An Antidote to Religious Extremism

I am sure like me you have been shocked at the eruption of violence in Palestine this week. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz invariably goes for the jugular with its headlines where Western media normally fear to tread. On Tuesday, for example, Haaretz ran the headline, “Israeli Settlers’ Hawara Pogrom was a Preview of Sabra and Chatila 2”  In case you were born after 1982, in  September that year, after invading Southern Lebanon, the Israeli military allowed the Lebanese Phalangist Militia to enter the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacre over 3,500 Palestinian men, women and children. Haaretz drew the comparison, “This week in the West Bank, no one stopped the extremist settlers from running amok in Hawara.” 

On Wednesday alone, 30 homes were torched, 40 cars and a fire engine burned and the hospitals filled with over 100 wounded civilians. The Guardian ran the headline “Israeli Settlers on the rampage isn’t a shock – its daily life for Palestinians in the West Bank.” 
The Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem went further pointing out, “This isn’t “loss of control” this is exactly what Israeli control looks like. The settlers carry out the attack, the military secures it, the politicians back it. It’s a synergy.” 

So where does this kind of extremism come from? Well, you don’t have to be religious to be a violent extremist but it helps. If you are searching for answers, I strongly recommend Naim Ateek’s new book, Challenging Religious Extremism, published by the Sabeel, Jerusalem. You can download a pdf copy from the Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA).  Naim writes,

What is a religious extremist? A religious extremist is a person who holds radical or fanatical religious views. These beliefs become alarming and dangerous when they are put into action. Religious extremists have different religious labels, but they share the same basic mentality and mindset. They are often very aggressive, seeking to impose their views on other people or groups, and often preach intolerance against all who disagree with their viewpoints.” (p. 1)

 The Zealots of Jesus day, just like Israeli settlers today believe,

God has given all the land of Palestine to Jews and that the Arabs/Palestinians living on the land are thieves who have stolen the land. Therefore, they believe that it is God’s will to liberate the land from the Palestinians. When they build settlements on confiscated Palestinian land, it is not an act of stealing; rather, they believe they are redeeming and sanctifying the land. They are simply transferring the land from the satanic to the divine sphere, and the use of force is permitted wherever and whenever necessary. They believe they are doing God’s work. They believe that God is with them whenever, in God’s name, they kill Palestinians.” (p. 3) 

What is the antidote to religious extremism? If you had asked someone in the 1st Century, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, based on the conversations recorded in the gospels, we know they would probably have said… get circumcised, keep the Law of Moses, keep away from sinners and Gentiles and do good works. And before we look down them, its sobering to realise that apparently the majority of Christians think something similar. 

A Barna research poll conducted in 2000 asked over a thousand people, whether “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.” 75% agreed. And a 2016 LifeWay Research survey found that over half believe good deeds help earn them a place in heaven. So what is the antidote? Our Epistle today, Romans 4, challenges these popular assumptions head on. 

Abraham was Justified by Faith Not Works 

Religious people, especially extremists, like to boast about doing the work of God. They will even justify violence to achieve God’s purposes because they are convinced God is on their side. What does the Apostle Paul say?

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-5)

So Abraham was not justified by works but by believing in God. Paul illustrates this by contrasting a gift with wages. A gift is undeserved. Wages are deserved. A little later, Paul points out the only wage we deserve is not eternal life but eternal death! 

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). 

So asking God for your wages is not a good idea. Abraham was justified by faith not works. 

Abraham was Justified by Faith not Circumcision

“Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. (Romans 4:9-11)

Let that sink in. We often encounter religious leaders in the Gospels who claimed Abraham was their father. They were God’s chosen people. Circumcision set them apart from the Gentiles, the pagan sinners. But Paul reminds them Abraham was justified by God before he was circumcised, indeed while he was still a Gentile names Abram!  Circumcision was, like Baptism is for Christians, merely an outward sign of an inward faith. Neither circumcision nor baptism saves us. Only Jesus can save us. 

Abraham was justified by faith not works. 
Abraham was justified by faith not circumcision.

Abraham was Justified by Grace Not Law 

“It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. (Romans 4:13-14)

Religious extremists typically believe they have an exclusive right to God’s blessings (including land) because they keep His Laws. Paul contradicts that by pointing out that Abraham was declared right with God, 400 years before the Law was even given. 
The Law couldn’t save anyone. The law merely exposed sin and the need for sacrifice, the need for a Saviour. Paul rebukes their religious pride and boasting. Then Paul reminds them,

“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” (Romans 4:16-17)

God promised Abraham he would be the father of many nations, indeed people drawn from every language, tribe and nation. Being God’s ‘Chosen People’ had nothing to do with genetics. Being a Jew was never restricted to those descended from Abraham.

This was true even in the Old Testament. Esther 8:17, for example, tells us that many people of other nationalities became Jews. The term ‘Jew’ therefore simply meant someone who believed in the one true God. If we trust in Jesus we are members of God’s ‘Chosen People’. There is absolutely no biblical justification for racial supremacy, exclusivism, segregation or apartheid among God’s people. 

Like Abraham we are all justified by faith not works. 
Like Abraham we are all justified without being circumcised.
Like Abraham we are all justified by grace, not law or race.

The antidote to religious extremism, and indeed any form of self-righteousness, is the saving work of Jesus. 

Time for some application. Let me give you a test to see if you have been listening. If you were to die tonight (which is not an entirely hypothetical possibility – given there is a 100% guaranteed certainty you will die one day), when you get to heaven, if God asks you “Why should I let you in to heaven?” what are you going to say?  

I go to church
I’ve been baptised
I take communion
I read the Bible
I’ve keep the Ten Commandments
I give to charity
I’m a good person

Let me assure you, none of these is the correct answer. If your reply begins with the word “I” it is the wrong answer. 

The correct answer to every question you might be asked is Jesus. Because Jesus is the antidote for sin. Jesus is our Mediator, our Lord and Saviour. The antidote to religious extremism? The same antidote to all religious practises. Ephesians 2:8-9,

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We are saved by grace – we don’t deserve it, we cannot earn it, we must just receive it as a free gift. Like Abraham, we cannot be saved by our works, by circumcision, by baptism, by keeping the law of Moses or least of all being able to trace our ancestry back to Abraham. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in our Lord Jesus Christ.  As we see in our Gospel reading today from John 3, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion:

  1. Why does Paul choose Abraham as his main example of justification?
  2. How does Paul show that Abraham was justified by faith rather than works? 
  3. What is the difference between a gift and wages?
  4. What promises were made to Abraham?
  5. What does Paul draw from the fact that Abraham was justified long before he was circumcised?
  6. What would this have embarrassed his Jewish opponents?
  7. On what three points does Paul base his assertion that God’s promise to Abraham was received and inherited by faith, not law?
  8. How are we made right with God?
  9. On what basis are we made right with God? 
  10. In what way are we part of the fulfilment of the promises God made to Abraham?

Recommended Reading:

St. Helen’s: Read, Mark, Learn Romans (Christian Focus)
John Stott: The Message of Romans, The Bible Speaks Today (IVP)
Charles Swindoll: Coming to Terms with Sin: A Study of Romans 1-5 (Word)
Warren Wiersbe: Romans Be Right (Scripture Press)

An Invitation

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“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)