As cliché as the once popular saying was, it, once qualified, is essentially true: Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship. The qualification that makes that statement true is the popular understanding of religion being a system by which a person strives to find favor with God or a god. Now religion does not mean this, and Christianity is a religion by its standard definition, but the cliché that once could be found framed in every religious bookstore still rings with the truth that Christianity is far more than an organized system of beliefs.
Christianity is indeed at its most fundamental point a relationship. It is a relationship between the God who created the Universe and his people. What differentiates this relationship from all other relationships (and religions also) is how infinitely lop-sided it is. Every other religion (and distortions of Christianity) misses the lop-sidedness of this most fundamental of all relationships. While other religions and faux-christian religions set forth rules, principles, and guidelines by which a person might find himself in God’s favor, Christianity does not teach this. Rather, the Christian religion teaches us that we, the human race, are so far gone that there is nothing that we can do to please God (cf. Rom. 8:8). We are dead in our trespasses (cf. Col. 2:13), blind to the truth (cf. 2Cor. 4:4), and are hostile toward our kind and benevolent Creator (cf. Rom. 1:18-32). In other words, we are well beyond being able to fix ourselves up. Therefore if we are to have an amicable relationship with God, he must do everything to make it that way.
The Bible is full of these stark descriptions of our nature. It teaches us that we are not in need of new laws and new rules to get ourselves into shape, but that we are dead. We’re not at a stage 4 cancer, we’re not a body riddled with bullets yet gasping for breath, and we’re not a flailing body in the middle of the ocean on the verge of sinking; we’re stone-cold dead, and we have been so since our birth. Lazarus, being dead in his tomb for four days, was in far better shape than any person in his natural condition, and his stench was less too (cf. John 11). While Lazarus’s stench could only be smelt once the tomb was opened, the stench of our spiritual deadness reaches to the heavens and repulses the God who dwells there in unapproachable holiness.
But, that’s not the end of the story.
The God who created the Universe, the only God who subjected his once-perfect creation to futility (cf. Rom. 8:20), was not content to leave it in that state. In fact, he would not be content (and is not content) until the creation which he once called “very good” be called “indestructibly perfect.” And not only the creation, but he will not be content until his people whom he has called by his Name be called “indestructibly perfect” as well.
And this is what distinguishes Christianity from every man-made religion, namely that Christianity (or more accurately, the Church) consists of people from every tribe, nation, and tongue who are called by God into this New Creation. No one who is truly in Christ has done anything to become called. There’s no pulling up one’s self by the bootstraps here. There’s no working for God’s favor, no avoiding stuff to avoid God’s wrath, no “don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or go with girls that do”—none of that amounts to anything in the life of a dead person. Such things might make a dead person feel less dead, like a jolt of electricity does to a corpse, but, like a corpse, he remains dead all the same. And it doesn’t matter at all how we feel about ourselves; what matters is how God feels about us, since he is the only One whose opinion matters.
Regarding this calling and its effects, the apostle Paul writes:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).
To put it differently, we (who comprise the Church, the ekklesia, the called-out ones) who were once dead, were called by God from death to life, and not because our righteous works but because of God’s mercy alone. We who were once blind have been given sight, we who were once deaf have been given hearing, and we who were once dead have been given life. We did nothing to earn it, we did nothing to obtain it, and, even now, we are doing nothing to maintain it. Whatever good we have is from God, and whatever bad we have is from ourselves.
So then, God is both the One who initiates and the One who completes our relationship with him. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “Jesus [is] the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). There is no 12-step process to coming to God; there are no works that can be done to gain his attention and favor. The only vehicle by which we can come to God is through faith in Christ. And the reason it is through faith is because faith is essentially nothing. Faith and belief are the exact same term, and to believe something has no merit in it whatsoever. The things that we believe (that is, the things that we truly and actually believe) are believed because we have seen and heard them to be true. We believe in the sun because we see it in the sky and daily feel its effects. We believe in gravity because when we trip and fall down a flight of stairs we painfully feel its reality. We who believe in Jesus Christ (who truly believe in him) believe in him because he has revealed himself to us and we have heard his call.
A familiar yet often misunderstood text speaks to this: “Faith comes from hearing, but hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). This text is often interpreted to mean that faith comes by hearing the Gospel. This is true, however the text does not say this. What it is saying is that faith comes from hearing (i.e. the hearing that we don’t naturally have), but our hearing (i.e. our ability to hear) comes by word of Christ. In other words, we have to hear to believe in Christ, but the only way that hearing comes about is by the very same word that spoke the Universe into existence, namely the creative word of Christ.
So all of this means practically that those who are truly in Christ and in a relationship with him have no reason to boast of that relationship. It is infinitely lop-sided, where we bring nothing to the table and God brings everything. In fact, that statement is more generous than the reality. We actually bring infinite guilt, shame, foolishness, rebellion, etc. and God through Christ brings infinite holiness, righteousness, love, and mercy. We are spiritually bankrupt, and God forgives us our bankruptcy and gives us an infinitely glorious inheritance, namely God himself.
This also practically means that there is no Christian who knows the reality of this relationship and who is persistently self-righteous. Yes, since no Christian is perfect in this age and all still have fleshly inclinations, true Christians will struggle with baseless self-righteousness, yet they will not remain so or always be self-righteous. However, those who profess to be Christians and yet remain self-righteous all of their lives are either ignorant of the Faith which they profess to believe or are not in Christ at all. And even the ignorant ones cannot use their ignorance as an excuse, because the Spirit works in the God’s children despite their ignorance.
Therefore, those who boast in their choice of Christ, who rely on their good works, who arrogantly abstain from what they deem to be worldly behavior, who judge sinners without pity as if they were not sinners themselves—those such as these have never been touched by the reality of the Gospel. These are no different in the sight of God than the Muslim, the Buddhist, and the Atheist. They might call God by the right name, but they in reality worship a different god. And since they can speak the lingo and can put up the right façade, they often are able to infiltrate the Church unawares. Even so, their presence in the Church only demonstrates what Christ told his disciples, namely that the tares would grow alongside the wheat until his Return (Matt. 13:24-30).
All of this is to say that true Christianity is a relationship that is created and sustained by God alone. This lop-sided relationship creates Christians who are humble and grateful people who give God all of the glory for their salvation. Anything else that calls itself Christianity that results in arrogant, ungrateful, and self-righteous people is not Christianity. Anything that takes glory from God and gives it to man is not Christianity. Anything that makes works and deeds a stepladder to God is not Christianity. All of these things are parts of what the apostle Paul calls “self-made religion” (cf. Col. 2:16-23) and have nothing to do with the relationship found in Christ and the Gospel.
Questions for Application
- How do you judge the Christian religion, by the Bible that teaches it or by the people who claim it?
- If you are a Christian, do you know that you did absolutely nothing to win God’s favor? If you did not know this, does this reality offend you? And if so, do you have a good reason for being offended?
- As your relationship with Christ progresses, do you find yourself becoming more humble or more self-righteous? Are you becoming more grateful or more thankless? Are you becoming more merciful toward others or more judgmental? The answers to these questions will reveal the Christianity (or christianity) that you believe.