The Essence of True Religion

Today I’m reading Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Theologian who taught in the early 20th C. (picture above). I’m trying to get through his book on the method of theology (part 1 of his 4 part Reformed Dogmatics) so I’ll have the background information I need to move on other works on theological method. This morning, I came across this quote:

“Two things are…necessary for religion to be true: first, that the objective religion that comes to us from without again makes God known to us as he really is; second, that the corrupted religious predisposition in human beings be regenerated and renewed.” Bavinck, Reformed Dogamtics Vol 1. pg. 242

Have you ever wonder, “What kind of books and materials will be helpful for my soul?” or, ever sit through a sermon or read a good Christian book and ask yourself, “What impact should this have on me?” I think the quote above can help us think through these questions.

In the context, Bavinck is explaining the “essence of religion,” which he says is relating to the one true God, as the One True God. The essence of religion is how we relate to God. Religion has an objective and subjective aspect. Objectively it is God coming down to the level of his creatures to relate to them. Subjectively, we respond to God with a sense of fear, trust, reverence, awe, and complete dependency. In light of that, Bavinck gives us two things that we should look for that let us know whether or not we’re on the right road in our relationship with God. First, we are knowing God as He really is. This means knowing God in the context of the covenant he made with us, knowing God in His word, knowing God through the cross. Second, we are getting rid of the sin that prevents us from knowing God. Bavinck quotes Calvin that everyone has a “seed of religion” implanted in them. The problem is, we suppress this seed (Rom 1), not letting it take root or grow. True religion will always be renewing our minds so that they are less influenced by sin and more influenced by God. It will be making us into new people so we can know God better.

So how does that help us apply and evaluate theology? We can ask, does the stuff we read help us know God better? If we’re just reading self-help books, we’re not knowing anything more about God. If we’re just reading philosophy, we’re not learning about God. Also, does what we read convict us of sin? Does it make us see the world differently, from God’s perspective?

How does it help us apply sermons? Two good applications after a sermon could be, “What did the sermon teach me about who God is?” and, “How did the sermon convict me of sin?” They certainly aren’t the only questions to ask yourself, but they aren’t a bad place to start.

This quote made me think of something else: I’ve observed a lot of effort in popular Christian culture to do away with the term “religion.” We can easily understand why. For so long religion is associated with just “going through the motions,” without passion, without vitality. We, rightfully, want to get as far away as we can from that. In so doing, we often stress the idea of relationship. “It’s not religion, but a relationship with God.”

But I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to go back to the true meaning of the word. Religion, as classically understood, contains the idea of a relationship with God. But it also says something more. It says that the relationship with God is a relationship like you’ll have with no other person on earth. It’s a totally unique relationship. I have a relationships with a lot of people; but I have one religion. It’s helpful, I think, when we begin to think about God, to start with how he is different from us. Yes, we can have a relationship with Him, but one of the first steps in that relationship involves that relating to him is unlike relating to anyone else. It’s been said, “God is light, but he is unlike any light we’ve ever seen.” You can have a relationship with God, but it is unlike any relationship you’ve ever had before.

So let’s recapture the essence of true religion.


About mike

As a result of God's sovereign grace, Mike is--first and foremost--a Christian. He is the husband of a beautiful wife, father of five wonderful kids, and pastor of Greenbelt Baptist Church, in Maryland.
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