What is religion, really?

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

(James 1:27, ESV)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

(James 2:14-18, ESV).

I have been meditating on the popular idea that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship!”

I think this has become popular because the word “religion” is associated with human, man-made customs and traditions—and to many a “works righteousness” outlook where I am made right with God by what I do.

I am a huge grace guy when it comes to the doctrine of justification, practically Lutheran in that regard, actually. There is no doubt, however, that the real, life-giving faith thrust on us by God’s grace creates some sort of change in behavior, even if it is as “small” as “just” a humble attitude of repentance.

Our salvation is by a faith (given in grace) that, perhaps paradoxically, demands to be practiced. I don’t think the thought stops there, though. In the “traditional” view, “religion” is defined as my work for God. In the truly Christian sense, however, I think that the religion that we practice is not our work, but through the Holy Spirit becomes God’s work through and for us. Think about that.

Our religion is caring for the broken and helpless, becoming instruments of God’s love and grace and light. Our practice is prayer, preaching, Eucharist, Baptism, and fellowship. God graciously works in and through us in all these things, for our benefit and his glory! It’s not about what we have done or will do. It’s what He is doing.

It’s not that true Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion,” but rather a religion soaked in a relationship. True Christianity can’t exist without a relationship with Jesus, to be sure, but that relationship can’t help but be made manifest in our lives.

I’m beginning to see religion not as fundamentally separate from spirituality, but rather, as God’s work in and through me, symbiotically entangled. I don’t want to avoid God’s Christian religion any more. I want breathe it in and out, drink it up, absorb it, become married to it, have it permeate my life. Because God’s religion is nothing less than his Spirit overwhelming every aspect of my life.

If that doesn’t turn the world’s concept of spirituality and faith upside down, I don’t know what would.