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The Gospel Is the End of Religion

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Robert Farrar Capon, Health, Money, and Love & Why We Don’t Enjoy Them, Eerdmans, 179 pages, $23.99.

In Health, Money, and Love, Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013) offers a unique critique of religion. Here is his basic definition:

“Religion is the attempt on the part of human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something outside themselves—something they think to be of life-shaping importance” (p. 27).

Most people would call that “something outside themselves” God, but Capon wants to include a wide variety of religions, not just the theistic ones. But for my purposes, I’ll refer to God.

Capon explains that you can think about religion in terms of three elements: “Creed, Cult, and Conduct.” Creed involves what you think; Cult to practices such as “chicken sacrifices at dawn, to Morning Prayer and Sermon on Sundays”; and Conduct to moral behavior. In a religious mindset, if you can get those things right, you can establish a relationship with God (i.e., be saved). However, that approach assumes salvation depends on you: “in the long run, the relationship desired is ultimately up to us” (p. 30). To use traditional terminology, religion often boils down to salvation by works. And if you fail to live up to the demands of religion, there’s an assumption that God will reject you.

Capon thinks that underlying fear reveals that religion is not so much about loving God as it is about controlling Him:

“Religion commonly professes to love the something it’s trying to establish a relationship with; but in fact, its program is aimed less at love than at such things as appeasement, propitiation, self-protection, conjuring, and control” (p. 30).

The thing is, God can’t be controlled in that way. Nothing can. In fact, religion doesn’t work at all: “None of it works” (p. 30). All the chicken sacrifices, ritual prayers, and dieting do nothing to establish a relationship with God. And you can ever perfectly fulfill the demands of religion anyway: “By a combination of Murphy’s Law and catch-22, religion regularly backfires on its adherents” (p. 30).

One of the reasons why Capon says religion doesn’t work is because it “operates in a self-originated, parallel world rather than in the world as originated by God” (p. 79). And that parallel world can become more real to religious people than creation itself. For example, religious actions are supposed to stave off disasters, and yet, no matter what religious people do, those earthquakes, tsunamis, and brain cancer keep on coming. Religion doesn’t work. But people are still committed to it.

Now, all of this might come as a surprise from a theologian and Episcopal priest. Isn’t he supposed to support religion? Isn’t religion his business? What other option is there?

Capon answers the alternative is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That may sound counterintuitive. Isn’t the gospel just another example of a religion? You might think so, but Capon insists the gospel proclaims that Jesus did something different: “On its plain, New Testament face, it proclaims that all the things that religion promised but couldn’t deliver have been delivered once and for all by Jesus in his death and resurrection” (p. 31). Through the cross and empty tomb, Jesus did what religion could never do and established the relationship with God in His own person and thereby ended the need for religion:

“The whole business was over. All that we or anyone had to do now was believe (have faith) in Jesus and we would be home free because the right relationship, so long and so vainly sought, was already a fact in him. There were no works of any kind we had to get right to achieve the relationship; we had only to trust him and be pleasantly surprised at the light burden he had substituted for the iron yoke of religion” (p. 33).

Salvation is by grace, not by religion.

Capon goes on to explore how health, money, and love can become religions when we use them to guarantee our “happiness” (a stand-in for “salvation”). We do that with many pursuits. He calls it our “religionizing tendency.” I think this line of reasoning likely inspired David Zahl’s excellent book Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It. The point is that Capon tries to shock his readers out of that religious mindset with illustrations meant to upset our inner Pharisees.

For example, the book opens with the simple story of a married king who falls in love with a parlor maid and they decide to live together and the story ends with them living “happily ever after” (p. 11). Capon expects his readers to be disturbed, and I admit it disturbed me. Why? Because their story contained no repentance, no sticking through with the current marriage, and no doing the right thing. They were two adulterers who found love and got off scot-free living the rest of their lives happily together…and I didn’t like that! But why not?

“Unless I’m mistaken, the longer you think about that story, the less you like it,” Capon writes (p. 12). He explores the reasons why we might not like it through a dialogue with an imaginary objector, where he helps to reveal some of the ways in which Christians—even Christians who are supposed to believe in grace—think that eternal happiness (i.e., salvation) depends upon on how well we behave. We’re preoccupied with law and morality and fairness and can’t believe that adulterers live happily ever after.

But that kind of objection reveals our very religious mentality—the same mentality that resists the idea that God saves sinners by free grace. And so, Capon answers the objector: “They took a gift gracefully; I will not allow your preoccupation with law and likelihood to take the edge off their triumph” (p. 21). He won’t allow us to take the edge off the sinner’s triumph in Christ, either. In other words, Capon uses that story of adultery as a kind of mirror that shows us what we believe about salvation: “I apologize for using adultery as my bellwether for testing your acceptance of the Homeward call in all circumstances” (p. 111).

Do we really believe that salvation is by grace? Then we should know that adultery does not stop God from saving anyone: “Their sin, even unrepented of, is still no obstacle to his sovereign acceptance of them” (p. 111). Sinners really do get to live happily ever after without changing their lives. Capon admits that kind of radical grace is “radically outrageous” (p. 111), but it’s not outrageous if you have a very high view of what Christ accomplished on the cross. This brings me to a reservation I have about Capon’s theology.

While I applaud Capon’s insistence that salvation is by faith apart from works, including having to repent of sins like adultery, the way he understands the atonement seems over-realized.

Here’s the problem. Capon says Christ not only died for the whole world but has already “forgiven all sinners and raised all the dead” (p. 156). He takes John 1:29 as proof that the benefits of the cross have already been applied to everyone. Elsewhere he writes, “Since the repair job is already done, all you have to do is believe—to trust that it’s done—and you’re home free; because except for your unbelief, you were home free already” (p. 56, emphasis original). That way of putting things is confusing. On the one hand, Capon says unbelievers were home free already, suggesting everyone is already saved. And yet, we still have to believe, and then we’ll be home free. I understand him to be saying that, instead of believing to opt-in to salvation, unbelief is how you opt-out.

That isn’t the gospel, and that’s not how the gospel was preached.

Jesus didn’t say everyone already had eternal life. He said, “anyone who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). Peter didn’t say everyone was already forgiven. He proclaimed, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). And Paul didn’t say Abraham was justified before faith, but only after he believed (Rom 4:3). Salvation comes through faith in Christ, not apart from it (Eph 2:8-9).

A second objection I have is that if I’ve understood Capon correctly, then his view implies it’s possible to lose your salvation. The unbeliever is already saved, but if she persists in that unbelief, then she loses the forgiveness she already has. It’s not the usual Arminianism. I’m not sure what it is. But I do know that Jesus promised whosoever believes in Him is guaranteed to never perish or come into judgment ever again (John 3:16-18). We are eternally secure.

I may be misunderstanding Capon. His comments are more literary than systematic, and I may be connecting the dots wrongly. But I think his atonement theology clouds the necessity of faith for salvation and implicitly denies the security of the believer.

But even with those reservations, I recommend this book for a good diagnosis of religion and why the gospel brings it to an end.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


2 comments on “The Gospel Is the End of Religion”

  1. Great piece Shawn, thank you! Capon's line of thinking about God's grace and the benefits of the cross of Jesus is why the Free Grace view of the atonement is often misconstrued as being a form of Universalism...

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