C-Grade Religion

For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings (Hosea 6:6).

In school we always had that one class: it featured a subject in which we had little interest, which we perhaps did not understand well, and/or we just did not get into for some reason or another. In that class we would do just enough work to get a passing grade; we would be content with a C as long as we could get out of that course or subject and never have to worry about it again.

This same attitude unfortunately proves pervasive in the world. In so many realms of life people seem more than content to do the least amount possible, to just scrape by, to do just enough to maintain competency or effectiveness but no more. We can consider such things as reflecting C-grade effort: people doing what they do in order to satisfy a requirement, to fulfill a demand, or placate a superior so they can go and do whatever they really want or at least get others off their back.

A C-grade mentality seems to define most of human religion throughout time. It was certainly manifest in Israel. YHWH, through the prophet Hosea, spoke of how He wished to heal His people Israel (Hosea 5:13-6:3). Israel’s and Judah’s love for YHWH was ephemeral, enduring for a moment and then fading away (Hosea 6:4). YHWH wanted goodness, not sacrifice; knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).

The sacrificial cult in Israel proved a magnet for C-grade religion. Israel understood it needed to offer the sacrifices YHWH expected and to observe the festivals He set forth, and they did so. They were then satisfied: they had done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. YHWH should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they needed Him.

C-grade religion remains extremely popular to this day. People recognize their need for some religion in life, and so they seek opportunities to satisfy the bare minimum necessary to maintain standing before God. The assembly and its acts prove a magnet for C-grade religion. Not a few believe that as long as they assemble on Sunday morning and perform the five acts, all is well. They have done their duty. They performed the bare minimum. God should be content; He should leave them alone to do their thing; He should be there for them when they need Him.

Hosea displayed the fundamental problem with C-grade religion in Hosea 6:6: it treats YHWH like the pagan gods and thereby fundamentally rejects His true nature and purpose. Israel in Hosea’s day was thoroughly paganized; on account of this YHWH was about to bring the Assyrians upon them in judgment (Hosea 4:1-7:16). They believed YHWH was the God of Israel; they also believed that other gods were the gods of the nations, Baal deserved service, and so forth (cf. Hosea 1:2-3:5). People in the ancient Near Eastern and Classical worlds were not expected to love their gods or pattern their lives after them. The gods were supernatural beings who could be benevolent or malevolent; they were to be placated, satisfied, or appealed to, not emulated or necessarily loved. Pagans were content to offer sacrifices to their gods to placate them so they would be left alone to live their lives; if they experienced some distress they expected to be able to provide an extra sacrifice and appeal to cajole the relevant god into helping them. To love any god, or to expect any of the gods to love you, would be a bridge too far.

Yet YHWH expected to have a far different relationship with Israel. YHWH loved Israel and had entered into an exclusive covenant with her (cf. Hosea 1:1-3:5). YHWH set forth instruction to lead Israel in the right way; Israel was to know her God and manifest His character. Such is why YHWH would rather have had mercy and knowledge of Him over sacrifices and burnt offerings: if Israelites really knew who YHWH was, and acted like Him, they would demonstrate the strength of their covenant relationship. To believe that requisite sacrifices were enough to placate YHWH demonstrated a complete lack of real understanding about YHWH and His desires for Israel; Israel acted as if she wanted to go her own way and have YHWH leave her alone (cf. Hosea 6:7-7:16). YHWH would allow Israel to do so; once YHWH left Israel alone, she could not withstand her enemies, and was overcome.

C-grade religion remains fundamentally pagan in nature. C-grade religion presumes that God is to be placated and satisfied by doing certain things, and so a person should do the bare minimum so God will leave him or her alone to do their thing. C-grade religion really is worldliness masquerading as piety: a person recognizes they have spiritual problems, some kind of spiritual wound, and may sincerely want to do something about it, but they are not willing to fully repent and be conformed to the standards of holiness and righteousness. They want to do just enough to get by and no more. They do not really want to leave the world and its desires; they want to find a way to remain as they are but not feel spiritual guilt or pain.

C-grade religion is a fool’s errand, ignorant of the nature of God and His purposes accomplished in Jesus. God does not desire our assembling and service to be placated; God wants us to know Him and be like Him. God sent His Son, the express image of His character, so we could know who He is and what He is like (John 1:1, 14, 18, 14:6). God loves us and desires for us to love Him (John 3:16, 1 John 4:7-21): we have been separated from God by our sin, corrupted in nature, and God wants us to be reconciled to Him so we can learn to be like Him and thus be one with God as God is one within Himself (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-21).

If we have truly come to know God as made known in Jesus, we will have no tolerance for C-grade religion. The God Who Is cannot be merely placated and satisfied so as to give people space to go their own way; the God Who Is manifests unity in relationship and desires to have humans made in His image reconciled back to Him in relationship. To know God in Christ is to recognize the imperative of being holy as God is holy, to love God and others as God has loved us (1 Peter 1:13-22). To know God in Christ is to die to self, to be crucified with Christ, so we can turn away from the futile ways of the world and find life indeed in Jesus (Galatians 2:20, Philippians 3:7-14).

Pagans practiced C-grade religion and were condemned (Romans 1:18-32). Israelites practiced C-grade religion, proved to be as pagans, and suffered the fate of pagans (Hosea 6:6ff). C-grade religion remains pagan to this day; it may be tempting, but its end is death. If we wish to find salvation and wholeness we will have to die to self and live to God; we will have to turn aside from the world and our vain imagination and conform to the image of Christ. We will have to know who God is as manifest in Christ and embody His character. Let us find eternal life in Jesus and conform to His image so we may share in relational unity with God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Sacrifice

For Christ entered not into a holy place made with hands, like in pattern to the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place year by year with blood not his own; else must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:24-26).

For people today, perhaps one of the strangest and most foreign aspects of the Old Testament is the sacrificial system. Much of Leviticus is devoted to descriptions of various animal sacrifices: what to offer, when to offer it, why to offer it, how it should be offered, and so on and so forth. Many can become quite indignant about the whole matter: why do the poor animals have to suffer? What did they do so as to deserve such a fate?

Then again, the concept of sacrificing animals before a deity is not just found in Israel; it seems that almost all ancient societies engaged in animal sacrifices before their gods. Some, like the Babylonians, did so believing the gods would be fed through the process; if they stopped making sacrificial offerings, their gods would starve! Others believed that whereas their gods had their own food, the smell of the sacrifices would lead the gods to be kindly disposed toward those offering them.

What is the point of all of these sacrifices? We might not clearly understand the idea of animal sacrifices, but we understand what “sacrifice” is. Sacrifice entails giving up something: a suffering of loss. We talk about sacrificing some time or money for a particular person or cause; we frequently hear about those who died in war as having sacrificed everything for their country.

The idea of sacrifice as suffering loss explains animal (and grain) sacrifices in the Old Testament: it represents some level of suffering loss for God. Many such sacrifices were memorial: the first of the grain harvests and the firstborn animals would be sacrificed as a way of thanking God for the blessings of life. Yet when it comes to sin offerings, the sacrifice is not to thank God but as a request for atonement and cleansing from sin (cf. Leviticus 17:11).

This sacrifice for sin was designed for the instruction of Israel: it was costly, requiring the suffering of loss of an important piece of their property (their animal), and provided a means by which Israel could understand the mechanism of atonement. The animal’s life was given so that the one offering the animal could receive atonement, or cleansing, from their sin. This is made evident in the yearly day of atonement for Israel as described in Leviticus 16:1-34.

The Hebrew author spends much time describing the limitations of the Israelite system, especially in regards to the sacrificial system. The priests who took the offerings and presented them before God were themselves imperfect; the blood of animals could not really take away sin; animals had to be continually offered (Hebrews 7:11-28, 9:1-22, 10:1-4). But then the Hebrew author explains how Jesus of Nazareth was the ideal Priest and King: He did not offer the blood of animals but His own blood; His unique sacrifice only needed to be accomplished once in order to be efficacious for all; He was perfect and sinless in life (Hebrews 7:26-28, 9:23-27). Jesus, therefore, is the ultimate sacrifice.

Jesus suffered great loss on our behalf: all the agony He experienced through His arrest, trial, scourging, and crucifixion were not on account of His own sin or any wrong He had done (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25). He willingly suffered the loss of His life for those whom He loved (1 John 3:16). God the Father was willing to allow such an offering because of His great love for us (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11).

Animal sacrifices, therefore, pointed to the challenges of mankind which God addressed powerfully through His Son Jesus. Animal sacrifices are no longer necessary because of what Jesus accomplished; in fact, to think to offer animals again would be rather insulting, in a sense trivializing what God has accomplished for us through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son. But just because we do not offer animal sacrifices does not mean that we should no longer sacrifice; quite the contrary! Since God has suffered so much loss for us, we should be motivated to become living sacrifices for Him (Romans 12:1). As Jesus was crucified as a sin offering to atone for our sin, so we should reckon ourselves as crucified with Christ, no longer living for ourselves, but having Christ live in and through us (Galatians 2:20). It can no longer be enough to just suffer the loss of an animal, some other prized object, money, or any other thing; we must freely give of ourselves, mind, body, and soul, for Him and His purposes (Colossians 3:17).

Jesus was the sacrifice to atone for our iniquity and to overcome our deficiencies. We did not deserve it and never will; we should be thankful and be willing to suffer the loss of all things for the Lord. Let us praise and glorify God because He has provided the necessary sacrifice for our sin, and subject ourselves and our will to His!

Ethan R. Longhenry