Friday, November 10, 2006

relationship not a religion?

Among many evangelicals the word "religion" is quite literally an anathema. The slogan that real Christianity is a "Relationship not a Religion" is everywhere. For many it is the key content of evangelism, "What God wants is for you to respond to His invitation to join Him in a relationship", they say. For others it is a crucial principle of church growth theory. Potential church members are supposed to be looking for fulfillment, meaning, balance, relationships, mentors, a sense of community, and, first and foremost, "Relationship, not Religion."

As with all slogans there is an element of truth distorted by generalisation. Slogans were never meant to be definitions but simply an advertising technique. Of course it's possible to make religion an end in itself and to be very religious but miss salvation altogether. Those that go about to establish their own righteousness through religion but have not submitted to the righteousness of God which is by faith. The problem is not so much with religion itself but with the way in which people use it. If we are to despise everything God-given that man in his depravity can abuse we will be left with nothing.

The definition that "Religion is the human effort to reach God through rules and rituals" is a bit off the mark. What they have defined is salvation by works, some religions are based upon that but not all have to be. Of course we need to be apprehended of Christ in salvation and to come into union and communion with Him by faith. But there is also the vital matter of obedience as an evidence of that union and communion. "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (Jn 14:15). There is relationship and religion but they are not being opposed. "And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him." (1 John 2:3-5). The claim to a relationship without any fruit of holiness and obedience is just as empty as religion that has no true bond with the Saviour.

The problem is that the Bible uses the word religion, and it uses it in a positive way. What about the pure and undefiled religion of James 1:27? Keeping oneself unspotted from the world - isn't there rules and regulations in that? Religion involves a distinctive set of beliefs as well as distinctive life and worship. It isn't just a claim to "know Jesus" without making it clear who the Lord Jesus Christ is, how He is to be worshipped and served. The word relationship can mean lots of things. There are many kinds of relationships. It seems to allow for the cherished idea of "unconditional love no matter what we do". Forgiveness is a precious doctrine and reality but so is sanctification.

The root problem is with popular evangelicalism rather than with religion itself. It has turned conversion into mental assent, worship into a carnal feel-good factor, and made obeying Christ as Lord into an optional extra. They have attracted people that come to church for the music and the friends, the relationships but yet they are not really converted. Is it any wonder that they are finding that there is very little reality in this at all?

The word religion comes from a Latin word which means "to be bound back". We ought to be bound back to God by covenant. We must have been drawn by His lovingkindness (Jer. 31:3), with the cords of a man (Hosea 11:4) and held by covenant grace. When we are baptised we are engaged to be His, there are covenant obligations sealed in that ordinance, that we should love and serve God all the days of our lives. The name of Christ is upon those that have been baptised, in the most solemn of vows. As the Puritan Christopher Nesse puts it: "The covenant of your God is upon you, the bond of the covenant should bind you fast (as the word 'religion' signifies) unto God and godliness. O break not those bands, nor cast away those cords from you, for then you are sure to be broken as a potter's vessel that cannot be patched up again...[as] he that breaks His covenant with the great God who will assuredly avenge the quarrel of His covenant. O keep yourselves in the love of God and continue in Christ's love, which constrains you to obedience and holiness." O to know that sweet constraint, the constraint of true religion 2 COR 5:14 "the love of Christ constraineth us". A constraint that enables us to put sin to death and to keep ourselves from the world. "I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart" (Psalm 119:32).