Spiritual, but not religious
Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”? Maybe they said it to you after you invited them to come to church. How did you respond? What did you think? Were you thrown off-guard and feel that you were being judged because you are “religious”?
Many in the church have accepted this form of thinking. They say things like, “It’s a relationship not a religion” to distinguish how they worship God. But, why the distinction?
Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller explains that many evangelicals are adopting this phrase because they see religion as law, and relationship as gospel. In other words, religion is the repetitive, meaningless, impersonal and somewhat legalistic practices of a church without God. It’s empty and hollow at best. At its worse, it prevents one from having a real relationship with God. It’s deadly.
He goes on to explain that relationship is gospel to those who embrace this thinking. It is free, flexible, personal, and liberating. To a culture that is bound in so many ways (work, children’s activities, commitments at home, etc.), this personal spirituality is preferable to formal corporate worship. Our problem, then, is a lack of direct contact with Jesus. Relationship is life-giving.
To be honest, life-giving sounds a whole lot more positive than religion. I can throw off all my cares and simply relate to God. And modern evangelicals are right to point out the need for a Christian to read the Bible on a daily basis as a part of this relationship. A poll taken in 2012, though, shows that Christians in America aren’t doing this across the board. Less than 20% read the Bible daily. Despite all the English versions, despite colorful covers, despite cross-referenced Bibles with color maps and concordances, Bibles are gathering dust on Christian nightstands.
Modern American Christians do read, however. We read books on spirituality, recovery, self-esteem, end-times drama and even weight-loss from the Christian bookstore. Because, let’s face it, the Bible is a challenging book to read.
It is a sad state of affairs. Martin Luther, who was a Bible scholar commented, “For some years now I have read through the Bible twice every year (emphasis mine). If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”
It is here that many of us (if not all) would admit that we don’t read the Bible as much as we should. We’ve, “gotten behind” in our readings. And, maybe you are feeling a bit guilty right now as a result. Who would want to continue a relationship where guilt and shame has poisoned the waters? “I don’t want to feel condemned”, we might say to ourselves. It’s easier to bury it under the busy-ness of our lives. And thus, the relationship stops growing. It goes dormant. Eventually, it dies.
Now what? Some people decide that they will do a ‘Bible reading plan’. They will re-commit themselves to their daily ‘quiet time’ and “really do it this time!” They are willing to set aside friends and family for this personal devotion. And, by force of will, they push through for the first few weeks, but then, life starts to encroach. Billy gets sick and needs to be taken to urgent care. There’s a sale at the store, and we need to stock up on food. My boss has called me in to work late again.
Or, we start to lose interest. The stories in Genesis (not fiction) give way to laws. Laws give way to endless genealogies. The walk through Scripture reading becomes a burden. So much for the gospel of relationship! Mid-way through Leviticus you think, “Can I get through this? Maybe I could skip ahead. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll skip to the Psalms and come back later.”
Eventually, you have skipped over half the Bible and realize that you’ve cheated. Now, you’re feeling guilty again. “I just can’t do it. I give up”.
And this is where many people end up after years of trying. They decide it’s futile.
The problem for the church is that it has made Bible reading into what Confessional Evangelicals call Law. That is, it is a demand and a requirement that God places upon you. If you do this, you will have a relationship. If not, you need to re-commit your life to Jesus.
The Christian is in a cycle of hopelessness. Despair for failing to fulfill the requirements of this relationship overwhelms the individual and they suffer in silence. They are forced to cover over their relationship in fear of judgment from fellow believers.
Now, something spiritual is taking place. The heart (deceitfully wicked as it is) condemns the believer; they become bound by condemnation. Instead of promised freedom, liberation and hope, despair, guilt and shame rule over you.
And that, my friends, is the Devil’s work. Making something that God meant for refreshment and encouragement into something oppressive and enslaving is clearly the theology of the devil worked into the church. So, God must rescue us from this body of sin and death!
He does this by starting with … Scripture. Hear the following truth; 1 ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death’ (Romans 8). And, 3 ‘For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.’
God did it! He has set you free in this relationship. He doesn’t condemn you when you haven’t read your Bible in a while. Instead, He beckons you to hear His Word of forgiveness and grace.
You see, the problem is not that we don’t have a relationship with God, it is that we have a law-based relationship with God. In verse 2 above, it is better read, “… through Christ Jesus the rule of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the rule of sin and death.” You are no longer under the rule and dominion of the devil and the heart. Christ has set you free.
But, how can I learn about this true freedom? You can hear about it in the proclamation of Christ’s Gospel given in church. You can read about it in His Word. You can find out more through the small catechism and the confessions of our church.
The Son of God hasn’t come as a new Moses, giving new and better laws. Nor has He come to give less laws or easier laws. Jesus Christ has come to fufill the Law. And, He has already done it! All of the Holy requirements for Spiritual perfection have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
Additionally, we are called to go to Him when we feel any kind of condemnation for our relational shortcomings: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9). John continues in this letter: 19 ‘By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything’ (1 John 3, ESV).
Our relationship with Jesus began when we were buried with Him in baptism and raised through the very same waters as mentioned in Colossians 2:
6Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
8See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.
9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
See, you just read a bunch of Scripture! That didn’t hurt a bit, did it? And, if you don’t like to read, just find the Bible on C.D. somewhere. You can listen in your car or at home. It’s God’s gift to you. It’s not a ladder of perfection that you have to climb. It is God’s word of promise (Old Testament) fulfilled in Jesus (New Testament) for you. Now that’s a good relationship!
And now, may the grace of God keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Vol. 54, 165
 Jeremiah 17:9, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (NIV)
 Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (ESV; Jesus speaking).