Many times in our ministry we emphasise the term ‘Christianity is about relationship with Christ and not about religion’. The definition of ‘Christianity’ is - a religion based on belief in God and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Now there are several meanings of the word ‘religion’. The word referenced here is referring to ‘a personal set or institutionalised system of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices that judges a person depending on their adherence and obedience to these required acts. In my opinion this is the complete opposite of what the Bible teaches.
The true message of Christianity is about God reaching down to man whereas religion is man trying to reach up to God. Christianity is about what God has already done through His grace for us to be right with Him. Religion is about performance and what man has to do to be right with God and earn salvation. We can’t earn the right to be saved; Christianity says all we need to do is BELIEVE that Christ has already paid the price for our sin. God in the form of Jesus Christ stepped into our place and paid the price that had to be paid for us, giving us all the free gift of salvation which we have the choice to accept if we believe in Jesus.
Jesus turned the religious world upside down during his time on earth. Now we could probably write a whole series in itself on what Jesus thought of religion, but I think His view is clear especially when you notice how every single hostile encounter Jesus experienced was with religious people. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were obsessed with pointing out the sins of people and their lack of holiness and not much has changed today. Two examples of the Pharisees exposing the sins of people and desiring that they be dealt with harshly are the woman caught in adultery and the prostitute who washed the feet of Jesus. Jesus’ response was neither condemnation nor did he threaten them with Gods wrath and punishment but instead He instead forgave them both and set them free from their accusers which He still does to those today who repent, believe and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Jesus challenged the Pharisees and said;
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” Matthew 9:13
When Jesus asked them to figure out what this means, He was quoting a passage of scripture which they should have known; Hosea 6:6
“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
The Pharisees failed to pay attention to the reason behind those rules and laws. Had they studied scripture which revealed Gods heart and intentions towards man, then they might have understood why Jesus saw mercy as a powerful way of turning sinners to God and away from sin.
Another time we see this is Luke 11:42;
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass by justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
Jesus knew His Father loved people and He didn’t need their sacrifices to earn His favour or love. By connecting to God in our hearts by knowing and experiencing His mercy for us, He is able to transform us and our desires.
“In mercy and truth Atonement is provided for iniquity; And by the fear of the Lord one departs from evil.” Proverbs 16:6
Gods love is revealed by His mercy to people and the truth is that God is a good God. When people recognise and walk in the reality of Gods mercy for them then they experience the truth that Jesus said would set people free.
“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32
One of the most religious men of his day was the apostle Paul and here’s what he wrote;
“For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” Galatians 2:19-21
Before Paul knew Jesus, for a long time he thought God would accept him because of his law keeping. He eventually came to the realisation where he understood the law and knew that the law made him guilty before God and not justified before God. It was a pointer then and it is still a pointer today to those who aren’t yet saved. Jesus died in our place on the cross. When He died, we died to the law and we are now alive to Jesus Christ who lives in us and we can only live out this new life by faith, not by law keeping. The faith Paul lived by was not faith in himself, faith in the law, or faith in what he could earn or deserve before God but rather it was faith of the Son of God – Jesus Christ.
If you look at the whole book of Galatians, Paul’s purpose in writing to these churches was to confirm them in the faith, emphasising justification by faith alone instead of the works of the law. Romans chapter 3 is a chapter on the same subject and there are many more passages which talk about this subject of the law and faith. Faith is so important to recognise if we are to live out our new life in Christ. The Bible explains that anyone with faith in Jesus can have an intimate relationship with Him but many have been deceived into thinking that they cannot get close to God without first approaching the person at the front of the church who they deem more holy. This is not true, there is no hierarchy, and we have all been given an equal measure of faith as Romans 12:3 tells us “God has dealt to each one a measure of faith”. Our relationship with God is through His Son Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, there is no need for any human mediator.
Fast forward 2,000 years, here we are and not much has changed but has actually gone further. Years after His death we have seen how religious leaders and false preachers have used the same techniques to now create financially backed church institutions in order to build their own custom made form of Christianity with the basis on church authority through man. These doctrines and theologies created by human institutions have suppressed the teachings of Christ and have promoted doctrines He never taught allowing self appointed preachers to apply authority and extract money from Gods people. In the past two thousand years, memberships and finances of Institutionalised religions have increased as a result and like the first century religious leaders Jesus condemned, many of them have accumulated huge amounts of wealth from God’s people by tying them up in legalism. Legalism is a by product of the word religion in the sense that it is about adherence to a set of institutionalised systems of religious attitudes, beliefs and practices. The subjects of Religion and legalism go hand in hand so we will go into more detail about Legalism in our next chapter.
Church Rethink Series
Part one: Churchianity
Part two: 44,800 Christian denominations
Part three: Religion
Part four: Legalism
Part five: The Tithe
Part six: The Early Church
Part seven: The Future Church