Christianity: A Religion or a Relationship?
“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship with Jesus Christ!”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this or similar assertions coming from the lips (or pens) of contemporary Christians. It seems to have become almost a cliche among evangelical protestants.
But is it true? Is Christianity a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and not at all or in any sense a “religion”?
It really depends on what one means by the terms “religion” and “relationship.”
Let’s start off considering the concept of having a “personal relationship” with God.
First of all, I have a shocking announcement to make: Everyone has a “personal relationship with God”! Not only Christians, but also non-Christians, and even hardened atheists, have a “personal relationship with God.” “But, pastor, how can that be!?” Well, here’s the thing: The true and living God (the Triune God revealed in the Bible) is a personal God who created all human beings as personal beings in His very own image (Gen. 1:26-27); therefore all human beings (whether they be Christian or not, and whether they realize it or not) are personally related to God not merely as creatures related to their Creator, but as God’s image-bearers who are related to the God in whose image they were created. Now, this does not mean that everyone has a saving relationship with God (which seems to be what most evangelicals mean when they talk about the need to have a “personal relationship” with God); but, whether they realize it or not, everyone does in fact have a “personal relationship” with the personal God who created them in His very own image.
Now, how has mankind’s fall into sin in Adam (Gen. 3) affected this creational relationship that all people have with God their Creator? Well, Scripture indicates that mankind’s fall into sin in Adam did not destroy the Creator-creature relationship, nor did mankind’s fall into sin completely destroy man as God’s image-bearer (although the image of God in man has been radically distorted and corrupted by man’s fall into sin). However, as a result of mankind’s fall into sin, human beings are now personally related to God in a sense other than simply as creatures related to their Creator and as image-bearers related to the God in whose image they were created: After the fall, human beings in Adam are now related to God as covenant breaking sinners personally related to God as an angry, offended Judge. God takes our sin very very personally. Sin is a personal affront to the holy Divine majesty. It is “cosmic treason” (to borrow a phrase from R.C. Sproul) against the King of the universe. Therefore, God’s personal, retributive wrath is directed toward anyone and everyone who is outside of a saving connection to Jesus Christ.
And this brings up the legitimate sense in which we may talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Must we have a “personal relationship” with Christ in order to be saved? Absolutely, if by “personal relationship with Christ” you mean a personal trust in Jesus Christ as your very own Lord and Savior. By the sovereign grace of God, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, our response to the gospel message with saving faith in Christ and repentance unto life serves to establish a saving connection to and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ which is very personal. And this is what many Christians seem to mean when they talk about having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” So, if “personal relationship with Jesus” means the same thing as “saving relationship with Jesus” or “union with Christ,” then it is not objectionable (even if it is not biblically precise terminology). The problem with the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” is not that it isn’t true if it is properly defined; the problem is that some Christians who employ this terminology seem to give the impression that the believer’s “personal relationship with Jesus” is almost like a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. (Ever notice how the lyrics of many contemporary Christian songs are so ambiguous that they could be sung either to God or to your girlfriend?) Yes, Christians have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” but it is not like a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, or like a casual relationship between friends. It is more like a relationship between a parent and his/her child (Jesus being the parent figure and we being His children, with all of the authority structure and instruction and discipline that involves); or like the relationship between a teacher and his students (Jesus being our Teacher, and we His disciples being His students). Ultimately our “personal relationship with Jesus” is a relationship between us as redeemed sinners and Christ our Divine Savior. Yes, Jesus is our “personal Savior,” but He is not our “chum” or pal or buddy or life coach. He is our Lord, our Sovereign, our Master, our Redeemer, our Prophet, Priest and King!
Now, what about the claim that “Christianity is not a religion”? Is this true? Well, again, it depends on what you mean. If by “religion” you mean a system of works-righteousness where man climbs the ladder up to God and merits His favor through arbitrary rules and rituals and ceremonies, then Christianity is certainly not a “religion”! But if by “religion” you mean a structured, organized community involving Divinely authorized ordinances for worship (like the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments) and Divinely imposed community standards which require discipline and order to maintain, then historic, biblical Christianity is absolutely a “religion.”
Regrettably, sometimes the assertion that “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship with Jesus” is used by professing believers as an excuse to avoid involvement in the visible, organized church. “I don’t need to be involved in the church. I’ve got a personal relationship with Jesus, so I don’t need that organized religion stuff. I can read my Bible and pray on my own, and listen to sermons on the internet; so why should I worry about church?” This kind of thinking is very common among self-described Christians in our narcissistic, self-absorbed, individualistic age. But it is totally, completely unbiblical. It is also very sinful and reflects an attitude of rebellion against the Lordship of Christ and the authority of God, whose Word requires believers not to forsake assembling together as a church (Heb. 10:24-25). When God brings us into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ through the gospel, He also connects us to His Body, the church. And in this present age the universal, “invisible” church (the church as God sees it, the true spiritual Body of Christ) comes to local, visible expression in local, organized assemblies of believers. Certainly a personal, saving faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for salvation. But how does God work this saving faith in our souls? Scripture tells us that He does so primarily through the preaching of His Word. And how does God confirm us and strengthen us and preserve us in this faith? Through the faithful preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And where will you find this ordained ministry of word and sacrament? In the visible, organized church, the communion of the saints!
Christianity is indeed a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but it is a personal relationship which is ordinarily birthed and nourished and sustained in the community of Christ, the visible church. God has ordained that Christ and His benefits be delivered to us through the ministry of word and sacrament, and this ministry is found in the church — the visible, organized church! We receive Christ as He is offered to us in word and sacraments through the empty hand of faith alone. But if we want to receive Him as God offers Him to us, we’ve got to go where His grace can be found. That means you’ve got to go to a church that faithfully preaches the Word and rightly administers the sacraments if you want to receive the grace that God offers to you in word and sacrament. As you come to Christ by personal faith, He connects you to His community, the church. And as you enter faithfully into the life and communion of the church your personal relationship with Jesus Christ will be confirmed, strengthened and preserved for the long haul. Christianity is both a “religion” and a “relationship with Jesus”; indeed, it is a “religion” (properly defined) designed by God to awaken, support and sustain your personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Go to church, and receive the grace that God offers to you there in the ministry of word and sacrament!