The Value of Religion

NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles on common contemporary viewpoints which are contrary to orthodox Christianity.

More than twenty years ago, before I became a Covenanter, I heard my pastor preach a sermon in which he advocated support of the foreign missionary enterprise on the ground that it furthers American foreign trade. I have always remembered it as a particularly plain-spoken example of the viewpoint which advocates religion for reasons which, if not purely selfish, are at any rate merely human. The matter is seldom so badly stated, but the idea that religion should be supported and promoted because of its value, either to the individual or to the community, is extremely Widespread today. The essence of this viewpoint is that it regards religion as a means to a human end: we are to be religious in order to achieve a human purpose. This may not be a selfish purpose; it may be a social purpose, and hence, from the standpoint of the individual person, unselfish; but it is a merely human purpose. The background of this view, its undisclosed (and often unrealized) major premise, is the notion that the chief end of man lies within humanity, that is, that the supreme purpose of human life is man’s own welfare.

A Prevalent Assumption

The viewpoint under discussion is so common today that multitudes of church members and large numbers of ministers take it for granted as an unquestionable axiom of religion. That religion is to be professed, practiced and promoted because of its value to humanity—to the individual and to society—seems to them to be self-evident. This prevalent assumption is reflected today in a multitude of ways. Probably very few today would venture to advocate foreign missions to further American foreign trade; that argument was offered back in the nineteen-twenties. But we meet what is essentially the same viewpoint in subtler forms. It has often been urged that we must send Christianity to Germany, Japan, etc., in order to guard against a recrudescence of militarism and a third world war. Thus religion is to be promoted for its value in ensuring international peace and security. Again, business firms in many American cities have published striking advertisements in newspapers urging readers to attend church and support religion. This appears very encouraging as a recognition, on the part of the business world, of the importance of religion. But when such advertisements are examined carefully it will be found in most instances that religion is being advocated for its human value; that is, for the benefits that it is expected to bring to individuals and to society.

Man for God – or God for Man?

Those who advocate the support or religion for its “values,” moreover, almost never speak of the real, primary benefits of the Christian religion, such as forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the wrath of God and eternal punishment, joy in the Holy Spirit, a hope that maketh not ashamed, and an inheritance of eternal glory. On the contrary, the benefits for the sake of which people are told to be religious are often at best only secondary by-products of Christianity, such as a happy home life, the attainment of personal poise and balance, the preservation of democracy and civil liberty, the solution of personal, social and economic problems, the furtherance of human “brotherhood,” and so forth. In short, what is advocated is religion for the sake of human welfare. The stress is usually on religion rather than on God; when God is mentioned, he is regarded solely from the standpoint of human welfare: the question in mind is not “How is man to glorify God?” but rather, “How can God meet man’s needs?”



This type of religious thought is so common today that a person does not need to search for it. It is impossible to walk around in the religious world without bumping into it. It forms the tacit major premise of some of the most influential pulpits and religious books and periodicals of our day. It has become so common that it is accepted as valid without question by the masses, and multitudes of church members have never had any other idea of religion than that it exists primarily for the purpose of promoting human welfare.

An Element of Truth

The viewpoint under discussion could never have become so prevalent if it were simply and wholly false. Downright and total falsehoods seldom gain wide and lasting acceptance. It is the half-truths, and subtle mixtures of truth and error, that do the most damage, and arc hardest to detect and dispose of. Like other serious religious fallacies of our day, the notion of “the value of religion” contains a certain clement of truth, from which it derives its plausibility. For religion does have a value; indeed, it has supreme value, both for the individual and for society.

But it is the paradox, or apparent contradiction, of religion that its real values accrue only to those who do not profess and practice it because of its values. Those who are “religious” because of expected benefits, personal or social, inevitably miss the real benefits of religion. On the other hand, those who are religiOUS for a higher reason than self or humanity, will reap genuine benefits both in time and in eternity.

The Word of God tells us that “godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (I Tim. 4:8), but it also states that those who suppose “that godliness is a way of gain” are “men corrupted in mind and bereft of the truth” (I Tim. 6:5, A.R.V.). Godliness brings true gain, but if we seek it for the sake of gain, then it is not true godliness.

A Subtle Error

The difference between the scriptural idea of the value of religion and the modern humanistic idea is brought out by the teaching of our Savior concerning the kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven is portrayed as the “treasure hid in a field,” and again as the “pearl of great price,” to be gained only by the sacrifice of all other assets (Matt. 13:44, 46). In the Bible the expressions “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are equivalent. While the phrase “the kingdom of God” is today a common clement in the vocabulary of humanistic religion, we should realize that in the Bible the emphasis is on its being the kingdom of God. “The kingdom of God” means the supremacy of God in the three spheres of saving power, of righteousness, and of blessedness. Thus to possess “the kingdom” is to possess God as one’s own God. to be in a covenant relation to God as his child, to have God for one’s everlasting portion. Thus to possess “the kingdom of God” is to possess the treasure of all treasures, the value of all values, beside which all else in time and eternity is worth nothing whatever. In this sense it is true that religion has value for the truly religious person. But this is very different from the sense in which “religious values” are commonly spoken of today.

The common contemporary notion of the value of religion is based on the assumption, often unconsciously held, that religion exists for the sake of human welfare, and therefore that God exists for the sake of man. The Bible truth of the value of religion, on the other hand, proceeds from the opposite principle, namely that religion exists for the sake of glorifying God, and therefore that man exists for the sake of God. This is just another way of saying that modern religious thought does not take the doctrine of creation seriously; it either denies creation in the interest of an evolutionary scheme, or else while holding creation, still fails to regard man as really a creature and therefore as existing not for himself but for God. Modern religious thought tends to regard God and man as mutually correlative, just as the terms “husband” and “wife,” or “parent” and “child,” are correlative, the one implying the other and having no existence apart from the other. Such a view of God and man cannot do justice to the Bible truth that man was created by God and therefore exists for God’s purposes and glory.

Religion an End in Itself

Religion is not a means to an end; it is itself the supreme end of human life. Religion docs not have a purpose; it is itself the purpose for which everything human exists. Religion does not exist for the sake of its “values” to human life; it is itself the reason why there is a human race at all. All of which is only another way of saying that man exists for God, not God for man. God is to be sought, known, loved and served for his own sake, not for the sake of “values” which may accrue to man—not even for the sake of the genuine values which become part of the heritage of the truly religious person. We should realize that to the truly religious person the only “value” of religion which constitutes a reason for being religious is God himself, and that even man’s enjoyment of God exists for God’s sake.

Viewed in His light, it will be seen that a great deal of present day emphasis on “religion” is really irreligious. We are dealing here, of course, only with the biblical idea of religion. not with modern man-centered concepts of religion. According to the teaching of the Bible, any view which regards man as existing for his own sake is basically irreligious. A man may go to church; he may read the Bible, pray, and have family worship in his home; he may contribute liberally to home and foreign missions; but if he regards religion as existing for the sake of human welfare, he is an irreligious person; more, such a person is really (though unconsciously) an idolater, for in his basic philosophy of life Creator and creature have changed places; he regards God from the standpoint of human welfare, instead of regarding man from the standpoint of the divine glory. A great deal of contemporary American religion, with its many organizations and its busy activities, is at bottom only the idolatry of man—worship, for it takes for granted that religion exists for its values  humanity—that is to say, that God. exists for man.

Some Scripture Statements

Besides the Scripture texts that have been cited, we may note God’s Word to Abram, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Gen. 15:1); here we see that God himself is the real reason for religion, far above and beyond any blessings that men can receive from God. All through the Bible we find the same emphasis on the divine glory as the great reason for religion, and therefore the great reason for human existence, and for everything connected with it. “Doth Job fear God for nought?” (Job 1:9) was Satan’s insinuating suggestion that Job was religious for selfish reasons; the Book of Job shows that Satan was wrong, and that Job loved God for his own sake.

“Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the strength of my heart. and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25, 26). “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31). “For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever” (Rom. 11:36). Perhaps most striking of all is the majestic presentation of the transcendence of Jehovah in the 40th chapter of Isaiah (vs. J2~31). How miserably false is the man-centered “religion” of our day in the light of this revelation of the living God: “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity” (vs. 17). Again, we read: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (Rev. 4: 11). The consistent teaching of the whole Bible is that man exists for God, which implies that religion does not exist for the sake of its “values” to human individuals or to human society.

Statements of Our Church Standards

The classic first question of the Shorter Catechism wiII immediately come to mind: “Man‘s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Here at the very beginning of the Catechism which multitudes of people have memorized, all humanistic views of the value of religion are cut off at the root. The Westminster Divines well understood the Bible’s philosophy of life. The answer cited above is a masterpiece of clear, concise statement. Note that man has one chief end, not two; therefore to enjoy God forever is not a second purpose of human life alongside the first. Glorifying God and enjoying God go together as the chief end of ma n. But note that glorifying God is mentioned first and enjoying God afterwards. Thus enjoying God, or consummate human happiness, is subordinate to glorifying God. Here again we are face to face with the paradox of religion: the person who seeks first to glorify God, will also truly enjoy God. The person who loves and serves God for his own sake will also attain true happiness. For true happiness, the enjoyment of God, is attained only by those who seek first of all to glorify God. The person who seeks happiness in itself, apart from the supreme aim of glorifying God, will never find it. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

All our church standards set forth the same view. Mention may be made of the Confession of Faith, II. 2, “God is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom and to whom are all things. To him is due from angels and men and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them.” Parallel to this are the statements of the Testimony, I. 3 and II. 3.