Is Christianity a Religion or a Relationship?

If you’re on Facebook, you’ll note that recently there was a viral video that made it’s rounded about hating religion but loving Jesus, which you can view on You Tube. Then, as happens on Facebook and the Internet, there were some pro and con arguments on the topic.

How do you start an argument online: just state an opinion and wait.

I think I was asked about this at least a dozen times, including by my own children. :-).

Why?

Because I’ve often said myself, “Christianity is about a relationship with Christ, not religion”.

Religion or Relationship Semantics

And by that, I don’t mean it’s not a “world religion” or belief system (obviously it is). What I do mean is that what separates Biblical Christianity from other belief systems is that it’s based on a relationship with Christ instead of on keeping a list of commandments and performing good works.

When my 15-year-old daughter first showed me the video and asked what I thought, I appreciated the spirit of what the young man was saying, though I disagreed with a few things he said. Overall, I liked it, though. We had a good discussion on the topic that night.

In reading through the various discussions and comments while taking a break from fixing cracking plaster walls ~smile~, I realized that there are a few issues at work here, causing confusion:

1. What is Religion?

I don’t know how he’s defining “Religion”, or how any dissenters are defining “Religion” for the purposes of this discussion. So, we need to look at what is meant by religion.

Most of the people commenting under the stories and posts on Facebook and Twitter seem to be defining it as I do…meaning “external religious activity in a vain attempt to earn God’s favor”. Others seem to be defining it to mean “a belief system” or even to mean “church”.

I decided to look up this word in the Bible first. It’s always a good place to start to solve any theological issues, right?

There are two words in the Bible, translated in the KJV (and others) as “Religion”. One refers to Jewish ceremony (found mostly in Galatians, and used with negative connotation — as in trusting in religious activity for favor with God). The other, according to Dr. Vine, refers to external aspects of worship and has been used in positive and negative connotations.

Vine’s Concise Dictionary of the Bible defines “Religion” (Greek Word thresketa, used in James 1:26 and 1:27, and also referring to the worship of Angels in Colossians),

…signifies “religion” in its external aspect…”religious worship” especially the ceremonial service of “religion”.

The Bible is clear from cover to cover: an external ceremony or external religious activity without a relationship with God, is pointless. Large portions of Jesus’ rebukes against people were not against the sinners who hung around Him, but the religious people who clung to the form of religion on the outside, but had no true relationship with the Living God they thought they were pleasing.

It’s as Paul wrote when the talked about people in the last days as

Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.” (2 Timothy 3:5)

There’s a lot of people like that today!

Of course, there’s more to it than that. On the flip side, James reminds Christians that “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). Good works do not make anyone a Christian, but works are the fruit of our relationship with Christ, the external evidence of our faith.

After all, Jesus Himself, in all of His dealings with the common man, may not have directed harsh rebukes at those lost sheep, but they never seemed to walk away from Him the same as when He met them. He even told the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and sin no more.”

2. Living Right Through Christ’s Righteousness or My Own Self-Righteousness

Is Christianity about living by a set of rules or about walking with Jesus?

Biblical Christianity is about living by faith, not works Click To Tweet

Simply studying the book of Galatians, written to Christians who had “fallen from Grace” by trusting in good works to make them pleasing to God, makes it clear that Biblical Christianity is about living by faith, not works.

Paul even points out, in both Galatians and Romans, that if there were any law at all that could make us good enough in God’s eyes, then Christ would not have needed to die for us. See Galatians 2:21, Romans 11:6, for starters.

But Paul is also careful to point out that living by faith doesn’t mean living any old way. It means, after trusting Christ alone for salvation at our conversion, we are to “reckon ourselves dead to sin but alive to Christ” (see all of Romans 6-8). Our options are not just “Works” vs. “lawlessness’ but Christianity gives us a third option: letting Christ live through me.

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1-2)

All of this can be a bit confusing (for me, for others…for theologians down through the years…). People have long wrestled with this idea of living as Paul wrote, realizing,

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Living not only for Christ, but allowing Christ to live through me, and allowing His nature change my own nature….

wow. heavy stuff.

It’s true, though. I’ve lived it and experienced it. So have countless others.

Christian Life = Living for Christ + allowing Christ to live through me + Changing me Click To Tweet

This has been something I’ve studied for a while now over the last year, as God led me to really study out GRACE and delighting in the Lord. It’s a good Bible study to do if you have a concordance handy.

We can live with our eyes on ourselves, trying to keep a set of rules and laws…or we can live with our eyes on Christ, yielding to Him every day, and being changed from the inside out. If you read Romans 6-8 and all of Galatians, you’ll learn more. I challenge you to meditate on those passages for a while!

Paul even refers to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) vs. the works of the Flesh (Galatians 5:19-21)…as in fruit…something that grows naturally in a well-tended garden…this good fruit is the natural outworking of God at work in our lives, and us turning out eyes upon Jesus.

 

I know this is not something our flesh likes.

Our prideful, self-righteous sin nature likes DIY religion over some nebulous “trusting God” or “walking with Christ” that we can’t take credit for, but instead need to humble ourselves to accept.

I quite naturally like a list of things to do. I like clear lines, black and white, cause and effect. I like it when you can write out religious principles like mathematical formulas. It’s how my brain works.

Sorry folks. God is not a formula. Click To Tweet

Some common ones I’ve used before include:

me + tithing = God’s financial blessings in my bank

me + submission = God will change my husband to what I want.

me + good works = specific prayer request answered

It’s pretty frustrating when this doesn’t “work”. (and this doesn’t mean that tithing, submission or good works are bad…just that the heart issue was all wrong if I’m doing things for personal gain or prideful reasons, or just to be “good” or meet someone’s idea of “good Christian”, instead of out of my love for Christ, with Whom I have a growing relationship).

The thing is, God is more interested in where our hearts are at while doing good things than in the externals of religion alone. Allowing our faith to show on the outside is important, but it’s only genuine if it’s shining through from the inside out, and not just a white washed wall (as Jesus and Paul accused the “religious” of their day of being — see Mt 23:7, Acts 23:3). Genuine faith bears fruit, but only when we’re connected to the Vine (see John 15, Galatians 5)

God is more interested in where our hearts are at while doing good things Click To Tweet

You see this throughout the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), where Jesus takes people to a higher standard — to the heart, where sin originates because the Pharisees had gotten so good at obeying on the outside, everyone thought that would please God. It doesn’t.

Jesus takes people to a higher standard of the heart Click To Tweet

We all have a sin nature that can only be dealt by trusting in the blood of Christ. Relationship.

That’s the thing about our sin nature. It taints even our good works…in their day, they gave alms to be praised of men. They said long prayers so everyone would be impressed. They did otherwise good things from a heart tainted with sin. Traditional Religion.

Jesus even started the Sermon on the Mount with

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

He told a story of two men in the temple, which greatly encouraged me as a new Christian,

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

I felt so inept, so unworthy when I was a new Christian. I looked up with awe at those who had their ducks in a row so to speak. All I knew was that I had asked Jesus into my heart, and I was told that He is a friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24), so I talked to Him in what some may consider a little too “casual” a manner, friend to Friend. 🙂

However, by forming and growing that relationship, I was able to grow.

The soil of my heart was tilled and fertilized, the seed of the Word of God was planted from reading it and talking with Jesus, and daily it was watered as I talked and walked with Him until finally, fruit came about. There were weeds to pull out of course, and there still are. The more you work the soil, if you’ve ever gardened, the more stuff you find down deep, that needs to be removed.

The discouraging times came when I got too caught up in looking at others around me and trying to do whatever seemingly religious thing they did. Trying to live the Christian life through sheer force of will and self-reformation is always discouraging!

3. The Body of Christ

I got the impression (perhaps mistaken) that the young man in the video was advocating “I love Jesus but don’t need church” sort of idea. Maybe he was hurt in the past.

I love the church. I love my church. I am looking forward to being in the house of God around the time this post publishes. 🙂

I love being a member of the Body of Christ. I love how the body cares for one another, and how I get encouragement from others, or can be a blessing to others. I’m thankful we can serve together in the body of Christ. I love the preaching from my pastor and his ministry.

It’s a blessing to our family to have others who are also positively influencing my children as they grow.

But, I understand more than most realize when they go off about hating church.

I’ve been in abusive, legalistic churches. I’ve been in dead churches. I’ve been in a cult. I’ve been a part of a church where the Pastor’s sons (we’ll call them Hophni and Phineas to protect the guilty) were running around doing unspeakably horrible things and hurt many, while Pastor Eli (1 Samuel 2) there ignored it.

It’s sad that there are more bad churches out there than good ones, of any denomination or creed. I’ve been around long enough to know that bad churches and bad leadership are not limited to a specific kind of church.

A good church is worth more than words can express. I only wish everyone could be a part of one. 🙂

A church is the people, not the building…it is (supposed to be) the Body of Christ…functioning like a body, as Paul teaches (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4), helping believers to grow and serve. Plugging into a good church is the best thing for your Christian walk, after your own personal devotions. We need each other. No one can fly solo for long.

A church is the people, not the building. Click To Tweet

Just some thoughts after a Saturday of housework….

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