By D.E.J. D’entremont and Charles Jacobi
Jesus Was “Religious”
Big Eva pundits like J. D. Greer have sought to soften the moral commands of God, particularly the prescriptive commands of sexual deviance, “In the Bible, sexual sin is whispered,” he says, “compared to the shout God makes about greed and judgmentalism.” Thankfully, faithful crowds of Christians did reprimand Greer for his comments, but thousands of those young in the faith likely attached to this saying which reeks of antinomianism.
The truth is Jesus was a deeply religious man and confronted all sin boldly, calling crowds of people to repent of their sins and believe. (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15). He did not tell people to mentally ascend to belief in Him as their savior. He said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Christ followed the Law of Moses perfectly and held it high in its rightful place (Matthew 4:1-11). His theological understanding astounded the religious leaders of the day (Luke 2:52), and He observed the days of feasting and Sabbaths. He prayed fervently, deeply, and often (Mark 1:35). He studied, taught others, and organized disciples to do the same (Luke 10:1-23). He instructed thousands to repent of their sins and live holy lives in accordance with the Scriptures. The common association with Jesus and the abolition of laws could not be farther from reality. Jesus was deeply “religious,” and yet he had the most profound relationship with the Father and His people.
It is misunderstood broadly that “religion” restricts freedom. This can only be true if “freedom” is conflated with “license,” i.e. living according to the whims of desire without any consequence. But it’s a rigorous religion, a religion that has definitions and clear boundaries, where the highest form of freedom is found. The Apostle Paul would echo this sentiment.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. But we all… are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:17-18b
As we are transformed by the Spirit from one degree of glory to another into the image of Christ, we experience more and more freedom. Not less. By understanding where the boundaries lay the Christian can fully enjoy spiritual life and practice within them. The misunderstanding that “religion” restricts freedom likely flows from incorrect teachings on Christ’s fulfillment of certain Old Testament ordinances. Often is Christ’s covenantal fulfillment wrongly associated with the annulment of all moral and civil law. On one hand, everything which foreshadowed the Messiah and His purpose passed away once he arrived, but He did not come to change what was good. This includes the moral law, the extension of his very character, which remains in effect today. At no point did Jesus or the Apostles teach to ignore Moses’ teachings. The call for a rigorous religion that puts God at the forefront of our lives is much in effect in The New Covenant.
Obedience as Means
If people read Jesus’ words about fulfilling the Law in context, they would notice He said “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). He goes on to deliver the Sermon on the Mount, bringing the Law of God to bear on not only outward sins, but the sins of the heart as well. He reveals the true weight and requirement of the Law. All things are not yet finished. This world remains in its fallen state, and though we have great hope for the victory of Christ in this age, that victory will be the result of rigorous religion worked out in an active faith based on God’s revealed will found in His Law. “All of Christ for all of life.” It will not be found in man’s wisdom or good intentions. Aaron’s sons thought it wise and good to offer strange fire on the altar and they were destroyed for it. Likewise, Annanias and Saphira were put to death for their deception and false worship. If we love Christ we will obey His commandments and live worshipful lives based on the covenant He founded: the Covenant which writes His Law upon our hearts.
Repeatedly, we are pointed to the Old Covenant scriptures to make sense of righteous living in the New Covenant because it is those Old Covenant Scriptures that have been written on the hearts of New Covenant Christians. Christianity is a religion, the only true one, but a religion all the same. Evangelicals must consider the grace provided to us by Christs’ work. It is not cheap. No other requirement is being laid on believers today regarding justification; however, justification and sanctification are not the same thing. J.C Ryle said in Holiness, “Sanctification is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God.” He goes on later to talk about how sanctification proves our justification. Pleasing God is our purpose, which is done through sowing that we may reap the fruits of sanctification. We ought to try and please God through our works and posture, like that of guests invited to a governor’s banquet.
Obeying God’s Law is more than an outward obedience; it cultivates a holy reverence towards God. Much of evangelicalism wrongly lumps obedience and “checking the boxes” together. The two are not always mutual.
We are reminded of our creaturely state when struggling to obey God’s commands. His Law reflects to us how holy He is and how creaturely we are. Even if we managed to follow the Law without error, we would still be unjustified before the throne of justice. Naturally, a reverence for God is an effect of realizing this holiness. Out of this realization, a treasure for Christ’s work grows in our heart. And from treasuring Christ, our minds think about pleasing Him differently. Daily prayer becomes easier. The Lord’s Day becomes eagerly awaited. Suffering for your God is counted as joy. All of this is transformed when we understand just how holy our God is. The Law, and struggling to follow it, enlighten our minds about this reality.
Rigorous Religion Keeps Us Faithful Covenant Members
Through the historical testimony of Scripture, God has dealt with His people in covenants: agreements between God and His people. These covenants come with blessings and curses. While Christians are God’s chosen covenant people, all men are “in covenant” with God. Those who are in Adam are covenant breakers and are under the condemnation of Adam’s failure. By God’s grace, Christians reap the benefits of Christ’s work and partake in the covenant of grace. However, The New Testament still speaks of those who were once enlightened yet fall away (Hebrews 6). These former members of Christ’s body receive a greater judgment. Indeed, it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God as one who tramples the blood that sanctifies (Hebrews 10).
What does a rigorous religion have to do with all of this? Pursuing the heart of the Lord, by following his commands, conforms us to Christ. God has prepared these works for us in advance. Peter describes this, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and choosing sure; for in doing these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.” (2 Peter 1:10).
Before this, the apostle writes, “Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these things are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the full knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).
Not only does Peter make the point that pursuing what God has commanded for us causes us to “never stumble,” he goes on to say if we do not pursue moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love, we will become useless.
Christianity is a relationship where rigorous religion paves the path of a sanctified life walked with Christ. Antinomianism robs much of popular evangelicalism of this satisfaction in exchange for cheap grace. This theology—a theology that’s pervaded the modern church—leads God’s people to yearn for a “relationship” with God at the expense of His rules, yet none would desire this sort of free love with their spouse. There is no other relationship that is treated in this way.
Christ commands obedience. Thankfully, the salvific grace He provides is effective in bringing about the good works required of us. What makes a work righteous is found in the character of God as expressed in His Law. By following these commands, we are, in fact, imitating His Christ. As we do so, we grow closer to our God and savior and our neighbors. Conversely, those who seek to have a relationship with Jesus at the exclusion of obedience walk in error and are at risk of dire consequences unknown to them.
 Ryle, Holiness, pg. 46
 Ibid. pg. 47