty pat on the back, followed by, “Don’t worry, it’s not a religion anyway. It’s a relationship.” Perhaps I’m being too coy about that, but I think we can take the “it’s not a religion” thing a bit too far.
By the same token, though, Christianity is not a religion — especially when the generally understood definition for religion is appeasing a higher Being by acts of obeisance, deference, reverence, and penance. That’s how it’s commonly perceived. Religion, more often than not, is shorthand for “atonement via activity.” It’s our spiritual hustle and bustle that’s getting us by and getting us in. Our religious zeal is what’s washing our conscience clean from all the guilt and shame and regret we rack up through, you know, life. This is the human understanding of religion. And, indeed, Christianity is not that. You know what, I’ll let Robert Capon take it from here:
Christianity is not a religion; it’s the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however — the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistant. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over, period. All the efforts of the human race to straighten up the mess of history by plausible religious devices — all the chicken sacrifices, all the fasts, all the mysticism, all the moral exhortations, all the threats — have been canceled by God for lack of saving interest. More astonishingly still, their purpose has been fulfilled, once for all and free for nothing, by the totally non-religious death and resurrection of a Galilean nobody. Admittedly, Christians may use the forms of religion — but only because the church is the sign to the world of God’s accomplishment of what religion tried (and failed) to do, not because any of the church’s devices can actually get the job done. The church, therefore, must always be on its guard against giving the impression that its rites, ceremonies, and requirements have any religious efficacy in and of themselves. All such things are simply sacraments — real presences under particular signs — of the indiscriminate gift of grace that God in Christ has given everybody. (2)
For all the energy man expends at trying to “be better,” “do more,” and “try harder,” what Christianity offers is Christ’s body and blood scot-free. And in that body and blood is all that we could ever hope for and more! You are atoned, you are forgiven, you are exonerated, and you don’t even have to lift a pinky. It’s done. It is finished. That’s Christianity. That’s Christ, the death-knell to all our salvation-via-religion expeditions.
Grace and peace to you, friends.
Robert Capon, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996).