Q&A with Donavon Riley for "Crucifying Religion"

The following is a Question and Answer session with author and pastor Donavon Riley where we talk about his latest book, “Crucifying Religion: How Jesus is the End of Religion”.

1. What initially prompted you to write this book?

After twenty plus years in the Christian church, I wanted to write about my experience as a convert who became a pastor. I hope that my struggles can help those who are in doubt about God, confused about Jesus, and have been hurt by the church.

2. In the introduction, you talk about how you read ‘holy book after holy book’ but found no relief until you read about Jesus. How was Jesus different than the other people you were reading about?

Unlike the other religions I’ve studied, the Bible claims that Jesus does all the work of overcoming and rescuing us from sin, death, and hell. Our faithfulness and love for God don’t earn us salvation but, as 1 John 4:10 testifies: “He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” He is the God who “did not come to be served, but to serve,” and the Savior who “comes to seek and save the lost.”

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of “religionless Christianity” and a later time in which religion would prove to be fundamentally irrelevant. How do you respond to this idea? In what ways would you agree/disagree with what he is saying?

First, we must ask, “What does he mean by religion?” Second, what makes Christianity “Christian”? The direction of “religion” (the type I talk about crucifying in my book) is always from us to God. We offer up to God the sacrifices of our time, money, and attention. Then, depending on the sincerity and purity of our offerings (or lack of offerings), God will reward or punish us. Religion is primarily a sacrificial system through which we attempt to appease God’s judgment and win His approval. Christianity, on the other hand, is founded on the confession that Christ Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus offered Himself as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. If the direction of religion is from us to God, then the direction of Christianity is from God to us. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. In this way, “religionless Christianity” can help the church clarify it’s confession and mission so that we remain focused on Christ crucified for us rather than on our sacrifices to God.

If the direction of religion is from us to God, then the direction of Christianity is from God to us.

4. In your book, you talk about how you fell in love with the works of Martin Luther. How did he impact your view of Christ? And our relationship with Him?

I fell in love with Martin Luther when I read his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism. As a convert, I did not want to become “religious” or join a Christian church. Thus, I often found myself in conflict with some Christian laity and ministers who insisted that to be a Christian, there were many things I needed to fulfill God’s will for my life. The implication was that without these things, not only would God not forgive me, I would stand under His righteous judgment. Since I did not want to become a Christian, and their argument seemed to me to contradict what I read in the Bible about Jesus’ suffering and death, His great love for me a sinner, and His grace and mercy which are new to me each morning, I eventually assumed there was something wrong with me. Then I read Luther’s Catechism, where he writes:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith, etc.

This was the first thing I’d read by another Christian that seemed to be written just for me, to put to rest my doubts and confusion. From then on, I vowed to follow Luther wherever he wanted to take me so long as he continued to point me to the above confession of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, and so on.

5. It is often stated and believed that Christianity is a religion. How does Jesus get lost in the shuffle when we treat Christianity like one more religion in the marketplace of ideas?

As I wrote above, Jesus does not come to give us a better set of religious rules than are recorded in the Old Testament as regards temple worship. Instead, when Jesus dies, the temple curtain is torn apart. The old system of sacrifice is finished. As he said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father”(John 4:21). True, godly worship is about what God does for us; it’s not about what we do for God. To that end, when we go to church on Sunday, we don’t go to “put in our God time.” Instead, we are gathered by God’s Spirit to receive His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Jesus does it all for us in simple earthly words, water, bread, and wine where He acts as Giver and gift so that we may receive from Him comfort and peace. Through his sacrificial work on the cross, we are reconciled to God and each other.

6. You mention in your book a question you had early on while attending Christian churches: “Was there such a thing as worship done right?” Can you talk us through the development of this question and what answers you found along the way?

Similar to what I wrote in questions three and six, what I encountered (and still experience) when I joined Christians in worship was a time that was primarily focused on us Christians. Jesus functioned as an example of godly faith and obedience, but the main thrust of the sermon, bible studies, singing, prayer, and conversation was about what we Christians were doing to prove to God (and each other) that we were true Christians. The subtext of worship was focused on what we did for God, rather than on what Jesus did for us. It wasn’t worship done right because it could have substituted the name of any deity for Jesus and the sermon, Bible studies, singing, prayer, and conversation could have remained unchanged. If worship isn’t wholly about Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sinners - what God does for us - then it isn’t worship “done right.”

7. One of your chapters is titled, “Freedom: The Most Vulgar Word.” How did you come to understand freedom differently as a Christian?

Christian freedom is a fruit of Christ’s forgiveness. It sets us free from worry and anxiety about what God thinks about us. We don’t have to worry about God’s will for our life, His attitude toward us, or whether we will be judged and damned because the answer to all these worries is Jesus! Jesus, as Paul writes, is God’s “yes” to the world’s “no.” Set free from fear about God’s attitude toward us, we are also set free from having to prove through our works that we are worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness. Instead, we can take comfort in knowing that we are instruments of the Holy Spirit. In our vocations, the Spirit produces His fruit in and through us for our benefit and the benefit of our neighbor.

In our vocations, the Spirit produces His fruit in and through us for our benefit and the benefit of our neighbor.

8. If you could go back and speak with your 23-year old self now, what might you say?

It’s difficult for you now, and it always will be. It’s not going to get any better for you for a long time. But sobriety is going to come. It will be a lot of hard work. It will be worth it. You will meet a wonderful Christian woman who is just as messed up as you but stick with her because she’s a gift to you. Your children are amazing. God will use them to draw so much love out of you, so much more than you think you have in you to give. It’s always going to be dark and difficult. That’s just the way the world is, but life will get better for you in relation to Jesus. You will continue to be hurt and betrayed by Christian brothers and sisters. They will try to make you feel unwelcome in their churches. They will attack you and try to ruin your name and reputation. They will pray for you to fall, but it won’t happen. God will send you people here and there to preach to you, walk with you, carry you when you fall. He will make you stronger than you can imagine. Stronger in faith, love, kindness, thoughtfulness, so much you can’t understand now. But, it will all come in time. So cling to Christ and the gifts. Demand the Gospel. Be careful about who you trust and who you let in. And finally, you will learn Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai! Jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai are amazing. They will help you overcome many of your fears and make you a stronger, kinder, humbler, and more thoughtful person. There is so much amazing stuff that’s going to happen to you, so hold on. Stop with the suicide attempts. You’ll never get it right anyway. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here telling you. Your life is a gift, and the older you get, the more God will reveal this truth to you. The love you crave is coming. It’s already here. Focus on Jesus. Just focus on Jesus and pray he keeps you out of your own way!

9. Is there any advice or thoughts you would share with the reader as they approach this book?

Even when we are faithless, Jesus is faithful because He can’t betray Himself. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that lies to you. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s all about what you do for God that makes you a good Christian. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not worthy of God’s love, because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. And likewise, He loves you and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for your sins. Jesus forgives you. His blood covers all your sin. You are freed from shame, guilt, fear, and blame. YOU’RE FREE to believe and love, doubt and make a mess of your life, and ask for forgiveness and receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name. You are that free. Today and always.

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