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:
- Religions have narratives or texts.
- Religions have doctrines.
- Religions have faith.
- Religion is a source of purpose and meaning.
- Religions have rituals.
- Religions use symbols.
- Religion provides social construct.
- 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 School 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.
Is 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.
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.
If 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.
Filed under: Apologetics, Evangelism | Tagged: apologetics, Bible, Christ, Christ Jesus, Christian, Christianity, Eternal Life, Faith, God, salvation | Leave a comment »