It’s not a Religion but a Relationship (not quite!)

Its not a religion (610x351)This is our pastor’s newsletter article for the December 2014-January 2015 edition of our congregational newsletter: The Shepherd’s Voice.


We’ve all heard others say it. Maybe, you’ve even said it: “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Christ.” Yes, we live in the age of the sound-bite, where “truths” are distilled into small, pithy statements. Unfortunately, that statement isn’t true. But it sounds good, and since we usually don’t examine such statements as we should, we may even come to believe it and then say it.

But why isn’t that statement true? First, we have a clear passage in Scripture that tells us that Christianity is a religion! And if Scripture calls the content of the Faith that we believe, teach, confess, and live out as a “religion,” then that should settle it. If Scripture calls what we believe, teach, confess, and live out as a “religion,” then that “religion” can’t be something bad.

James 1:26-27: “If anyone thinks he is religious yet doesn’t bridle his tongue, he deceives himself, and his religion is worthless. A pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Scripture calls what we believe and live out as a “religion.” And, yes, “religion” is an accurate translation of the Greek word, threskeia, which James used.

Now, having just said that, Christianity is also a relationship that one has with Christ. After all, Scripture calls us Jesus’ brothers: “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). That verse points out that because Jesus physically rose from the dead, so will we. That’s the connection the next verse makes when it says that we will “be glorified” (Romans 8:30). And so when the Holy Spirit connects us to Jesus’ death and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-5), we become Jesus’ brothers.

And if you are Jesus’ brother (yes, even a woman becomes a “brother,” which has to do with receiving the inheritance God has for you), you are in a relationship with Him. But here’s the kicker: The Bible never uses the word “relationship” to describe who we are in Christ. Instead, you will find words like “communion” or “fellowship,” which changes the “me and Jesus” idea of a relationship into a “we and Jesus” communion. So, I suppose if we want Scripture to shape our understanding of who we are in Christ, then “communion” becomes a more meaning-filled word to do that.

But back to the original topic of this article. Since Scripture is clear that we are in communion with Christ and being so is also a “religion,” then those who say, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Christ” understand neither.

Christianity is being in a covenant with God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit. And being in a covenant is being in a religion. And being in a covenant is also being in communion. Matthew 26:27-28: “Then He [Jesus] took a cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying: ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” The Lord’s Supper is the New Covenant, a communion with and in Christ. And that New Covenant (Luke 22:20) only takes place in a religion called Christianity.

When people, often unknowingly, denigrate the truth of Christianity being a religion, they also denigrate what it means to be in a true “relationship” with Christ. Our communion (the Bible’s word for “relationship”) with Christ becomes real in the covenant that God, through Jesus, in the Holy Spirit makes with us. Just as circumcision brought one into the Old Covenant with God, baptism does that in the New Covenant (see Colossians 2:11-13). And since Jesus makes His Supper for us as the epicenter of the New Covenant, even the New Covenant itself (“This cup is the new covenant,” [Luke 22:20]), one cannot be in a communion, a “relationship,” with God without being brought into the New Covenant, which is the communion we have with and in Christ. And so, without God’s “pure and undefiled religion” for us, we can’t be in a “relationship” with Him.

If you have a “relationship” with Christ, you only have it because you are in His New Covenant. That Covenant that we are brought into is so real–just as Jesus’ body and blood are real in the New Covenant, His Supper–that it affects all areas of our life. That’s why James said that such true “religion” brings you to “take care of orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

That reality begins outside of you, when God the Holy Spirit working through the Word brings you, not only the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8) but also Jesus’ forgiveness, life, and salvation (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, Matthew 26:28). Jesus then dwells within you (Ephesians 3:17) and you serve others in your life (James 1:27). That’s Christianity. It’s not just a “relationship,” it’s also a religion.