A lot of attention has been paid to Jefferson Bethke's video why i hate religion, but love jesus. Jefferson is a great, humble, teachable brother who loves the gospel. But the response to his video has been varied. Many love it. Others hate it. And still others have raised a caution flag-uncomfortable with the way "religion" is often contrasted with the gospel.
Wary of the trend amongst younger evangelicals to justify their jettisoning of the institutional church and theological traditions in favor of a vague, individualistic, a-theological, a-historical, version of modern licentious spirituality by saying "All of that other stuff is religion…and Jesus hates religion", is a point of contention for those who questioned the fruitfulness of Jefferson's video. If that's what people think when they hear the word "religion", then I understand the concern. I too am concerned by the individualistic, church despising, "moralistic therapeutic deism" that seems so palatable and popular amongst some younger evangelicals today.
But, the distinction between religion and the gospel that Jefferson makes does raise some important questions. For example, in the Bible, is the word "religion" ever opposed to the gospel? Or, is the main idea of "religion" opposed to the main idea of the gospel? What about what people hear when they hear the word "religion"? Do they hear the word and understand something different than what the Bible says about the gospel? Good questions. Obviously words have their meaning in context and thankfully Jefferson provided context for his use of the word "religion" in the video by writing on his website:
[This is] a poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion. In the scriptures Jesus received the most opposition from the most religious people of his day. At it's core Jesus' gospel and the good news of the Cross is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification. Religion is man centered, Jesus is God-centered. This poem highlights my journey to discover this truth.
Regardless of what you think about the video, Jefferson's definition of "religion" above and Tim Keller's definition of "religion" below does highlight a crucial distinction between "religion" and the gospel (a distinction that, ironically, even those who raised concerns about the video agree with).
Justifying the contrast between religion and the gospel, Tim Keller has pointed out that the Greek word for "religion" used in James 1 is used negatively in Colossians 2:18 where it describes false asceticism, fleshly works-righteousness, and also in Acts 26:5 where Paul speaks of his pre-Christian life in strict "religion." It is also used negatively in the Apocrypha to describe idol worship in Wisdom 14:18 and Wisdom 14:27. So, according to Keller, the word certainly has enough negative connotations to use as a fair title for the category of works-righteousness. In the Old Testament the prophets are devastating in their criticism of empty ritual and religious observances designed to bribe and appease God rather then serving, trusting, and loving him. The word "religion" isn't used for this approach, but it's a good way to describe what the prophets are condemning.