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“In a sermon Dick Lucas once preached, he recounted an imaginary conversation between an early Christian and her neighbor in Rome.

“Ah,” the neighbor says. “I hear you are religious! Great! Religion is a good thing. Where is your temple or holy place?”

“We don’t have a temple,” replies the Christian. “Jesus is our temple.”

“No temple? But where do your priests work and do their ritual?”

“We don’t have priests to mediate the presence of God,” replies the Christian. “Jesus is our priest.”

“No priests? But where do you offer your sacrifices to acquire the favor of your God?”

“We don’t need a sacrifice,” replies the Christian. “Jesus is our sacrifice.”

“What kind of religion is this?” sputters the pagan neighbor.

And the answer is, it’s no kind of religion at all.”
--Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, p. 48.


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37 thoughts on “What Kind of Religion Is This?!”

  1. Kent Otott says:

    Wow. That is a great one. I will use that in a sermon one of these days. (With proper credit!)

  2. Neil Massey says:

    Feel free to delete this comment after you fix the sentence stucture above. I believe the last line should read, “What kind of religion is this?” “We” just doesn’t make any sense. Though I do like the content and message – more teenagers need to hear this today!

  3. MarieP says:

    I haven’t read this in its full context, but why do we have such a reaction against saying that Christianity is a religion? Yes, it’s also a relationship, and it’s all about the Person of Christ. But doesn’t James speak of pure and undefiled religion? Our faith is certainly different than any other, not only because it’s true, but because it says that God entered into His creation to save rebel sinners. Other religions by definition can’t be true relationships with God because there is no one to have a relationship with other than the God we love and worship!

    Is there any place in Scripture that this technique is used, saying that our faith is not a religion but a relationship? I see more emphasis on the fault being that God is not known (Acts 17) or loved (numerous OT passages). “Religion” doesn’t equal legalism and gracelessness.

    1. John says:

      I think the force of the James passage is precisely that what James describes as true religion isn’t anything like what we would call religion. No temple, no priests, no altars, no sacrifices. It is a living out of God’s love.

    2. Bill Burns says:

      @John – It’s still _some kind_ of religion, though. It’s what James, the apostle, Spirit-inspired biblical author & brother of the Lord calls, “religion that is pure and undefiled.”

      I agree completely with MarieP’s sentiments expressed above. Yes, Christianity is a ‘relationship,’ but the root word translated from the Latin Vulgate as “religion” in our English bibles is ‘religio,’ meaning ‘to bind together.’ In other words, religion IS relationship.

      I don’t have any particular beef with Keller, but he’s just perpetuating the (very, very tired) old ‘Religion VS. Relationship’ canard.

      James or Keller? Gimme James, please.

  4. Religion is a part of Christianity, but not in a good way. We can’t get past trying to do good works to earn favor with God and men. No matter how “Sola Fide” we claim to be, the desire, the instinct to do good works for the sake of doing good works is part of us.

  5. Bruce says:

    Thanks for posting the quote Justin. It does make an excellent overall point. However,although it is common to do so, strictly speaking is it Biblically accurate to say that Christianity is not a religion (cf. James 1:26-27)? It seems better to say something like Christianity is a religion that consists in, or is centered in a relationship (with the God of the Bible, through Jesus the Savior), not that it is no religion at all.

    What do you think about that?

  6. chris taylor says:

    Why the attack on ‘religion’, when that is an acceptable concept and term adopted by the Holy Spirit and useful in communication?

    Second, why speak of Jesus as ‘our temple’, when throughout the NT, we are called the temple of God?

    Not sure this would really help a pagan understand what the Bible teaches.

  7. MarieP says:

    Chris, great point, though perhaps he’s thinking of Jesus talking about rebuilding the Temple in three days? Also, another thought- we do offer up sacrifices- ourselves as living sacrifices! Not that it atones for sin as the pagans believe, but it’s true nonetheless.

    Just thought I’d post a few verses from Acts 17 because it actually uses the term religious!

    Acts 17
    22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
    TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
    Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.

  8. Tim Keller says:

    Dick Lucas was saying that, as virtually everyone in this world conceives ‘religion’–as a way to find and appease God–Christianity is no religion at all. The gospel is that God has found us, and has appeased his own wrath through the substitutionary death of Christ.

    Dick is also right in seeing the Greek word for religion, ‘threskeia’, as usually referring in the Bible to outward ritual, and therefore not the best way to refer to Christianity. Here’s an entry from the New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edition, on ‘Religion':

    Because of the association of thrēskeia with Judaism, James’ use [in James 1:27] is probably ironical. The things which he calls the elements of ’thrēskeia that is pure and undefiled’ would not in the view of his opponents, who restricted it to ritual, have counted as thrēskeia at all. Hesitance today in using the word ‘religion’ either of the content of the Christian faith or of its expression in worship and service, is due to the conviction that Christianity is not simply one among many religions, but differs from all others in that its content is divinely revealed and its outward expression by believers is not an attempt to secure salvation but a thank-offering for it.

    Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (1007). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

    1. For much the same reason as Dr. Keller states above, Christians were at times called “atheists” — they didn’t worship the gods, and they didn’t adopt recognized forms of ritual and sacrifice.

      I’m sympathetic to complaints that religion is unfairly denigrated within our evangelical circles. In my experience, the slogan “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” too often plays into the rationalizations of those who want to be “spiritual” without the corporate commitments that come with professing Christ.

      But I’m increasingly convinced that if our “religion” is increasingly characterized by cross-centered sacrifice and joy, if our profession of the gospel is consistently respectful yet firm, if our obedience grows out of a renovated heart, if we indeed care for orphans and widows while keeping ourselves undefiled… Our friends and neighbors will indeed ask “What kind of religion is this?” And the response of “No religion at all” — at least none they have ever experienced — will be appropriate.

    2. Vaclav Andrs says:

      Its easier to talk like this in English, I am from Czech Republic and religion in its translation just means belief in God, of course Christianity is a religion but different from others drastically.
      Tim you write: “virtually everyone in this world conceives ‘religion’–as a way to find and appease God.” I find it not true here in eastern Europe, Czech is probably most atheistic country in the world and when someone says religion people just imagine belief in God as simple as that. But of course I am speaking just for my own country and you are probably right in general :)

    3. lander says:

      dude! you actually read the stuff posted here? wow! just thot the comments was for we wannabes. btw, any way i can get a job at your place?

  9. Bruce says:

    Thanks Pastor Keller for the clarification. The comments from the New Bible Dictionary were helpful in seeing some distinctions. Would you say then that the issue over the term “religion” depends on what one means, or how it is being used? So then, in one sense Christianity is a religion, but in another it is not? Would this possibly be a case of guarding against reductionism (which we seem all too prone to fall into)?

    Thank you again.

  10. Fred Zaspel says:

    Great post, Justin. Thanks much. Gotta love it.

  11. pduggie says:

    I always liked the bit in Leithart’s Against Christianity.

    John, Paul, and Peter are meeting with “Barnus”, a religious marketing consultant.

    Barnus suggests they should promote themselves as a new household ancestral domestic hearth cult, as they meet in houses, and worship around a meal. But Paul rejects that because the “family” of the church is NOT based on blood relations and ancestry.

    Barnus suggests they are maybe a “client cult” where a god or goddess helps a person with a particular problem, and a different one helps them with another problem. But John lets Barnus know that God’s claims are exclusive, and that Christianity expects her members to abandon all other cults.

    Because client cults also don’t form community, Barnus suggests a ‘mystery religion’ is more the target market. They have initiation rituals and offer ‘salvation’ to the members. But Peter rejects that because their initiations are long and complex, and baptism is a simple sprinkling; Paul also objects because of the client cult problem: people follow more than one mystery.

    Barnus realizes that actually, these models of private religions aren’t right: what is being proposed is a new public religion: like the Jews! They form a self-governing community in the cities they live in, an alternative polis. A city within a city.

    John says “and don’t forget the civic religions. That’s what I first thought of when you said ‘public religion’.”

    BARNUS: Hmm. Let me make sure I understand you. As you know, the cities throughout the empire have always been religious as much as civic organizations, and the same is true of the city of Rome, its colonies, the associated municipae, and the military installations throughout the empire. For Greeks and Romans, being a citizen is bound up with participating in feasts and holidays, which include worship of the city’s gods. To be Greek or Romans isn’t just an ethnic or political fact; it’s religious.

    PAUL: That’s still true today, and not just in Rome. Most of the cities in Asia still worship their traditional gods, even if they worship some Roman gods too. I remember being in Ephesus and getting in trouble with the worshipers of Artemis. There was a riot, and I nearly got pulled in pieces. They realized that my preaching about Jesus threatened their whole city.

    BARNUS: So you’re saying you intend to enter the market of civic religions?

    JOHN: Sure. And don’t forget emperor worship. Since Augustus, it has been spread everywhere, and it’s bestial. We intend to attack that too.

    Barnus: Excuse me? Did you mention the imperial cult?

    JOHN: That’s right.

    BARNUS: Do you mean that you’re intending to compete with the imperial cult?

    PAUL: Yes. We’re sent to proclaim that there’s another king, one Jesus. We preach that there’s another empire, the Kingdom of God, which brings true peace on earth, not just the truce that Rome forces on people. Resistance to Rome and all it’s false and idolatrous claims is pretty central to what we’re doing.

    BARNUS: You’re talking about another king? Do you understand what this means? The imperial cult is backed up by the power of Rome. I mean, it’s not like you could take on Rome and win.

    PETER, JOHN, PAUL. Why not?

    BARNUS: Gentlemen, I’m very sorry, I can’t help you. You have completely misunderstood what we’re doing here. I don;t think you’re starting another religion; you’re doing something else entirely. I’m a religious consultant, not a political revolutionary. I’m afraid we won’t be able to work together.

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      This Barnus sounds like George Barna.

  12. Michael says:

    “Religion” is not a bad term if everyone understands what we mean by it. In the early days of America and past days of Britain, everyone knew that “religion” equated to Christianity. (See Jonathan Edwards and other Puritans.)

    But today, in a society of multiple “religions”, no one uses the term synonymously with Christianity anymore. In in most emergent or seeker-friendly churches, the term is berated as a works-based type of system.

  13. jeremiah says:

    Religion is just what you believe about God/or the spiritual realm. And it speaks to outward or visible signs of following a certain belief.

    The 70’s slogan that continues today that ‘it’s not a religion it’s a relationship’ sounds pious but is just half truth. It builds up this false notion that it is just about my relationship and not about outward conformity,doesn’t the NT speak to how we should behave outwardly? – the 60’s also cast off the outward conformity,and the church follows suit of what is ‘in’- But what have we reaped in the body of Christ from this mindset over the years?
    Now the value and lose of genuine community is felt and the church is scrambling to bring community back that people long for. And the true need to see our faith lived out outwardly- a real aspect of religion- is on the rebound, all the while why we continue to give ‘religion’ the middle finger. Go figure why large chunks of youth have lapped up the social gospel, because it speaks to a need that is genuine, and is part of true/pure religion.

    Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

    We need this holistic religion today that embraces and champions both the visible love and personal holiness.

  14. Matt Blazer says:

    thanks for putting this up Justin, and for all of your hard work creating such a useful blog. Do you know of a good site to get more of Lucas’ stuff? I have heard many times that Dr. Keller learned a lot from him, and that the two are similar preachers.

  15. Tim Keller says:

    Matt Blazer —

    For more Dick Lucas expositions, go to the websites of the Proclamation Trust and also St Helens Bishopsgate (where Dick was rector for many years.)

    Chris Taylor —

    Dick Lucas preached for years to thousands of non-believing people at his mid-week lunchtime services in the heart of the financial district of London. By drawing a distinction between what all non-believers thought Christianity was and what it actually is, he startled many of them into thinking about the gospel afresh. This dialogue was not the only way he did this, but it was very effective.

    Jeremiah —

    Dick Lucas was certainly not part of the mid-20th century American trend that tried to re-cast all Christian doctrine into psychological and relational categories. That is not his purpose in this imagined dialogue. Using the term ‘religion’ to describe external observances devoid of a concept of grace has Scriptural warrant (as my citation of the New Bible Dictionary above argues).

  16. Matt Blazer says:

    Thank you for taking the time to respond Dr. Keller, it means a lot to a young pastor (myself).

  17. Michael Deal says:

    Jesus is our temple? Surely reading John 1 – “the word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” would confirm Dick’s illustration. Also, a careful reading of Hebrews will also give weight to what Dick says. I am so glad Tim Keller quotes Dick Lucas, I rather think Dick Lucas is a bit of an undiscovered treasure in North America. Do check out the Proc Trust website, his sermons are tremendously encouraging and thought provoking.

  18. jeremiah says:

    Dr. Keller,
    Thanks for the response. I wasn’t referring to Dick Lucas’s treatment of religion but of yours. It is popular today to say that Jesus hates religion, when in fact religion in the bible is neutral and can be either pure and undefiled or self-made and worthless.

    Regardless, I am very thankful for all that you have and are doing. My home church has used your Galatians bible study for over 8 years now and it has yielded great fruit.
    God’s face towards you, Jesus is precious!

  19. Well – it’s a transcendental religion. I must agree with commentator Chris Taylor though, that this kind of approach is little helpful, because it turns the differences to the foreground, whereas e.g. Paul starts his preaching by picking the heathen up where he stands (see Acts 17:23).

  20. Kevin says:

    too bad for the author that this is wrong.

    there def were and still are Christian “temples”. we have church buildings. we have chapels and cathedrals and shrines and basilicas.

    there def were and still are priests (from greek presbyteros), deacons, (gk deaconos), and bishops (gk episcopos). one example, St. Paul instructs St. Titus to appoint priests, which he has the authority to do in his role as bishop of Crete.

    and there def still IS sacrafice. the Catholic Mass, as was celebrated by Jesus in the Upper Room with His Apostles, which gives meaning to the Crucifixion, and then Jesus celebrated the second Mass with the disciples after traveling with them on the road to Emmeus. this tradition is continued in Acts (the breaking of the bread -cf Acts 2). St. Paul speaks out against liturgical abuses in 1 Cor. esp ch. 10 (the bread that we break, the cup of blessing which we bless is a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ). the entire book of Revelation is the Mass, the Lamb’s Supper, Heaven comes to Earth.

    we also have the writings of St. Justin Martyr, who describes how the early Christians celebrated. it’s almost exactly what the Catholic Mass is today!

    sure, this little blub sounds good, but it completely ignored 2000 years of history.

    even tho i can rattle off all these facts… it’s sad… because satan has lied to all of you, making you believe that religion is the enemy instead of him…

  21. Rgoer says:

    Very nice post Kevin. We simply can’t just pretend that Christianity didn’t exist and wasn’t practiced by faithful people between the years 33 and 1517.

  22. Luke Breuer says:

    This little interchange is cute, but I do not see how it is thoroughly scriptural. Moreover, I am tired of letting others define words for us. Let’s take a piercing look at what scripture has to say about this stuff.

    “Jesus is our temple.”
    1 Cor. 3:16 “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
    1 Cor. 6:19a “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of hte Holy Spirit within you,”
    Eph 2:19-22; v22: “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
    1 Pe. 2:4-5; v5a: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house,”

    “Jesus is our priest.”
    1 Pe. 2:4-5, v5b: “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
    1 Pe. 2:9a “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”
    (Yes, Hebrews talks about how Jesus is our _high_ priest, but how can one dispute the 1 Peter treatment of priesthood?)

    “Jesus is our sacrifice.”
    Romans 12:1 “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
    1 Pe. 2:4-5, v5b: “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
    (Yes, Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, but we aren’t off the hook for suffering; see 2 Cor. 1:5, Phil. 1:29, Col. 1:24, 2 Tim. 2:3, 1 Pe. 3:17,4:13. Those who want to be raptured to escape this had better read Amos 5:18-20.)

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Brother,

      The only reason these things are true of believers is because we are united to Christ, who is (1) the temple that was torn down and raised again in three days; (2) the sinless high priest; and (3) the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world.

      You are advocating for commitment to sound doctrine; please remember to make sure that your words and attitude adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.

      1. Luke Breuer says:

        Justin,

        I’m still concerned that the portrayal in this blog post of Christ is that he “did it all”, leaving us with nothing that we are commanded to do. This is why I called the interchange “cute”: it seems to make pleasant sense on the outside, but the inside seems to have no power to truly differentiate Christianity. In most religions, it’s all about serving a deity at the expense of the people—or for them with stuff like sex orgies. In Judaism, the service was oriented to God, but it was explicitly for the well-being of humans (Deut. 6:20-25). With the actions of Jesus, we are given even _more_ power to serve God via serving others. Failure to do this—to actually _do_ things, vs. just order the neurons in our brain properly—brings one in danger of Matt. 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17. In a very real sense we Christians are called to fleshly suffering; Jesus did _not_ make it so that the only suffering we would have to deal with is due to the consequences of our own sins. I worry that this blog post does not champion that fact in a culture that desperately needs it.

        The “tired of letting others define words for us” was actually aimed at those who devalue critical words as “faith”, making them Kierkegaardian and thus useless (see Francis Schaeffer’s _He Is There and He Is Not Silent_). We simply cannot afford to let other people destroy the definitions of our words. This includes those who call the entire Bible “metaphor”, for then Jesus made no space-time sacrifice, as Schaeffer would say.

        I’m sorry if I seem contentious; that was not my intent. My intent is for Christians of this generation to realize that they must take up Jesus’ cross if they wish to spread true faith to the nations. I’m probably channeling a bit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was young and a bit harsh (contrast him to 1 John). It is cheap grace if one stops at the statements in this blog post—and many people _do_.

        To be thoroughly scriptural, I think this blog post is in dire need of Hebrews 12: Jesus did all this stuff first and he is the only one who has done it perfectly, yes. But it does not stop there! He did it so we may follow his example with confidence. Is it too much to ask that this point be driven home? We serve a servant God (otherwise Heb. 1:3 is a lie) and are called to be like him, as originally intended in Genesis 1:27.

        1. Justin Taylor says:

          Thanks. I do think, though, that you are going to be potentially disappointed/angry with the blog medium in that one cannot say everything in every post.

          1. Luke Breuer says:

            I will only be angry if I see bad fruit coming out of this post; I try my best to hold to Luke 6:43-45.

            You are right that post space is limited and therefore things need to be omitted. However, I am reminded of A.W. Tozer’s _Knowledge of the Holy_, and how he failed to describe our God as a servant-God. Given that Jesus is the express image of God and he was quite the servant, I saw this is a glaring omission. I was told that Tozer simply couldn’t fit everything in the book; this is very true. However, he, you, I, and whoever else teaches, will be held accountable to James 3:1 & James 4:17. We will be judged both for what we include _and_ what we omit when we teach. It might even be the case that with the ease of hyperlinks, the standard is raised.

  23. James S says:

    Dick Lucas RULES!

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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