“It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
This phrase is often used to describe the difference between Christianity and other religions. It’s been used so much I think you can even get it on a t-shirt. Deep down, there’s some truth to that ( although there are much better ways to explain why Christianity is different from everything else). The sentiment of the phrase is that other religions are simply rules and regulations to modify our behavior into behaving decently, whereas Christianity is about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And that is a valid distinction. However, the superficial use of that phrase, indicated by how commonly it is uttered, is deadly wrong.
The way the modern Church illustrates that phrase will have eternal consequences for people, and not the good kind. It appears the focus of the church is purely on relationship to the error of leaving all Christian religion behind. Now, I’m not advocating we become legalistic, but if we deplete ourselves of any religious doctrine, what exactly are we in relationship with? If, in order to become more palatable to the masses, we discard the Bible’s teachings because it constitutes “religion,” then we have simply created a fanciful relationship with a God of our own making. And that isn’t a religion or a relationship – and it certainly isn’t Christianity.
Why has the Church decided it only needs to focus on love and happy thoughts and helping others, as if that defines Christianity? Those attributes define any and every humanitarian organization. That is NOT what Christianity is. We are told in scripture to know God, to seek after Jesus. John 17:3 says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Matthew 6:33 says to seek the kingdom of God first. So yes, knowing God and seeking Jesus involves a relationship – but a relationship requires time and conversation. A relationship requires an investment into learning more about the one whom you are in a relationship with. To have a relationship, you must accurately and intimately understand who the other person is. Can you imagine marrying your spouse after only speaking to them 5 minutes one time a week? That is not a relationship where you actually know anything about another person. Likewise, if we think only about God’s love for us on Sunday mornings yet never take the time to read His Word or communicate with Him, then we don’t have a relationship because we don’t know the person with whom we are relating.
Church growth consultants say that people leave the church because they don’t have a relationship with Jesus. Of course they don’t; otherwise they wouldn’t leave the church. But why do they not have a relationship with Jesus? Is it because we failed to teach them that God loves them? Maybe it’s because they’ve failed to learn anything about who God is. The vastness of God’s love for us cannot be appreciated until we understand how much God should not love us and what lengths He went to out of His love for us. The Church wants everyone to think they are “friends” of God. But we are not God’s friends. The only person in the Bible referred to as God’s friend was Abraham. The ONLY ONE. We actually are enemies of God. We are the criminals and He is the judge. He has offered us a pardon for our crimes and is willing to welcome us in as His adopted children. But that means NOTHING to the criminal who doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. That means NOTHING to the criminal who doesn’t understand the authority and power of the Judge. To have a relationship with God, we must know God. And we must understand the vastness of who He is and His Holiness as well as the depths of our sin and depravity before we can fully appreciate what He did for us on the cross. Only then can we understand David’s words in Psalm 8, “O Lord, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth, Who have set Your glory above the heavens! …When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” When we truly learn about the Creator, the amazing, almighty God that created everything that we see and touch and feel, then we can say, “How excellent is Your name!” And when we remind ourselves of the depths of our sin, that even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags, then we can say, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” Not so that we respond to God out of guilt, but so that we can appreciate God’s love for us because we are in fact guilty. It is knowing God and knowing who we are in relation to God that compels our hearts towards gratitude and love. For God so loved us, therefore we should also love Him.
Therefore, the most important time you spend in your day is learning about God. That may sound like “religion” instead of relationship, but the religion part is necessary for the relationship to be true. Charles Spurgeon once said, “I believe that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of the child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.” Therefore the greatest endeavor of the Christian and of the Church is to learn and teach about God – all aspects of God. From the theological (or Biblical) to the philosophical to the scientific to the anthropological – EVERY aspect of God should be taught so that we can truly know Him.
Romans 1:20-23 says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man.”
Are we guilty of that now? The attributes of God are all around us, but we are not glorifying Him as God. We are not even teaching about God. When we don’t take time to study who God is, then we are not glorifying God as God. We have simply reduced Him down to our own ideas about what He should be. We have neglected teaching His attributes so that people can know Him. So we have now changed Him from an incorruptible God into the image we make like corruptible man.
If you are just dabbling in enough Jesus to feel good about yourself one day a week, then you aren’t really knowing God. There is no relationship there. If you want to say that Christianity is more relationship than religion, then be in that relationship and get to know God. I truly believe you’ll find that you can’t have that relationship without that religious doctrine, because otherwise, you are in relationship with something other than the Lord God Almighty, Creator of the universe, King of all Kings, and Lord of all Lords. You must explore the depths and wonders of who God really is in order to have a right relationship with Him.
The religion part is necessary for the relationship to be true.