To a casual observer religion and Christianity seem like different words for the very same thing. Jesus would openly disagree.
So often Jesus spoke with the authority of heaven pointing out the difference. For example, who would have been more rigidly religious than the Jewish people of His day. Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20, NIV). What did He mean? He pointed out that religious righteousness which was approved by men and real spiritual righteousness approved by God were totally different in nature.
Paul spoke of “righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ,” which he said brings “glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11, NIV). Add to that this truth from Scripture, that righteousness is “not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV).
So then, let’s realize that Jesus taught us that a person can be very religious and even claim a belief in God and yet totally miss heaven! What else do you conclude by these words of Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven …” (Matthew 7:21, NIV)?
In this sense nothing is more dangerous than trusting in outward religious acts for eternal life. The list is long; religious celebrations, giving to the church, faithful attendance, and other religious acts and traditions must never be the basis of our confidence. We must seek authentic Christianity. So we need to listen again and again to the Biblical criticism of religion. No book, frankly, is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible. The Old Testament is full of it—denunciations of formalism and religion without heart. The Bible speaks of the hypocrisy of some worship of God. Jesus made people feel uncomfortable by pointing out, “These people … honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6).
Consider the judgment of one of the most respected spokesmen of the Christian faith, John Stott, who said, “Too much of our worship is ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear, religion without God.”
Religion declares our own piety is acceptable and therefore, it is the foundation on which humans would confidently approach God and attempt to establish a claim on His forgiveness and spiritual benefits. Religion does not teach selfless adoration of God but self-righteousness and our religious achievement. This idea haunts the church today. It is spiritual death in the making and it leads to totally missing heaven! Acts 4:12 says, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” All religion without a focus on Christ as our exclusive hope is empty, dead, and lifeless. It is a body without a breath, it is a world without a sun, it is a frame without a picture, and it produces a religious person without a personal relationship with God.
Let me say it like this: self-salvation is impossible. We know that Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior and salvation is a gift, not a reward. Salvation is by God’s grace alone based on Christ’s cross alone, and it comes into our life by faith alone. We are “justified by grace through faith.” All of us are sinful and guilty before God, and we cannot do anything to merit and win God’s favor. Salvation is only by grace, only through Christ, and only through faith.
What does this say about millions of very religious people who commend themselves to God by their own good works? What does it say about people, sincere but sincerely wrong, who try to win their acceptance by God and merit their going to heaven?
Religion says to all of us: We are the masters of our own destiny and we can fully save ourselves! What religion puts the emphasis on is my achievement, but Christianity puts the emphasis on His achievement. For example, “Because of his kindness, you have been saved through trusting Christ. And even trusting is not of yourselves; it too is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good we have done, so none of us can take any credit for it. It is God himself who has made us what we are and given us new lives from Christ …” (Ephesians 2:8-10, TLB).
Religion gives room for boasting, “Look what I have done for God.” Christianity is a direct contrast, “Look what God did for me!” Our boast is in God. “… it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Again the Word of God, “Then what can we boast about doing to earn our salvation? Nothing at all. Why? Because our acquittal is not based on our good deeds; it is based on what Christ has done and our faith in him. So it is that we are saved by faith in Christ and not by the good things we do” (Romans 3:27-28, TLB).
And there is more. To be sure, there are people who are fully willing to embrace the rituals and rules of religion yet refusing to admit, “I am a sinner whose only hope is the Savior Jesus.” Yes, they may be committed to something they do not even understand! And we see this in the day of Isaiah the prophet. He spoke for God, who said, “Hear the word of the LORD … ‘The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘… Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me … I cannot bear your evil assemblies … and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them … I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen …” (Isaiah 1:10-15, NIV).
And it is evident that all these people had some degree of respect for God, they knew that He existed, and yet here is what James said in the New Testament, “… Believing in one God? Well, remember that the demons believe this too—so strongly that they tremble in terror!” (James 2:19, TLB). Yet, demons are not in heaven and never will be. Demons are religious and reverent—yet excluded from heaven! James, with God’s authority, calls people like this foolish! And the reason is: they have religion and religious thoughts, but they really do not have God.
So let’s stand back and provide a striking contrast. — Religion is an effort to simply improve our old nature, but Christianity is allowing God to give us a new nature. Paul said, “But that isn’t the way Christ taught you! If you have really heard his voice and learned from him the truths concerning himself, then throw off your old evil nature—the old you that was a partner in your evil ways—rotten through and through … Yes, you must be a new and different person, holy and good …” (Ephesians 4:20-22, 24; TLB).
Here is the truth of the Scripture, I quote, “… How differently I feel now! When someone becomes a Christian, he becomes a brand new person inside. He is not the same anymore. A new life has begun!” (II Corinthians 5:16-17, TLB).
Religion focuses on the seen outward things, but the Christian faith focuses on the unseen inward things, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done [that’s outward], but according to his mercy he saved us …” (Titus 3:5).
Religion is built on “Do, do, do more!” Christianity is built on “Done!” It’s what He has done for us. John 19:30 speaks of what, “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” He did it for us! Once a Moslem girl said to my wife—“Now, I understand why you love Jesus Christ, why—you think He did everything for you!” She then said, “But it’s not the same for us!”
Do you see the great difference?
Religion is based on my continual sacrifice, but Christianity is based on His perfect eternal sacrifice. Religion stresses attainment, but Christianity stresses atonement! “Forasmuch as you know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, such as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Peter 1:18-19).
Religion bases everything on faint human hopes—“I hope I make it to heaven.” Christianity bases everything on fantastic God-given promises. Here is our confidence, “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God” (John 1:12).
Hebrews 4:15 says of Jesus that He is the “one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” And the declaration from the Bible is, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).
Do you see what is said? He, Jesus Christ, is and was the only person in history uniquely qualified to be our Savior. There is “no other name” and it’s coming to know Him personally through repentance and faith that gives us eternal life. And that’s a living relationship, not a dead religion. You see—it’s not ritual or rites or religion—it’s a personal relationship with Him! Without that, in reality, we have nothing at all.
And here is the great danger for us; it’s possible to believe in the moral precepts of what is taught in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, yet refuse to wholeheartedly believe in and rest in the Lord Jesus alone as our only eternal hope.
Religion centers on my behaving but Christianity on my believing, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). So the contrast is evident. Religion says, “I must do my very best for God,” Christianity says, “I must accept God’s very best!” It all centers on God giving His one and only Son--“the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Religion depends on my merit, but Christianity depends on His mercy. Again listen, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” What is mercy? It is loving compassion which is not deserved! You must understand it—that “through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38, NIV).
Religion is man seeking God and wanting to have His pleasure. Christianity is God seeking man and wanting him to have His pardon. What Jesus taught is called the gospel of grace; it is God’s free and unmerited favor given to sinful people.
Let me alert you; whenever you start hearing man exalted and implying that he can contribute anything to his salvation by his own respectability, morality, or religious activities, know this: the gospel of grace is being corrupted and it is a lie. In the New Testament, from Jesus onward, it is free grace from God that is magnified and glorified. Always!
A blinded religious person cannot begin to understand the message of Scripture for the God of the Bible is the God of all grace, for “our God, who is full of kindness through Christ” (I Peter 5:10, TLB).
“Please tell me,” some may say, “what is this grace you speak about?” The answer: grace is love, but it is love of a special kind. It is love which is kind to the unkind. It is love that is giving to the undeserving. It is love that loves the unlovely. It is God coming down to lift us up and clean us up. It is love that takes the worst and makes that person the best by changing his heart.
Grace is God’s free and unmerited favor which shapes a sinner into the likeness of Christ. Grace makes beautiful successes out of complete and total failures.
Grace is the very opposite of man lifting himself by his own bootstraps! Christianity focuses on the loving, undeserved initiative of God, in giving Christ to die, raising Him from the dead, and revealing Him to people like you and me. The whole message of the Bible is then “the good news of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
Religion knocks on a closed door, Christianity goes through an open door. Religion seeks to achieve, Christianity is based on Christ’s achievement. It makes us a son, a brother, and an heir.
Religion makes God an unacceptable offer—an improved me! Christianity accepts God’s amazing offer—a forgiven me! Religion stands to bargain with God, Christianity bows before God.
The overwhelming New Testament emphasis is to tell all forgiven sinners what by grace we are. We realize, we recall, we respond in grateful love to Him who is our “all in all.” Religion says, “I rescued myself by my goodness,” Christianity says, “Christ rescued me by His grace!”
And now in conclusion; I would ask any and all: Do you see yourself as only a person of religion or a person in Christ? Do you have only religion aimed at pleasing God or a Christianity centered in God?
Oh, may you be “found in him” that you may never “come into condemnation; but … passed from death unto life” (John 5:24).