New Horizons

Mountain Religion (Part 2)

John W. Belden

[Note: John Belden lives in Neon, Kentucky, where he is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church (OPC). The town of Neon is nestled in the mountains of Appalachia. The city once served the needs of several surrounding coal camps. But when the mines began to close, the town and the whole surrounding region were plunged into poverty and welfare. John first came to Neon in the mid-1990s to help build low-income housing. He received his divinity degree from Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has been serving as pastor to CRPC since 2001. This mission work has purchased a vacant building in downtown Neon and is reconstructing it for worship and other ministry. Part 1 of this article appeared in the previous issue of New Horizons.]

Many who practice mountain religion end up in a state of burnout. The typical person's story starts with "getting saved" and ends in backsliding. There he stays until the next crisis. Then he starts all over.

Once "saved," his efforts turn to staying saved, which means continuing to climb up the mountain to reach the peak, which is eternal life. So he frequents the place where he got saved. Typically he will be in church whenever the doors are open. Fellowship, baptism, Bible reading, gospel music, and prayer all help him keep his forward momentum.

Each time he hopes it will last. He has been through this cycle so many times that he begins to see Christianity as a religion for strong people. By the time I come to talk to him, he is in a state of burnout.

I am amazed how plain words and careful explanation from the Scriptures are filtered through the legalistic grid of mountain religion. I speak grace; they hear works. When I offer forgiveness, life, hope, acceptance, and rest, they hear, "Get up and start climbing!"

I challenge mountain religion by contrasting it to biblical Christianity. I draw a diagram of mountain religion. Man is shown at the bottom of the mountain. The steps for obtaining eternal life are laid out. As I explain the cycle of failure, most can identify with it.

The next diagram also has the man at the bottom of the mountain. But now a huge gulf separates man from God. The gulf cannot be crossed by anything man can do. The gulf exists because of God's holy wrath toward sinful man and man's enmity toward him. This separation is almost entirely missing from mountain religion.

From the Scriptures, I show that all people, by nature, are dead in sin and hate God. Their problem is not merely weakness, but rebellion. They are not victims. Rather, God is the "victim" of their sin and rebellion. Weakness doesn't justify their refusal to repent and receive Christ. It is a symptom of their rebellion.

I explain that the Bible knows no third category. There are believers and unbelievers, children of God and children of the devil, lovers of God and haters of God; spiritually alive people and spiritually dead people. If you are not on one side, you are on the other.

Here I explain the cross and the substitutionary nature of Christ's death. The great gulf must be dealt with before a person starts climbing. Otherwise, all efforts to climb are self-righteousness and doomed to failure. From Scripture, I show that a person who receives Christ by faith alone receives eternal life at the bottom of the mountain.

I explain that justification rests completely on the work of Christ, not on the Christian's ability to climb. The necessity of sanctification as the fruit of this new standing with God is laid out, but I am careful to explain that our performance in sanctification is never the grounds for our acceptance with God. I show from Scripture that the true Christian may fall, but he is not lost. He confesses and repents and continues the climb.

The diagram of mountain religion helps people to see that in biblical Christianity one receives eternal life at the bottom of the mountain, instead of climbing to the top to get it. In mountain religion, you are pushed up the mountain by fear. In biblical Christianity, you are drawn up the mountain by love. In mountain religion, you work to get something. In biblical Christianity, you work because you have something. In mountain religion, you are never sure of heaven. In biblical Christianity, your future state is certain because it is based on the work of Christ.

The mountain person is often shocked. No one has ever described him like this. At first he insists he's not that bad. When shown what the Scriptures say about him, he finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. If he acknowledges what God says about him, he must face the fact of his depravity and God's displeasure. He has no desire for that. He has been consoling himself that he is worthy of pity, not wrath. But if he denies his depravity, he denies God's Word.

Finally he may admit that he is under God's wrath. But it's the kind of admission that comes when one is put in a headlock and forced to say "uncle." It's not coming from any real sense of depravity.

This summarizes his whole problem. Because of his sinful nature, he doesn't understand how holy God is. And because he doesn't understand how holy God is, he doesn't realize how sinful he is. And because he doesn't realize how sinful he is, he doesn't see the need for a radical solution. He doesn't realize that he needs a substitute to absorb the wrath of God. Instead, he thinks that he needs a helper to get him up the mountain. He doesn't need the Holy Spirit to alter his nature, so that he will stop hating God. He needs a Holy Spirit who will inspire and excite him, so that his natural climbing ability will be enhanced.

His condition is not so severe as to warrant a severe remedy, he thinks. After all, no one would want to take chemotherapy for a mild headache. Likewise, no unsaved mountain person sees the need for God's radical plan of salvation when he's just tired. His condition is not so bad as to require a substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness. Surely this is overkill for a small case of temporary weakness. He needs a boost, not a Savior.

No amount of persuasion opens his eyes. So he waits until the boost comes at the next revival meeting, the next crisis. And the devil would have him wait his way right into hell.

This is not merely mountain religion. This is natural man's religion. It's the religion of the sinful heart that refuses to submit to God's grace. It is the religion of the average unchurched man on the street. He thinks he is going to heaven because he's a pretty good guy and has never murdered anyone.

But he won't be saved until he renounces natural man's religion. It's especially hard for religious people to let go of their religion of works. That is why the work is so difficult here in the mountains. The difficulty is compounded when the old system goes by the name of Christianity. It comes with all the same terms. It claims to be based on the same Bible. It appears to offer the same promises. It even speaks of the same Savior. But at its heart, it's natural man's religion.

This is an example of what Paul spoke of concerning the unbelieving Jews: "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God" (Rom. 10:3 NKJV). Telling people that they have to stop their self-righteous attempts to climb up to God is not easy—especially if they are in the middle of the climb and think they are doing pretty well.

I constantly remind myself that this doesn't make our work difficult; it makes it impossible. It's as impossible for people in Detroit as it is for people in Appalachia. It's impossible for all natural people. No one will let go of natural man's religion until God's power breaks its grip.

"With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27 NKJV).

Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2006.

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