Open Letter to My Friends: Christianity is Relationship, Not Religion

I linked to an article from The Gospel Coalition’s website on Facebook a little while ago, with this text:

Don’t even consider taking a sabbatical from God, not even for a moment. All the fleeting pleasures and treasures of this world could never compare to the value of knowing God as fully and as deeply as possible. If only we would stop investing in ourselves and start investing into our relationship with God!

I’d written it for my Christian friends, and hadn’t really considered that anybody else would read it until a couple of my friends commented. They were both non-Christians (in the absence of some better way of putting it), good people and good friends, and their comments were friendly and level-headed. As I answered them, I found myself writing about something that I should have written about a long time ago: Christianity is not a religion; in fact, biblical Christianity is about as anti-religious as you can get.

As a side-note before I go on, I fully recognise that the word ‘religion’ means different things to different people. Some Christians will object to me talking about religion in this way, simply because it’s the word they use to describe their Christian life. There are many traditions and ‘rituals’ in the church today that are good and important; some are even commanded in the Bible, and many will call them religious practices. There are many in real, living relationship with Jesus who are proud to call themselves religious. So, to make it clear, the kind of religion I’m talking about is the kind that’s all about putting your hope and faith in practices and behaviour, instead of in Jesus.

One of my friends had replied to me by posting an article by comedian Ricky Gervais, entitled Why I am a Good Christian. If you plan on reading the article, you should know beforehand that it does contain swearing and other content that you might not like. After reading it, I was left with one definite conclusion: This article is a response to everything people generally think Christians believe. Gervais’ article isn’t a response to the Bible (even though he does include the Ten Commandments), but a response to religion, or, more specifically, religious Christianity. 

Since I just made that term up, here’s what I mean: Religious Christianity is all about people doing the right things, believing the right things, and earning their place in heaven. I can give you an idea of how it differs from Bible-based Christian beliefs, by contrasting what the Bible says with what ‘religion’ says (I apologise if anybody feels unfairly portrayed through my brevity):

  • The Bible tells us that nobody can ever be saved (forgiven completely, and returned to a right relationship with God, so that they can avoid an eternity in hell and enjoy eternity with Him) by their own actions. No action, or lifelong habit of behaviour, will ever save us. Religion tells us that you’ll get to heaven as long as you follow the rules, attend enough services, and are ‘a good person’. There are no specific standard for what’s ‘good enough’, making it very tempting to just seek to be better than the people around you.
  • The Bible is the Word of God, which is brought to life in an indescribable way by the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the reader. Once the Holy Spirit does this, Gospel message of salvation changes, from foolish beliefs, into the message of life (as it says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.) Religion takes this message of life, and turns it into ‘wise words’, tradition, and a ‘good way to live’.
  • The Bible tells us that God cares very much about the things we do, but that we were not made to just ‘live well’ or be ‘good people’; we were made to know Him, to love Him, and to be with Him forever. Our God is patient when we fall into sin, and His Holy Spirit lives within us, making us more like Him as we go through life (which is a very challenging, and non-automated process, believe me). Religion says that we need to follow the rules, and that we’re ‘bad Christians’ if we don’t. Discipline and willpower are emphasised, and relationship with God is minimised, if not absent completely.
  • The Bible tells us that we grow as Christians as we spend time praying and studying His word (as circular as that reasoning might sound). As I touched on above, we don’t make ourselves better, but God moves powerfully through His word, and His Spirit lives within us. As we draw close to Him through these things, He makes us more like Him. Religion tells us that we make ourselves better by following the rules and rituals.
  • The Bible tells me that, when I stand before God at the end of my life, the only thing that will save me is Jesus’ death on the cross. There is nothing that I can say, do, or think in this life that will be of any value on that day. I will only be able to count on Jesus’ saving work. Religion expects to get in on the basis of works and rituals, as long as you’ve done enough, that is.

Friends, if you disagree with a belief system that tells you that you can earn your way to heaven if you’ll just blindly believe in a deity and follow all the rules, I feel the same way! Such beliefs dishonour God, and they do not save. Gervais’ article is a response to these beliefs, and I don’t share them.

So what do I believe, and what do Christians believe? I’ve mentioned most of it, but it’s been scattered throughout this post, so allow me a few more words so that I may present it as clearly as I can:

I have sinned. We all have. And, like everybody else, I continue to sin, doing things that often harm others and always offend and grieve God. God is an infinite being, and my offence toward Him is infinite. The only way for me to pay for this sin is to receive an infinite (i.e. everlasting) punishment. This isn’t some abstract thing to Christians: we truly believe that everybody who still has this debt outstanding at the end of their lives will go to hell, and we say it with great urgency and sadness. When Jesus died on the cross, He, as an infinite being, took that punishment. My punishment was given to Him. I will go to heaven when I die because of that and nothing else. He calls me to draw close to Him, to tell others about Him, and to become more like Him through His Spirit’s work in changing me, day by day. I am saved only because the infinite Creator God chose to save me. It has nothing to do with anything I did, or anything I’ll do between now and the day I die. It’s all from God.

So that’s what Christians believe. If you think those beliefs are ridiculous, I welcome your comments, really I do, and the same applies if you don’t feel that way. Whatever you feel, it’s a response to the Bible message rather than religious tradition, and for me, that’s a really big deal. Also, I’d love it if you’d just set aside a bit of time to find a Bible and read it (I recommend the book of John). It’s how the message of foolishness becomes the message of life; it’s how people are saved.

Thank you for reading.

One thought on “Open Letter to My Friends: Christianity is Relationship, Not Religion

  1. homer

    I love what has been written, and I am sorry to be the first person responding, if someone else doesn’t get a comment in before me ha ha. So many people want there lives to have meaning, yet let others control what that meaning should be. What I am trying to say is that we can go to Church, we can even say all the right prayers, and sing beautifully when given the opportunity, but living a Christian, as opposed to religious life are so different.

    Yes there are a set of principles that we should live by, but being a Christian is so much more then that. In a way Christ showed us the way, in how he lived his life here on Earth. The region that he lived and ministered in, was full of people who were bound by religious laws. Indeed many of those people tried to catch him out. In the book of Luke Chapter 14 verses 1-6, Jesus heals a sick man on the Sabbath, during the process of eating a meal at one of the leading Pharisees house. Then he asks those gathered around, ” if any of you had a son or an ox that happened to fall in a well on a Sabbath, would you not pull him out of the well immediately” They were not able to answer him.

    If we look from a purely religious point of view, we can deep even deeper, why would we even eat on a Sabbath, for that in itself requires effort. Christ though asks us to look deep into our soul, and live a Christ like life. Christ gives us so many examples of a life worth living, but sometimes it is more comfortable for us to be Religious, rather then truly faithful followers.

    In many ways our lives should mirror his, but that is an impossible task, after all he was the Son of God. We are not asked to be little Christs, but to be Christ like in the way we live. Very often that means getting out of our comfort zone, not by earning points for being good, or by abiding by a set of rules, but by following Christs desire for our life

    Just saying

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