Relationship not Religion
It seems like I regularly hear the phrase "Christianity is about relationship not religion." It has a nice sound to it. It is easy to remember. It appears to be a good and proper saying. It seems like the pious thing to say. The question I always have is what does this mean?
If it means that Christianity is not about mere ceremonies, then I wholeheartedly agree. James Montgomery Boice put it well when he said, "God is not content with mere ceremonial acts. On the contrary, he actually hates such acts if they are not preceded and accompanied by a genuine love for God and other people." Christianity is more than just observing of the ceremonies. Going to church on Sunday, reading your Bible, being baptized and having your children baptized, these are all good things. None of these should be neglected. But, if that is what you think Christianity is about, you miss the point.
On the other hand, if the phrase means that God does not want us to be religious, then I have to question the validity of the statement. You see God pursues us religiously. That is to say, he chases after us with reckless abandon, and consequently he expects us to pursue him just as religiously. To follow after him with the same reckless abandon. God demands that we be holy as he is holy (Lev 11:44). To be religious is to strive to be like God. Bavinck put it this way:
Religion is not limited to one single human faculty but embraces the human being as a whole. The relation to God is total and central. We must love God with all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength. Precisely because God is God he claims us totally, in soul and body, with all our capacities and in all our relations.
Bavinck is pointing to the truth that Christianity is both a religion and relationship. God demands all of us, so he religiously pursues all of us for the purpose of glorifying himself. Thus, our response should be a religious pursuit of him to glorify him. Our love for God, our relationship to him, produces in us a yearning to be like him. That yearning yields a religious pursuit of God. We aim to be more like him. When we love something, we are changed and that thing shapes us. We become more like the things we love.
God has pursued us to the point of sending his only Son. It is the blood of Christ that justifies us and when we are justified, we are given the name Christian. We are united to Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. Nothing we do can initiate that union or sever it. However, that union, that new name, Christian, comes with a call on our lives. It is a call to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and religiously follow Christ. That means we are to imitate Christ both in our actions and with a true heart. Once again Bavinck said that it is "By means of this imitation, Jesus declares some worthy to be his disciples and fit for the kingdom of heaven (Luke 9:62; John 8:12)." We are to imitate Christ who religiously followed and obeyed the Father.
The point is this then that Christianity is not just a religion nor is it just a relationship. Christianity is both a religion and relationship.