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Disciples are not religious

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Colossians 2:1-8

Today’s Super Bowl will divide the nation into two camps. Not between those who cheer for the Steelers and those who are fans of the Seahawks, but between the few of us who care and the most of you who don’t. This is Super Bowl XL, and I don’t remember this much boredom related to the world’s most-watched sporting event. Do you care who wins? Do you know anyone who does?

Apathy or frenzy is not the only way our nation appears to be divided these days. Ever since the Bush-Gore election, commentators have said that we have two Americas: blue states and red states.

Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was either compelling or irrelevant, depending on which color you are.

Last week’s confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court was largely on a party-line vote, after the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended him on a straight party-line vote. Red won, blue lost.

“Brokeback Mountain” leads the Academy Awards with eight nominations, including best picture and best actor. You either think the movie is courageous and timely, or you think it sends exactly the wrong message. Again, your “color” probably determines your opinion.

“Dualism” believes that the world is made of two substances, usually mind and matter or the spiritual and the material.

We have lived with Ft. Worth vs. Dallas dualism for generations now. When I left Texas for Atlanta 12 years ago I discovered Texas vs. the rest of the world dualism. We have “conservative” vs. “liberal” dualism today in our political system, more than I can ever remember. We have Europe vs. America dualism on the war in Iraq.

And on “Disciple Now” weekend, you and I are at war with God vs. life dualism today. At least we need to be. The problem is, most of us don’t know the battle is going on. And that we’re its casualties. “Religion now” is fine; “Disciple now” is not. Let me explain.

Reject religion

Paul is “struggling” for something, and wants the Colossians to know it. “Struggle” translates agona, from which we get “agony.” “How great a battle I am fighting” is the sense. Where is the war? On one side: Jesus Christ and the “full riches of complete understanding” which are found only in him.

Paul wants them to be “encouraged in heart”–“strengthened in resolve” is a better translation. He wants them to be “united in love”–“instructed so that they love each other” is a better rendering. For this purpose: “that they may have the full riches of complete understanding.” Not the partial knowledge of the Gnostics, but the full and complete knowledge found in Christ and in him alone.

Why in Christ? Because in him “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Not just some, all. “Treasures” translates the word for “storehouse”–all wisdom (how to live practically) and knowledge (what to know about the world) are stored in him and in him alone.

So Paul wants them to “continue to live in him,” rooted, built up, strengthened in him, and overflowing with gratitude for his grace and love (vs. 6-7).

On one side of the battle stands Jesus, in whom alone are found all wisdom and knowledge for every part of life, every problem we face, every question we ask, every day that we live. On the other side stands the enemy. What do we know about him?

“I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments” (v. 4). “No one” in the Greek seems to indicate a specific person, someone he and they know is leading the charge, preaching the sermons, commanding the troops.

His weapons are “fine-sounding arguments.” The word described a person who used persuasive words in a courtroom to keep something he stole from someone else.

What does he want to steal from the Colossians? Their faith: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (v. 8).

“No one” is this person again. “Takes you captive” means to “seduce” or “kidnap.” The enemy is using “hollow and deceptive philosophy” which comes from human traditions and the elementary teachings the Colossians left to follow Christ.

What is this “deceptive philosophy”? In a word, dualism. Their spiritual enemies taught that the spirit is good, the secular bad. So do what you want with your body, because it is irrelevant to your soul and your soul is irrelevant to your body.

Religion is irrelevant to the real world, and the real world to religion. Be a Christian if you want, but don’t be a “disciple now.” Don’t get carried away with your religion. Keep things in their proper perspective. So long as your faith is personal and private, all is well.

Seek relationship

Paul reminded the Colossians that they “received Christ Jesus as Lord” (v. 6), the only time he uses that exact phrase anywhere in his letters. Christ the Messiah is also Jesus the man, refuting the Gnostic heresy that the “spirit” Christ and “material” Jesus were separate. He is “Lord,” refuting the Gnostic heresy that Christ Jesus is irrelevant to life. If he were standing in Dallas this morning, he would make the same argument and call us to the same battle. This war has never ended.

We are raising our children in a culture which believes that the secular and the spiritual are two completely different spheres of existence, the one quantifiable and real, the other personal and subjective. And the latter is increasingly irrelevant to all that really matters in society.

Alarmism? Homiletic hyperbole? The following examples come from Nancy Pearcey’s excellent treatise on the subject, Total Truth (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1994):

In a debate over embryonic stem cell research, actor Christopher Reeve told a student group at Yale University, “When matters of public policy are debated, no religions should have a seat at the table.”

Scientist Steven Weinberg was addressing the Freedom From Religion Foundation: “I personally feel that the teaching of modern science is corrosive to religious belief, and I’m all for that!” The hope that science would liberate people from religion is “one of the things that in fact has driven me in my life.” If science helps end religion, “it would be the most important contribution science could make.”

Marvin Minsky of MIT says the human mind is nothing but a “three-pound computer made of meat.” Carl Sagan was famous for saying, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Even the Bernstein Bears have picked up the theme. In one of these popular children’s books we find a dazzling sunrise and the words, “Nature is all that is, or was, or ever will be!”

This dualistic separation between the spiritual and the material has affected Christians as much as the rest of our culture. Historian Sidney Mead: “This internalization or privatization of religion is one of the most momentous changes that has ever taken place in Christendom.”

One example: at a Christian high school, a theology teacher walked to the front of the classroom, where he drew a heart on one side of the blackboard and a brain on the other. The two are as divided as the two sides of the blackboard, he claimed. We use the heart for religion, and the brain for science, he further explained.

Paul defeated the Gnostics in Colossae, but they are winning in Dallas. If Satan cannot get us to repudiate Jesus entirely, he’ll be nearly as happy for us to believe in him on Sunday, but to ignore him on Monday. He’ll quarantine the disease lest it spread.

Conclusion

So, what does God want us to do about the dualism which separates him from our lives? First, reject the lie of religion. Reject the dualistic lie which separates soul and body, faith and life, our Creator and his creation, our Father and his children.

Dealing with a nation which had reduced faith to rituals and religious routine, God says, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies” (Amos 5:21).

Religion tells us that so long as we keep our religious observances, we’ve done all God requires. So long as you have a salvation experience, come to church when you can, and satisfy the demands of basic morality, you’ve done all you need to do.

Meanwhile, the Lord of the universe is left out of our daily lives. We are isolated from his omniscience for our decisions, his omnipotence for our problems, his forgiveness for our sins, his strength for our souls. We fight Satan ourselves, and we lose.

Reject religion. Instead, pay the price of relationship.

God wants disciples, fully devoted followers, those who receive him as Lord, continue to live in him, strengthened in the faith as we were taught, overflowing with thankfulness (vs. 6-7). He is looking for those who will walk in his presence, obey his word, live for his glory and in his fear, radically committed to his Lordship.

Relationships come at a cost. Marriages, families, friendships, business partnerships–they all require priority, time, sacrifice, commitment. You reap what you sow. You profit as you invest. Pay the price of relationship with your Father.

Last Wednesday, as I was finishing this manuscript, I was challenged by the Spirit to consider again the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Perhaps the most brilliant theologian of his generation, he was a professor at Union Seminary in New York City when Hitler came to power in his native land. He could have stayed there in safety, but sensed the call of God to risk everything for his homeland and her people. He paid the ultimate price for his commitment to his Father, hanged by the Nazis shortly before his camp was liberated by the Allies.

His most famous book is titled The Cost of Discipleship. It begins, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.”

What does he mean? “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which a disciple leaves his nets and follows him….

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (The Cost of Discipleship [New York: Macmillan 1963] 47, italics his).

Is your faith cheap or costly grace? Are you religious, or are you a disciple now?