I remember having New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner visit the small cohort of pastoral apprentices I was a part of. He had come to teach on Romans 7 as our cohort was working through the book of Romans for that first year. We all waited eagerly to hear his take on the debate about whether Paul is speaking of a believer an unbeliever in the famous Romans 7 “I do not do what I want” passage. I myself was torn. It seemed to me that if I focused on the slavery language in the passage, the person Paul spoke of must be an unbeliever – because only unbelievers are slaves to sin. But if I focused on the divided-man language, then it must be a believer – because only believers are internally divided over their own sin.
Schreiner landed somewhere unexpected. “I say wrong question! This passage is not focusing on whether someone is a believer or an unbeliever. This is anyone who is trying to justify themselves by keeping the Law.” I can’t say that I’m totally settled on this passage yet. But I think most days I agree with Schreiner.
Human religion can be defined as anyone trying to justify themselves through good works – be they a believer or an unbeliever. In this sense, religion is anti-gospel. In the gospel, we are justified by God’s free grace alone – without any expectations placed on us to earn that relationship. There is an older sense of the word religion that did not carry this meaning, but conveyed more the sense of true spirituality, and in this older rendering we could say that the gospel is true religion in a world of false religion. Regardless, the term religion seems to be taking on more of this sense of striving in order to appease God.
I find it helpful among my peers in the West and my peers in Central Asia to divide gospel from religion in this linguistic sense. It resonates with them and proves to be helpful to distinguish the Bible’s teaching from moralism. Many of my peers in the West have been raised to function as if they were saved by grace, but continue to stay in God’s favor by works of the Law. My Central Asian friends have straight up been told their whole lives that they can only be saved by keeping God’s shari’a, his Law. Their society has lots of literal pharisees walking around, like the Salafis, who grow their beards long, cut their pants short, and despise the normal folk as lesser-than.
All of this is the context for why I find this song so helpful. Some in the West want to use this “Jesus is not religious” language to water down the need for church or holiness in the Christian life. I’m not part of that camp at all. But like every other true believer out there, I am a recovering legalist, daily striving to remember that because of Jesus, God delights in me regardless of my performance today. And this song helps me do that.
I am particularly blessed by the bridge, which starts at 3:07. “Meet your maker, smiling bright.” Some days it’s really hard to believe that this is true – that God really smiles at the thought of me. And yet this is what the gospel means for all of us who are now adopted as sons and daughters of the king. He actually lights up at the thought of us. Remarkable.