It has become quite the fashionable thing these days to bash religion. Sadly, this is almost as common amongst Christians as it is non-Christians. I’m sure many of us have heard the phrase, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”
Don’t get me wrong. I get it. I know what people mean when they utter this phrase. The problem is it’s simply not true, nor is it biblical. The Bible speaks of religion, and not in negative terms. Certainly, there is a wrong way to be religious, and a right way…But isn’t this true of everything? James, the brother of Jesus, in his letter to Jewish Christians says this:
“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
So James here isn’t speaking ill of religion. What James is speaking against is false religion. People who fail to bridle their tongue. People who are outwardly religious, but don’t have the heart to match. People who claim to be religious, yet are not doing the things that Scripture commands of them. As James says in 1:22, we are to be “doers of the word, not hearers only.” Basically, James is referring to people we like to refer to as hypocrites. John the Baptist and Jesus spoke against these same people.
So, you see, religion isn’t the problem. The problem is false religion. The problem is religion that doesn’t come from the heart of one who has been changed by the Gospel of Christ. R. C. Sproul in one of his books defines religion as what springs forth from theology. Another way to say it would be religion is what we do in response to what we believe about God. So, our religion (and ALL of us are religious because we all believe something about God) is our response to God.
Jesus was not anti religion. In fact, Jesus was probably the most religious man in the history of the world. Why? Because he knew God the Father perfectly. In the same way, Jesus being sinless, his response to God was always perfect. Obviously, this isn’t the case with us. Our religion is often very defiled…Our religion is often quite stained by the world and it’s ways. Very rarely do we practice pure religion…because our hearts aren’t pure. Yet, the problem isn’t with religion…the problem is with us.
We are sinful. Sinful to our core. We never graduate from this point. The Apostle Paul referred to himself as the “chief of sinners”, and he did it in the present tense (1 Timothy 1:15). If Paul, one of the Godliest men ever refers to himself as the chief of sinners…what does that make me? In Romans 7 Paul refers to his own struggles with sin and doing what he ought to do. Paul never ceased to be a sinner in his earthly life…Neither will we. This being true, our religion won’t always look like it should. Our churches won’t always look like they should.
So yes, sometimes religion looks pretty ugly. It would be very easy to write it off and say that religion is the problem. The problem is though, like I said, it simply isn’t true nor biblical. The Bible doesn’t tell us to stop being religious, the Bible tells us what religion is supposed to look like. This picture of pure and undefiled religion is what we are to be striving for on this side of eternity. As is always true though, we don’t do it perfectly. This is why we rest in our relationship with Christ.
It is through our relationship with the one who was perfectly religious that our hearts are changed and we are able in some measure to get closer to the biblical picture of right religion.