Mar 23rd, 2018 · Categories: Christianity, Personal · No Comments

“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship.”

This slogan has been bugging me lately. It didn’t come from the Bible. Yet it’s an idea that is often expressed by sincere, well-meaning Christians who (I think) intend to convey the centrality of a saving relationship with Jesus. But both halves of this statement are deeply flawed. Christianity is more than the requisite relationship; it’s a religion.

[Note: I’ve included Scripture links here, not to prooftext or portray myself as an expert (I’m not), but for the benefit of any who might not recognize the source of the Biblical terms or ideas presented here. The sources presented are mostly just samples and are by no means exhaustive.]

Relationships

A saving relationship with Jesus is certainly the only path to salvation (John 14:6), but we – and new believers in particular – need to clearly understand what that relationship is, how it comes about, and what it means once we enter into it.

First, let’s look at a more familiar human relationship, marriage: One person initiates contact with another, names and phone numbers are exchanged, invitations for coffee or a movie or a royal ball ensue, romance blossoms, a proposal is made and accepted, plans are made, and the two are joined in marriage. What’s important to see is that by getting married, they enter into a covenant that, once entered, produces a change of state from single to married; There is no in-between – they are in either the single state or the married state. Having entered it, the couple remain in the married state until death or divorce ends the marriage.

The formation of a saving relationship with Jesus is similar but also very different. All of the actions are undertaken (Romans 5:8) and brought to completion by God, not humans (John 19:30). God makes the initial contact and God “proposes” to us. God consummates the relationship by his grace and we are born again (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Peter 1:23, Titus 3:5). At that moment, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us, an event called justification. We enter at once into a covenant that produces a change of state from cursed to justified (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are no longer God’s enemies, we are now his children. There’s no in-between – we are in either the cursed state or the justified state. Having entered into the justified state, not even death or divorce can send us back to our previous cursed state (Romans 8:38-39). It is finished.

But being in a relationship means much more than entering into a new state; our lives should reflect our changed state. Married people don’t go on living as if they were still single – at least not if they want a healthy marriage. And the Bible tells us very clearly that justified people shouldn’t go on living as if they were still cursed. Jesus wants us to abide (“remain”) in him (John 15:4), to go beyond the moment of justification to actively participate in an ongoing process of sanctification, by which the Holy Spirit works within us to conform us to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Being a Christian – being a disciple of Jesus – begins when God brings us into that relationship with Jesus, but it doesn’t end there. To be effective ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20), we need religion.

Religion

Somehow, the idea that Jesus hates religion has been working its way through the Church like the yeast of the Pharisees. An early proponent of this extraordinary claim was an Internet sensation named Jeff Bethke. He posted a video rap entitled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. It was mostly nonsense but contained enough harmful ideas that I was moved to comment on it here. In that post, I explained why, if the word religion has any standard, generally-accepted meaning* (and is not merely a convenient straw man invented to launch an Internet career), Christianity is most definitely a religion. If the reader will pardon the vanity of quoting myself, I wrote that

Jesus selected and taught the apostles. He picked his own theologian (Saul), renamed him Paul, personally trained him, sent him out to plant churches, and inspired him to write letters explaining the Christian religion to them. Paul wrote about both doctrine (grace, salvation, the sacraments, and much more) and such practicalities as accountability, church governance, and the qualifications of elders and deacons. I don’t understand why Jesus thought those were good things if religion is a bad thing. When he ascended into Heaven, Jesus left behind an organization complete with a mission statement.

Since that post, I’ve thought more about ways that Christianity looks suspiciously like a religion:

  • Obedience to divine commands: “… teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20 also John 14:15)
  • Rituals: Communion (Luke 22:19) and baptism (Mark 16:16)
  • Liturgy: Baptism (“… in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, Matthew 28:19) and the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)
  • Assigned roles in the Church (gifts): preachers, teachers, evangelists, leaders, etc. (Ephesians 4:11-13, Romans 12:6-8)
  • The Christian religion itself: acceptable to God (James 1:27), put into practice (1 Timothy 5:4)
  • Doctrine: The New Testament writers had a lot to say about doctrine, both right doctrine and recognizing and dealing with wrong doctrine (see the New Testament)

But why do we need a Christian religion? After all, when we are saved, the Holy Spirit takes up permanent residence to begin the work of sanctification (Romans 8:11). The Holy Spirit knows everything there is to know about how we should live, so can’t we just let the Spirit lead us and do what we feel led to do? Do we really need all that other stuff? For that matter, do we really need Scripture? The answer, of course, is a resounding Yes! (Romans 7:21-23) Why? Because we are led by lots of spirits in many directions, and we just aren’t wise or holy enough to always recognize the leading of the one true Spirit. To “feel led” carries the risk of being led by emotions, not by God’s will. Jesus knew that; he knew our tendency to go astray; he knew our true nature. So he gave us a religion to help us live out our new life in him.

    Good milk, bad milk

    No one would claim that the existence of milk that has been adulterated with arsenic justifies a condemnation of all milk. Yet the most common defense of this slogan is that Jesus spoke against the religion of the Pharisees. Another is that the Old Testament contains many condemnations of Israel’s religious practices following the Exodus and the giving of the Law. But in neither case was the sincere desire to practice the Law ever condemned. The religion was never the problem; it was how people practiced it that was the problem. Just as a mother provides pure milk for the health, growth, and wellbeing of her child, it was pure religion – both the Law and the religion that Jesus entrusted to the Church – that was given to the Jews and to us for our spiritual health, growth, and wellbeing.

    And, of course, Jesus was never critical of his own religious legacy outlined above.

         


      * “The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, esp. as found in accepted sacred writings or as declared by recognized teachers and in pursuit of a way of life regarded as incumbent on true believers.” (Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition)

      This entry was posted on Friday, March 23rd, 2018 at 11:06 pm and is filed under Christianity, Personal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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