The noun “religion” and the adjective “religious” have both become nigh unto cuss words in today’s evangelical vocabulary. “Religion” is often thought to be synonymous with legalism and externalism. By externalism I mean an approach to life where the only thing that matters is behavioral conformity to a set of rules. The Pharisees were profoundly “religious” because in terms of what you could see, they obeyed the law with meticulous detail. But internally many of them were devoid of true love for God. Religion, then, is considered by many today to be equivalent to a rigid and lifeless traditionalism.
We often contrast “religion” with the “gospel” and urge one another to avoid the former and embrace the latter. But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that “religion” became a cuss word in Christian circles. In James 1:26-27 and throughout most of church history the word “religion” simply referred to the totality of one’s ultimate allegiance and commitment. Your “religion” encompassed both what you believe and how you behave. It was possible, then, to have a good “religion” and to be “religious” in a way that honored God and blessed people.
I would even go so far as to say that the word “religious” in James 1:26-27 is synonymous with faith in Jesus Christ. I say this because of what follows immediately in James 2:1. There James says, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). In other words, as far as James is concerned, “religion” is the same thing as your confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and your heartfelt devotion to him and love for him.
All this must be kept in mind in order that we might understand what Jonathan Edwards meant when he said that religion is the reason the universe exists! To be more specific: “religion must be the end of the creation, the great end, the very end” (Yale, 13:185). This statement is found in his Miscellany gg and is deserving of our close attention.
Edwards contends that God did not create the world “for nothing” (Yale, 13:185). Whereas that may strike us as obvious, the ultimate reason why he did create the world often escapes many people. Edwards argues that in order for the world to have a purpose for its existence there must be “intelligent beings” in it. “For senseless matter, in whatever excellent order it is placed, would be useless if there were not intelligent beings at all, neither God nor others; for what would it be good for?” (Yale, 13:185). Let’s listen to his explanation:
“What would this vast universe of matter, placed in such excellent order and governed by such excellent rules, be good for, if there was no intelligence that could know anything of it? Wherefore it necessarily follows that intelligent beings are the end of the creation, that their end must be to behold and admire the doings of God, and magnify him for them, and to contemplate his glories in them” (Yale, 13:185; emphasis mine).
It is for this reason that Edwards draws the conclusion that “religion must be the end of the creation.” Religion, he says, “is the very business, the noble business of intelligent beings, and for this end God has placed us on this earth” (Yale, 13:185).
Later, in Miscellany kk, Edwards follows up on these thoughts by asserting that “intelligent beings [that’s us] would be altogether good for nothing except to contemplate the Creator. Hence we learn that devotion, and not mutual love, charity, justice, beneficence, etc, is the highest end of man, and devotion is his principal business” (Yale, 13:186).
Let’s assume Edwards is right on this point [and I certainly believe he is]. What difference does it make to you? Would anyone who observed your daily habits and routines draw the immediate and inescapable conclusion that your “chief end” or “highest purpose” in living was “devotion” to God? As others reflect on how you spend your time and energy and money, would they be justified in concluding that you are “altogether good for nothing except to contemplate” your Creator?
How much time, energy, and money do we devote to devotion to God? How often during the course of a day, week, or year do we “contemplate” our Creator? Are we absorbed by thoughts of him? Are we consumed with the complex personality of God? Do we devote ourselves to exploring his character and making certain that our lives are such that when people look at us God looks good?
To the degree that we cannot answer those questions with an unqualified Yes we fall short of the ultimate end or purpose for which we exist. Of course, being fallen and corrupt as we are we will never, this side of glorification and life in the new heavens and new earth, love, honor, and display heartfelt devotion to God as we should. But by the grace and sustaining power of God may we do what we can. After all, that’s why he created us!
One more thing. Whereas “contemplation” of God and “devotion” to him may well be the ultimateend of our existence, they are not the only end. I’m not suggesting that all we do is think about God. To make sense of this we must define what we (and Edwards) mean by “contemplation” and “devotion”. There are countless duties and activities to which God calls us: ministry to the poor, evangelization of the lost, pursuit of biblical justice, personal holiness, loving our enemies, prayer, raising godly children, serving the orphan and widow, etc. Yet each of these God-ordained tasks shares a common end: to equip, encourage, and instruct others in the enjoyment of God to his everlasting glory!
Each of these critically important acts of obedience is subordinate to a single, ultimate aim: to enable men and women to see, know, and be ravished by the beauty of God. Thus when we speak of “contemplation”, as Edwards so often does, we must never reduce it to abstract reflection or mere cognition. To “contemplate” God is to enjoy him, to relish him, to rest satisfied in him, to rejoice in him, to be filled up to joy inexpressible because of who he is and all that he has done for sinners in and through Jesus. We are talking about being enthralled with God’s beauty and mesmerized by his majesty and filled up with fullness of joy and pleasures that never lose their capacity to satisfy (Ps. 16:11), all of which overflows in love for and service to others so that they in turn might likewise come to sense and savor the sweetness of God! This, what Edwards calls “religion”, is the ultimate aim of why we exist. All else is subordinate to and serves to enhance this all-consuming, Christ-exalting experience of the Creator.
Let us not, then, hesitate to say that religion, rightly understood, is why we are.