I became a follower of Jesus many years ago by inviting Him to take up permanent residence in my life in his “unbodied form” of Holy Spirit. I knew at the time that I was establishing a vital relationship with the Living God, not “getting religion.” It might be more properly stated that God had reached out to initiate and establish a vital, eternal relationship with me. Something deep within me at the time knew that I would spend both my mortal life and immortal life in a vital, eternal relationship with Him…not that I had “gotten religion,” or that I would afterwards become religious.
In this teaching, I’ll attempt explain the differences between having a relationship with God through Jesus and religion.
Before going any further, however, I want to offer a definition that might help to open your eyes just a bit wider about having a vital relationship with God; the definition is about “theology”: “Studying God’s Person, character, and nature, and the way He works throughout all creation, including his good purposes for earth, and especially how He lovingly relates to and works among all humanity.” If one understands that greater definition of theology (instead of the concept often taught: “Theology is studying about God”, it opens one up to a “bigger,” more loving, more personal, more active God.
What do I mean about having a vital, eternal relationship? A relationship is a “connection” or “kinship” two or more beings have with one another; in this case, God and humans. God is the one True and Living God. By means of the “new birth” (John chapter 3 and elsewhere in the New Testament), a person is born (not adopted) into God’s family. Thereafter, the relationship between God and humans is a family relationship: Father with his well-loved children. The relationship between God and his children is enhanced and fostered as with any relationships: spending time with one another, talking with one another, sharing with one another, serving one another, simply being in one another’s presence, sharing one another’s dreams, visions, hopes, goals, and so on. In this case, the relationship is not only for a lifetime, but carries on into the ages of time and then in Eternal Realms.
Even a very cursory reading or perusal of the 4 Gospels about Jesus’ life (along with other biblical references), will readily disclose that a great deal of both Jesus’ time and that of his early followers was spent in combating the religious leaders and their dead religion of his day—all the while talking about having a relationship with their Father in heaven, as contrasted with mere religion. For example, they all taught in the few references in the next two paragraphs that dead religion and its leaders very often seek to substitute and impose religious tradition, dogma, and human-devised rules upon followers of God who have a vital relationship with Him.
In Matthew 15: 6, Jesus tells some of the religious leaders of his time that they had made the commandments of God of no effect by their [religious] tradition. In Mark 7: 13, Jesus told the religious leaders that they made the word of God of no effect through their religious tradition which they had handed down.
In Colossians 1: 18, Paul echoes Jesus’ words: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the [religious] tradition of humans, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Jesus.” Finally, in 1 Peter 1: 18, Peter also echoes the words of Jesus: “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things, like silver or gold, from your aimless [religious] conduct received by tradition from your [fore]fathers.”
Amplified and paraphrased, taken together, those key references (and others) teach that religious traditions imposed upon people render the Word of God null, void, and ineffective. It causes aimless wanderings of the mind, and esoteric religious and philosophical meanderings, causing people to never arrive at solid answers for their lives. It causes God’s people pointless confusion, always seeking for answers when answers are there all along in the Word of God, the Bible, God’s written revelation of Himself to all humankind.
By imposing dead religious tradition upon people, such religious leaders block out God’s Word and, instead, scrawl human-devised rules and whims in its place. Few things are more lamentable than dead, ossified religious knowledge and fallible human doctrine.
Having written what I did in the previous three paragraphs, the question quite naturally arises: “Bill are you condemning all religious leaders, all denominations, all churches, all religions worldwide?” No, no, no…I am not! Ever since I became a follower of Jesus, I have chosen to attend regularly and be part of various institutional Christian churches, ranging from Baptist, to pentecostal, to Lutheran, to Presbyterian, to Episcopalian. I am not condemning institutional churches, per se. I have always chosen to be an active and vital part of institutional churches. At present, my wife, Anne, and I have been active in a local Pentecostal congregation for many years.
Another question often arises: “Bill, are you on some kind of ‘crusade’ to do away with the institutional, organized church as we know it today?” No, no, no! That is not my intent. I love Jesus’ church, “warts and all.” Jesus’ church still has many “spots and wrinkles” (“faults and flaws”: Ephesians 5: 27)—including mine!—but it remains Jesus’ church that He dearly loves, provides for, and serves. So do I! Upon his return to earth, Jesus’ church will one day be glorious and radiant without any faults and flaws—a glorious bride beautifully adorned for her Heavenly Husband (Revelation 21: 2).
But, I understand that the worldwide Church, the living Body of Jesus, is an organism, not an organization. Humans have mistakenly imposed organizational models upon an organism; all such attempts are ultimately doomed to failure. I define Jesus’ Church, his Body, as all people everywhere and everywhen in whom Jesus permanently abides in his unbodied form of Holy Spirit. Until Jesus summons his church to its Eternal Home and returns to establish his theocratic Kingdom on earth, there will always be faults and flaws in his church, dynamic tension between the organism and the organization!
Yes, the church of Jesus is an organism—a Living Body, He being the Head of his Body—which He is constructing using living building materials: you, me, us, and millions others of his followers (1 Peter 2: 4 and 5). He alone fits the living stones perfectly into his Body. He alone is the Head of the Body. He alone is in charge of his Body. He alone..!
Here’s another way to look at what I’m attempting to say. It is impossible for me or any mortal human to live a godly life. Only Jesus can live a godly life in me, through me, and as me. It’s impossible for me to live for Jesus; He must live his own LIFE out of me from within me. The essence of religion and dead tradition is to feel I can grow spiritually by my own efforts. Instead, to really grow—to really live—I must die to my self-will and make deliberate daily choices to surrender to God’s will. Again, it is a vital, eternal relationship, not a religion.
The religious situation becomes even more lamentable when I understand how God is tenaciously, constantly, reaching out to his followers, drawing them to Himself and helping them to think outside their cloistered religiosity. Furthermore, I am slowly discovering more and more that the Jesus and Holy Spirit with Whom I have had a relationship for many years will not stay locked up in the “box” of an Americanized version of religious Christianity. God’s “world” of those having a vital, eternal relationship with Him is far larger than dead religious teachings make it out to be. God’s “worldview” is far more vast and broader in scope than religious traditions make it out to be.
Religion, without a relationship with God through Jesus, always mistakenly feels it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the ordinary believer in Jesus—and that it is doing God’s service, when, in fact, it is violating all God’s principles of simple faith and a relationship with Him. At its best, religion is a matter of creating an earthly “structure” in which to express the wonder of connecting with God. At its worst, religion seeks to fit God into a safe and comfortable little box. On the other hand, one’s relationship with God through Jesus is personal…having infinite potential for growth outside the box.
Now I want to simply share with you a few pithy thoughts (almost proverbial) I have picked up along the way since I first stepped out on my Journey with Jesus—thoughts about religion in general. I cannot recall where I heard or read these or if I thought of them myself, so I cannot tell you their authorship.
Many people receive just enough of a dosage of religion to inoculate them against having a relationship with God.
Many churches seem to be more museums for plastic saints robotically programmed to practice religion.
It is a weak-willed person who is content to be spoon-fed knowledge and dogma that has been filtered through the canon of dead religions belief, and let others dictate what he or she should or should not learn about God and all He had done for us through Jesus. [Dogma: “Any bodies of human teaching or understanding that are authoritatively asserted by someone as being the only correct teaching or understanding.”]
“Humans never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” –Blaise Pascal
Some have just enough religion to make them hate, but not enough to cause them to love other people.
Like all human organizations, yes, the church of Jesus is flawed and “dead” in some of its ways, but it has given us hospitals, preserved the Bible, founded orphanages, established great institutions of learning, given us some foundations for western civilization, a moral compass for life, Good News for the nations of the world, and hope for the entire human race.
Rigid dogma or any kind, especially religious dogma, is invariably wrong or lacking, because human knowledge is always in a state of growth, change, and transition.
When a person casts off religion and enters into a true relationship with God through Jesus, the experience can greatly perplex those who are used to grazing in the usual feedlots of processed theology and artificially-colored beliefs.
Righteousness (right-standing with God) in my relationship with God is not something I achieve by performing religious works and acts. It is something I receive, freely given to me by God through Jesus.
There is nothing wrong, for example, with making a personal choice not to drink alcohol or not go to R-rated movies. But for one follower of Jesus to weigh down other followers with religious rules and regulations that are not their own…that is the greatest enemy of having a relationship with God. It’s what Jesus fought against the most with religious leaders of his time. And his onslaught against religion is what got Him killed. Religion is an enemy that often crushes churches, divides fellowships and friends, turns God from a Person into a manifesto of do’s and don’ts that crush the spirit, and turns Christianity into a program devoid of true, godly power and devoid of God’s love.
Like-minded followers of Jesus tend to gather in like-minded churches, denominations, and religious groups centered on sameness of doctrine and dogma based on human knowledge. Like-spirited followers of Jesus tend to gather without borders with like-spirited other followers of Jesus centered on Jesus alone and their vital, eternal relationship with Him and Holy Spirit.
I invite you also to read 2 companion teaching on this website: Religious Dogma and God and Religion
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Revised and Updated May 2021