Its a relationship, not a religion. Right?

My name is Allen and I am a podunk kid from southeastern North Carolina. Since I’m just this podunk kid no one has ever heard of I can say quite a bit and probably few will ever hear what I have to say. I have something to say. What I desire to say goes against what seems to be the majority of people who have a worldview pretty close to mine. If you are an evangelical in the southern part of the United Sates I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Its not religion its a relationship.” I disagree.

I am sure this is where many of you are cringing and calling people like myself stupid, arrogant, religious pharisees. Because you’ve always been told and firmly believe that religion is this man made evil that condemns people to hell. The only way someone can get to heaven is to have a personal relationship with Jesus. I, on the other hand am convinced you can have a personal relationship with Jesus and still be damned. I know I am stepping on egg shells here, but I ask that you will continue reading with me. Don’t stop reading here. I promise we aren’t on opposing teams and I’ve not recanted the doctrine of eternal security of the believer. Some of you reading this right now may not affirm the doctrine of eternal security of the believer, we can debate that later if you’d like.

So its not a religion, its a relationship. Right?

Lets go to a good friend of every preacher, Merriam-Webster to see what it has to say.

Etymology: Middle English religioun, from Anglo-French religiun, Latin religion-, religio supernatural constraint, sanction, religious practice.

So the word has a historical meaning dealing with the supernatural. I think genuine faith in Christ deals with the metaphysical. (Check)

It is a noun, so it is an idea. We’ve got that one down already since its been called this man made evil idea. Right? (Check)


1)the service and worship of God or the supernatural
2)commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

I feel confident that I can say my faith in Christ is certianly an act of service and worship to God (Romans 12:1-2) I also can say that I put devotion in my relationship with Christ and observe certain practices. As a Baptist I uphold two ordinances; baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Merriam-Webster does not stop there in defining religion. We get another definition, this probably the one most people have a problem with.

a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

This is where many people look to all the traditions of the church. But I would look to Christ and see that he indeed instituted somethings. Like those two ordinances I mentioned earlier, baptism and partaking of the Lord’s supper. We find in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus himself instituted the church and declared that the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. Jesus instituted some religious things that I think we are all very thankful for. Through God’s revelation in his word we are given a system of things to belief and practice.

I do not want to simply play a game of semantics with Merriam-Webster. What I would like to do is look at the word religion in James’ epistle, a guy by the name of Judas Iscariot in the gospels, and look to some old dead guys with cool hair that I am indebted to.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:26-27

If anyone thinks he has true religion, that he is a truly religious person he must have self control over his tongue. We might be wise to back up and read what is going on in verses 19-25. James is telling his readers to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Doing these things is more godly. He tells his readers to put away their sin and to be doers of the word of God. Not to simply hear the word of God and let it fall to the way side, but to genuinely follow the commands of Christ. If you just hear the commands of Christ and let them fall to the way side you are deceiving yourself. Its like looking in a mirror and walking away forgetting what you look like. But for the person who keeps the commands of God, those things which he instituted he is a doer of the word.

So following Christ, being a doer of the word is keeping things that are “religious” in nature. But the one who thinks he is truly religious but lets the word go to the wayside and allows his tongue to hold him captive, his religious is worthless. So if there is a religion that is worthless, there is a religion that has value. So what is this religion that has value? It “is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this; to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

I think a lot of people miss some things when they read over this passage, and they related to the relationship v. religion discussion. If it can truly be called a “x” v. “y” situation, I think Christianity is both, but because of religion one can have a relationship.

Pure and undefiled. Having a relationship with Jesus alone is not pure and undefiled. It is because of Jesus one can have not only a religion that is pure an undefiled but a relationship that is also. God instituted religion with his covenant people on Sinai. He gave them the law, a set of religious practices. No one except God himself could keep the law. Jesus came and kept the law. He “kept it to the T.” He was the perfect sinless sacrifice that was to be once for all. After Jesus died and rose again the wrath of God was poured out on him, sin was not only absolved for those who would come to faith in Christ. The punishment that was required of God for those transgressions was poured out on Jesus. His death and resurrection was not only expiation, but propitiation. Through faith in Christ a man can stand before God, pure and holy. Through faith comes obedience to Christ, producing good works that show one really has faith in Christ. The man who obeys who stands clean before God in Christ alone has religion of worth.

Everyone always focuses on the part of the text that says, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Being in the word, submissive to the lordship of Jesus leads to the services of others. “and the other, love your neighbor as yourself.” It is an act that is pleasing to God and done for his glory. If you are in Jesus visit the orphans and serve the widows in their afflictions. Be a servant like Jesus. It is something God has instituted for his church to do.

Then the last part of the verse, “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This to I’ve seen ignored many times. Perhaps because it calls for Lordship and lays a theological smack down to proponents of antinominanism. If you follow Jesus, if you are a person of true religion, you’ll not look like the world. You stay away from sin and idolatry unlike the man who has worthless religion who doesn’t practice the commands of Jesus.

So do we continue to make the word “religion” taboo among evangelicals? Do we in practice say that if one is practicing religion, they do not have a relationship with Christ? Do we damn the apostle for his use of this word and shun anyone from using it?

Judas Iscariot: a man who had a personal relationship with Jesus.

Matthew’s Gospel 10th chapter:

And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. – Matthew 10:1-4

Matthew lists the Apostles and the dominion Christ had given them. Then and the end of the list comes Judas. The one who betrayed him. We all know that Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss for a bag of silver. Then afterwards he hung himself, the limb broke, he fell and his bowels burst from his body. The gospels tell us that Satan himself entered Judas before this betrayal. The story of Judas is not a very heroic or cheerful one. It is a truly sad story about the betrayal of the Creator of all things by a man who followed him for three years and was numbered among the men that penned most of the New Testament.

Judas Iscariot had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In one way entirely more personal that anyone that you and I have with Christ. Judas walked with Jesus for years and sat under his teaching. He was numbered with the Apostles and given the same authority they had. Yet, Judas was not subject to the Lordship of Christ.

John MacArthur in his book Twelve Ordinary Men writes of Judas, “He is the most colossal failure in all of human history. He committed the most horrible, heinous act of any individual, ever. He betrayed the perfect, sinless, holy Son of God for a handful of money. His dark story is a poignant example of the depths to which the human heart is capable sinking. He spent three years with Jesus Christ, but for all that time his heart was only growing hard and hateful.”

It is not a good thing to be associated with Judas. Today people still will call someone who is a traitor a ‘Judas.’ But Judas knew Jesus, he walked with him for years. In John 6 Jesus had a large group of disciples quit following him, but Judas stayed. The night he betrayed Jesus he was close enough to share bread and the dip for that bread. It is safe to say that in one sense Judas was close to Christ. Yet his religion was worthless completely defiled.

I propose some questions: What does it mean to have a personal relationship with Jesus? Where does this idea come from? Is a personal relationship with Jesus saving faith?

Judas’ personal relationship with Jesus is not the kind of relationship a true believer in Christ has. Judas heard the word of God, constantly but it never pierced his soul. The story of Judas is one that leave a legacy that forever says he esteemed him not. But for the believer who has genuine intimate fellowship with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The word is proclaimed, the word falls on ears that can hear, faith is given, and works come to fruition. For that man or woman, the one who had ears to hear who came to faith, their religion is pure an undefiled. It is religion that produces a relationship. It is one that does not end like Judas’. For the true believer in Christ, there is a relationship that begins on earth and continues forever in worship and enjoyment of the Creator of all things and the redeemer of all who would ever believe forever.

A personal relationship is more than just association with Christ, it is identity in him. Only through the reconciliation of man before God through the precious blood of Jesus can a true relationship with God be found. In this relationship comes religion, pure and undefiled before God the Father.

Poor ignorant Jonathan Edwards should have known that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Especially in his book the Religious Affections where he calls Christianity true religion time and time again. Poor Edwards was not alone in this. Charles H. Spurgeon a personal hero of mine also had the misfortune of not knowing that Christianity was a relationship not a religion. I read yesterday one account where he was preaching on the Bible and its role in “our holy religion.” John Calvin wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion with much ignorance as he even used the words ‘Christian’ and ‘religion’ in its title. To write a book about Christian life and doctrine and call that religion, poor ignorant John Calvin.

These gentlemen had a very deep understanding of what it meant to have a relationship with Christ. But they did not relent from calling Christianity a religion. They were keen to be with the apostle to distinguish it from false religion and promote Christianity as the only one true religion of the one and true living God, the God of the bible. They devoted their lives to gospel and its proclamation. Their lives and writings reflect the words of the apostle Paul, “whatever is true, whatever pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)All of those men were very intelligent and very wise, yet they used the word “religion” synonymously with Christianity. I think we would be wise to look at their example and not throw the semantic baby out with the bathwater.

I do not think it is a cardinal sin to call Christianity a religion. We must be wise to not associate it as just one of the worlds religions, but to present it as the one true religion that does service and is worship of the one true God. What we face before us today is no different than that which Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon faced with a multitude of religions and worldviews. Let us looked deeper at what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ and the work of his atonement in our relationship with God the Father. Let us not dismiss the words of the apostle James in calling Christianity true religion and quickly say that religion is damnable. While the majority of religion is just that, there is that which is pure and undefiled which leads to an everlasting relationship with the God of the universe.


2 thoughts on “Its a relationship, not a religion. Right?

  1. i dont agree with what you've written AT FIRST, but after reading halfway..i understand and thumbs up:)… nice article…just so you know i've posted your link on my blog…keep up the good work for His glory:)blessing!:)

  2. I agree with what you've written – for the most part. While your conclusion is right in theory, it's the practice of that conclusion that has become the 'stumbling block'. I think everyone with a quarter of a brain will agree that Christianity is, by definition terms, a religion. But leaving it at merely that just lumps it together with the 420 million other 'religions' out there. I think that whoever came up with the whole 'relationship, not a religion' deal was just trying to differentiate and set apart Christianity by it's core tenet – that God wants to know us intimately and vice versa. Which is understandable, considering the atrocities in history that are attributed to the 'religion' of Christianity. And then there's the fact that Christianity contains within itself numerous 'religions'….as per websters definition. Each one holding to their own tenets and practices and organizations. And again, I agree…there is only ONE TRUE religion – but that's from MY perspective. The world has a other perspectives, and in order to define my true religion to those perspectives, I might have to come at it from the angle of 'relationship, not religion'. It all depends on the audience. At the core though…I know you can agree that while our 'relationship' causes us to follow certain practices….at the core of it, it's the 'relationship' that saves, not the practices.

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