“We don’t preach a religion. We preach a person: Jesus.” Does that mean religion and Jesus are opposed to each other? Does either one exclude the other?
Time for a Definition
What does the word “religion” mean? Without generally accepted meanings, communication is impossible. Today’s dictionaries say that “religion” is belief (faith) in the unseen (supernatural, divine, a god) with resulting ceremonies and actions. A second definition relates to a recognized system of belief, which we often express as “organized religion.”
With that in mind, consider a few things Jesus claimed: “I have come down from heaven… No one comes to the Father, except through me… He who has seen me has seen the Father… He who believes in me has eternal life… This is my blood… for the remission of sins… All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (John 6:38; 14:6; 14:9; 6:47; Matt. 26:28; 28:18). By definition, believing Jesus’ claims and following Him is religion.
But let’s dig deeper. When people speak categorically against “religion,” what are they really trying to say? What do they mean by the way they use the word “religion”?
Rejecting Hypocritical Religion
Some people reject “religion” when they are really rejecting all the blatant hypocrisy therein. The truth is that even God hates hypocritical religion. “What are the multitude of your sacrifices to me?… My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts… Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do well” (Isa. 1:11, 14, 16, 17).
Those sacrifices and feasts had been commanded by God. So, God wasn’t condemning “religion.” He was condemning their hypocrisy. Makes me think of Jesus’ command for us to remember Him with the bread and the cup. Would Jesus today be saying to some churches, “I hate it when you all come around the Lord’s table. Cease to do evil. Learn to do well”?
Hypocrisy is the issue. To denounce hypocrisy in a religion is to denounce the hypocrisy therein; it has nothing to do with the validity or falsehood of that religion.
There are those who say that religion is about rules, while Jesus is about relationships. It is quite true that the world is filled with churches and religions that have invented all kinds of rules – man-made rules. Jesus agrees in condemning such religions: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men” (Matt. 15:9). Call it “rules,” “precepts,” “commandments,” “doctrines,” or whatever. If they are made by men, Jesus said such worship – such religion – is vain, useless, not worth anything.
But did Jesus condemn all rules? Hardly. Jesus said, “If you love me [have a relationship with me], keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Not suggestions. Commands. Separating Jesus from His commandments – His rules – is a modern, popular, man-made religion. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). “…he who does the will of my Father…” This is clearly requiring obedience to rules.
The Lord Jesus Christ asks us a question: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). You see, in relationships, you must understand who you are relating to. Jesus loves us. Jesus is our Savior. Jesus understands us better than we understand ourselves. Yes, all the above. But Jesus is also Lord, King, Master, Boss. I dare not make the rules, you dare not make the rules, but Lord Jesus has the right to make rules – and He did!
Rejecting Organized Religion
Sometimes when people condemn religion, they mean “organized religion.” Once again, clarity is lacking. If by “organized religion” a person is referring to man-made churches with invented names, unbiblical hierarchies, earthly headquarters, uninspired creeds, dreamed-up holy days, etc., then it is correct to reject them.
On the other hand, Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus dying and going to Hades did not stop Him from building His church – through His apostles after His ascension. In fact, “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up [died] for it” (Eph. 5:26). Jesus is “head over all things for the church, which is his body” (Eph. 1:22-23). When Jesus was on earth, He had a human body. Today, His church is His body. To have a relationship with Jesus includes our relationship with His body, His church – an organized religion.
What About Private Religion?
The idea that I can go it alone, just Jesus and me, is a modern false religion. Yes, Jesus’ church is full of imperfect people, just like you and me. Yes, there are hypocrites there, just like Judas. But remember that Jesus loved the church so much that He died for it. Why? Because we all are lost sinners. And as sinners saved by grace, we need the fellowship of one another. Jesus set it up that way. To be in Christ’s church is to be in fellowship with other believers.
God Wants Pure Religion
It is true that the word “religion” is not a major word in Scripture. But it does appear. It is not a bad word. “If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Bible verses are not offered to us in buffet style – to choose which we like and ignore the others. With this in mind, pure religion is not confined to the three items mentioned. Neither can any of the three be left out of pure religion: controlling the tongue, helping needy people, and living a godly life. No, none of us are perfect. Our salvation depends on the grace of Jesus. We can’t earn it. But neither can we live however we please and claim Jesus’ grace: “Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!” [other Bibles: “God forbid!” “Certainly not!” “Absolutely not!” “Of course not!”] (Rom. 6:15).
The concept of following Jesus, not a religion, is at best a careless use of the English language. At worst, it is itself a false religion.