WHAT IS RELIGION?
James 1:27 says, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." The text brings to our attention a concept which is universal to all races and languages. That universal idea is contained in the word, "religion". The topic to be discussed is, "Religion: What Is It?" This word occurs but three times in the Bible, and the word "religious" but twice. Those references are: Acts 26:5; James 1:27; and Acts 13:43.First, we shall try to arrive at a correct definition of religion. Such terms as "getting religion" and "losing religion" are unscriptural and misleading and should not be used. Any kind of worship or faith is called religion. There have been numerous definitions of religion, but there are so many diverse religions in the world it cannot be defined by simple statements. Some define religion as belief in one or more gods or in supernatural beings. However, this would not include all religions, because some religions may mean a way of living rather than a way of believing. Others have defined religion as man's attempt to achieve the highest possible good by adjusting his life to the strongest and best power in the universe. This power is usually called God. In my judgment the best definition of religion is that it is a form of faith or worship.
Several major religions are practiced in the world today, and each has certain basic beliefs, traditions, and philosophies.In this lesson my subject is not religion in general, but what religion is from the viewpoint of the Christian faith. Christianity is the faith or worship of the God of the Bible through Jesus Christ, who is believed by us to be the second person of the Godhead and the only Savior of the world. Great is the confusion within the Christian religion as to what it really consists of. People speak about getting religion and losing religion. Others believe they have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, while others had a tongue-speaking experience. And still others believe that they had a miraculous divine healing and such-like experiences. Religion appears to be a subjective experience which differs from person to person.
The religion of Christ is both objective and subjective. Objectively, it is the system of truth and worship revealed by Christ and his apostles. It is recorded in the New Testament, and by means of this religion, man is saved and brought back to God, from whom he has become alienated by sin and disobedience. Externally, this religion is what God does for us. The English word "religion" is derived from a Latin word meaning "to bind back". The idea is that religion binds man back to God, and the word doubtless comes from the Genesis account in the Bible which relates mankind as separated from God by sin and in need of returning to God. Subjectively, the religion of Christ is piety, holiness, and godliness; it is our religious experience. Objectively, it is what God does for us; subjectively, it is what we do for ourselves.We are concerned in this discourse with the subjective phase of religion. In becoming a Christian there is a personal religious experience.
From an inward, personal viewpoint religion consists of three things: our thoughts toward God, our feelings toward God, and our actions toward God. Thoughts are the result of our knowledge; feelings are the results of our thoughts; and actions are the result of our feelings. The religious experience consists of thoughts, feelings, and actions, and in that order. For example Jesus said, "What think ye of Christ" whose son is he?"(Matthew 22:42. There is thought. Then follows feeling; do you love him or not? Then comes action; are you obedient or disobedient?
Many people have been led to think that a certain peculiar, happy, exciting feeling is itself religion, and they call it heartfelt religion. I believe in sincere, heartfelt religion, but that is more than mere good feeling. In most of Christdendom, the getting of this feeling of pleasurable excitement under religious stimulation is called conversion or "getting religion". Further, it is thought to have been produced by tee action of the Holy Spirit in a mysterious and supernatural way. The relief which they experience is attributed to the removal of their sins, and their good feeling is evidence to them of the pardon of their transgressions. They constantly appeal to their feeling as evidence of their acceptance with God, whereas our acceptance with God depends upon His feeling about it instead of ours. They believe they are saved because they feel good, when they should feel good because they know they are saved by having God's word for it. God cannot lie, whereas our feelings are very deceptive and unreliable.
Ask yourself these questions. Do I do right because I feel good, or do I feel good because I do right? Do I serve the Lord because I am happy, or am I happy because I serve the Lord? Do you know you are pardoned because you feel good, or do you feel godd because you know you are pardoned? I have known bad people to feel good, and I have known some good people who did not feel good and were not happy. I have seen a drunken man who was feeling good, acting like he owned the whole town and was trying to walk on both sides of the street at the same time. He had no right to feel good, you must admit, hence his "good feeling" was no evidence that he was doing right. I have seen good people who were in great distress and were feeling bad, but that was no evidence that they were bad people and were wicked in the sight of God.
We should never feel better nor worse than our actions will justify, and the correctness of our actions must be determined by God's word and not by our feelings. Paul felt that he was doing right when he was destroying the Lord's church, and because of this conduct he called himself the "chief of sinners". Yet, he felt all right. The feeling approach is wrong because it aims to reconcile God to the sinner instead of reconciling the sinner to God. These people say, "Here I am Lord; come and save me; give me that good feeling, so I'll know I am pardoned, then I'll join the church and be good." So they would put all the work and all the effort on God. Does God need to be converted to the sinner, or does the sinner need to be converted to God? Multitudes are tremendously excited and made to profess a change of feeling and in this state hurried into the church. But the vast majority of these cases, after cooling off, they find themselves back just where they were before the excitement and profession.
To further show the incompetency of feeling, and the unreliableness of it as a witness to the truth, note this. Cult members prove their justification or pardon by their feelings. The Mohammedan also proves his sins are pardoned by his feeling. Further a Roman Catholic, just from the confessional, proves that the priest pardoned his sins by his feeling. How can you grant the witness to be true and reliable in one instance and not reliable in the others?It is quite clear from these facts that feeling is not the witness at all. Truth is our only safe guide, and Jesus said, "thy word is truth"(John 17:17). Why, you cannot tell north from the south by your feelings. Who has not been turned around that he could not tell which was was north? And yet you felt that a certain direction was north, in spite of the fact that the compass pointed to the opposite direction. Even Paul said, "I verily thought within myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 26:9). Feelings may be right or they may be wrong, but God's word is right and can't be wrong. If I were lost in the woods with two men, and one had a compass, while the other was guide by his feeling, and these two differed, I would certainly follow the one with the compass, wouldn't you? Nowhere in ±he Bible is emphasis placed on emotion. In scripture it is always principle and truth, never feeling and emotion. The only test of true religion is obedience based on intellect to the service of God.
In the days of the apostles the gospel was preached to the people, and then all those who were willing to be on the side of the Lord were called out to be baptized. Baptism held the precise place that religious feeling does now as a public manifestation of their determination to be Christians. Whoever was willing to acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah and professed repentance was baptized. No one was asked to go into the inquiry room, or pray through, or speak in tongues. No, upon their faith and repentance they were baptized and received into the church. People, thus converted were saved. God's way has not changed, nor is it possible for us to improve on His way, or substitute something better. I want people to be happy in the Lord and to feel good, but not too soon or before the truth gives them the right to rejoice. When God says, "Now you may rejoice," then you may be sure you have something to rejoice over and may feel good and be happy.
In Acts 8:39 we read of a man, "He went on his way rejoicing." Who? The Ethiopian Eunuch. When? After he was baptized, not before. In Acts 16:34 we read of a man who, "rejoiced, believing in God with all his house." Who? The Roman jailor of Philippi. When? After he was baptized, not before. I close with the words of Jesus in John 13:17, "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." In this twenty first century man's attitude toward Christ still determines his eternal destiny. In our day, too, we must heed the teachings of the Lord. In the same time-honored way we must believe in Christ, confess his name before men, repent of our sins and be baptized. We, too, must live lives of humble worship and service. If you have never made known your faith in Christ and obeyed his commands, I urge you to do so at your earliest opportunity.