The Religion About a Relationship

Have you seen the wildly popular YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus?” Watch it. It’s 4 minutes of well-produced spoken word video describing the author’s view of the essence of Christianity. It has people (about 14 million at this writing) talking about Christianity, spiritual life, and of course, Jesus – which is all good.

Of course the BIG question is the one assumed in the video title, “Is Jesus opposed to religion?” For Jefferson Bethke, who created the video, the answer is decidedly “yes.” I appreciate his perspective, and I love the way he communicates it. He wants to emphasize that really belonging to Jesus, really knowing Him, changes you. And he’s right when he says that when we follow a “DO” religion (as in, What do I have to do to earn a ticket to heaven?), we actually miss God because we forget that Jesus preached “DONE.” As in, “It is finished.” Amen to that, Jefferson!

Either / Or?

When I was a young christian the same theme was taught to me. Back then I heard, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” which sounded like a great rallying cry for all that was wrong with “liberal” Christianity. But then I started reading good books by great Christians through the ages, heroes of the faith, really. Giants. And they got me all confused.

Why? Because for them religion wasn’t a dirty word. For them, there was no contradiction between the Christian religion, and having a relationship with Jesus.

What Is a Religion?

So, what is a religion anyway? It’s just a set of beliefs, a Faith, taught by it’s founder and held by its adherents. This means a religion can be summarized by a creed. It can be explained to non-believers. It can be taught to children. It can be translated into different languages. It can be defended against opposing philosophies. And it can be applied to a way of life that harmonizes with those beliefs.

❯ Christianity Is a Religion

So by this definition, Christianity is a religion. It’s the religion Jesus taught when He claimed that He alone could secure God’s grace for us by His life, death, and resurrection. For example, He told His disciples on the night Judas betrayed him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) That is, by definition, a religious statement.

Similarly, the Apostle Paul taught us that certain beliefs about Jesus were at the very heart of Christian religion: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Here, Paul takes specific historical claims: Jesus died, was buried, and was raised. He invests them with religious meaning: Jesus died for our sins. And finally he says that this: is of first importance. In other words, Christianity is nothing if these foundational articles of religious belief are false.

Another example comes from the pen of the Apostle John, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” (1 John 3:23). Here we are told what to believe: in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and how to live in harmony with that belief: love one another.

This is what a religion is all about: What to believe; and how to live accordingly.

❯ Christianity Is a Relationship

But (you knew this was coming), Christianity is also a religion about a relationship. It’s the religion that promises believers will experience God’s grace, presence, and joy through a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s what those giants I read called communion with Christ.

The Christian religion is experienced day-to-day as communion with God through Christ’s Spirit within us. The nature of that communion is God’s loving acceptance and lordship on one side, and our joyous surrender and obedience on the other. And that relationship is extended through the same Spirit so that believers experience communion with one another.

❯ But Not That Kind of Religion

But how can such a relationship exist? How does it happen? Is it something I can pull off? – No. It is a work of God. Through Christ. On the cross. By His resurrection. It is finished. I cannot create it. I cannot earn it. Period. That’s why WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) can be a dangerously misguided question. WDJD (What Did Jesus Do?) is a much more important question.

The Christian religion is the basis on which average sinners like me can enjoy a relationship with Jesus. It’s the basis, of first importance, not the antithesis.

So to me, religion isn’t the real enemy of Jesus; bad religion is – the kind that believes personal effort can achieve the righteousness (moral perfection) required to earn God’s acceptance.

But then, that kind of religion can’t even be called Christian.

Anyway, Kudos Jefferson, for drawing people’s attention (14 million and counting) to Jesus. May your relationship – and religion – always grow in Him!

What do you believe about Christianity as a religion and/or relationship?


17 thoughts on “The Religion About a Relationship

  1. Ever since I’ve seen the video on Youtube (about 3 days ago) I’ve been curious and confused as to how one can hate religion but love Jesus. Also, when we say that it is already “DONE” therefore, basically forget about the “DO”, what are we really saying? So doesn’t that basically mean I can just live my life however I want then? I mean, no matter what I do or how I live-it’s not going to buy my way into heaven. Christianity is a religion-by definition-you are right. So again, how can you hate religion but love Jesus? Thanks so much for the post.

    • Good question. I think people who have a church background and come to faith in Christ as adults are likely to “hate religion”. Whereas people with or without a church background and no true faith in Christ tend to despise “organized religion”.

  2. LOVED the video. BUT, I find it quite interesting that Jesus himself followed the do’s and dont’s of the law to perfection. He didn’t come to abolish it but to fulfill it. it’s a fine line. And, what starts out as a good thing that leads towards Christ always gets tainted by ourselves. Awesome things from the forefathers of the church. We truly are a broken body.

    • Yes Susan, Jesus covered all the “DO” on our behalf (what theologians call, Christ’s active righteousness) so that God accepted his self-sacrifice – the “DONE” – as a perfect substitute (Christ’s “passive” righteousness) for the death we deserved.

      We indeed are a broken body when we fail to understand the centrality of the gospel.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes Susan,
      Jesus covered the “DO” (what theologians call his “active” righteousness) on our behalf so God would accept His self-sacrifice (“DONE”, or “passive righteousness) as a perfect substitute for the death we deserved.

      You’re right that the body is broken the more it loses sight of the gospel.

      Thanks for sharing!!

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  5. Years ago my wife and I read the book “How to be a Christian without being Religious”. It is the TEV version of Romans. I started saying “Christianity is not a Religion” as a shocker opening statement when discussing religion. I used one dictionary definition of Religion “Religion is man’s effort to please God.” to argue that we can not please God with our own efforts.

    After living 17 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary pilot and nurse, we attended our Reformed style church after returning to the U.S. The first sermon we heard was: Sunday is the Sabbath. Since our pastor stated that Tuesday was his Sabbath as he had to work on Sunday, I approached him after the service and asked what that sermon had to do with with life? He looked bewildered. I muttered something about missing an opportunity to preach the good news, while thinking that sermon was religion in action.

    Thanks for your thought provoking posts.

    • Yes, the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles all taught that any efforts to establish our own righteousness to earn salvation are doomed efforts (Romans 10:3). This “kind” of religion is false. But there is a “true religion.” James spoke of it. It’s the faith of historic Christianity. I think a “religion about a relationship” based on God’s unmerited acceptance of sinners through Christ is a pretty good way to characterize the faith we share. God bless and THANK YOU for your sacrificial service furthering the gospel and Christ’s kingdom. You will not lose your reward!

  6. “So to me, religion isn’t the real enemy of Jesus; bad religion is – the kind that believes personal effort can achieve the righteousness (moral perfection) required to earn God’s acceptance.” – Excellent. Good article, Lon. I appreciate your gracious criticism of Mr. Bethke’s message.

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