Lists Make for Minimalist Religion

by Bill Denton

Lists Make for Minimalist Religion

"Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19-21).

In a sermon on sin, a preacher announced that there were 789 different sins. A few days later the mailman delivered 94 requests from members of his congregation for a list of the 789 sins (James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited).

I think that's a funny story, but it's funny because although I'm sure it's just a humorous story, it's close enough to true that it could be! It's so like us human beings. Ancient Jews took the Law of Moses and worked up hundreds of ways to violate the law of the Sabbath and other laws. The greatest conflicts during the ministry of Jesus happened between Himself and the scribes and Pharisees, who seemed to have great lists of specific requirements a person must observe in order to please God. Jesus was at odds with many of those requirements, and they often accused him of breaking those requirements. Lists of sins have evidently been popular for a long time.

People today like to think that they've got the "list" worked out, and they comfort themselves in thinking that their list is better than somebody else's list.

Let me tell you the problem with such lists: They produce a mindset that I call "minimalist religion." The reason people seem to want lists, is not so much that they want to be sure they avoid all sin. The real reason is that they want to know the least they can do to be right with God. If you could get a list, and meet the list, then you'd have it made. There is no real desire for righteousness beyond a list.

One problem with this approach is that such lists tend to be dynamic, not static. In other words, the lists tend to keep growing. It's one of the reasons, I believe, that when Paul listed the "deeds of the flesh," he didn't pretend to give a complete list. He gave his list of items and when he got to the end he concluded this way: "and things like these." (Gal. 5:21).

Minimalist religion isn't satisfied with this approach. Minimalists want to know the whole list. They want to know where they can stop being concerned. They want just enough "religion" but not too much. If you tell minimalists, "be good," they're uncomfortable with that. They really want you to give them the list that constitutes "good." If you gave them a list, and they followed it, they would probably stop right there.

I'm persuaded that what God wants is less "minimalist religion." God isn't really interested in providing lists. If you'll notice, you'll find that the few lists provided in Scripture are more open-ended than full and complete. There is a reason for this. God doesn't want you to stop moving toward Him. He wants you to realize how really far from His holiness you are, and he wants you to keep moving in His direction. Don't look for a list. Look for life, and then pursue God with all you are and have.

© Copyright 2001, Dr. Bill Denton