I have known many folks who embrace what I call “folk religion.” It runs something like this: “I want my family (and myself) to be nice, good, and decent. Christianity is what makes people nice, so I will choose to be a Christian and rear my children as Christians. The theology doesn’t matter, what matters is how we live and treat others.”
This belief system boils down to using the Kingdom of God. Using this reasoning, our faith exists to help us and our children become kind and honest people—a civilizing, positive influence. Hopefully our faith will keep us off of drugs, keep us from being promiscuous, help us avoid excessive alcohol, and help us avoid dishonest gain. We will see our kids grow up to become responsible, family-oriented, and self-supporting.
We all desire our children to turn out well, and to live decent lives ourselves. This is not a bad secondary goal. We should aim for that. But if this is why we call ourselves Christians, we are in trouble. Faith in Jesus becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself. Our primary goal should be to be in right relationship with God.
When folks use Christianity in this manner, they will eventually be confronted with the rude awakening that some who profess faith in Jesus are not all that wonderful. On the other hand, at times, those who profess other faiths or no religion at all are sometimes quite kind and generous.
Because the goal of “folk religion” is to produce decent, responsible behavior, advocates of this viewpoint are now confused about the exclusive nature of biblical Christianity. If they attend a church that is truly biblical, they will often hear the clear teachings of Scripture that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). But if there are other paths to “niceness,” they wonder, “then are there other paths to God?” Niceness—not truth—becomes the criterion.
Refuting folk religion: truths that make the point
1. Godliness (which includes kindness, but not necessarily “niceness”) is a by-product of the Holy Spirit’s work within us (see Gal. 5:16-26).
Being right with God is the goal, and a transformed life is the by-product. Because we are right with God, we are now motivated to please God with our lives. Being right with God is our focus and the desired end, not the means to an end. God should not be exploited for social (behavioral) or political causes; this is making God subservient and putting another god before him.
2. Many people who claim to be Christians are probably not born-again and do not have the genuine product.
Although we are given no percentage in Scripture, the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23) leads us to believe that only a minority of those who “respond” to the gospel are genuine believers, and that genuineness is proven in the long-term by “fruitfulness” and endurance in believing (1 John 2:19-21).
3. People without Christ are lost, no matter how righteous and kind they seem to be. We are born sinners and in need of salvation (Rom. 3:10, 23; 6:23). At the judgment, many people who did a lot of good will be turned away from heaven because they did not have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:21-23).
4. Although we are born sinners and totally depraved, this does not mean lost people cannot be absolutely wonderful to associate with.
Total depravity does not mean that everyone is as bad as can be; it means that we have nothing in ourselves to offer God to atone for our sin. (We are spiritually bankrupt.) Since we already owe God total obedience to begin with, we have no way to make up for our sins. Whatever we might do we already owe, so there is no way to erase the sin debt.
This is why Jesus had to die on the cross to atone for our sins. His sacrifice atones for all our sins, and then some (Rom. 3:21-27, 1 John 2:2).
5. Though the image of God in man is marred because of the curse and distorted by sin, humans are still in God’s image (1 Cor. 11:7).
This means people can do much good, but no good at all in the sense of gaining merit before God. When it comes to atoning for sin, our good deeds are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). But when it comes to matters such as sacrificing for others, being compassionate, considerate, and gracious—lost people can excel. We need to let this simple reality sink into our philosophy of life. Lost people are not necessarily exceptionally bad people. All of us are unclean before a holy God. But some of us are kinder and more compassionate that others when it comes to this life. And some of us have been cleansed and redeemed by God’s grace, while most are still victims of sin and Satan. Those without Christ are not the enemy, but victims of the enemy.
And herein lies the theological danger with folk religion (the view that the purpose of Christianity is to make us nice and kind). The folk religion viewpoint doesn’t match reality. When we make friends with a Muslim, or Atheist, or cult member, or practicing homosexual—and find these folks to be wonderful people—what do we do? Since the folk religion’s narrow viewpoint doesn’t match reality, the folk religionist adjusts to reality by trashing Christianity—he thinks. The problem, though, is that he never really had a truly biblical understanding of Christianity in the first place. He trashes what he thinks is Christianity.
The positive side: real-deal conversion
So we have to ask ourselves exactly what is it that we believe? Why do we profess salvation by faith alone in Christ alone? I will answer this in the first person.
I profess faith in Jesus Christ because I am convinced God’s Word is true: that I am a lost sinner and that I am, by nature, under the wrath of God (Eph. 2:1-3). At a point in time, the Holy Spirit convicted me of my lost condition, even though I was—by most human standards—a pretty decent, honest guy. Like Pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress, I realized that I was a lost, unclean sinner before a holy, pure God, that God does not grade on a curve, but demands perfect holiness.
As long as I try to earn heaven or forgiveness, I cannot avail myself of the forgiveness freely offered by faith in Jesus Christ. Thus many within professing Christendom—just as in Judaism and many of the world’s religions—are lost because they are seeking to establish their own righteousness before God (Rom. 10:3).
Since I can never meet the standard, I needed God’s merciful and gracious provision, the sacrifice provided for me by Jesus Christ. When I turned from my sin to Jesus in faith, I was forgiven and made right with God. I was also transformed, resulting in a craving to know God better and live a life pleasing to Him. I often fail, and sometimes other interests sidetrack me away from those desires, but they keep returning. Like a boomerang, I keep coming back.
Thus, seeking to love God and seeking to love others (good works) is the result of my salvation. Ultimately, it is all about God. Since God commands me to love others, I must take this obligation seriously, but the source of my commitment is my relationship to God.
So can lost people be wonderful people? Yes! Some of the best people I know do not profess to be born again by faith in Jesus. In my experience, most people who know the Lord are pleasant and decent people, but some are sour and relatively cold-hearted. Then there are the many who profess faith, but their lifestyles leave us wondering.
To God, however, wonderful lost folks are lost because their wonderfulness cannot atone for sin. They need Jesus Christ the same as us “less than wonderful” types.
In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we read of pagan kings who were kind to the Jews, even covering expenses to rebuild the temple and walls of Jerusalem. Yet in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, we read of kings—some of whom professed faith in Yahweh—who were anything but kind and compassionate.
Our goal is not to surpass the compassion or good behavior of some great lost folks, but to be all God wants us to be. He calls us to holiness and love, and we must run the race with our eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2) because we know Jesus.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.