“Would it be correct to say that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion?” So asks a sincere inquirer.
Since James calls the faith religion, we cannot dump the word as a description of the Way.
“Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27, NET).
Christianity is, therefore, religion. But the word occurs sparsely in the New Testament, in contrast to its use in Greek literature,/1 which may indicate a general avoidance when referring to the true gospel. And James may be using it here in a good sense only to counter someone who wrongly styles himself as “religious” (v. 26).
We might be wise, then, to consider how many think of the word religion, since it carries in some circles a negative connotation. Just as the New Testament tends to avoid it, it may not be a choice word to use today in presenting the gospel if people react against it, because of the many “futile” and “self-made” religions./2
But Christianity is a religion of relationship with God. James himself recognizes this when he describes God as Father in the same verse.
The cross of Christ places us in the presence of God, as Peter says. “Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3.18). The whole purpose of Christ’s suffering, says Peter, was to restore us to a relationship with God.
God has always desired a relationship with his people. Even in the Old Testament, we are urged to trust God, so that “[t]hen you will take delight in the Lord, and he will answer your prayers” (Psalm 37:4). Instead of resenting or even envying the wicked’s success, we should focus our religion to take pleasure in our relationship with God.
What is said of Israel’s king applies to all: “you give him great joy by allowing him into your presence” (Psalm 21:6b).
Jeremiah spoke divine words to the same effect.
The Lord says, “Wise people should not boast that they are wise. Powerful people should not boast that they are powerful. Rich people should not boast that they are rich. If people want to boast, they should boast about this: They should boast that they understand and know me. They should boast that they know and understand that I, the Lord, act out of faithfulness, fairness, and justice in the earth and that I desire people to do these things,? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Following the ASV and RSV, the ESV translates Psalm 25:14 in a delightful way: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” “Friendship” is literally “confidential speech,” describing “a circle of trusted intimates who give their advice.”/3 Also, the important concept of “covenant” defines a specific manner in which God relates to his people. Of course, the New Testament deepens this intimacy of relationship even further by describing God as Father and his people as family./4
We need not react against this because some religious folk emphasize inner experiences which contradict plain statements of Scripture. The Bible is about God in search of lost mankind, in order that he may love and bless and enjoy those of his creatures who have chosen to serve him.
What a wonderful truth, and unfathomable! For why would the Creator of the universe, who needs nothing we can give him nor stands to gain anything by what we may do for him, care so much for our fellowship that he would give his only Son to take on man’s nature and surrender his life through cruelty, injustice, and profound suffering? But it is so, and we are the glad recipients of this truth.
We cannot quite jettison the word “religion,” to describe the Way, but the truth of our relationship with God makes it a sweet, wonderful, blessed, and — yes — experiential religion unlike any other.
1/ Theological Dictionary of the NT, vol. III, p. 155.
2/ James 1:26; Colossians 2:18. In the New Testament, the word usually translated “religion” (threskeia) is used judiciously, only in Acts 26:5, Colossians 2:18, and twice in James 1:26-27 (three times counting the adjective “religious”). In Colossians 2:23 Paul uses the composite word, ethelothreskeia, translated variously as “self-made religion” (NASB, ESV), “self-imposed worship” (NIV, NET), or “self-imposed piety” (NRSV). In Acts 25:19 the term deisidaimonia is translated “religion” in most versions, but “superstition” in KJV. NET translates chuqqah (statute, ordinance) in Jeremiah 10:3 as “religion:” “For the religion of these people is worthless.”
3/ Theological Wordbook of the OT, #1471. The term is also translated as “friendship” by NRSV and NLT. MSG and CEV have similar translations.
4/ See, for example, God as Father: Matthew 5:16; 6:9; John 4:21-23; Acts 1:4, 7; Romans 1:7; 8:15; his people as family: Matthew 12:49; John 1:12; Acts 6:3; Galatians 6:10; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:17; 4:17.