It is easy for Christians to herald the ever-so-popular phrase, “It’s not religion; it’s relationship.” And, to be honest, I understand the nature of this motto and affirm that you cannot simply have pharisaical tendencies, be a legalist, and still go to heaven. Why? Because Jesus makes it very clear that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). So, yes, you must have a relationship with Christ in order to be a Christian – believing this is of utmost importance.
However, a consequence of such sayings is the opposite extreme – neglecting Christian living altogether because one has a relationship with Jesus. In other words, I fear that people use this phrase to avoid the “religious” aspect of Christianity. The Bible has things to say about “religion” that many people tend to avoid. So, if we are going to be Christians who are committed to the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word, we must understand that religion IS a part of the Christian faith. The apostle James makes this very clear in chapter one of his epistle:
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.James 1:27
So, here are a few observations I’ve found from James 1 that really enhance the argument that Christianity is much MORE than a relationship with Jesus.
James 1 – Religion Exposed
First, we see James exhorting his audience to be steadfast, even during persecution. Most, if not all, scholars believe James was written to a believing audience who were mainly of Jewish descent (James 1:1). I believe this is the case, as well. So, because James’ audience is Jewish, we know that they were experiencing great persecution under the reign of Nero (most scholars contend that James wrote his epistle some time around 62 A.D.). However, we find this also in James first discourse with his audience – verses 2-11. James exhorts his readers to “count it all joy” when they encounter trials and tribulation. Why? Because God works these things within our lives to produce endurance! The greek word for endurance is hypomonēn, which literally translates at steadfast endurance.
So, James here shows his readers that trials are a part of the normal Christian life. Paul echoes this same thought in 2 Timothy 3:12 – “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Throughout this discourse on persecution, James shows his readers that though they may experience persecution, their faith does not have to waver. Though you are tested, ask God for wisdom because he gives to all generously, but do not doubt he will give it (1:5-8). He also calls those blessed who do not waver under trials because they understand their sanctifying nature. These trials are not from God; instead, we give into them by our own fleshly desires (1:13-14). Knowing this truth helps us to understand how the Christian is supposed to be lived – in utter devotion to God, regardless of circumstance.
Second, James exhorts his readers to live our their beliefs. If there is one thing I wish all believers understood, it is that right belief informs right living. James seems to echo this type of understanding of the Christian life. Verse 22 – “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” The word delude, here, denotes a fraudulent reasoning. In other words, James is conveying that if you convince yourself that hearing is satisfactory, you actually deceive yourself into believing you’re living the Christian life at all. He is essentially saying, “If your hearing doesn’t inform your doing, you are doing it all wrong.”
He is essentially saying, “If your hearing doesn’t inform your doing, you are doing it all wrong.”Tweet
Then we come to the verses considering religion. What does James have to say regarding religion?
Third, James conveys that religion comes from your theology. Once again, the mantra shows itself – right belief informs right living. James puts it this way:
“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.”James 1:26
What does James mean here? I think it is rather obvious – he means that religion is the offshoot of what you believe! If you have a religion that only informs your mind but not your actions, you have a religion that is devoid of significance (GK – worthless).
So, what do we do with religion? Is Christianity more than a relationship?
Well, first, we must understand that religion is the consequence of theological belief. If you have no beliefs about anything, then you have no religion because religion is contingent upon belief. Beliefs are what inform your actions. Therefore, religion is the result of your theology. However, we must secondly understand that Christianity is also a religion. We, as Christians, often forget this reality. Often, Christians focus solely on the relational aspect of their faith without allowing that relationship to inform the way they live – this is not the Christian life Jesus calls us to.
Instead, Jesus calls us to a life of obedience: knowledge that informs action.