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?

What Makes Faith “Christian?”

If you ask the average man or woman on the street if he or she believes in God, you’re likely to get a “Yes.” In fact, most Americans say they believe in God despite the general secularism of American society.

❯ Yes, but…

But, probe a little behind that “yes,” and you’ll hear a lot of “Yes, but…”

  • “…but not like organized religion talks about Him.”
  • “…but not like the Bible portrays Him.”
  • “…but I’m not religious.” (i.e. “I’m not associated with a church”)

The fact is that modern Americans are largely “Yes, but…” believers. This allows them to keep the faith and spirituality they want, while divorcing faith from the religious trappings they don’t want: the Bible and the Church.

❯ The American Faith

How did American faith get this way? I blame American churches (of all kinds). On any given Sunday morning you could find a grab bag of boutique doctrines, moralism, false mysticism, superstitions, legalism, emotional drama, psychological manipulation, theological liberalism, or outright heresy that confuses, ignores, and/or denies the central messages of the Bible. In such a confusing theological potpourri, it’s no wonder individuals decide to make up whatever faith pleases them most. And the faith that seems to please Americans most is what Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has called, Moralistic, therapeutic deism, that is, God/religion is here to help you get through the tough times of life and teach you how to be a good person so you can go to heaven when you die.

End of story.

Don’t sweat the details.

What’s missing?

Have you noticed what’s missing in the “Yes, but…” faith I described above? Or, should I say, “Who’s missing?


In the “Yes, but…” faith, there is no need for Jesus. We can relate to God on our terms and achieve everlasting life the same way.

God’s Son? The cross? The resurrection?


…the faith recorded in the Bible, the faith entrusted to the Church, is the faith about Jesus.

But, I believe that the faith recorded in the Bible, the faith entrusted to the Church, is the faith about Jesus. There’s no such thing as a “Christ-less” Christian faith. What makes faith “Christian” is what we believe about Jesus Christ: Who He is; what He accomplished; and why it was necessary. The extent to which we understand who Jesus is, trust what He has done for us, and understand why we needed it, is the extent to which our faith is truly Christian faith.

Shame on our churches for not making this clear to us.

Shame on us Christians for not making this clear to our “Yes, but…” neighbors.

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What? We’re Still Here?

In 1979, when I was 16 and new to the Christian faith, I believed virtually everything I was told about the Bible by anyone who said they were a Christian and seemed to know something I didn’t. Coincidentally, (Providentially?) I just happened to enter the Christian faith through the doors of American Pentecostalism, which was enamored with all things “end-times” back in the 70’s. In church and on TV, I heard the predictions: Jesus is coming soon! The proof: The signs of the times are all around us! The moral message: Be ready!

Did I believe it? Sure, I did. I lacked the intellectual and spiritual maturity to discern the difference between Christ’s claims and some of His followers’ claims. So at age 17, I told my High School guidance counselor that I didn’t have any college plans because, well, Jesus was going to return any minute.

That didn’t sit too well with him.

You know what happened next. I went to college after all, and actually made it through all four years. And I even went to seminary where I studied a good deal of Church history and theology.

What to Believe

Along the way, I learned not to swallow everything I was taught too quickly. I learned to think critically – to examine, question and challenge a position until I felt confident that it was true or false, or close to home, or missed the point entirely. Previous to this, I had believed what I believed either because I didn’t know an alternative existed, or because someone else had vilified the alternative.

Guess what? I also found out that the way I had been taught to view Bible prophecy was a novelty of the 1800’s called Dispensationalism, and that it didn’t represent the historic views of either Catholicism or Protestantism. Unfortunately, many American Christians aren’t told that historic alternatives exist that offer a different perspective on Bible prophecy. I’m willing to bet Harold Camping, the latest in the line of rapture predictors, doesn’t know they exist, either.

And this leads me to the reason I hope you’ve read this far.

You know that I love the Christian faith and the Savior who founded it. So, I’m concerned that many of the unconvinced may well find reason to throw out the baby Jesus with the Harold Camping bath water.

So, please allow me to remind us all of what Christianity claims to be as summarized by The Apostles’ Creed. It has borne the test of history. It represents what and who we live for.

Christians Believe

“…in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,
and sits on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty;
from there he shall come to judge the quick [righteous] and the dead [unrighteous].

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic [universal] church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.”

Notice that The Apostles’ Creed makes specific claims about historical events around a man named Jesus. Therefore, you can investigate whether there is reason to believe these claims or not. Surely, He lived and was killed. But, was he God’s son? Was he born of a virgin? Did he resurrect himself after suffering a brutal death?

If yes, then you can stake your life, and your death and your eternity on this man, as I have. You can stake a claim that He will return as He promised. You can even pray with the Apostle John, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20)

You just can’t claim to know when.

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