The True Number of Religions in the World


The number of religions in the world has been variously estimated. We commonly speak of four different religions: Christian, Jewish, Mohammedan, and pagan. While such an enumeration may be employed in common speech, it must never be forgotten that in the final analysis all religions must be reduced to two classes: religions of the Law, that is, religions which endeavor to reconcile the Deity by works of the Law; and the religion of the Gospel, that is, the belief, divinely wrought and engendered by the Holy Ghost through the means of grace, that God has been reconciled to the sinner without any works on his part, through the vicarious atonement of Christ Jesus, and that salvation is thus God’s free gift, appropriated by the sinner through faith in Christ Jesus. 

This division of religions into two distinct and mutually exclusive groups is truly in accordance with Scripture. Holy Writ acknowledges as true religion only that which teaches that the sinner is saved through faith in Christ. It distinctly declares it to be the mission of the Christian Church to displace all man-made religions and to establish throughout the world the religion of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Lord’s Great Commission reads : “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned,” Mark 16, 15. 16. To St. Paul the glorified Savior said: I am sending thee to the Gentiles “to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God that they may receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me,” Acts 26, 17. 18. According to this express statement of Holy Writ all who do not believe the Gospel are kept in darkness and in the power of Satan, from which they can be delivered only through sanctification by faith. 

Thus the Word of God recognizes only the Christian religion as true and as capable of bringing salvation to men; it alone deserves the name of religion since it alone reunites sinful man with God. If man-made forms of worship are called religions, this term is applied to them in an improper sense, just as idols are termed “Gods” although in reality they are not Gods. Since this is the case, it is impossible to find a general religious concept or definition by which all religions existing in the world, both the true and the false, may be grouped in a single class. Christianity, by its very origin, does not belong in the category of man-made religions. All who deny this and maintain that such a general religious concept or definition can be established overlook the essential difference between the religion of Christ and religions of human origin. Religion has been defined as “the personal relation of man to God.” This definition, it has been asserted, is broad enough to include both the Christian religion and the pagan religions. 

However, its inadequacy becomes apparent as we begin to analyze “man’s relation to God.” Since all men are sinners, their relation to God by nature is that of fear and despair and, consequently, of hatred toward God. This miserable condition is attested both by Scripture and experience. According to the clear teaching of God’s Word all men who are not born again through faith in Christ are “without Christ,” “have no hope,” and are “without God in the world,” Eph. 2, 12. In spite of their earnest endeavors to reconcile God by their works they continue in their fear and hopelessness; for they remain under the curse and condemnation of the divine Law. This fact St. Paul asserts when he writes: “As many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse,” Gal. 3, 10. The same apostle declares also that “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to devils and not to God,” 1 Cor.10, 20. In short, as long as a person is without faith in Christ, his personal relation to God is a relation of dread, despair, and hopelessness and therefore also of enmity against God, Rom. 8, 7. 

However, the personal relation to God changes as soon as a person becomes a child of God through faith in Christ; then he obtains “a good conscience,” 1 Pet. 3, 21, the assurance of divine grace, the conviction that his sins are forgiven, and the inestimable hope of eternal life. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new,” 2 Cor. 5, 17. St. Paul describes this blessed relationship in beautiful terms Rom. 5, 1. 2, where he writes: “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” And again, v. 11: “We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” The believer’s personal relation to God is therefore the very opposite of the personal relation to God which is found in the unbeliever; it is a relation of peace, joy, and happiness. 

Again, religion has been defined as “the method of worshiping God.” This definition is quite adequate as far as the Christian religion is concerned, but as a definition of religion in general it is woefully inadequate, since all non-Christian religions are certainly not “methods of worshiping God.” True worship of God is possible only through faith in Christ, as our Lord emphatically tells us when He declares: “All men should honor the Son even as they  honor the Father. He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father, which hath sent Him,” John 5, 23. Every “worship of God” without Christ dishonors God; therefore, far from being worship of God, it is in reality blasphemy and opposition to God. 

Indeed, it is devil-worship, as St. Paul declares: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to devils and not to God,” 1 Cor. 10, 20. In these words the apostle affirms in no uncertain terms that the heathen cannot worship the true God. Though they be ever so earnest in their endeavor to placate their deities, their worship is a service of devils. The reason for this is clear. All non-Christian religions err with regard to the object as well as to the method of worship. The heathen worship objects that are not divine and thus give the glory belonging to God to another and His praise to graven images, Is. 42, 8.

Such blasphemous worship is an abomination in the sight of God and therefore the very opposite of true worship. But the non-Christian religions are in error also with respect to the method of worship. Since the heathen are ignorant of the divine Savior of men and therefore do not know that they must trust in Him for salvation, they seek to quiet their consciences whenever these are aroused to a consciousness of sin and guilt, and to reconcile the objects of their worship, by good works. But reliance on good works for justification offends God and provokes Him to anger. “As many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse,” Gal. 3, 10. That is God’s verdict, His own condemnation of a worship offered to Him on the basis of human merit. 

In short, religion in general cannot be defined as “the method of worshiping God”; for that definition is applicable only to the Christian religion, not to any other. This fact has been decisively asserted by our Lutheran dogmaticians. Hollaz writes: “Religion, improperly speaking, signifies the false; properly speaking, the true method of worshiping God.” (Doctr. Theol., p. 22.) 

This distinction is as vital as it is correct. Recently religion has been defined also as “the endeavor of man to secure, supplement, and perfect personal and social life with the aid of a higher, supernatural power.” This endeavor, the German theologian Kirn avers, is common to all religions, so that it supplies us with a general concept for the definition of religion. However, this definition applies only to the religions of the Law, or the non-Christian religions, which certainly endeavor to “secure, supplement, and perfect personal life” through human efforts and works. It is the common denominator of all religions outside of Christianity; the erroneous opinion that a man must save himself by good deeds (opinio legil) is inherent by nature in all men. 

The Christian religion, however, differs radically from this false notion. In fact, from beginning to end it is a protest against the false doctrine that a man must “secure, supplement, and perfect life” by his own efforts. It rejects altogether the doctrine of work-righteousness and establishes as its prime and basic principle the fact that a sinner is justified by grace alone, without the deeds of the Law. It is largely because of this vast divergence between the Christian religion and the religions of work-righteousness that the Gospel of Christ is a stumbling-block to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek, 1 Cor. 1, 23; 2, 14. Man, blinded by sin, does not desire a way to salvation that is purely by grace, through faith in a divine Savior.

It is evident from the foregoing that Christianity, since it is the only true religion, dare not be placed in the same class with man-made religions. There is no general religious concept or definition that embraces the distinctive tenets of Christianity and of the man-made religions; Christianity is quite in a class by itself. It alone is the true religion, while all the others are counterfeit; and just as little as counterfeit coin is real money, so little can man-made religions substantiate their claim of being real religions. If the term religion is applied to them, it is done in a wholly improper sense. If we do designate them as “religions,” we do it in the same sense in which we term counterfeit coins “money” or in which Holy Scripture applies to the heathen idols the term “gods”. The application of the name in this case never means that the object thus designated is in reality that which the name expresses. The heathen idols are not Gods, nor are the heathen forms of worship religions in the true sense of the term. 

Quenstedt accordingly writes (I, 28) : “The term religion is used either improperly and falsely (abusive) or properly. Improperly and falsely it is used for false religion, namely, for the heathen, the Mohammedan, and the Jewish religions, in which sense Calixtus, in the Theological Apparatus, treats of the diverse religions of the world, in spite of the fact that there is only one true religion, namely, the Christian.” In keeping with this doctrine our Lutheran dogmaticians never sought a general religious concept or definition to comprehend both the Christian and the non-Christian religions, but placed the Christian religion in a class by itself as the only religion and classed all others as false and as unworthy of the name. This classification alone is Scriptural. But here the objection has been raised that the old orthodox dogmaticians were devoid of an adequate psychological, philosophical, and historical understanding of the various non-Christian religions and that for this reason it is clear why they failed to appreciate these forms of worship.

This lack of appreciation, it is maintained, has been supplied by modern research work in the psychology of religion, the philosophy of religion, and in comparative religion (Religionsgeschichte). Yet, as we shall see, even the results of these investigations do not disprove the correctness of the old dual division of religions into the true and the false. 

Modern religious psychology endeavors to point out “the similarity of the psychological phenomena” (die Gleichartigkeit tler psychologischen Erscheinungen) found in both the Christian religion and the non-Christian religions. This similarity, it is said, was overlooked by the older theologians, and their inability to find a general concept or definition to cover both the Christian religion and the non-Christian religions is attributable to this fact. 

However, we may state in reply to this charge that, after all, the psychological phenomena of the Christian religion and of the non Christian religions are not similar at all; in fact, essentially they are diametrically opposed to each other. In the heart of the non Christian we commonly find such “psychological phenomena” as the consciousness of guilt, an accusing and condemning conscience, fear of punishment, flight from God, and an inward hatred of Him -and all these coupled with the constant desire to placate the Deity by good works. But since good works cannot reconcile God, we find in addition the “psychological phenomena” of terror of death, hopelessness, and despair. These “psychological phenomena” are clearly attested by Holy Scripture, Eph. 2, 12: ”having no hope”; Heb. 2, 15: “who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” 

The candid confessions of honest and earnest heathen thinkers emphatically confirm what Holy Scripture teaches on this point; they all re-echo the tragic note of spiritual despair as they contemplate human sinfulness and guilt. However, in the soul of the believing child of God we find the very opposite “psychological phenomena,” such as the consciousness of guilt removed and of sin forgiven, peace with God (Rom. 5, 1-3), filial love of God and implicit trust in His grace, triumph over death, and the sure hope of eternal life. And all these “psychological phenomena” are combined with the consecrated desire to serve God in deed and in truth, out of heartfelt gratitude for His unmerited gift of grace. Gal. 2, 20: “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” St. Paul affirms the diversity of the “psychological phenomena” which he experienced before and after his conversion. He writes, 1 Cor. 15, 9. 10: “I persecuted the Church of God; but by the grace of God I am what I am.” 

Furthermore, in order to assure his readers of the blessedness of their Christian calling, he continually directs their attention to the diversity of the “psychological experiences” which they had undergone, first as benighted heathen and afterward as enlightened Christians. Eph. 2, 5 : “Even when we were dead in sins, hath [He] quickened us together with Christ.” Cf. Eph. 2, 11-22; 1 Cor. 12, 2. 27; etc.  ‘l’he similarity of the “psychological phenomena” which modern students of religious psychology assert so strongly is only a formal, not a material, similarity. Thus, both Christians and heathen engage in worship; yet how radically different is their worship in all its essentials! Christians pray, and so do the heathen; yet what a vast difference there is between the Christian and the pagan prayer! Hence religious psychology, too, cannot deny the essential difference between the Christian and the non Christian religions and must therefore admit that the dual division of religions into the true and the false is correct. 

The same holds true of the historical study of religion. Comparative religion (Religionsgeschichte) demonstrates the fact that all religions outside the Christian religion are “religions of the Law,” or “religions of works,” maintaining as their basic principle that man must earn his salvation by worthy deeds. The glad tidings of salvation by grace through faith, on the other hand, is found in the Bible only, not in any other so-called book of religion. Thus the historical study of religion also can establish no other division of religions than that of the Lutheran dogmaticians, who placed in the first group the Christian religion, which teaches salvation by grace, and in the second group all man-made religions, which teach salvation by works. “Work-religions” may differ in non-essential details, which depend on climatic, psychological, and racial factors, but they all agree in the common fundamental principle of salvation by works. 

Finally, the philosophical study of religion, or philosophy of religion, also cannot lead us beyond the dual division of religions in two distinct kinds, the one true and the other false. The student of religious philosophy can, of course, operate only with the natural knowledge of God, or the divine Law written in the heart of man. But when he does define religion on purely natural premises, that is, when he views religion wholly apart from divine revelation, his conclusion must necessarily be that religion is essentially man’s effort to reconcile God on the basis of meritorious conduct.

Thus Socrates, the greatest of Greek philosophers, although he surpassed all the others by the loftiness and sublimity of his philosophical religious ideas, nevertheless demanded that in the hour of his death a cock be sacrificed to Aesculapius. Socrates conceived the need of a savior far greater than any possible human savior; yet since the true Savior was unknown to him, he was obliged to trust in his works for salvation. Also Immanuel Kant, who is commonly regarded as the foremost religious philosopher and is still the greatest of all modern philosophers, affirmed that from the view-point of pure philosophy the essence of religion must be regarded as “morality” and that the Christian doctrine of the atonement can have no place in any speculative system of religion. Religious philosophy must therefore always conceive of religion as the effort of man to win salvation by works. Thus the dual division of religions established by Christian divines of bygone centuries must be retained even to-day. 

There is, however, a system of religious philosophy which seeks to build up its rationalistic speculations on the basis of Holy Scripture. The advocates of this type of religious philosophy admit that the revealed truths of Holy Scripture lie beyond the intellectual comprehension of man. For this reason these must be believed and accepted as true a priori. Yet the theologian should not remain satisfied with this simple act of believing. Through faith in the divine truths of revelation he must progress to their intellectual apprehension. What the ordinary believer knows by faith the theologian must understand. 

So Anselm of Canterbury, the father of medieval scholasticism, declared: “Credo, ut intelligam.” Anselm’s purpose, in a way, was laudable. He sought to meet and refute the skeptics of his time, who a priori rejected the revealed truths as false because they are unintelligible to human reason. Anselm demanded that the revealed truths should first be believed in order that they might be dialectically demonstrated and rationally understood. His underlying principle was that “a Christian through faith must progress to understanding and not through understanding to faith.” “Ohristianus per fidem debet ad intellectum proficere, non per intellectum ad fidem accedere.” The disciples of Anselm are the modern advocates of “scientific theology,” falsely so called, who, like their medieval teacher, assert that faith must be elevated to knowledge, because only in this way the Christian religion can be perceived and demonstrated as the absolute truth. 

This endeavor, however, to harmonize faith with reason is unscriptural. Jesus assures us that we shall know the truth only if we continue in His Word by faith, John 8, 31. 32. In the same spirit, St. Paul asserts that all teachers of the Church who do not adhere to the truth of Christ Jesus by simple faith are “proud, knowing nothing, but doting,” 1 Tim. 6, 3. 4. Thus both Christ and St. Paul are opposed to the endeavor of “scientific theologians” to elevate faith to knowledge and the revealed truth to a human science. The reason for this is evident. The Christian religion cannot be brought down to the level of man’s intellectual comprehension without losing its supernatural character and content. 

History shows very plainly how fatal the endeavor to “elevate” faith to knowledge has proved itself. Anselm denied the active obedience of Christ, Abelard denied His vicarious atonement, and in recent times the adherents of “scientific theology” have denied both the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and the justification of a sinner by grace, through faith in Christ. Thus both the formal and the material principles of Christianity have been denied, and the whole Christian religion has been eviscerated of its divinely revealed content. The ultimate consequence of the application of philosophy to theology is Modernism or agnosticism. 

Incidentally, also this last consideration proves the correctness of the dual division of religions into the true and the false; for the content of the Christian religion is of such a nature that it is either completely received by faith or is completely rejected, since the mysteries of revealed truth are not recognized as such by human reason. The perverted reason of man acknowledges as true only the religion of the Law, or of works, while with all its might it contends against the religion of faith. On the other hand, Holy Scripture condemns as false all religions of works, just as it declares unregenerate human reason to be blind, dead, and absolutely unable to perceive the things of the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 2, 14.

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