Is Christianity a Religion?

Several weeks ago, I asked the question, “Is Atheism a Religion?” My conclusion was that “Atheism is not a religion, per se, but almost all Atheists practice a non-theistic kind of religion. Atheist religion is generally not an institutionalized system or organization, but usually more of a personal set of non-theistic religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”

Today I will tackle the question of whether Christianity is a religion. It is my contention that there are, in fact, two distinct forms of Christianity: one form that is a religion, not different from any other religion, and another that is much more than just a religion.

What is religion?

In order to answer the question, it is necessary to first define exactly what religion is.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, religion is:

1 a :  the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion>

b (1) :  the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) :  commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

2 :  a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

3 archaic :  scrupulous conformity :  conscientiousness

4 :  a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

In my discussion of Atheism, I identified 8 common traits of religions:

  1. Religions have narratives or texts.
  2. Religions have doctrines.
  3. Religions have faith.
  4. Religion is a source of purpose and meaning.
  5. Religions have rituals.
  6. Religions use symbols.
  7. Religion provides social construct.
  8. Religions proselytize.

Religion is both a set of beliefs about God and a set of practices based on those beliefs. The more religious a person is, the more fervently the set of beliefs and practices is followed.

Two kinds of Christianity

Here we come to the crux of the question: Is Christianity a religion, or is it something more?

I contend that there are, in fact, two distinct kinds of Christianity. There is a form of Christianity that is clearly religion. Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Protestantism, and Fundamentalism are all religions. They are all sets of beliefs with accompanying behaviors and practices. Even Christians who are not a part of any organized church or denomination ultimately have a religion. They have a personal set of beliefs and practices.

There is another form of Christianity, however, that goes far beyond the definition of a religion. Consider this passage from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John:

22 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. 26 But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. 27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. 28 And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30 I and My Father are one.”

Verse 27 emphasizes the relationship between Jesus and His followers:

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

This goes beyond simply knowing about Jesus; a true follower of Jesus Christ actually knows Him.

I know a lot about the President of the United States. I see him on television and in my Facebook newsfeed nearly every day. I know what he says, and who he is. However, I cannot say I know him. We’ve never even met in person, and even if we had, he wouldn’t remember me from any of the hundreds of thousands of other people he’s met. Compare that to the relationship I have with my wife and kids. I live with them, and I talk with them regularly. I actually know them quite well, and they know me quite well. We have individual, close connections .

So it is with those who truly follow Jesus. We don’t just know about Jesus, we know Him personally. He knows us personally. We don’t just follow a religion; we follow a person that we have actually met, with whom we have a personal relationship.

Consider also these verses from Matthew 7:

21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Notice that it isn’t the religious people that enter heaven – it’s those who do the will of the Father and whom Jesus knows. What is the “will of the Father?” In the context of the passage, it’s certainly not being religious. Jesus repeatedly saves his harshest criticism for the most religious people in His culture. The will of God is that people would know Him.

How are the two kinds of Christianity different from each other?

Let me give my answer from personal experience. I grew up as a religious Christian. I was in a church service nearly every Sunday. My entire family was active in the church; my dad sang in the choir, and my mom was the Sunday KnowtheAuthorSchool Superintendent. I was active in the youth group – president, my senior year – and went to church camp every summer. I knew a lot about the Bible, God, and Jesus. I participated in fundraisers to help the poor, vacation Bible school, and Bible study classes. Although I knew I did some bad things, I believed my goodness outweighed the bad. I believed, God is love; he accepts us as we are, warts and all.

However, as a college freshman, I realized that this wasn’t enough. Although I knew a lot about Jesus, I didn’t know Jesus. And, though I was mostly a good person, I still sinned, and sin separates us from God – it prevents us from knowing Him. I discovered that God is not only a God of love, He is also the God of holiness, justice, and truth. It was then that I changed from the first kind of religious Christianity to the second kind – relationship Christianity. I repented of my sin, and from trying to earn my way to Heaven. I acknowledged that Jesus is God; that He died for my sin, and rose again. And I committed my life to follow Him. God then did an amazing thing. He forgave my sin, and He restored my relationship with Him. The Holy Spirit tool up residence in my heart (2 Corinthians 1:22). I now not only knew about Jesus – I actually came to know Him in a personal way.

This is the difference between the two kinds of Christianity: The first is a religion, no different from any other religion. It has a holy book, doctrine, faith, rituals, and symbols, like any other religion. Religious Christianity provides social construct and purpose and meaning, as do all religions. Faithful religious Christians proselytize, as do the faithful from all other religions. And, like all other religions, religious Christianity does nothing to restore the relationship with God that has been lost because of human sin. It acknowledges that Jesus paid the penalty for sin on the cross, but does nothing to activate that forgiveness in anyone’s life. It’s sort of like starving to death while looking at a table full of food. Food does no good, unless one actually ingests it. That’s what relationship Christianity is all about: ingesting and applying the forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ, and beginning a relationship with Him. Yes, those who have a relationship with Jesus also have the Bible, doctrine, and faith. Yes, our relationship with Jesus is the source of our social construct, purpose, and meaning. We proselytize, and although for many of us, rituals and symbols aren’t especially important, we still have them. The key difference is that these things aren’t the foundation – our relationship with Jesus is the foundation.

RelationshipnotreligionIs Christianity a religion? It depends on which kind of Christianity being discussed. It has been claimed that, “Christianity isn’t a religion – it’s a relationship.” I only partially agree with this. A better way of stating this would be, “True Christianity isn’t just a religion – it’s a relationship.” Much of what people know as Christianity is a religion, and is ultimately no different from any other religion. It makes people feel good, and act a certain way, but cannot restore a relationship with God. The other kind of Christianity is a relationship with God, through the blood of Jesus Christ. This second kind of Christianity still has most of the marks of religion, but is much, much more than just a religion. Religious Christianity is based on trying to make one’s self acceptable to God, which cannot be done, and ultimately leads to death and Hell. Relationship Christianity is based on what Jesus did, not what we do. We become acceptable before God because Jesus took our sin on Himself. Relationship Christianity restores our connection with our Creator, and leads to eternal life, not Hell.

Application

What difference does this make? It makes all the difference in the world! If you are a religious Christian – you have the doctrine, faith, rituals, and symbols, etc., but you don’t know Jesus personally – your sins are not forgiven, and you have not had your relationship with God restored. You are headed for Hell. You need to repent of your religiosity, acknowledge that you cannot make yourself acceptable to God, and receive forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ. Head knowledge is not the same as a relationship. Religion makes people feel good, but leads to Hell. Stop having faith in religion, and place your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. If you profess another religion, or no religion at all, you also need Jesus. You may have a wonderful life, but in the end, you will spend eternity separated from God in Hell, unless you turn to Jesus.

jesus_talkingIf you know Jesus already, you probably already understand this distinction. Make sure you keep your heart and mind focused on Jesus, not on all the religious stuff that accompanies faith in Jesus. Sure, the “religious” stuff, like reading your Bible, trying to do what is right, giving to the poor, and regularly attending corporate worship are important, they are no substitute for developing your relationship with Jesus. When you share your faith in Jesus with others, they will often think Christianity is no different from any other religion. In a sense, they are right – most of what they have seen is the religious Christianity, not relationship Christianity. Make the distinction between Christianity the religion and Christianity the relationship. Both exist, but only one leads to eternal life.

One final thought: the two kinds of Christianity are usually mixed together in any given church or denomination. That is, in most solid, Bible-believing churches, there are some that don’t actually know Jesus, along with those that do. There are also Christians who truly know Jesus in some very religious churches. Knowing Jesus isn’t a matter of whether one belongs to the right or wrong denomination or church.

If you want to know more about knowing Jesus, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’d love to tell you more.

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Sometimes, Life Stinks.

Sometimes, life just plain stinks.

Last week, my orthopedic surgeon informed me that I need a total hip replacement.

Yesterday, I lost my job.

My immediate reaction to both issues was to get angry, then depressed. And honestly, I’m still more than a little upset.

How should I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, respond when bad stuff happens?

First, it’s important to understand why evil exists.

God created this world sinless and perfect. There was no death, no illness, no unemployment, and no sin. There was no anger, no depression, and no crap to deal with. It was a perfect world.

Until Adam sinned.

17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:

“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. (Romans 5:12-15)

All of the sin, death, illness, anger, natural disasters, depression, other problems, and other evils are a direct consequence of Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin changed the perfect world that God designed, and polluted it.

However, we can’t blame it all on Adam. Our sin has added to the problem.

Sometimes, bad stuff happens as a direct result of our own sin. We make bad choices that lead to bad consequences.

But sometimes, bad stuff happens, and it has nothing to do with anything we personally did; it’s a result of the sin in the world. It can be the result of demonic activity, and it can also be the result of God’s judgement for the sin of society. Evil can have different causes, but those causes all trace back to the same root cause – sin.

In any case, how should followers of Jesus Christ handle the crap that life serves us?

For me, the key is to realize the sufferings of this life are temporary. The perfection God planned for the human race will be realized in eternity.

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. (Revelation 22:3)

Life on this earth is but the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of eternity. The junk we live through in this life is only temporary. For followers of Jesus Christ, the current life is the worst it will ever be; for unbelievers, unfortunately, this life is the best it will ever be.

The other thing is that, even though we must face a lot of pain and suffering in this world, as a Christian, I have the Holy Spirit living inside me to comfort, guide, and direct me through the junk of life.

33 These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 
As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

While I’m still hurt, depressed, and scared about both my hip and my job situation, I am holding on to the promises God has given me in His word. God never promised to keep His followers from the difficulties of life, but rather promised to walk with us through the difficulties. And, while I know I’ll struggle during the next days (or weeks, or months, depending on when I find another job and/or have my surgery), I know that God is with me through the process, and that He is in control of the situation.

Seven Obstacles to Sharing Your Faith, Part 3

While web-surfing one day last month, I ran across an article on christianitytoday.com by Chris Lutes entitled Seven Reasons Not to Share Christ (and why we should go ahead and do it anyway). I thought it would make a good a good blog series.

Lutes writes for his third reason:

3) “My friends will make fun of me”
Here’s something to think about: We often turn this fear into a bigger problem than it really is. You’d be surprised at how often people will respect you for your beliefs. They might not understand why you don’t drink at parties, or avoid dirty jokes, or why you like youth group. And you might hear an occasional “fanatic” or “religious nut.” But people often find genuine faith pretty interesting—confusing, but interesting. Many people will even respect you for your strong convictions. In fact, when we try our best to live and act like Jesus, we “shine like stars” in a world that’s pretty dark (Philippians 2:15). So let your life shine, knowing others can’t help but be attracted to the light.

I agree that the fear of rejection is usually greater than the reality of rejection. Most of the time, friends and acquaintances will respect your beliefs, as long as you’re not obnoxious about them, and your lifestyle and convictions can be used by the Holy Spirit to draw people to Him.

There is a flip side, however. If we are living for Jesus Christ, and sharing the Gospel, we should expect opposition. In the book of 1 Peter, the apostle Peter gives advice to Christians who are being persecuted. At the time Peter wrote this letter, Christians were not only being made fun of – they were being imprisoned and executed. Rather than telling Christians to fear persecution, Peter tells them they are blessed:

1 Peter 3:13-14 And who is he who will harm you if you become followers of what is good?  But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. “And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled.”

1 Peter 4:14a If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.

How can Peter say that Christians are blessed when they are persecuted? Peter is not promoting some sort of masochistic enjoyment of being abused. Rather, he is focusing on the eternal rather than the temporary. In 1 Peter 5:10-11 he writes,

But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.  To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Those who have received Christ as Lord and Savior will spend eternity with Him in heaven. Peter is saying that God takes the persecution we endure today and uses it in the processes of perfecting us, establishing us in Him, strengthening us, and settling us. These processes begin in the present, and will be completed in eternity. God takes that which is meant for evil, and uses it to make us more Christ-like. This is why Peter says we are blessed when we are persecuted.

Another aspect of the “my friends will make fun of me” reason for not sharing the Gospel is that perhaps you are hanging out with the wrong “friends.” As Christians, it is vital that we have other Christians as our closest friends. We need like-minded believers in Jesus Christ to support us, advise us, and keep us accountable for what we say and do. As a Christian, if you don’t have some close Christian friends – find some. This doesn’t mean that Christians should abandon all of their friendships with non-Christians, however. Christians are commanded to share Jesus Christ with the unsaved people around us; we can’t do this if we don’t know any non-Christians. But, if these non-believers are influencing us in the wrong direction, leading us to sin, then we need to distance ourselves from the negative influences. Paul tells the Christian in Romans 12:2,

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Sometimes there is a fine line between being a Godly influence on the non-Christians around us, and the non-Christian being an un-Godly influence on us. This is why, as Christians, it is vital that we have close Christian friends that will help keep us focused on Jesus Christ.

So, while it is true that the Christian will be made fun of sometimes when they share their faith, it isn’t usually the case; when we are made fun of or persecuted, we are blessed by God; and by having Christian friends we can lean on for support, it’s a lot easier to deal with. Yes, rejection hurts. But Godly friends and the Holy Spirit will see the Christian through the rejection. So, don’t worry about your friends making fun of you. Share your faith “with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15), and leave the results up to God.