“It’s Not a Religion, It’s a Relationship”
Relationship. That’s one of the words which turned my ears on whenever I became a true Christian. Before, I thought Christianity was full of ritual, and that traditional ritual was all that Christianity consisted of.
It was a list of ‘do this’ and ‘do that.’ I never understood what it meant to be a Christian; but when a pastor, whose name I cannot remember, exclaimed “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship!”, I was turned on to a whole new idea of what Christianity was all about.
As I continued to grow in my faith, however, I eventually came to understand that the dichotomy between religion and relationship is perhaps not the best way of explaining the believer’s relation to God.
IS IT A RELATIONSHIP?
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
— Romans 6:5 (ESV)
Some may be asking themselves at this point, “Is this guy really trying to tell us Christianity does not entail relationship?” After all, Paul writes about our union with Christ in Romans 6, which is intimate. Here, a relational status is unavoidable.
So, is Christianity a relationship?
Of course it is. Christianity is undoubtedly inclusive of a relationship with God. However, by stating the relational fact of our faith, and stopping there with no exposition, what’s missing is that unbelievers are also in a relationship with God.
The question which must be asked, then, in light of the concept of relationship, is: What kind of relationship is a person in?
THE TWO TYPES OF RELATIONSHIPS
God’s creation is related to God by way of God’s covenants. This is how God has chosen to self-commit to His people. We can think of God’s covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and finally, His covenant with the true church in Jesus Christ (Gen 2; Gen 6:18; Gen 15:18; Ex 19:5; 2 Ch 13:5; Jer. 31:31).
Because God relates to His creation by way of covenant, and by covenant only, all people are in one of two types of covenants with Him. Either a person is in covenant relationship with God in Adam, or they are in covenant relationship with God in Christ.
This differentiation between covenantal relationship status comes from Romans, where Paul writes:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (5:18, 19).
Adam’s trespass in the Garden led to condemnation of all people (5:12, 15). Adam, thus, covenantally represented all people. Likewise, Christ represents a people as well. These people are not seen as transgressors, as people in Adam are seen, but as righteous children, being declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s work.
Adam failed in His work, Christ succeeded. Not only did Christ succeed where Adam failed, but He defeated the death that Adam brought into the world by way of His resurrection.
From this information, it is apparent there are two ways to be in relationship with God. In Adam, we stand condemned, being under a failed representative. In Christ, we stand before the throne of God clothed in the righteousness of His Son.
IS RELATIONSHIP OPPOSED TO RELIGION?
It’s often thought, since the “Jesus Movement” arose in the early 1970s, that relationship is the true way to see the Christian faith, thereby excluding all religion. Is this the right way to view the situation? Religion, if defined as a system of tradition and ritual only, does not belong in the Christian system. But this understanding of religion is relatively new.
Christians throughout history would see religion as being included within the Christian faith. Religion has historically been seen as the Christian response to spiritual realities.
Thus, the tradition and ritual entailed in the system of Christianity is not a vacuous, artificial product. It’s a result of that which God has done for His people. We do things (i.e., worship) because God has first done something.
When we consider further that God, through His Word, has set forth standards for worship, for our dutiful response to Him, we are forced to admit that religion is a good thing. God has instituted it for His people and chiefly for His glory.
Therefore, the relationship to God in Christ prompts, and necessarily entails, consequentially, a system of religion. Without the pure Christian religion, the statement of a positive relationship with God is empty. Without positive fruit, there is no reason to believe there is a positive relationship.
Ask yourself this question: How could I be given the gift of Jesus Christ and not respond to God?
If there is response to God, religion is present. For this reason, I do not see the dichotomy between religion and relationship as a valid one. There cannot be a true separation between relationship and religion since one entails the other.
A COVENANTAL VIEW
The only way to recognize, and understand, the relationship we have with God is through a covenantal lens. It’s covenant which ties the entire Bible together, from Adam to Christ. God’s covenants are the framework holding the text in unity with itself, and without understanding that principle of covenantal unity, we easily lose the definition of both relationship and religion. It cannot be said that religion does not exist in light of a relationship with Christ because even the words, “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” is a religious statement in and of itself.
As Christians, we would do right in seeing God’s purpose in all creation and the broader scope of His redemptive plan: Christ being the new Adam, succeeding in all areas where Adam failed, and propelling His people to glorification in Him. All people are in a relationship with God. The question is, what kind of relationship with God do they have? Are they in Adam, or are they in Christ?