If we polled the average person in America, asking them to identify what they consider to be the most dangerous religion in the world, we would undoubtedly hear a variety of answers. The answers might include Islam, various cults, or even Satanism. Certainly everyone has their perspectives and their reasons. I’m going to argue that the most dangerous religion in the world is that which looks just like Christianity but, in fact, is not Christianity at all.
The Christian Veneer
The apostle Paul is writing his last letter to his young disciple Timothy and, in chapter 3, is warning him about false Christianity. He tells him,
“…in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” (2 Timothy 3:1b-4)
Read that list again. Does it look familiar? It should, because it’s happening now! And not just from “secular” people but from those who call themselves Christians! Somehow this generation has managed to create a Christian brand that looks, smells, and feels Christian, but lacks every genuine mark of true Christianity. And various church groups who perpetuate this brand even use legitimate language such as “love”, “God”, “service”, “stewardship”, “Jesus”, “gospel”, “mission”, etc.
However, the perpetrators of this scheme are said to be “holding a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). In other words, they look legit, but have no semblance of the Holy Spirit in them.
They are fake.
Led to the Slaughter
Similarly, in Matthew 23, Jesus is confronting the ultra-religious Pharisees who appear to have a shiny, clean exterior, but “inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (v. 25) and “all uncleanness” (v. 27). The problem is that, in their hypocrisy and false religion, they were converting people into their dead religion. Jesus said,
“…you travel about on sea and land to make one [convert]; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!”
Jesus tells them that in their zeal to evangelize, they’re actually sending people to hell! This is the danger of false Christianity.
Marks of True Christianity
The apostle John writes a letter to the church answering the general question: “How do I know I’m a Christian?” While John alludes to the Gospel, the purpose of the letter is to identify markers, the genuine fruit of salvation.
1. Do you recognize that you have sinned against God and need forgiveness?
True Christians are the most woeful people on the planet because they mourn their sin against God. Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). While we are to be joyful, a Christian who does not recognize their own sinful condition cannot be genuine because “if we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:10). However, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9).
2. Do you keep God’s commandments?
The legalistic Jewish Pharisees assumed that by keeping God’s commandments, they were saved, but it’s the other way around. Jesus said, in John 14:15, “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” A genuine love for God produces a desire to obey Him and please Him.
3. Do you love other people, especially Christians?
Very plainly, John says “the one who says he is in the light [in God] and yet hates his brother is in the darkness” (1 Jn 2:9). Christians don’t hate people. Whenever Christians picket a funeral with hate-filled signs, red lights from 1 John should go off in our heads. In John 13:34, Jesus said “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
4. Do you reject worldliness and hate sin?
John explicitly says “do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2:15). When he says “world”, he doesn’t mean the people or the planet, but the things in the world that are sinful. There are “worldly” systems that are generally accepted that Christians are to reject (e.g. greed, pornography, drunkenness, self-centeredness, etc.). True Christians seek to live lives that are holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2).
5. Do you love God?
This point is pervasive throughout 1 John as well as the rest of the Bible, but it’s not enough to believe in God or fear Him. True Christians genuinely love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength (cf. Deut 6:4).
Certainly, there are more markers of the Christian life, but these ones are the big, nonnegotiable markers.
Ephesians 2:8 says “by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Paul is making a bold statement here. He is saying that Christian salvation is by grace (a free gift) “through faith” (in Jesus Christ) and that it is “not of yourselves”, meaning that you can’t earn it. No amount of charity work, giving, serving, honesty, kindness, benevolence, religious practices, recited prayers, penance, or good deeds can earn or merit salvation.
It doesn’t start with us.
We have sinned against God and rendered ourselves worthy of death, but God, in an act of love, came to earth and wrapped Himself in a human body (Jesus of Nazareth), died in our place, thus earning us forgiveness and eternal life. The only response on our part is a two-sided coin of repentance and faith. In other words, we realize that we’re lost and trust in Jesus to rescue us.
The rest of the Christian life consists of living in response to what God has already done, and hoping in the future.
When Christian churches and teachers neglect to explain true salvation (the Gospel) and instead instruct their people to “do good things”, they are preaching moralism. Moralism looks Christian (“a form of godliness”) but has absolutely no ability to save anyone (“but has denied its power”). Salvation comes to us when we realize that we have rebelled against God and without Him are doomed. Further, we then embrace Jesus’ death on the Cross as our own and believe in Him as the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) Salvation is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, according to the Word of God alone, and to the glory of God alone.
Anything that adds requirements to faith, or that takes away from the fullness of Christ– no matter how Christian-looking it is– is something entirely unChristian, and dangerous.