Letting go: of religion to become wholly Christian

It seems counter intuitive, doesn’t it? You may have to give up or let go of your religion to become a Christian? That doesn’t sound right…

And yet, the Israelites (Abraham’s descendants through Jacob) were expected to do exactly that when they were confronted with the “good news” of Jesus, the Christ! Becoming a Christian and a part of Christ’s church requires that we let go of everything else and follow His commandments and laws laid out in the New Covenant. You may be surprised as you reflect on your own religion what you may need to let go of to follow Jesus. I certainly was.

The book of Hebrews outlines that Jesus became our high priest with his death and resurrection and by doing so He has changed the priesthood. In Heb 7:12 we read that “when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also.”

All the Jewish people since Moses’s time had up until then been accountable for following the Old Covenant (the Law of Moses–10 commandments and many more). God had laid out a very detailed law that included cleansing practices, tithing, treatment of servants/slaves, sacrifices and the tabernacle as well as the punishment for breaking laws and much more. Most, if not all, of the Old Law pointed to Jesus and the New Covenant that He would guarantee (Heb 7:18-22). Until Jesus came, if they were following the Old Law with a genuine heart, they were practicing their faith as God had prescribed. During that period, they weren’t wrong when they were practicing the Old Covenant, but even if they followed it to the best of their ability, the Old Law couldn’t cleanse their sin (Heb 10:4). Then the law changed with Jesus! It became better! And the Jews had to change everything about their religion when Christ ushered in the New Covenant (Hebrews 8). No more animal sacrifices, no more temple, no more Levitical priests, and the list goes on.

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second…When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. Hebrews 8:7, 13a

So they were expected to change, as the old way was becoming obsolete. But even when we recognize that the old way won’t work anymore, change is HARD! Let’s look at the culture at that time. God had said not to marry people from other nations and even to destroy whole nations throughout their history in order to avoid adopting their idols. By the time Jesus came, the religious leaders were insisting that you stay away from everyone but “pure blood” and “clean” Jews by their standards. You didn’t have anything to do with sinners, sick people, or outsiders. And now they were expected to be a church family with them. This was a big, cultural change. Can you imagine having to suddenly embrace a group of people that you were never allowed to even associate with? Who you may have even believed you were superior to? Who didn’t care about your traditions or holidays or following the Old Law? Scriptures tell us of the conflicts that arose as these two drastically different groups (Jews and Gentiles) attempted to come together as Christians.

Notice they didn’t separate and each do their own thing. They asked the AApostles about the dilemma and strived to remain as one body (Eph 4:5). The answers recorded in the New Testament by the Holy Spirit are there for us today, to “examine the Scriptures” and use the Word to determine if the teaching we receive is truly God’s instruction to us (Acts 17:11). Even the Apostles struggled with this, as the Apostle Peter was publicly corrected by a fellow Apostle, Paul, for not sitting with Gentiles when he visited (Gal 2). These changes were hard.

But the consequence for not changing is serious. In Galatians, the Apostle Paul deals with a question about circumcision, a requirement from the Old Law, and whether it applies to Christians. Many Jewish Christians were questioning this idea and some teachers were claiming that circumcision was necessary to be saved. Gentiles were not under the Law of Moses and were therefore, typically not circumcised. Paul’s response through the Holy Spirit is intense…

“And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Gal 5:3-4)

If we try to impose any part of the Old Law on someone after being given the New Covenant, we are restricting them to a law that can’t save them. The Old Law made us aware of our sin, but it doesn’t resolve it (Rom 3:20). We have fallen from grace when we seek to live by the Old Law because Christ came to fulfill the Old Law (Matt 5:17). If we revert back to the earlier phase of God’s plan (the Old Law), we are ignoring His son and God will not accept it. Here is the good news though, we wouldn’t want to follow a weaker, useless law that didn’t actually make us perfect as Jesus does (Hebrews 7:18-19)! We want to be under the law of the New Covenant. That law is now written on our hearts, but it is still God who is writing the law…and we still have laws to follow in this New Covenant. Jesus told us “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The New Testament reaffirms God’s laws that are still binding to us today. Notice that the New Covenant law will not ever change because we will never have a different High Priest, as Jesus is our High Priest forever (Heb 7:12). There are numerous warnings throughout Scriptures and specifically in the New Testament about not following the pattern shown by the Apostles (under the New Covenant) but Galatians is the most direct in my opinion.

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” -Galatians 1:6-9

This may be far more relatable to us today than we realize. Or at least, it is extremely relatable to me. When I really began to dig in to the Scriptures and understand the Bible as a unified message of God’s plan for salvation, I had to let go of certain religious practices and ideas that didn’t match up with what the Bible describes about the New Covenant that Christ established with his death, burial and resurrection.

I had to let go…of a religion that was largely based on whatever I happened to be taught and instead anchor it to God’s word–even the doctrine aspects of Scriptures. I had bounced around between different Protestant denominations my whole life mostly ignorant of any of the differences between them and unconcerned with those differences, thinking that all were ok as long as they were toward God and recognized Jesus. After all, doesn’t culture teach us that Protestant can be grouped together and the differences are minor? We are told discerning between doctrines is not “Christian”. Yet we are told in the Scriptures to be one body (Eph 4:5). We are taught that some doctrines are incorrect (2 Tim 4:3), even if they sound religious or claim to follow Christ. And Christians were admonished in the Hebrew letter for not growing in their knowledge to build discernment of right and wrong (Heb 5:11-14). I looked for churches that listed Scriptures for what they practiced, but I couldn’t discern the doctrinal differences in their statements because I was only aware of the surface of the Scriptures. Ephesians 4:14 says “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine…”. This was incredibly hard for me to swallow…that I was carried about by every wind of doctrine and had no idea how to anchor my faith.

I had to let go… of traditions that were comfortable for me that contradicted my plain reading of Scripture. For me, this first hit home when considering the Lord’s Supper. Where I attended services, they only took the Lord’s Supper once a month unless you went to the traditional service. I read Acts 20:7, where it says on the first day of the week, they gathered to break bread. I studied the idea of keeping the Sabbath and that it was expected every week. I also couldn’t find any biblical arguments made to skip certain weeks. I became convinced from my reading of the text that I should take the Lord’s Supper each week. But the tradition of my congregation was different. I would have preferred to simply accept their traditions, but now I had to decide because if I really felt Scriptures meant every Sunday, then I needed to submit to that. This was only the start of my concerns as I started comparing what I practiced to God’s word. I don’t mean to make this a discussion of the Lord’s Supper, but I want to be honest with you all about where it started for me. If we become convinced about any area of Scripture, we have a responsibility to be loyal to our faith before our comfort. Mark 7:9 says “He [Jesus] was also saying to them [Pharisees], ‘You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.’ ”

I had to let go… of the idea that I wasn’t able to understand the Scriptures, that I needed to learn from those who had studied at seminary or dedicated their life to learning about the Bible because I couldn’t discern it for myself. God spoke to the Israelites through the prophet Hosea, saying “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” (Hosea 4:6). But don’t think you have to be a super smart and educated to figure this stuff out! Who did Jesus pick as disciples? They were mostly fishermen and not the educated religious elite! Paul, a Jewish religious leader was arguably the most educated Apostle and yet he was the most blind to accepting Jesus (literally lol bible joke) until Jesus appeared to him and exposed that he was against God by persecuting Christians! Don’t let the idea that you have to be taught at seminary keep you from learning the Bible. You don’t! In fact, sometimes intelligence (or the perception that we have it) can blind us from seeing the simple message in Scriptures. In Matthew 11:25, Jesus speaks about this, saying “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” And disagreeing with someone who is educated in the Bible doesn’t mean you are wrong (see Paul’s correction to Peter in Galatians 2:11). We sharpen each other when we seek to stay unified while also addressing disagreements in Scriptures. After all, we all want to go to the same place (Heaven)!

I had to let go… of my desire to stay in the protestant community church where I worshipped because I didn’t want to have to explain myself. That also meant that I couldn’t simply fall back on a church like I was raised in or like my friends attended. I had lived my entire life up to that point as an infant in terms of knowledge. I didn’t understand the Scriptures despite having read through the whole Bible. By the way, reading cover to cover is the most confusing way to read it in my opinion! With the help of my boyfriend (and eventual husband) as a guide, I started reading the New Testament slowly, asking tons of questions. As I began to dig in and set my foundation in God’s word, I became convicted that I should be doing what the Bible said whenever I felt that it was clear to me. That ultimately meant that I couldn’t continue attending church in a place that contradicted my understanding of the Scriptures. As the number of disagreements with the practices at my congregation grew, I realized that I had to leave. But that meant leaving my young adult bible class that I loved so much. That meant explaining where I went and not giving the cop-out of following my boyfriend–since I knew I wasn’t doing it for Him but for my stance on following God’s word. That meant uncomfortable conversations. I didn’t want any of that. And honestly, at the time, I tried to slip away quietly and had the benefit of a military move to hide behind.

But most importantly, I had to let go… of the idea that God accepts any and all doctrines and worship. 2 John 1:9-11 says:

“Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.”

The reality is that God doesn’t accept whatever man wants in these areas but instead clearly calls out what is acceptable and pleasing to Him and expects us to follow his commandments if we love Him (John 14:15).

I would love it if this truth was not a part of the Bible. It breaks my heart and keeps me determined to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) to consider that I need to examine the doctrine I stand for and not all will be accepted by God. This doesn’t mean that I expect everyone to agree with my understanding of biblical doctrine, but it does mean that I have to know what the Scriptures say, be confident in my understanding of it, and stand firmly in it (2 Thess 2:15). I am extremely uncomfortable with conflict and still don’t always feel like I have enough understanding to parse some of the hard topics, but this warning reminds me of the potential consequence of staying silent or ignoring my responsibility…that I have participated in evil deeds!

Do you remember learning as children if you stand by and do nothing when someone is doing something wrong, that it’s the same as doing it yourself? God’s word explains that He views it no differently and that is something we should all take seriously. Titus 1:9 says “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” We are expected to grow in our understanding of God’s word such that we can refute false doctrine!

This growth WILL NOT happen overnight. It is the walk of our entire Christian faith, however, we should be making progress. The first step is acknowledging that God’s word clearly expects progress. There is a clear answer in the Scriptures most of the time. God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor 14:33) and we have received all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3) through God’s word, so we can use scripture to answer most any question if we seek out God’s words!

And frankly, I can’t say that I did the best job at standing for Biblical truth at that time, since I was still just beginning to process God’s word as authoritative to the way I lived my life and followed Him. I was still early in my faith. But I took a step. Each time I was confronted with a practice that violated the Scriptures based on my plain reading, I tried to take an honest step in correcting my practice.

Returning to the example from Scriptures, the New Testament letters are filled with warnings about Judaizing teachers (Gal 2 and others). What are Judiaizing teachers? They are people claiming to be Christians but arguing that you still had to follow the Old Law and traditions of Judaism. God demanded that the Jews abandon the Old Law even though He was the author of it and it was intended for a time! So much more so, must we abandon those things that God calls out as wrong in the Bible or which He doesn’t authorize. We should use the New Law as our standard because Jesus established it! And He sits at the right hand of God and is our High Priest forever, so this is the last law we will ever receive. (1 Cor 4:6).

The Pharisees clung to the Old Law and all the traditions that they had layered on top of it and it was to their own detriment (Matthew 15 and Mark 7). Their hearts were far from God and they allowed their self-righteousness according to their law to blind them. But we need to understand that they were not in trouble for following the law to a fault. But rather for enforcing traditions of men as doctrine, not having a genuine heart, and not acknowledging the fulfillment of the Law that was right in front of them, Jesus.

Col 2:8 says “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”

Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. John 17:17

So are we willing to let go?

If you would like to understand more about the need for following sound doctrine, feel free to reach out. The Scriptures are filled with references to false teachers and there were far too many citations to include all of them in this post.

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