This article comes from a great conversation we had during a recent Sunday School class.
We were going through some stuff in our study and Alicia gave me a tract that I must have stored away. It was entitled, “Do You Know What These Religions Teach?” Inside, it had a brief synopsis of different religions such as “Unity”, “Mormonism”, “Christian Science”, “Jehovah’s Witness”, “Roman Catholicism”, “Seventh Day Adventism” “British Israelism” (this one was new to me!) and explained how biblical Christianity is the real Truth. What jumped out to me mostly was not the descriptions of all these beliefs, but the bold statements in the beginning pages:
“Religions lead to Hell…Christianity is not a religion…Christianity is the exact opposite of religion.”
There was a point when these statements were ones that I wholeheartedly agreed with. I would tell people, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” or, “religion is mankind’s effort to reach God. Christianity is God’s effort to reach mankind.”
Then, I realized that the Bible doesn’t use this kind of language. There are instances in the Bible where the exact opposite is taught, namely, that Christianity is a religion!
Religion in the Bible
Did you know that the word, “religion” is in the Bible? The word in the original Greek is, “thrēskeia” (Strong’s 2356), and can be defined as, “belief in God or gods as expressed in acts of reverence, service, and devotion” (see Websters1828dictionary.com for Noah Webster’s comprehensive definition of “religion”). This word occurs four times in the New Testament. Three of the times it is translated as, “religion” once as “worship”.
The shocking thing about this word is that it is used in both a positive and negative way! Unlike the tract which labeled the word “religion” as a system which leads to Hell, the Bible gives us a definition and application of the word in both a good and bad sense. Only James and Paul use the word, and they each use it in a positive and negative sense.
James’s use of “religion” in a negative sense
James teaches us how our walk should match our talk, that is, our life as Christians should reflect our faith in Christ,
“be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” – James 1:22 NKJV
Then he goes on to give examples. If someone claims to be a Christian, yet uses their tongue to speak evil, unloving, corrupt things, then their faith in God is compromised, or even perhaps they have no true faith in God to begin with! But James doesn’t use the phrase “faith in God”. He says,
“If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion (thrēskeia) is useless.” – James 1:26 NKJV
He uses the word, “religion”! James is saying that if someone claims to be a committed follower of Christ yet speaks often and intentionally out of place, then it is possible that their reverence or worship of God is “vain, unreal, ineffectual, unproductive; practically godless” (Strong’s Concordance).
Do we practice what we preach? Do we live outside of church as we live inside of church? Are we seeking to be consistent? This is a daily struggle for many of us. Jesus laid this foundation,
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” – Matthew 7:16-20 NIV
But someone might say, “What James describes is exactly what the writer of the tract meant, that ‘religion is useless’ because we’re all sinners! We may think we’re religious, but because of sin, we’re not!”
However, look at the next verse.
James’s use of “religion” in a positive sense
“Pure and undefiled religion (thrēskeias) before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” – James 1:27 NKJV
Is James leading people to Hell? Certainly not! Perhaps we have redefined the word “religion” to mean something else than what the translators for our Bible did. If we understand what James meant, it will help to clarify our claims about the relationship between religion and Christianity.
James is comparing the “useless” religion with the “pure and undefiled” religion. James is saying there can be a practice of a Christian that is contrary to the principles of faith (v. 26). Then he says that a right practice of a Christian will substantiate their claim to faith, which is well pleasing to God (v. 27). In short, there is false/fake religion, and there is a true/sincere religion.
James, however, is not the only one to bring this out.
Paul’s use of “religion” in a negative sense
Paul, in writing to the Colossians, warns them of people who will try to distort truth and lead them astray with fanciful teaching:
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” – Colossians 2:8 NKJV
He then goes on to give an example of this. Apparently there were false teachers who were teaching that the Colossians needed to adhere to principles of Old Testament observances and regulations:
“Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” – Colossians 2:16, 17 NKJV
These individuals were attempting to make their “religion” look angelic, that is, they were acting as if their practices put them on par with the angelic host:
“Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship (thrēskeia) of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen…” – Colossians 2:18 NKJV
I always thought this verse meant that these false teachers were worshiping angels. But Paul doesn’t use the normal words for worship (sebó and proskuneó). He uses “thrēskeia”, or “religion”. Paul is saying, “Don’t let anyone spoil you of your prize in Jesus. Among churches, there will always be those who delight in legalistic “holier-than thou” practices; people who try to have a religion that make them like angels.”
In essence, we should avoid making our faith a show of legalistic, man-made regulations. To this point the tract writer would agree and say, “See! This is a case where religion can lead to Hell. See how their legalistic religion is promoting works-righteousness!”
True. But that doesn’t mean that religion in general leads to Hell, but that wrong religion leads to Hell. We find that Paul also uses the word religion in a positive sense.
Paul’s use of “religion” in a positive sense.
Paul uses it in his personal testimony of his conversion:
“The [Jews] have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion (thrēskeia), living as a Pharisee. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today.” – Acts 26:5, 6 NKJV
Was Paul going to Hell because he was part of the first-century Jewish religion? Certainly not! He was Hell bound because he had rejected the Messiah, Jesus (until his conversion on Damascus Road). Paul is saying that his Jewish “religion” was rooted in God’s promise to the patriarchs. The phrase “our religion” (v. 5) is connected to “our fathers” (v. 6). And “our fathers” is connected to “the promise made by God”.
The Jewish religion was given by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and was fulfilled with the resurrection of the Messiah. Paul, and all believers, are part of the “religion” that God established with the patriarchs. So, where did the tract writer’s idea (religion=bad) come from?
Where did the “religion is bad” idea come from?
My guess is that in a society with a relativistic “anything goes” mindset, sincere believers tried to make Christianity stand out from all other religions.
For example, when someone is sharing the Gospel, the other person might say, “I’m not a religious person, so this conversation doesn’t affect me.” The sincere believer might feel like saying, “That’s okay because Christianity is not about a religion, it’s about a relationship with God.” This is true to a degree. But doesn’t our relationship with God express itself through our practice? Is not our relationship with God seen through our acts of reverence, service, and devotion? Absolutely! Therefore, it is not so much “religion vs. Christianity”, but rather, “false religion vs. True Religion”.
But what about the “non-religious” person? If we start saying that Christianity is a religion (the One True Religion), how will that appeal to such people?
It won’t. That is, until God steps in.
You see, we don’t have to try to make Christianity appealing to the non-religious person by using a “bait-and-switch” tactic of saying, “Christianity is not a religion…until you’re a Christian.” The difference between Christianity and religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, is that Christianity is the religion of the One True God. Christianity is where God meets a person, whether they themselves are religious or not, and reveals Himself. Christianity is the True Religion where salvation is “by grace through faith” and “not of works” (Eph. 2:8, 9). That is not true of any other religion.
Christianity is where the Gospel is the “power of God to salvation” (Rom. 1:16). Christianity is where God can break through to the hearts of atheists, agnostics, “religious folk”, and any other category of people! Christianity is where God takes someone who is dead in their trespasses and sins and makes them alive (Eph. 2:5). Christianity is where God makes all things new (2 Cor. 5:17). Christianity is where we can go to God with a clear conscience and find help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). Christianity is where we can become part of God’s family and experience the eternal, glorious love between the Father and the Son (John 17:23).
No other system of belief, or lack thereof, can achieve what God alone has established. No other religion can express True Faith in the True God. God has made it clear; Jesus Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Him (John 14:6).
Therefore, I am no longer ashamed to say that Christianity is a religion – not because I believe it is a man-made, man-executed system of belief to earn salvation, but rather because it is the True, God-made, God-executed, God-glorifying, practice of faith, once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3)! I want people to become Christians because Christianity alone is the road God built to grant salvation to anyone who wills. All other religions are roads mankind built, and they only lead to destruction. Christianity is the road God built, through the Cross, and leads to life.
In short, Christianity is the True Worship, as the True Religion, through the True Faith, in the One True God.