“And I, brothers & sisters, could not speak to you as to spiritual people, but as to people of flesh, as to infants in Christ.” – I Cor. 3:1
There are three kinds of Christianity in the world (despite the thousands of Christian denominations).
The first is Spiritual Christianity. This is the narrow path, the real thing. A Spiritual Christian is engaged in the inward work of their own salvation, and as a result spiritual life flows out of them touching other people.
The second, is Religious Christianity. This is the dominant form of Christianity in the world today, and the face of Western Christendom. It is easy to become a Religious Christian because it requires no heart change. On the surface it looks genuine, and draws many Spiritual Christians into syncretism with itself. However, under the veneer it has no power, and uses legalism and fear to “protect” people from sin.
Now, some people participate in Religious Christianity knowingly. Roman Catholicism, for example, is a religion and its followers want to be religious. So long as they have made that choice with their eyes open, I respect their decision to be religious. However, it is important to point out that all Christian institutions stand on a religious foundation by nature. Where you have an institution, you have some measure of religion. There is a blindspot where many Religious Christians claim to be Spiritual Christians and do not see that religious attitudes and practices are the dominant trait of their “spirituality.”
The third type of Christianity is False-Spiritual Christianity. This occurs when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are treated as a means to selfish or sensational ends. There is so much to unpack there, but the conversation on this third type is for another time.
Let’s take a closer look at how religion and spirituality are at odds in the pursuit of life and the truth about sin.
Spiritual Christianity & Sin
Spiritual Christianity reveals morality within a person from the inside out, but morality is not the goal. The focus is to become alive by overcoming death.
In the salvation that Jesus opened to humanity, we become free of sin by a process of continual transformation. The focus is to become like Jesus, and we do this by dealing with what we find in our hearts. The change occurs now, and will be completed when we see Jesus at His return (1 John 3:2).
When a person accepts Spiritual Salvation, they accept God’s truth planted in them. They welcome it to grow God’s desires in their heart. They also become fluid, able to change and develop like a newborn baby. They begin to grow into who He wants them to be, which is like Jesus (whole, hearty complete, not lacking anything – and free).
Religious Christianity & Sin
Religious Christianity treats sin as synonymous with immorality, and righteousness as synonymous with morality (and moral behaviour). It makes sense, but is a very subtle lie because it inhibits the process of becoming like Jesus. This message is a weed, a false purpose sown into the heart. It takes the focus off of Jesus and what it means to become like Him, and it places it back on self. In the end, a person can become more preoccupied with cleaning up their outward behaviour than in sharing an intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact they don’t have to have a relationship with Jesus at all in order to strive for behaviour goals.
The word, “pharisee” is thrown around a lot in Christian culture. It’s basically a term for a spiritual hypocrite – someone who thinks they live righteously but doesn’t have spiritual life in themselves. In Christian culture we seem pretty sure we know what a pharisee is, but I have to raise my hand and ask, “Do we really?”
When Jesus began teaching people about spirituality, He was in the midst of a culture that had such a corner on righteousness they had divided everyone into their proper groups. You could identify who was in and who was out very easily. Then Jesus started choosing people to be close to Him and He excluded everyone who was in the religiously respected group. He went on to vehemently correct the standards of righteousness common to the culture and point everyone to examine their own heart.
Today, as I see it, we have developed the exact same circumstances around Christianity that existed in Jesus’ day, and we are equally blind to this fact. Religious Christians from the Evangelical group will be the first to tell you that Christianity is “not a religion, its a relationship.” But the very people who say this, do not realise the deeply rooted religious beliefs that engulf that relationship.
I have experienced this, because I have been one of these people most of my life. I was able to excel within institutions of Christianity by figuring out the value system and keeping it. Where I looked the part and acted the part I was accepted and treated as the real deal, but it was essentially all about performance. I was dedicated in my attendance to multiple church services a week. I sacrificially helped with issues of justice and served tirelessly to sustain functions of the church. However, none of that had anything to do with where my heart was truly at.
For the most part I should not have been in a place of leadership. I had little spiritual strength, but I was able to hide my weaknesses. How was I able to do that? Because the Christianity I was a part of wasn’t measuring me by spiritual qualifications. I was riding a religious wave.
Most Christians are very familiar with the following –
Our Christianity is worthless if we don’t love (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
Our righteous actions are equal to “filthy rags” in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6).
We need to break open a new honesty with ourselves. No matter what we say we believe, what we really believe is clear by the outcomes of our actions. It is time to carefully evaluate everything we are doing by a spiritual economy. If what we are doing is not spiritual, it will never create spiritual increase in the world. If what we are doing isn’t otherworldly, then we are just increasing the kingdom of the world in the world and the bondage that kingdom brings.
I say we begin by levelling with our religious attitude about sin.
If you are a religious person, you are probably aware that between Jesus’ time on earth and modern times, a debate has raged over what the Bible teaches. Doctrines and traditions sprang from this conversation including creeds, writings of the church fathers, systematic theologies and so on. It is important to remember that all of that is man-made. None of it should be used as the primary method for determining what Christianity is because it is an addition to God’s Word.
If we believe that God’s Word is perfect (as the traditions even state!), that it has no error, that it is from God Himself and is full of His authority, then why are we adding to it? Why are we putting a protective layer of our way of communicating around it so that people will obey what we say it says?
Sound familiar? That is what Israel did with their own inheritance of Scripture. They created book upon book full of their own commentary, even their own law! We look at them and judge their actions because Jesus revealed that their writings, traditions, and beliefs were unspiritual.
But if we know this about them, how is it we do not apply the same measurement to ourselves? How is it that we justify our own super-Biblical writings, and elevate our traditions as synonymous with Scripture – as though we have perfectly expounded it?
Let’s look at just one of these traditions – the one about sin.
Somewhere along the way, the emphasis that emerged during the development of doctrine was to quantify sin according to morality. The problem with that, is that sin begins with the heart, not the actions. We all have sinful hearts, and our sins manifest in more ways than we can comprehend – going way beyond what can be measured by moral behaviour. That is why Jesus summed up righteousness in the word love. Our entire nature is pride and selfishness. We don’t want to change that, and that is how morality got its hooks in us. We took a half-hearted approach to God and said we’d clean up our act, but we were actually rebelling against the true command.
This was the mistake of the pharisees. They looked at themselves, though they were full of pride, and believed that they were pleasing in God’s eyes because they performed the sacrifices they wanted to while ignoring commands to love (Matt 23:23). They were working really hard, but they were in control of what they chose to break a sweat over.
Now, when morality is the goal, we also become fearful of being found out. We are afraid to be truly seen in our sin and then shamed for it. Instead of being openly known by God (Gal. 4:9), we hide. We hide the very thing Jesus came to reveal — so that we could be delivered from its oppression – our life of sin. In essence, we say we’ll clean ourselves up and then come to God when we are presentable. We rely on ourselves as if it is possible for us to control our sin and overcome it without God’s help.
If we remain in fear that our sins will be found out, and we hide them, we become religious hypocrites and we move further away from intimacy with God and intimacy with one another. In the end, it takes the relationship out of the equation altogether. Suddenly the gospel is sterile. We see ourselves fearful of displeasing a despotic God of righteousness, rather than beloved children being changed from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18).
We are still in bondage to sin where we are in bondage to the fear of our sins being found out. However, the Bible has already made it clear that every single one of us has sin (Rom. 6:6, Rom. 3:11). We don’t need to pretend to be something we’re not for God’s sake. We don’t need to try to present clean moral behaviour that is less than congruent with our true desires. He already knows our desires. Our hearts are bare to Him (Psalm 139:23,24). The honesty we need is for our sakes. We need to present ourselves as we are, unmasked before our Maker if we are going to receive His help. In this we need to cling to the message of grace that we will find no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
The Scriptures repeat that the identity of a person who loves their Heavenly Father and seeks to be united with Him through Jesus, is a “Holy one,” and no longer a sinner. But Religious Christianity continues to call a person a sinner, and puts the burden on them to make themselves holy on the outside. This isn’t natural or possible. It inhibits the real work of transformation and it steals all freedom and joy in the process.
There are actually two faces to Religious Christianity. Anyone performing Religious Christianity on the surface is still active under-the-surface, and has an unrestrained flesh. The word “flesh” refers to the ambition to sate selfish desires. This combination always produces hypocrisy.
Take a functioning alcoholic, one who ignores the warnings of Scripture that say they will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). This person can easily continue right on practicing Religious Christianity. It works as long as they keep their mask on. The real problem is that the person doing this is satisfied with their double life. Religion always makes room for both of its faces, and that is another reason many fall into its trap. We want to believe we have salvation, but we don’t want to part with our sins which we love. But Jesus came to save us from living in the bondage and suffering of our sins, and the Bible actually warns Religious Christians that their methods will do nothing to protect them from the worst sorts of fleshliness (Col 2:21-23)!
In the end you could call Religious Christianity, Fleshly Christianity — Fleshly Christianity wearing the mask of religion as a cover up. This Christianity is always full of hypocrisy because it puts on a religious face, all the while a person is full of fleshy lusts and depraved actions. This is how Roman Catholic priests could harm children, and to be even-handed, there are worse crimes committed by Evangelical Pastors, unmentionable ones (Eph. 5:12) that occur regularly under the guise of Religious Christianity. This is the reason God’s name is blasphemed (Rom. 2:24) by those outside the church, but we must be very careful lest we unwittingly condone all of this by participating in Religious Christianity.
“20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit,21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.” – Jude
In the end, Religious/Fleshly Christianity is unspiritual. It is the broad path and the worst part (aside from slandering God) is that when we get caught up in it we lose the power. We are relying on ourselves after all.
Consider this verse:
“Realise this, in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…” II Tim. 3:1-5
There are people who “have a form of godliness but deny its power.”
The Christian Culture as a whole needs to be vocal about expressing remorse for this sin. We need to consider to what extent we are willing to give our lives to an impotent Christianity. The Bible says a little bit of leaven leavens the whole lump (Gal. 5:9), and to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (Matt. 16:6). The leaven is obviously there, and I would bet on the fact that everyone who participates in mainstream Christianity has some of it in them – some amount that is taking away from the abundance of spiritual life they are meant to have.
And the most troubling problem is not those in the church who are impeded by religion, but the next generation who will have no part of it. They taste the poison, are sensitive to it, and their natural instincts tell them to run. They are the little children crying out, “The Emperor is wearing no clothes!” But is anyone listening to them? Or are we mocking them, telling them to get back inside the church and submit to its traditions? I realise these are strong words, but Jesus had stronger words for these things. We simply need the discernment to apply His words rightly to our context.
The fact is, the fleshly theology of the religious church has bred hypocrisy and stands in front of the door to Spiritual Christianity (blocking the way if that were possible) which is the only way to Jesus.
Spirituality needs to be restored as the focus of those who claim the name Christian. The Church (capitol “C”) has always been spiritual, but the visible church – the institution, the culture, the westernised missions work – is predominantly lifeless. Spiritually lifeless. That church must recognise its marriage to the world, its love of man-made institutions and its desire for control & power – rather than to humbly follow God, at all times, and surrender to His uncontrollable will and demonstrations of power. We have to stop trusting in ourselves and loving our comfort and our control of “truth.”
For the record Truth is a person (Eph. 4:21).
Removing the False View of Sin
There is so much more to come on religion versus spirituality. For now, let’s take this conversation on sin the full way!
In the next post, I’d like to demonstrate how a spiritual (non-moral) view of sin plays out in reference to one of the most difficult types of sin to overcome, sexual sin.