Jesus came to bring an end to religion, calling us away from our transactional relationship with God that keeps Him at a distance, and freely offer Him our hearts instead. This is all God ever wanted from the beginning, and Jesus came to make it possible.
This is the fifth and final part of this series.
We’ve already looked at the two trees in the Garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. While “eating” from the first tree enables us to love like God loves, eating from the second tree puts us in the role of the accuser of the brethren.
All world religions, pagan or otherwise, were about ritualistic sacrifice in order to appease a distance deity; God has always been about self-emptying, other-centered love forged in intimate communion. As I mentioned in part four, when Jesus announced the Kingdom was at hand, He wasn’t trying to solve an ethical problem, but one that resulted from us eating from the wrong tree.
To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer again:
“The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” (Bohoeffer, Ethics)
Historically, the church has seemed to have missed this point, as Greg Boyd points out:
“The Christian religion has to a significant extent become the defender and promoter of the fall rather than the proclaimer of the Good News that alone can free us from the fall. As with most religions, it has set itself up as the guardian of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the example of how to transcend the knowledge of good and evil by living in love.” (Repenting from Religion, p. 62 *)
If we look closely at the history of church doctrine, and the general way in which we’ve viewed human relationships, it’s mostly based in a “good and evil” dualism likened more to platonic Greek philosophy than New Testament revelation. Its ugly fruit has been carnal divisiveness, judgmentalism, combativeness, and doctrinal polarization.
Our view of justice and ethics isn’t any different than the way the world views it. We seek retaliation and revenge just like the worst sinner seeks it. This is because we’ve adopted the world’s relational paradigm instead of renewing our minds to Christ’s cruciformed paradigm.
Even in the Old Testament, we see people of faith who rejected this retributive mindset. As Boyd points out in his book, while Joseph’s brothers expected revenge for what they did to him, Joseph responds with a “Kingdom” view:
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Gen.50:19-21 NIV *)
Joseph’s non-retaliatory response sounds a lot like Jesus (see Matt.5:38-48). This is what other-centered love looks like. Oh, that we who say we’re following Christ would get this!
Furthermore, religion, including the Christian version, practices dualistic separation: it’s an “in” or “out” gospel of exclusion.
While exercising faith in Christ is absolutely necessary to have a relationship with Him, we’ve put Jesus in a corner somewhere, apparently waiting in the wings for us to “ask Him to come live in us,” as if He’s not already there! As if all people don’t already “live and move and have their being” in Christ (Acts 17:28-29; Col.1:16-17). Thus, we have created a small and impotent Jesus according to our orphaned imaginations.
While we Christians have developed whole religious systems around shunning the “evil,” we’re still very much embracing the “good” part of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here’s Boyd again on this:
“My conviction is that we have neglected the biblical teaching that the origin and essence of sin is rooted in the knowledge of good and evil. Consequently, we have tended to define sin as that which is evil, over against that which is good, rather than defining it more profoundly as that which is not in union with Christ, whether “good” or “evil.”” (Repenting from Religion, p. 66 *)
In other words, whatever does not spring from our union in Christ, no matter how good it may seem, is still eating from the wrong Tree. It’s still fleshly, opposed to the way of the Spirit.
In a nutshell: if we’re to leave religion to follow Christ, we must renounce the transactional, narcissistic, sociopathic religious system we’ve inherited from Adam. Instead, we must learn to be shaped by Christ’s love, which is other-centered, based in self-emptying, mutual affection born out of our continuing life in Him.
It’s not about doing, it’s about knowing… and being known (Matt.7:21-23). It’s about being loved by God and loving others with the same love (Matt.22:37-40; 1 John 4:19). It’s obedience forged in and empowered by this reciprocating love relationship as we learn to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet.1:4). Everything we do must be motivated by this love relationship, otherwise it’s useless religion (1 Cor.13:1-3).
The only sacrifice that God wants is our heart’s total trust in Him. He doesn’t want all our religious “bull and goat” offerings, our penitential prayers, or our sacrificial promises to do better next time…what He wants from us is to come to Him.
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matt.11:28-30 MSG)