Paul recounts (Galatians 1:13-17) that he had been persecuting the church. He adds, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people” (v. 14). At that stage in Paul’s life, he was captivated by the religion of I.
1) The religion of I is a way of life (v. 13). It is a code, a series of rules. It is easily defined and quantified. It is something that I can feel good about having achieved. It is a series of boxes on my to-do list that I can check off. Particularly, the “former life” is likely to refer to the halakhah of rabbinic Judaism, the oral tradition of rules used to interpret the Bible; the word here is also used to translate the Hebrew halakh as “walk” or “conduct.” When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . ,” he was referring to the rabbinic interpretation of the Old Testament, through which they brought the rules down to an achievable standard in their human flesh. Actually, the law was intended to point to Christ, who alone could achieve the standard for us. The religion of I is a way of life,a conduct, a behavior. It is concerned with the external, not the internal, with good doing, not good being. There is a constant temptation to interpret the Bible that way. People view Bible-believing Christians as those who are for certain moral positions and against certain behavior, not as a people who proclaim a message of good news to all nations.
2) The religion of I has a nationalistic interpretation of the Bible. It was Paul’s way of life in Judaism (v. 13), and he was advancing in Judaism (v. 14). This is the only time “Judaism” is used by Paul to describe his former lifestyle, and here it is used twice. Judaism as a term was developed by the Maccabees in response to Jews who were beginning to live more like Greeks. Judaism then became a nationally defined movement with certain particular criteria (circumcision, sacrifice, the Sabbath) that defined a proper Jew living like a Jew.
The religion of I typically becomes nationalistic, for, in the corporate entity of the nation, we find a larger than life I. We become proud of our nation in a religious sense. Most vicious totalitarian regimes cultivate a religious feeling toward the nation. We tend to feel that God is on our side and that God speaks our language. I suppose Mormonism is the ultimate extension of this, where, despite all the archaeological evidence, Jesus is viewed as having walked the sacred turf of America.
When I did mission work in the Republic of Georgia, I noticed that the pictures of Jesus contained a good, handsome Georgian man, whereas, of course, the Western Jesus tends to look Western, when surely, if anything, he looked Jewish. The British Israelites movement believed that the British nation was one of the lost tribes of Israel. Every nation has this temptation. It is a religion of I, where we see projected onto the big screen our national characteristics and claim God as an Englishman, an American, or whatever nation it is from which we come.
3) The religion of I is opposed to the church of God (v. 13). Paul violently and vigorously persecuted the church like a good zealous fanatic who had been commissioned to seek the punishment of those thought to have blasphemed by calling Jesus “God.” Looking back, he realized that those he had persecuted were actually the church of God, not a blasphemous sect. Today, the religion of I tends to persecute the church too, for in the gathered community of God’s people there is a deep and prevailing threat to the religion of I. Church is not individualistic. It is a community, and a community requires commitment. To find community in a church, you need to make a commitment, get involved, take the initiative, and have time together. The religion of I tends to sit back and let it all flow by. “What’s in it for me?” is the great question, not “What I can give?” and, of course, this is opposed to the community of the church of God, even if only passively.
4) The religion of I is competitive. Paul was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people” (v. 14). That is the classic feeling of the religion of I. Who is the best theologian? Whose Greek is the best? Whose is the best and biggest church? Whose prayer is the best? All this is vanity, for what is best with regard to God is defined only by God. When we are captivated with the religion of I, what matters is what other I’s think, not what the Great I Am thinks. We strive for heaven in order to impress earth, and heaven is not impressed.
5) The religion of I is zeal without knowledge (v. 14). It is fine to be zealous, Paul will say again (Gal. 4:17–18), provided the purpose is good, but the agitators were trying to make the Galatians zealous for them. He knew all about that. Zeal was almost a technical word at the time, and later the zealots became a defined movement. Paul was not a zealot, we think, but a Pharisee of Pharisees, yet zeal was a technical defined word for being zealous for traditions, for codes of behavior. The Judaizing false teachers were trying to turn the Christians back to what they had interpreted the Scriptures as being about—zeal for the human traditions of their fathers—rather than zeal for Christ and his gospel, as the Scriptures purely and simply spoke.
Classically, the religion of I is this zeal without knowledge. It is passionate, but it is the kind of zeal that blows up buildings and causes wars and fights. The solution is not relativistic tolerance or a vague “anything goes” attitude. The solution is zeal for what is good and godly. No one can be too zealous for love or too zealous for the gospel, but the religion of I is zeal without knowledge; it is barking up the wrong tree.
6) The religion of I is tradition overwriting the Word (v. 14). One caught up in this religion is zealous for the traditions of his fathers, this oral law and way of life. He is not zealous for the Bible or the gospel. This is typically what happens. A movement gets more concerned with “how we have always done it” or “what we did before” and not with the truly radical thought of what the Bible actually teaches us to do.
So reject the religion of I, which means religion as a way of life, a nationalistic interpretation of the Bible, individualism opposing church commitment, fractious competition, zeal without knowledge, and tradition overwriting the Word. Paul, by means of his autobiography, is telling us that we need to reject the religion of I and receive the faith of God.
Josh Moody, No Other Gospel, 62-65.