Monthly Archives: February 2016

Is “Religion vs Relationship” a helpful or harmful distinction?

“Christianity is not a religion but a relationship with Christ”

Is this a helpful or a harmful statement?

I was recently emailed a link to an article which decries this statement as both incorrect and harmful to Christianity. “Religion vs. Relationship” is a false choice, the article states, and it is based on a misunderstanding of the words “religion” and “relationship”. Religion is seen negatively as “legalism” and relationship is seen as an emotional response to God. The author argues that we should understand religion instead as a term indicating covenantal binding (like a covenantal marriage relationship). In religion we are “bound” to God through Christ and it is this that enables our relationship with God which carries with it certain covenantal obligations, like good works. Those good works aren’t what save us, but are the natural result of the fact that we are part of a “covenantal-judicial community of believers.” What we need, the article goes on, is a focus on “a covenant-bond-relationship with Jesus Christ of a judicial nature [i.e., true religion] that addresses all areas of life.” I really recommend reading the whole article here.

First let me say that I thought this was a very good article[1]. In the way that the author was using the terms “religion” and “relationship” I completely agree with him. If we understand relationship primarily in terms of emotional-liturgical response then, yes, we are misunderstanding what our relationship with God entails. If we understand religion as that binding judicial-covenant between God and his people won through Jesus then, yes, we need to embrace “religion” as central to our Christian identity.

My only issue with this article, then, is that words such as religion and relationship have a broad range of meaning. I suspect, given our culture, that a lot of people understand “relationship” in exactly the way the author described. But I also think that relatively few people understand religion as a “covenant-relationship” as he proposes. To be fair, he is probably correct on the technical definition (maybe even “biblical” definition of the word, see James 1:26-27), but the term religion is also used in far broader terms in our present culture. Maybe this is something to bemoan, but it’s the reality of the situation.

What do we mean by “Religion”?

So, is “religion” a bad thing? It all depends on how one uses the word.

Tim Keller is fairly famous for drawing a dichotomy between “religion” and “gospel.” Like the religion/relationship dichotomy this is a bad distinction if “religion” is understood in terms of covenant-relationship. But what Keller makes clear is that he is using the term “religion” to describe an attempt to gain favor with God on our own terms and on our own power instead of through the grace of Jesus, instead of through the gospel. Below is a good chart describing Keller’s distinction.


Keller’s target audience is people who would not understand the more technical term “legalism” so I understand his use of the term religion in his context. I find his distinction helpful, but only because he is very explicit in how he is using the term.

Others use the term to describe all of the outward “marks” of a religious person – participation in certain behaviors (church attendance), abstinence from other behaviors, certain ways of speaking, certain forms of dress, certain identification with other groups like political parties, forms of social advocacy, etc. Sometimes these outward marks replace or become more important than the posture of one’s heart toward God. Some people refer to this as “religion.” Again, when we speak against this sort of religion in favor of a heart reoriented towards God (in relationship) we are making a helpful distinction.

Still others use religion as though it were sort of a genetic code passed from parents or cultures. “I am Christian because my parents are Christian.” Or, perhaps, “I am Christian because I live in a Christian culture.” Such use is far less common these days, especially in America, but again, when religion is understood in this way what those individuals need is to turn away from “religion” and turn toward a “relationship with Jesus Christ.”

It all depends on what we mean by religion. It all depends on what we mean by relationship.

Concluding Thoughts

I would personally avoid using the phrase “Relationship not Religion” because both terms are so ambiguous. I could mean something personally fine, but it could be understood in a very unorthodox and damaging way.

We need to be cautious of attacks on “religion” which denigrate the role of God’s gathered people, the church. When people put down the church (universal) by contrasting it with some personal relationship they are ignoring the way God interacts with his people across time.

We need to be cautious of attacks on “religion” which pit obedience to God against loving God. We love God by keeping his commands.

Finally, we need to be cautious about assuming what other people mean when they speak of religion or relationship. Both terms are ambiguous, as is all language. More important than the particular words is what is meant by those words. Are we pointing people to Jesus? Are we calling for discipleship? That’s what matters.

I’m interested to here your thoughts. What do you mean when you say “religion” or “relationship with Jesus”?

[1] I do feel as though the author’s comment that “the word relationship does not appear in the Bible” is a misleading argument, though in the context of the entire post it is clear that he does understand our “judicial-covenantal” relationship with God as, well, a relationship. My previous post was a response to this argument.


Does God want a “personal relationship” with you?

“The word “relationship” nowhere appears in Scripture”[1]

This is a true but misleading statement. I have heard it said before and it is often said (as it is here) as a reaction against a sort of shallow and emotionally driven faith (i.e., “buddy Jesus”). But even though it is reacting against something which probably ought to be reacted against, it is not a helpful argument. Even though the word “relationship” does not appear in the Bible, it is still correct to describe one’s salvation as a “personal relationship with God.” Why? First, God is a personal and relational being. Second, he interacts with his people in a relational way. Third, one of the key descriptions of salvation, reconciliation, is a relational idea.

God is a personal and relational being.

He is not a “force” or an “energy” but a Person. He is not a person in exactly the same way that we are, of course, but that does not make him less personal, but more. Our personhood is created and derived from his. He is also relational. God is Trinity. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is love and love is a relational quality. It is not something you can have on your own. It is directed toward another. It is only fully realized in relationship and this is a relationship which has been part of God’s very essence from the beginning.

God interacts with his people in a relational way.

Two major metaphors used throughout Scripture which characterize God’s relationship with his people are relational. One is the metaphor of the Father-Child relationship. God is the Father of Israel and Israel is made up of his children (Isaiah 63:16). Jesus directs his disciples to pray “Our Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) One of his most famous parables is the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In the story the Father (God) is longing for the return of his lost son. When the son returns the Father embraces his child. What a picture of love! What a picture of relationship! Paul, too, defines a Christian’s relationship with his Father as that of an adopted child (Galatians 4:5).

The second major metaphor is that of the Husband-Wife relationship. This is the most intimate of all relationships and it is one of the major ways God describes his relationship with his people, both in the Old Testament and in the New. Israel is God’s spouse (though often unfaithful, never unloved) and Christ is the husband of his wife, the Church (Ephesians 5:25). This is poetic language, of course, but it reveals and reinforces the reality of God’s relational love and his personal love which he has towards his people.

Salvation is described as reconciliation, a relational term.

The problem, ever since the Garden of Eden, is that we are alienated from God. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in perfect relationship with God. When they rebelled, that relationship was broken. They became guilty and therefore alienated from God. God’s task since then has been one of reconciliation. In this context (not like reconciling your bank account) it is a relational term. It’s about making peace. God does that by calling a people to himself and purifying from sin through sacrifice. This reconciliation, prefigured in the Old Testament, is fulfilled in Christ. Jesus came to reconcile us to God through his death on the cross. (see 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 and Ephesians 2:16)

All these truths (and more for which I do not have time) point to the truth that God wants to have a personal relationship with you. He wants, and has, a personal relationship with his people. It is personal because God is a Person and God relates to his people in a personal way. It’s a relationship because salvation means healing a relationship which has been broken through sin.

Personal note

This realization was an important one for me as a young man. Like many teenagers my brain was learning to think abstractly and, for as much Bible teaching as I had received, I still mostly thought of God in abstract terms. He was a puzzle to figure out, a set of laws to understand. When I doubted him, I doubted him on “intellectual” terms. There were things about him which I could not understand and things in the Bible which troubled me.

The breakthrough for me came when I finally began to address him as a person. I began to pray in line with James 1:5. I started asking God to give me wisdom and understanding. God responded, not by granting me the answers to all my questions, but by showing himself to me in a personal way. He was not an equation to be solved, but a person to be trusted, and he had given me plenty of good reasons to trust Him. If I could trust him, as my heavenly Father, as the one who loved me, then I could rest in his being while I continued to seek for answers. My wrestling didn’t stop (it still hasn’t), but it ceased being restless. It became (slowly) more productive in my life.

When I speak of “personal relationship,” I’m not advocating a sort of religion that finds its center in our personal feelings. God enters into a relationship, but it is one of commitment. To extend the biblical metaphor, it’s a marriage/covenant relationship, not a dating scene. God loves us and his love is faithful and sacrificial. He calls for the same kind of personal, relational, faithful, and sacrificial love from us.

[1] I most recently came across this argument in an otherwise excellent article which can be found here: The points it makes are valid, though I think somewhat unfair in how it characterizes people who use “religion” in a disparaging way. I will likely interact with this article more in a later post.

When Jesus doesn’t meet your expectations

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” – Matthew 11:2

This seems like an odd question for John the Baptist to ask. John had been especially appointed by God to prepare the way for Jesus. He had been one of the first to recognize Jesus, even as a baby still in his mother’s womb. He recognized Jesus again when Jesus was baptized. John’s whole life was about pointing people to the Messiah, and he knew that Jesus was the Messiah.

Well, at least he was pretty sure. It’s possible that Jesus didn’t quite meet his expectations for who the Messiah ought to be. George Eldon Ladd makes the case that John was expecting a Messiah who would usher in the Kingdom of God as political power. But if that was the case, why was John in prison? When John heard about all the miracles Jesus was doing he was encouraged, but still possibly confused. Maybe his question could be rephrased – “I see you doing all these Messiah-like things, but are you the one who will usher in the fullness of the Kingdom of God right now?” Or, perhaps more personally, “if you’re the Messiah, when am I getting out of this prison cell?”

I’m strangely encouraged that someone as great as John the Baptist, one who Jesus referred to as “the greatest among those born of women” (Matthew 11:11), still had some doubts about Jesus. Jesus didn’t meet his expectations. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t always meet our expectations, either. Perhaps we began following a certain sort of Jesus, one we had constructed in our minds or from our culture, and the Jesus we actually experience isn’t measuring up. When the real Jesus doesn’t seem to square with who we expected him to be we ask the same question as John. Are you the one or should I be expecting some other Savior? In these circumstances, what should we do?

First, it’s good to bring your questions to Jesus. Jesus was not harsh with John. He simply said, “go back and report to John what you hear and see.” (Matthew 11:4) God is not harsh with us in our honest doubts. He invites us to come to him whenever we lack wisdom. He doesn’t scold, instead he “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).

Second, look at the evidence Jesus gives you, not what just for what you want to see. Jesus’ response was to point to the evidence: “ The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Matthew 11:5-6). John was probably looking for that bit about the prisoners being set free (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1) or possibly a promise that an overthrow of all evil earthly forces was coming soon. He didn’t get that, but he did get plenty of powerful evidence. Who else could perform those miracles? Only the Messiah.

Third, don’t stumble on account of who the Messiah turns out to be. There were many who wanted to crown Jesus as an earthly king but when he revealed that he had a different mission they left him. He is a King (The King, actually) but not in the way people expected him to be. When Jesus went to the cross, he was deserted even by his closest friends. They did not yet understand that his “defeat” was actually conquest. When Jesus fails to meet your expectations, your gut might say to abandon the cause. Don’t. He has some greater victory in store.

Fourth, trust in God’s timing. John’s expectation that Jesus would bring about the complete earthly reign of God wasn’t wrong, it was just premature. His expectation that the Messiah would proclaim freedom for prisoners (including John) was also correct. But in this life John never saw that redemption. He never got out of prison. He was, in fact, beheaded! But Jesus had not lost.

Perhaps Jesus had a prophetic word for John after all. He may have omitted the phrase “freedom for prisoners” but he did remind John that “the dead are raised.” I wonder if these words formed some of John’s final thoughts as he walked to his execution.

We live now in the reality of the already-not-yet kingdom. Already Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah. He has already conquered evil and death through his death and resurrection. But we don’t see the fullness of that victory. Not yet. For that we will have to trust in his timing.


This is not an endorsement of Ted Cruz. This is a critique of the following meme.


There are three problems with this meme: semantic, historical, and logical.

Semantic: Like most internet memes this one is likely based on (at best) misunderstanding or (at worst) misrepresenting what the target is saying. Mr. Cruz most certainly means something different than what the meme, by itself, is suggesting. The difference comes in how we understand/use the term “Rights.” I am assuming that Mr. Cruz is referring to “unalienable rights,” rights which we have by virtue of being persons while the creators of the meme are assuming he is referring to “civil rights” or rights we have under the law. The classic theistic way of understanding the two is that people have unalienable rights by virtue of being persons and those rights are protected and expanded upon under our civil rights by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is a danger in conflating the two terms, as this meme does, but I will address that later.

Historical: The theistic position stated above (that we have unalienable rights which are then protected as civil rights by the Government) is precisely the view stated in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

I don’t think the founders would disagree with Mr. Cruz. Our rights are from God (our Creator) and the role of the government is to secure these rights through just laws. This principle, along with prevailing political theory, was what formed the basis of our civil rights as defined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Logical: As I said before there is a danger in conflating “unalienable rights” with “civil rights” as this meme does. The implied counter-argument of the meme is that “our rights come from the Constitution (not from God).” But if that is referring to unalienable rights then you are in the uncomfortable position of saying that people did not have those rights before the writing of the Constitution or that people who live in other nations don’t also have those rights. It is a dangerous, and almost certainly an extreme minority opinion, that our unalienable rights are only the result of some social contract and could then be revoked if that social contract were revoked.

But if it is meant that our “civil rights” come from the Constitution then you have two options. The first would be to say that those civil rights do not derive from any unalienable rights. In that case you are in the same position as stated in the above paragraph and in disagreement with the Nation’s founders. The second would be to acknowledge that the civil rights of our Country are based on some set of unalienable rights which exist outside of the Constitution. That is, it acknowledges that there is some other Moral Law from which the Constitution derives its authority. In that case we could say, “Our rights come from outside the Constitution, and they are expanded on and protected by the just laws of the United States.” For Mr. Cruz, for the writers of the declaration, and for me, that “outside” is our Creator.

The challenge for non-theists is this: If you acknowledge unalienable rights, where are those rights derived from?

I’m not going to address this further here, but if you are serious about looking into this further I want to refer you to “Book 1” of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.