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"Christianity has become the most universal religion in history, with believers today a majority of the population in two-thirds of the world's 238 countries." So says the second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 2001).
A different survey reveals some interesting information about Christianity in particular and religion in general [Associated Press, "New Book Tallies Religions," January, 17, 2001].
- "Christianity began and ended the century as the world's biggest religion with 555 million believers or 32.2 percent of world population in 1900 and 1.9 billion or 31 percent as of last year ."
- "Those Christians are divided among 33,820 denominations or similar distinct organizations. Some 386 million believers are in independent churches."
A further look at self-described Christian denominations throughout the world only highlights the diversity within this religious tradition. There are:
- 135 Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox denominations
- 72 Lutheran and Reform denominations
- 38 Presbyterian denominations
- 52 Brethren and Congregationalist denominations
- 24 Methodists denominations
- 16 Holiness denominations
- 96 Baptists denominations
- 98 Pentecostal denominations
- 17 Mormon denominations
- 100+ distinct unclassified denominations
- 1000's of independent churches with no formal denominational label
To summarize, spirituality is booming in America and around the world. The individual seeking spiritual connection can now sample an endless smorgasbord of religious choices.
With so many groups and beliefs, it is no wonder there is so much confusion about God. As a consequence, our culture has come to believe several myths about religion in general. Those false conclusions are reflected in much of the religious polling done in America. [See Parade national poll on spirituality, 10-4-2009; USA Today, poll on "Nones" on 9-22-09].
There are five major, popular myths about religion in America.
Myth #1: There is no way to know who is right. Twelve percent of Americans believe that no religion is valid.
Myth #2: It is arrogant to suggest that you alone have the truth. Surprisingly, only twelve percent believe that only their religion is right.
Myth #3: All religions basically teach the same thing. Nearly three out of five [59%] believe that all religions are equally valid.
Myth #4: I can be spiritual without being religious. One quarter of Americans call themselves "spiritual but not religious." Another fifteen percent of so-called believers in God do not identify with any religion.
Myth #5: It doesn't make a difference anyway. One out of two rarely or never attended worship services.
Those myths evoke several important questions.
- What gives legitimacy to a religion?
- Is the concept of God enough to unite us?
- Are there multiple paths to God?
- What distinguishes Christianity from all others?
- Isn't sincerity enough?
- Why does this matter at all?
Let me address the last question by outlining four keys to understanding religion and the significance of believing properly.
I. A religion's validity depends on the object of its worship
False gods have always existed. Paul indicated that idolatry grows out of both rebellion against the Lord and a darkened heart that desires to pursue unrestrained iniquity [Romans 1]. Consider the objects that people worship. They come from one of five sources.
A. Manifestations of nature [animal, plant, planetary, or phenomenon such as lightening]
B. Creation of idols, images or imaginations
C. Elevation of humans or human passions [Greeks]
D. Veneration of spirits or Satan
E. Revelation of God
One of the questions we have to answer before a skeptical world is, "What doe it matter what you call God, aren't we all praying to the same being?" It matters because the object of our worship determines its legitimacy. If a man in the jungle cut a limb from a tree, cuts the limb in half, throws one half on the fire, and carves the other half into an idol for his house, then the object of his adoration is the work of his hands. Such an object of worship is illegitimate and unworthy of one's adoration.
Likewise, carving a stick or sculpting a stone will not make it a god despite what you call it. A religion's credibility depends on the reality of the God it worships. The first four objects of worship listed above are nothing more than man-made inventions or imaginations of God. Surely God is more than we can see or touch.
In answer to a critic, Abraham Lincoln asked, "How many legs does a cow have?" "Four," was the reply. "If you call her tail a leg, how many does she have?" "Five," was the answer. "No," Lincoln said, "just calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg."
II. The one true God is more than the common denominator of conflicting denominations or religions
What is it that makes people think that all religions are basically the same? They believe that all religions have one common denominator - the concept of God. But as we have seen already, a mere concept of God does not necessarily equate with God. As we study Acts 17 we find six God claims to remember [See Exodus 20:1-3, 2 Kings 17:24-35].
A. There is only one God: "The God"- 17:24.
B. God dwells in heaven: "not dwell in Temples" - 17:24.
C. God is not the creation of human hand or thought: "the divine nature is not like...an image fashion by human art or imagination." - 17:25, 29.
D. God is self-existent: "as though He needed anything" - 17:25.
E. God is the source of all life: "in Him we live and move and exist" - 17:28.
F. God demands exclusive allegiance: "God now commands all people everywhere to repent" - 17:30
God, according to His self-revelation, exceeds all human understanding. Any religion that rejects His self-revelation is simply an invalid religion.
It reminds us of Joshua's challenge to his people shortly before his death. Joshua 24:15
"And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."
III. Jesus distinguishes Christianity from all other religions
Everyone has an opinion about Jesus. The Jews say He was a good teacher or prophet, but not the Messiah. The Hindus say He is not god, but one of the many "avatars" [saviors] of Vishnu. Buddhists say He was a good teacher, but lower than Buddha. Muslims say He was a prophet, but lower than Mohammed. In contrast, Christianity recognizes Jesus as the Son of the living God.
Jesus is the central figure of our faith. The Apostle John tells us that to reject Jesus is to reject God altogether. He writes, "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either." [1 John 2:23] Even a proper view of Jehovah that rejects Jesus is insufficient for salvation for Jesus paid the price of redemption.
But what is it about Jesus that makes Him distinct of other religious teachers? While many have claimed deity, there are some distinctions between Christ and them. How is Christ distinct?
A. His sinless life.
B. His substitutionary death.
C. His bodily resurrection.
D. His offer of forgiveness by grace through faith.
"During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death."
"The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. 'What's the rumpus about?' he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, 'Oh, that's easy. It's grace.' After some discussion, the conferees had to agree."
"The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eightfold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law - each offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional." [Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing about Grace?, Zondervan, 1997]
IV. Eternity hinges on the God you follow
Someone might ask, "Why can't we just be open minded, tolerant and accept anything as God? The answer is that eternity hinges on the ability of your God to save you. Jesus said that humans are on one of two roads [Matthew 7:13-14]. If you examine all religions you will find that they fit into only two categories:  Works based, or  Faith based. How can you know which religion is right? The ultimate test of a religion is simple. When you come to death can your God deliver?
Perhaps you have heard of Pascal's wager. Blaise Pascal was a scientist and philosopher of the seventeenth century. In seeking to disarm religious skeptics, he penned the logic that if God does not exist, one loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, one can gain eternal life by believing in him. He then argued that belief in God is the only logical response. Although countless people have taken issue with Pascal's logic, it is nonetheless very logical. [Parade, Sept. 22, 1996, p. 20]
"When I was about age six, a tall, pale white man stumbled into my home village of Dibagat in the northern jungles of the Philippine island of Luzon. The man didn't speak our language, so our elders asked him the best they knew how, 'Why are you here?'
"'I've come to learn your language,' he said. 'I'd like to write it down and then give you God's Word in your language.' We started teaching this man, Dick Roe, our language. Maybe his God could free us from the spirits."
"When I was about thirteen, Dick had to return to the United States to raise support for his ministry. Before he left, he translated the gospel of Mark and gave me a copy. Sitting on top of a rock, I read the gospel of Mark in my heart language. It felt like I was actually there, seeing the characters."
"The further I read, the more distressed I felt. A mob of people came to get Jesus out of the garden of Gethsemane. What did he do wrong? They accused him of all kinds of false things. They mocked him, spat on him, beat him, and took him before Pilate. Then came the scourge and the crown of thorns. It was excruciating to read that they forced him to carry a wooden cross and then nailed him to it."
"Deep in my heart, a hatred of God swelled. I shook my fist and shouted, 'I hate you, God, for being so powerless! Why should I believe in a powerless God like you?' I threw the gospel of Mark down to the rocks and started walking home. I couldn't understand why God wouldn't protect his own Son. Our headhunters defended us to the death. Because of them, no one could touch us. I wanted a god like that, someone who would protect me from the spirits that demanded we sacrifice our cows, chickens, pigs, and dogs. This God didn't even save his own Son."
"Suddenly God reached down into my heart. 'Nard, don't you understand?' I heard him say. 'That's how much I love you. I gave my Son on your behalf.' For the first time, I understood grace. I understood how much God loved me."
"'God, if you love me that much,' I prayed, 'I want to give you my life, my heart. It's all yours.' I went back and began to read further in Mark. I read that Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. Nobody in all of Dibagat, nobody from among the Isnag people, had ever risen from the grave. The resurrection story changed my life." [Nard Pugyao, Decision, "Penetrating Power," July - August 2006]
The Lord God has the ability to save all those that come to Him through Jesus, His Son.