Is Jesus Too Religious for You? Bradley Jersak

Belief in What Jesus Did

As a young Evangelical of the Baptist persuasion, my spiritual tribe taught me a lot of beautiful things about what Christ has done for us. Our preachers sermonized week after week about salvation by grace through faith in Christ crucified and risen, almost always from Paul’s epistles (or so my fading memory recalls).

Trust in What Jesus Said

I don’t at all regret that Baptist immersion into the saving effects of the Cross. Since then, my vision of what Christ did for us all has broadened, deepened, heightened, and lengthened. It’s less like an economic transaction or judicial verdict and much closer to a revelation of divine love. It’s all good.

Still. My ten-year exposure to the Anabaptists was a welcome wake-up call to an imbalance in my spiritual development. My Mennonite teachers spent far more time leading us into the Gospels, into the teachings and parables and ministry of Jesus. We attended to the Red Letters in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John virtually every time we met. I discovered the Gospel OF Jesus rather than merely ABOUT Jesus. I realized that Christ was calling us to not only believe in what he did for us but also trust what he said enough to join him on the Jesus Way.

We were specially taught, in-depth, Jesus’ Kingdom Inauguration Speech that we call “the Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew 5-7. And it begins with that mountain-top Kingdom Constitution we call the Beatitudes. While Jesus describes a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), he also supplies God’s indwelling, transforming, and empowering Spirit of grace to “put these words of mine into practice” (Matthew 7:24). That’s a far cry from those who described grace as throwing up our hands. And it made a lot more sense of how the Jesus Way is both all about grace AND about taking up our cross and following. Bonhoeffer coined the term “costly grace” to describe this paradox.

Is Jesus Too Religious for You?

Sadly, there’s a strange version of grace afoot that balks at Jesus’ words. One young man told me he can no longer read the gospels because, he said, “Jesus is too religious.” I was dumbfounded. He explained, “He tells us, ‘If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments’ (John 14:15). That’s religion.” “Obey” and “commandment” had become profanity to his ears. In fact, for him, even faith was too much like work. When I asked, “Do you believe in Jesus?” he paused a long, long time before finally saying, “Well, he believes in me.” Aside from how antithetical his conclusions were to the words of Christ, he’s demonstrating a type of religious PTSD from his upbringing as the son of a grace-deficient fundamentalist pastor. Until he receives an extended dose of healing, he’ll flinch even at the name of Jesus.

Weird Grace

While that example is drawn from a wounded young man, something just as drastic is trendy among certain teachers I’ve even shared the stage with. They claim that everything Jesus said prior to the Cross is “Old Covenant” and doesn’t apply to Christians (even though the Evangelists wrote their gospels to instruct Christians a generation later!). They deny that the Sermon on the Mount is to be obeyed and even claim that the Lord’s Prayer should not be prayed by Christians. They see the line, “Forgive us our trespasses” as a rejection of grace and a denial of the ‘finished work’ of Jesus Christ. After all, hasn’t Jesus already forgiven us? I’ve responded to this objection before HERE and HERE. But the short version of these articles comes via a Facebook friend who I follow. He posted this zinger: “Jesus said, ‘It is finished,’ NOT I am finished.’” That’s right, he’s still working at kneading the established TRUTH of our forgiveness into the WAY my life experience. Some call that ‘appropriation,’ others ‘participation.’ Whatever you call it, Paul certainly taught it (Philippians 2:12). So did James (2:14-26).

Perhaps now you can see the gist of David Hayward’s poignant cartoon. But I know Brother David well enough to say that his intent is more urgent and biting than fine points of theology. He recognizes that while Pharisaic religion is all about nit-picky, legalistic obedience … it’s also all about using one’s religious standing (whether you call it ‘grace alone,’ ‘imputed righteousness’ or ‘identity in Christ’–all fine sentiments) as a way to evade and avoid Jesus’ call to mercy, to compassion, to forgiveness, and to inconvenient love. The cheap grace that Bonhoeffer condemned is the religion of the priest and Levite who bypass the half-dad guy on the road to Jericho. In other words, there’s a type of religiosity disguised as a weird grace that lets us believe in what Jesus did without living (always by grace) what he said. And at the end of the day, where’s the grace in that?

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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More