“Religion” vs. a Relationship with God

“Religion” vs. a Relationship with God
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, July 31, 2010 at 11:21am

QUESTION: What do you think of this statement? – “Religion is a worthless, man-made idea; but having a relationship with God means discovering the satisfaction in Him to be so great that it grants you the WILLINGNESS to turn away from sin.”

ANSWER: Whether this statement is valid or not depends first of all on how you are defining “religion.” In its most generic definition, religion IS one’s relationship with whatever is considered to be deity. If this is the starting point, then the answer would be that most religions are worthless, man-made ideas, but the CHRISTIAN religion is not, since part of its very purpose is to put us into a relationship with God that has the effect described here.

Also, “having a relationship with God” is a rather ambiguous concept. It would depend on what kind of relationship you are talking about. Any relationship with God that bypasses Jesus Christ is unacceptable, as is any relationship that omits the Holy Spirit. The only relationship that can actually accomplish what is affirmed in the above statement is that relationship received when one obeys the gospel according to the teachings of the New Testament.

Within the context of Christianity it is fairly common to distinguish between “religion” and “Christianity.” Those who make this distinction do usually define religion as man-made ideas about how man can work his own way into acceptance by God. Christianity, on the other hand, is God’s provision for accepting us through the work of Jesus Christ. The statement above can be considered true in this context, and with the qualifications in the previous paragraph. I have discussed this in my book, “Set Free! What the Bible Says about Grace,” pp. 28-30. The following is adapted from these pages:

Most recognize that there are two distinct ways of relating to God. Some have described these two opposing ways as the contrast between RELIGION and CHRISTIANITY. In a widely-used little book called “How To Be a Christian Without Being Religious,” first published about 1970, Fritz Ridenour popularized this distinction. At first glance, one might think, “This sounds great! No more religion! No more prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, all those ‘religious’ things! And I can still be a Christian!”

But this is not the point. When Ridenour uses the word “religious,” he is not thinking about religion in the general sense of “doing religious things,” or things done in conscious worship of and service to God. These are all still necessary. He is using it in a more specific sense, i.e., a religious activity is something one does for the specific purpose of working his way into the presence of God, for the purpose of earning and deserving God’s blessings. It has to do not so much with the activity itself, but with the motive and goal one has for engaging in such activity. Ridenour’s point is that Christianity is different from all world religions and all “religious” activity, because it focuses not on our works as ways of making ourselves right with God, but on God’s works through Jesus Christ whereby he makes our relationship with him possible.

In his original introduction to “How To Be a Christian Without Being Religious,” Ridenour explains it this way: “Christianity is more than a religion, because every religion has one basic characteristic. Its followers are trying to reach God, find God, please God through their own efforts. Religions reach up toward God. Christianity is God reaching down to man. Christianity claims that men have not found God, but that God has found them. To some this is a crushing blow. They prefer religious effort—dealing with God on their own terms. This puts them in control. They feel good about ‘being religious.’ Christianity, however, is not religious striving. To practice Christianity is to RESPOND to what God has done for you.”

The reason I discuss this (in my book on grace) is that anyone who is burdened by a merely “religious” relationship with God, whether in reality or in perception only, will have a weak or even nonexistent assurance of his or her salvation. To one who has the mindset of religion, how can he ever be sure that he has climbed high enough on the mountain of holiness to be acceptable to God? There will always be doubts.

For those who want to dig further into this subject, the distinction between Christianity and religion was emphasized by Karl Barth in his “Church Dogmatics” I/2 (T. & T. Clark, 1956). In section 17 of this volume Barth expounds upon “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion” (pp. 280-361). By “revelation” he is referring primarily to Jesus Christ as the one true revelation of God. Another influential writer who spoke of “religionless Christianity” was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially in his “Letters and Papers from Prison” (English tr. 1953). See also Jacques Ellul, in “Living Faith” (Harper 1983): “The opposition between religion and revelation can really be understood quite simply. We can reduce it to a maxim: religion goes up, revelation comes down” (129). This last quote sounds a lot like Ridenour, but these writers do not necessarily mean exactly what he is saying. See Leon Morris, “The Abolition of Religion: A Study in ‘Religionless Christianity’” (London: Inter-Varsity, 1964).

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