How would you define religion? I suppose there are many ways it could be defined. Some might describe it as belief in a god or group of gods. To others it might be an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used in the worship of a god. There is nothing inherently wrong with these definitions. The one I like best, however, is provided by Bruxy Cavey in his book The End of Religion. Bruxy writes,
“Religion is exposed as our attempts to reach God.” 1
That sums it up nicely. But where did that start? I believe we can find the beginning of religion within the first few pages of God’s story.
In order to understand where religion began, we have to understand the context in which it happened.
When God made man in His image, He placed him in a garden. In the middle of the garden were two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God clearly instructed the man that he was not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The result of his disobedience would be a death sentence. There was nothing ambiguous about it.
Unfortunately, everything went south. The man’s wife was deceived by the serpent into thinking it would be a good thing to eat of the wrong tree. The man, knowing full well what God’s will was and the consequences for his disobedience, joined his wife in feasting on the forbidden fruit. The effects were immediate. The man and his wife suddenly became aware of the fact they were unclothed, something that had not previous been and issue. They attempted to remedy the problem by making loincloths out of fig leaves. Then they tried to hide from God when he walked into the garden. Their innocent condition ruined, the couple began to know fear and guilt for the first time. The story is just as heartbreaking today as it was the first time I heard it.
God confronted the serpent, the woman, and the man regarding their sinful acts. He declared the results that their sins had brought upon them. Then God did something absolutely amazing.
And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. Genesis 3:21
God took the life of an animal and used its skin to clothe the naked couple. In so doing, God initiated the sacrificial system. Although man deserved to die for his disobedience, God took the life of an animal in his place. This was an immense act of loving benevolence by God toward his undeserving creation. This generous act enabled man to continue his journey and continue pursuing his God. From this time on, man could only approach God on the basis of a bleeding sacrifice. Every time an animal was sacrificed to God by man, man was making the declaration, “I deserve to die, but You have provided a sacrifice for me.”
With this context in mind, we are now ready to discover the roots of religion.
Where It All Began
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. Genesis 4:1 – 5
The human family began with the first coupe having two sons. Both sons had seen their parents offer sacrifices to God. Both sons offered sacrifices to God themselves. One son’s sacrifice was accepted by God and the others was not. Why? The Book of Hebrews tells us.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. Hebrews 11:4
Abel offered to God a lamb from his flock as a sacrifice. By faith he laid hold of the grace that God had provided for his fallen creatures. Cain, on the other hand, brought God a sacrifice that He had not required or made provision for. In other words, Cain rejected God’s provision and tried to invent his own way of approaching God. In doing so he completely ignored the fact that he deserved God’s judgment. He also completely rejected the sacrifice God had provided for him. He sought to approach God with the fruit of his own labour on the basis of his own merits. And that, my dear friends, is where religion began.
The Progress of Religion
God has provided us with a Sacrifice as well. Jesus Christ is the lamb (sacrifice) of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). That means that He alone is the doorway through which we can have a saving relationship with God (John 10:7 – 9). In loving benevolence toward us, God sent His Son so we could be delivered from the guilt, power, and penalty of sin. Like Abel before us, all we need to do is lay claim by faith to God’s provision.
From the earliest times, however, religion has sought to insinuate itself into Christian circles and undermine God’s grace. In the early days of the church, there were individuals who taught that, besides believing in Jesus, you also had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved (check out Paul’s letter to the Galatians). Today it takes many forms:
- It’s Jesus plus what church you attend.
- It’s Jesus plus which version of the Bible you read.
- It’s Jesus plus church attendance.
- It’s Jesus plus the length of your hair (male and female).
- It’s Jesus plus the length of your skirt.
- It’s Jesus plus not working on Sunday (or Saturday).
Make no mistake about it, the minute we add anything to the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever we add becomes the true basis of our relationship with God. We are attempting to earn by our behaviour what God has already provided in His Son. That’s religion, plain and simple.
The Cure for Religion
Bruxy Cavey again writes in The End of Religion,
“The only “religion” that God accepts is faith (a trusting relationship with the person of God) expressing itself in practical loving action, as James goes on to explain fervently in his writing. For people who want to follow Jesus, the priority of rituals is replaced with other-centered relationship. And that’s it. That’s all. That’s good religion in a nutshell, which in the end has little to do with what many people mean when they use the word religion today.” 2
The cure for religion is laying hold of the sacrifice of God’s Son by faith, and entering into a relationship on the basis of His work rather than trying to earn the favour of God by our own works. Entering this relationship by faith will radically alter the course of our lives. We will be brought into a place where we can follow the King in every aspect of our living. In short, the cure for religion is living in the Reign.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Bruxy Cavey, The End of Religion (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2007), 14.
2 Ibid., 228