I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. There’s no missing it. “The Christian life is about a relationship, not religion.” Churches all over advertise themselves as being “Not religious, but relationship-centered.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a picture on Facebook with the caption, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship,” I’d be a rich man.
I would love to argue that while the above saying has its merits and its place, the Christian life is about religion AND relationship. The phrases “religion” and “relationship” are not mutually exclusive. They can go together, and I think they must go together. Christians should neither reject the idea of religion for the sake of “relationship,” nor should they reject the importance of “relationship,” namely, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord.
First, let’s talk about what this saying actually means in its best and purest connotation, or at least, what statement I believe people may be attempting to make. When people say, “The Christian life is a relationship, not a religion,” they are stressing the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is a central tenant to the Christian faith, of course. In order to be in Christ, we must have a relationship with our Lord and Savior. There is no denying that, at all. This saying, though, seems to make out the term “religion” to be an outdated, legalistic saying that bears the full weight of the Law with no grace, rather than the blessings of salvation, and the freedoms found within. Many people throughout history have misused religion, of course, and the sin of legalism runs deep within our churches. But I believe that is a misuse of “religion.” “Religion” is a term that is needed within Christianity because it is used in the Bible. By dispelling the notion of the word “religion,” we directly disregard Scripture.
At this point, I would like to offer a warning to what I believe is the end result of this saying. This saying is often used to further an anti-law false gospel that often called “antinomianism.” We want to get rid of the idea of religion because often, religion is defined as “do’s” and “don’t’s.” (And everybody knows that we hate do’s and don’t’s.) The truth is that we need the “do’s” and “don’t’s” of the law because the Old Testament law shows us how to live a holy life. They are the standard by which we are deemed sinful in the eyes of God. These laws are the same laws that Jesus kept perfectly, becoming the true and perfect passover lamb, perfectly able to satisfy the wrath of God on the cross. We need the law to show us how to live a holy life. To claim that the laws of the Old Testament are irrelevant under the guise of “religion” is to claim to adhere to antinomianism. The New Testament clearly defines the error of antinomianism in Matthew 5:17-19, Romans 3:31, and Romans 6:1-4. If followed to its end, the attitude of relationship without “religion” can lead to this belief in antinomianism.
Enough with the big words.
Now let’s talk about what the terms mean in the Christian life and how they can work together.
It is of utmost importance that believers know who Jesus is and understand that when they confess Him as Lord, He marks them with the Holy Spirit. Thus, they have a “relationship with Jesus Christ.” By having the Holy Spirit, we have a personal connection with Jesus, and the Holy Spirit acts to teach us, convict us, comfort us, help us, guide us in life, and glorify Jesus within us. If we are marked with the Holy Spirit, we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But that relationship does not come at the expense, or in lieu of religion. We are biblically commanded to practice religion. We are called to be pious people.
I have found that “relationship,” when used within in the context of the above saying, often conveys much of the messages of grace and love and “come as you are” of the gospel. I, in no way, wish to downplay those aspects of the gospel message. Of course Jesus saves us in our sin and displays the greatest example of grace and love that the world has ever seen. But that can’t be our only focus. We forget that Jesus enacts a covenant relationship (the strongest type of relationship) with His followers. He gives us commands to follow. He expects us to try to uphold the moral law so that we may be holy and blameless. He demands us to “take up our cross daily” and follow Him, denying ourselves. That’s the other side of “relationship.” That’s the part of relationship that we often conveniently forget. What I wish to convey is that relationship is not easy. Remember, if you are in Christ, you aren’t in a relationship with your cosmic BFF, but with the Sovereign Lord who went to the cross for you. He expects you to honor Him by living in a holy and blameless manner. Paul describes this in Ephesians 4:1-3: “I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We are called to live in a holy and blameless manner. That’s our end of the relationship. We will mess up, but we should be willing to seek holiness everyday.
I believe that once we start seeking holiness and trying to honor God in our lives, we will become more infatuated with the idea of religion, as well. We should never seek to be justified by our works; we know that we are justified by faith alone, which is given to us by God. But once we realize that we are in a relationship with Christ, we should seek to honor him by doing things, a.k.a. good works, or religion. We should want to keep the law. We should want to go to church. We should want to pray without ceasing and care for the widows, orphans, and immigrants. We should want to uphold our religion. James describes “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Religion, in the biblical sense, is a key to the Christian life. Don’t pervert the meaning of this beautiful word. We should hold our religion in high esteem. Christianity is the only true religion, therefore we should be proud to be a part of “religion.” We should seek to take back the word “religion” from the world, and become proud adherents of the religion that is pure and undefiled, loving the Lord our God with our whole heart, strength, mind, and soul, and love our neighbor as ourself.
So then, the Christian life is not primarily about a either a relationship or a religion as mutually exclusive terms. We shouldn’t separate these wonderful aspects from each other. We are called to fellowship with our Savior, but also to adhere to Christian religion. We should seek to live aware of our relationship with Jesus as our Savior, and upholding a holy and blameless life as best we can by practicing true, Christian religion.
What are your feelings on this statement that is so overused in Christian circles today? Let me know. Make sure to comment your thoughts; I love healthy discussion on these topics!