What Does Religion Have to do With Being a Christian?

For the majority of my life I have been on a personal quest to become what I would call a non-religious follower of Jesus Christ. Let me explain. When God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, he did so, not to found a new world religion[1] but rather to restore our relationship with God and to show us the way to live. Relationship and life are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Christians, as rescued and restored human beings, are in a process of rediscovering a relationship with God and his original design for their existence. This is what it means to experience life in its fullness. God is the author and the perfecter of this work.

Religion, on the other hand, is a system of worship and conduct which promises, by faithful adherence, to bring the observer into right standing with God, earn them his favor, love, or some kind of heavenly reward.  The emphasis of religion is on the outward; observance of special days, various rites and rituals, ascetic disciplines, certain kinds of prayers, and lists of appropriate and inappropriate behavior (different depending on what religious system you are observing).

Ironically, in the Old Testament we find such a system.  I don’t have to read very far in Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy to find myself feeling a bit depressed. The list of commands, ceremonial requirements, and sacrificial protocol laid on the Israelites is enough to make anyone want to rethink their brand of religion. In most cases the penalty for failure to comply was severe – death!

God had a specific purpose in mind, however, for establishing such a system. Paul explains it this way, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.”[2] The law, and the extensive sacrificial system surrounding it, was used by God to reveal his holy nature and prophetically portray his gracious salvation in Christ. The law worked to expose the utter inability of fallen humans to attain a “God-kind” of righteousness by observing any list, let alone, his list of requirements. With the full weight of this failure looming over us, God graciously lead us to his loving solution, Christ. What we couldn’t accomplish by attempting to be good enough, Christ did for us on the cross.

The very thing that religion promises, it fails to deliver – a right and close relationship with God. Human nature loves religion and the devil has used it well.  Our bent toward performance and the need to feel we are in control thrives well in a system of religious observance. Much pride can be taken for what one accomplishes and the lengths of faithful observance one goes to “look good.” The problem is, all my efforts to arrange my life according to some pre-determined system to earn God’s favor, love, or acceptance simply falls miserably short, every time.

The Apostle Paul had this to say about his former life in “religion”, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, A Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the church; as to legalistic righteousness, faultless.”[3] Paul had a great deal of confidence in his ability to be a “religious” person, doing what he thought was pleasing to God, even to the killing of Christians. All that changed, however, when he met Christ. His opinion of all his former accomplishments in religion was dramatically transformed from one of boasting and self-confidence to one of considering them absolutely worthless in comparison to knowing Christ.

Unfortunately, much of my Christian experience has been overlain with religion.  As difficult as it is for me to admit, underlying much of the “stuff” I have done as a Christian has laid the expectation of attracting the attention and favor of God and the admiration of others.  But that is what religion does. It high jacks even the best of motivations and imprisons them in a system which places squarely on the shoulders of the worshiper the full weight of performing well enough to get God to possibly look their way and smile.

The good news is Jesus modeled and provided a much better way. In the gospel accounts I find Jesus to be refreshingly non-religious.  He appears to be completely unconcerned with what the “religious elite” think of him. His conduct is not driven by a pre-established list of rules but rather by an up-close, intimate relationship with his father. He stands secure in the loving embrace and unreserved acceptance of his father and it is from that place he speaks and acts. When you read the Gospels it becomes clear Jesus had this on-going conversation with his father. He said he only did what his father was doing and that his words were not his own but his father’s. Unlike his religious contemporaries, when he spoke it was with authority, and when he acted the lame walked, the deaf heard and dead were raised to life.

So in this quest of mine, where am I headed? I guess it would be safe to say I’m aiming to be more like Jesus. Instead of ordering my life by a pre-determined list of rules and the expectation of others, I’m learning to rest in the unconditional love and acceptance of God. Religion gets complicated. I’m aiming to simplify, rid my life of pretense, and be an open book to God and others. I’m endeavoring to stay more alert to the issues Jesus said were key, the issues of the heart, and keep my focus on what really matters, the things that are not seen.  In my quest to be more like Jesus I’m learning to keep my eyes fixed on him, to practice his presence wherever or in whatever state I find myself, and to be more attentive to his voice. As I grow in all these areas I can expect that more of my words will reflect the influence of God and more of my deeds will result in bringing heaven to earth.

How about you?



[1] I am speaking of religion not in its purely grammatical sense, but in the sense of an elaborate system of human performance designed to earn God’s love and favor.

[2] Galatians 3:24,25

[3] Philippians 3:4-6