It is a common phrase among evangelicals to say that “Christianity is not about religion, but relationship”. I have probably said this a lot! It is said often to those outside of the church. I sympathize with the heart behind the statement. The intention behind the phrase is to communicate that Christianity is not about coldly following a bunch of rules (what we call “religion”); it is about you walking closely with God (“relationship”).
The phrase rightly communicates that Christianity is not a deistic religion, meaning, a religion that says God has long since peaced-out, leaving us and our world to run like clockwork as we obey the rules He left us. The phrase helps communicate that God is a personal God, involved in His creation, desirous to be in real, close, intimate relationship with us.
With that being said, I do not think this phrase rightly gets at how good the good news of Jesus really is. I think it can be helpful given a lot of explanation. For instance, “religion” is not necessarily a bad word. Also, “relationship” can simply equal obedience to God’s Law, which is not the gospel.
The good news of the Bible is not that God has thrown out His demands (“cold rules to follow”; what we call “religion”) and replaced them with a warmer, lighter expectation to just simply walk with Him in a personal relationship. Before you cry heresy, hear me out, I’m trying to give you really, really good news, from the Bible.
Let me cut to the heart of the matter by asking you a question. If Christianity is all about you walking in close relationship to God, how are you doing at that? Are you in prayerful connection with God “without ceasing” (see 1 Thess. 5:17)? Are you walking “humbly with your God” (see Micah 6:8)? Do you love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength (see Mark 12:30)?
Now, you may say “yes” to some of that and “no” to some of that. But, you may add, that God does not expect perfection from you. That’s religion! He just expects a relationship.
While that sounds better, it really isn’t at all. In this whole expectation of relationship God still demands perfection. Jesus never said, “Love God partially and imperfectly.” Jesus never said, “Be better.” Jesus said things like, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:30). Jesus said things like, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The question is, how are you doing with that?
To say that God has thrown away His old rules with the simple expectation that you would “just walk with Him” is not good news for me. I know just how far short I fall of the standard of “walk in close relationship with God”. I do not pray without ceasing, I do not love God with everything in me, and I do not walk humbly with God. In short, I am a sinner.
To tell a sinner, like me, or like you, that the good news is that you should just walk with God is simply saying the good news is that you would stop being a sinner. Righteous people walk with God in perfect love and trust; sinners, like you and me, don’t. So the answer is not, “walk with God”. That is my very problem! I fail at that every day! The shift from religion to relationship isn’t helping!
Well, the good news of the Bible is better than that. The good news is that Jesus, in your place, walked with God perfectly. He loved God with everything in Him, He prayed without ceasing, He walked humbly with His Father. In short, He was perfect. And He was perfect, as a man, to give you and me His record of righteousness.
God has not thrown away or lightened His demands. He has simply fulfilled them for you in Jesus Christ, who died for you and me, and who rose from the dead to be our very life.
Rest easy in God’s grace. Enjoy the peace God has made with you in Jesus. By faith, you are now friends; He calls you family.