There was a fascinating discussion this week on Andrew Marr's BBC Radio 4 broadcast Start the Week in which the always interesting if controversial Baroness Mary Warnock spoke about morality in a “post religious world.” If you want to listen to her contribution follow the link and it can be found at around the thirty minute mark. She said that we assume, in a culture so heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian thinking, that morality is the product of religion. Her central assertion was that, “Being morally good is desirable but doesn't necessarily come from religion. Otherwise children brought up without religion may be in danger of casting off morality.”
In certain circles she would be met with the response, “But I am not religious. I am a Christian!” this designed to provoke the question – what is the difference? The answer comes back, “Religion is man's feeble and ultimately futile attempt to reach up to God while Christianity is God's reaching down to man in Jesus.” It is a point well enough made, if a little trite. I have never felt entirely comfortable with it myself. The issue, I suggest, is more to do with the correct use of the word 'religion' in Christian circles, rather than that 'religion' is something other than Christianity.
Baroness Warnock suggests that religion is one of a number of social influences that make us moral creatures; others might be parents, teachers, public figures and role models, etc. True, it doesn't necessarily follow that the absence of religion leads to moral decline (although it does lead to moral relativism, which may be decline by another name). But I do have to question where the moral lights of the non-religious person come from. To wonder about the the general influence of religion in a secular society nevertheless built on religious foundations. In other words, does religion have a subliminal influence even though it is overtly rejected?
The Bible takes a different view of both morality and religion. Where Mary Warnock sees religion as one root of morality among many, the Bible sees religion as an outworking of morality. Where she might speak of the religious man's morality, the Bible would speak of the moral man's religion. In one a man might be influenced to moral good by religion, in the other his morality would find its clearest and best outworking in religion.
God Made Man A Moral Creature
If man's moral instinct precedes religion where does that instinct come from? The Bible tells us that man was created a moral creature. In Genesis man, made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), is described as a moral agent. God commanded him, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17) Here we have the three elements of moral responsibility: an injunction to obey; an agency with which to choose and a penalty for disobedience. Man's moral instinct, whether he is religious or not, is ultimately inherent rather than instilled. Teaching and example can enhance or blunt it but does not create it.
His failure to choose obedience has made man ever after inclined to the grossest immorality, while simultaneously capable of the noblest acts of moral service and sacrifice. It is not that man is incapable of acts of kindness and service. Rather, it is that his inclination always is to go against his inherent sense of moral good. The image of God is broken in man yet not entirely, his morality is no longer intact yet remains. Paul describes people who, without knowledge of the law, nevertheless, “do by nature things required by the law...they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Romans 2:14-15)
This is the confusion of fallen man. He knows right from wrong because he is a moral creature yet his own conscience so often condemns him because he is a fallen creature. Paul later describes perfectly the problem: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19) Even in his best moments man is aware of his failing to be all his moral instinct tells him he should be. The prayer book speaks of those things we should have done but have failed to do, of those things we have done that should have been left undone. It speaks of our sinning in thought, word and deed. Paul sums it up, “There is no one righteous, not one” (Romans 3:10)
Fallen man is yet culpable for his choices before a just God and will stand before his Maker at the final day. “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done which was recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12) The gospel is the good news that Jesus has paid the price for our sins and that, by putting our trust in him, entering into a saving relationship with him we may be saved from our sins. That relationship is key to what describes the religious man in Scripture.
The Religion of a Godly Man
We tend to think of a godly man as pious, devout, church-going – deeply 'religious'. In Scripture 'godly' translates the Greek eusébeia which denotes, not a life of religious observances, but a true and living relationship with God. This is described in one of Peter's letters. “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (eusébeia) through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (1 Peter 1:3) In the first instance 'godliness' does not describe the man that has chosen a 'religious' life so much as a man that has chosen a daily life lived out of a new and vital relationship with the living God.
Dr Spiros Zodhiates of AMG International said, “When eusébeia is applied to the Christian life, it denotes a life that is acceptable to Christ, indicating the proper attitude of the believer toward Christ who has saved him. It is both an attitude and a manner of life.” What form does this godly manner of life take in the Christian?
In his letter James writes:“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:26-27)
The word translated 'religion' here is thrēskeia. While eusébeia translates as godly and relates, in Christian terms, to our relationship with God in Christ, thrēskeia describes outward forms of worship. James makes clear that a Christian's outward acts of worship are to do with the conduct of his life rather than any overtly 'religious' observances or ceremonies. Indeed, the New Testament is almost entirely silent about gathered worship. There are fragments of hymns (1 Timothy 3:16), doxologies (Ephesians 3:20-21) but an indifference to forms of worship. Rather, the New Testament emphasises what John Piper calls whole of life worship.
The writer to the Hebrews urges, “Let us consider how to stir one another up in love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another ...” (Hebrews 10:24-25) In meeting together to encourage one another Christians follow certain forms which become traditions involving hymns of praise, liturgical worship, prayer, doxologies etc. These may vary widely in different cultures and times simply accomodating how a particular group expresses gospel truth in prayer and confession. But in any legitimate form it is the people of God, gathered around the Word of God, ready to do the will of God.
This reflects the description found in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers...And all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42,44) It fulfils the imperative to meet together (Hebrews 10:24-25), pray always (1 Thessalonians 5:17; James 5:16) and to be devoted “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13) These of themselves neither make us godly nor religious. We know that “going to church” doesn't make you a Christian. Rather, these are one outward expression of a godliness (relationship with God) expressed in a whole of life worship (a life lived for God).
We are, then, made moral creatures, created in God's image, but our fallen nature has broken that image and ended the relationship with God we had in the beginning. We are still moral creatures but now our moral sense condemns us as sinners. Christ came to mend our relationship with God, making us godly, and it is in that relationship that we find the strength to change our mind and change our ways – repent. The outworking of that new life – born again in Christ – is what, to a Christian, is religion. In this way a Christian seeks to be evermore religious, being salt and light in a world of morally compromised people - sinners.