Religion or Relationship?
Is Christianity a religion or a relationship? That is the question posed by many in our day. It carries an anti-legalistic tone with it where we are supposed to rightly recognize that Christianity is about a reconciled relationship to God…and therefore, NOT religion. There is some truth in this false dichotomy that gives it a bit of traction, but does it really represent Christianity?
Legalism is Baaaaad
This pithy saying is born out of an apparent need to combat legalism. To make sure people understand that their primary problem with God is that they need to be reconciled to him, folks have entirely focused on that aspect of our devotion to God. This has led to licentiousness and antinomianism, which ultimately becomes its own form of legalism.
So what is the correct way to view Christianity?
Christianity is a Religion
The problem with the false dilemma of pitting right relationship to God against “religion” is that this practice misses the point that Christianity is, in fact, a religion. It is a religion that is rightly practiced after sinners are reconciled to God through faith because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The brother of Christ, James, tells us that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, land to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27 ESV)
We cannot rightly say Christianity is not a religion and simultaneously claim to believe the Bible, because the Bible itself promotes a form of religious practice (visiting orphans and widows).
Right Relationship Leads to Right Religion
There is a verse at the end of that great psalm of confession, the 51st Psalm—the meaning of which has only become clear to me lately. David makes it clear in Psalm 51:16-17 that God isn’t impressed with our religious sacrifices but that He looks at the heart. It is verses 16 and 17 that provide the basis for the false religion vs relationship dichotomy. But we must keep reading when we read the Bible.
Psalms 51:19 ESV then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
After establishing the right relationship with God through His cleansing power, we see that God WILL delight in right sacrifices, and that bulls will be offered on God’s altar. It isn’t that God is completely displeased with sacrifices and offerings (religion). It is that sacrifices and offerings (religion) are only acceptable to God through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. Once we know Jesus we are made holy so that we may offer sacrifices to God in Spirit and in Truth (Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 2:5; Matthew 5:23-24).
And those sacrifices will be true sacrifices. No longer will we bring the bare minimum to him. There will be no more mad scramble to find the least tasty looking ram or sheep to bring to the temple. Yes, bulls will be sacrificed on God’s altar by the heart that has experienced the washing of regeneration and the forgiveness of sins.
Let me be clear: Christianity IS a religion. It’s a religion based on a reconciled relationship between man and God through the redemption offered by faith in Christ. And that relationship leads to proper religious practice, even sacrifice of our most valued possessions.
For final consideration, here’s what Matthew Henry’s commentary on Psalm 51:19 has to say:
For the honour of the churches of God, Psa 51:19. If God would show himself reconciled to him and his people, as he had prayed, then they should go on with the public services of his house, (1.) Cheerfully to themselves. The sense of God’s goodness to them would enlarge their hearts in all the instances and expressions of thankfulness and obedience. They will then come to his tabernacle with burnt-offerings, with whole burnt-offerings, which were intended purely for the glory of God, and they shall offer, not lambs and rams only, but bullocks, the costliest sacrifices, upon his altar. (2.) Acceptably to God: “Thou shalt be pleased with them, that is, we shall have reason to hope so when we perceive the sin taken away which threatened to hinder thy acceptance.” Note, It is a great comfort to a good man to think of the communion that is between God and his people in their public assemblies, how he is honoured by their humble attendance on him and they are happy in his gracious acceptance of it.
–Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible