Author: Ron Graham
In this lesson we consider the question: How many religions should we regard as good and true —only one, a few, or a great many?
Many people consider it a good thing to be religious, but they don't think it matters what particular religion is followed. Any religion will do. Mix and match as you please.
There are many conflicting and confusing opinions about how to define religion, what its purpose is, and which religion is acceptable. Rather than add my opinion to the mess, I am going to simply offer you the longstanding viewpoint of someone whose credentials are unsurpassed and who addresses this question with clarity and authority: Paul the apostle.
Many regard religion, generally speaking, as good. They think it's a good thing that some folk are Catholic, others are Mormon, Muslim, Jew, Hari Krishnas, Hindu, or something else. The many religions are the many colours and forms that make up the religious landscape.
People think of various religions and denominations as the different colours and shapes in a wonderful picture. We might have a favourite hue or feature in the picture, but it is the meaning of the picture that is really important. Devotion, goodness, sincerity, spirituality, and suchlike are much more important than the particular religious beliefs and customs followed. How does Paul answer this?
The city of Ephesus was very religious, being devoted to magic and occult arts. As far as we know, these arts included divining the palm of the hand or reading signs in a great many other ways. They included talking to spirits of various kinds. They included drawing magical power from numbers, mixtures, amulets, and other objects.
Religions commonly employ similar arts today, and this is encouraged in our society. Isn't this religious genre as good as any other? Paul did not think so. When he showed Ephesus the superior power and the truth of his religion, numbers of people burned their religious books (Acts 19:11-20).
The value of the burned books was 50,000 pieces of silver. It is thought that the silver pieces were drachmas —each worth about a day's wages. When they burned these rare and hand-written books, a huge fortune went up in flames.
Isn't it funny how you can buy a Bible today for a few dollars, yet the religion in it was considered beyond price. The magical scriptures that were burned were valued at millions of dollars, yet the religion they contained was considered worthless.
The people who burned those books made a very strong statement. They demonstrated how well Paul had convinced them that it does matter what religion you practice, and only one religion will do.
There is another view, not as broad as the first. This second viewpoint is that any religion will do, so long as it acknowledges God in some way and gives him a place of honour, as a great many religions indeed do.
People may worship the sun, moon, and stars for example, but at the same time acknowledge the one who created the heavens and all that is in them. Many religions honour the one true Great Spirit within their belief system. Should they therefore be regarded as the true religions? What did Paul think?
While Paul was waiting for his friends in Athens, he became greatly distressed. He could see that the city was given over to idols. There were all kinds of gods being worshipped. Later, in a speech he gave at the Areopagus, Paul said...
"Men of Athens! I perceive that in all things you are very religious, 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" (Acts 17:15-23).
The Athenians, in their own way, were giving a place of honour to the one true God. Paul did not merely make them more familiar with this God. He wanted them to leave all their other gods and turn to his God, the only true God.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he said, "You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God" (1Thessalonians 1:9). It was not enough that God should be included. It was necessary that all other objects of worship be excluded.
We now consider a third point of view, narrower than the first two, but still fairly broad in what it embraces:
There are many religions which worship God alone and have no other gods beside him. Principally these are of the Jewish, Muslim, or Christian type. Many people will say that any of these religions should be regarded as a true religion, because essentially they worship the one true God whether they call him Yahweh, Allah, or God. What does Paul think?
Before he became a Christian, Paul had been very religious, worshipping Yahweh as a Jew according to the law of Moses. Yet he considered that religion as rubbish! (Philippians 3:3-8). His religion had been worthless when compared to his faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul found it was not enough to shun idols and magic, and to worship only the one true God. According to Paul one had to be a Christian.
The reason for this is simple: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood" (Romans 3:23-25).
A religion that excludes faith in Christ's blood has excluded far too much. It cannot do what a religion should do: provide atonement for sin.
Many people agree that only a Christian religion will do, but they will accept virtually any religion within Christendom, or at least within a large part of Christendom.
In other words, You have to choose a Christian religion, but there are many denominations to choose from and any of these will do. You can be an Anglican, Baptist, Adventist, even perhaps a Catholic or a Mormon. What did Paul think?
Paul often prophesied about departures from the gospel he taught and which he received from Jesus personally (Galatians 1:6-12 2Timothy 4:3 2Thessalonians 2:1-12). When he spoke to the elders of the church at Ephesus he warned...
"After my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. And from among your own selves men will rise up speaking perverse things to lead away disciples after them" (Acts 20:27-32).
There are many different paths that claim to be "Christian" today. We are to search for the true path. Just being in Christendom won't do, because Christendom includes many departures from the true faith. You have to be in the Lord's true church which teaches his true gospel. Nothing less will do.
Paul did not see the choice of religion as like the choice of ice cream, or of chocolates, where there are many kinds to choose from. Ice cream is ice cream, chocolate is chocolate, and it doesn't matter which kind you prefer. But religion is not like that. Jesus did not give Paul a variety of religions to offer. He only gave him one. And Paul spoke very strongly against anyone who offered people another variety (Galatians 1:6-9).
If you choose a religion other than the one Christ taught Paul, then you have mistaken the false for the true. A false religion might have some things in common with the true, just as mud might have some things in common with chocolate. A child might eat mud thinking it was chocolate, and might even like the mud. But that doesn't make mud chocolate.
You might refuse to worship the sun moon and stars, and instead worship Christ. But if you are worshipping him falsely, in some departure from what he teaches you, then you may as well worship the sun moon and stars. You reject him by accepting doctrines other than he, and his faithful teachers like Paul, have delivered to you.
Let's join together in going back to the one true religion of Christ, and following only that. Nothing else will do.