Religion Or A Relationship With God…Which Do You Have?

I can definitely say that religion has played a very large role in my life, but I’m thankful that I came to the realization that there is more to being what God wants me to be than following the man made rules of religion. When I look back over my childhood and my years growing up, I consider myself fortunate and blessed to have been raised by two devout Christian parents. From the time I was born until my late teen years, the churches I was always a part of were of the very conservative mainline Pentecostal denomination variety. As thankful as I am that I was raised in church and in a Christian environment, I can also look back over those years of Christian upbringing in the 60’s and early 70’s and wonder to myself, ” What were our church leaders and Pastors thinking? How could they have gotten so far off base in what true Christianity is all about?” As you read this, you may be wondering to yourself what I am talking about? Was I raised in a totally whacked out cult-like church that was full of ridiculous teachings? I would have to say that the church doctrine that I grew up on was very biblically based. The fundamental biblical teachings that I was raised on were very sound, but the approach that was taken to lead people into a God first life was not conducive to creating real Christian growth. Allow me a few moments to explain. 

In the churches I grew up in and was taken to as a small child, it was made clear to those who were members of the church what the expected “rules” were. When I say rules, I mean the set of expectations that were politely forced upon those that considered themselves faithful members of the church. These “rules” were everything from expectations of how a Christian person should live their life, what things they should do and not do, where they should go and not go, and what they should wear and not wear. Just as an example, I was told from a very early age that it was wrong to go to any business establishment whatsoever that served alcoholic beverages…and I mean ANY! This prohibited my family from going to a skating rink, bowling alleys, or any restaurant that served alcohol. It was a common expectation in the church I grew up in that if a person was to go swimming, the boys were only to swim with the boys, and the girls were only to swim with the girls. Back in those days in the church, the boys and men in the church were expected to wear white dress shirts and very short haircuts, and the women were expected to wear long sleeves, keep their hair long, wear no makeup, and little to no jewelry. I can remember back in my days growing up in church the alter benches that were a regular fixture in just about any mainline denominational church. In the church my family attended, almost every service an “alter call” was made by the Pastor, urging people to come to the front and kneel at the alter to ask forgiveness for their sins. I do have to admit, I do miss the old alter benches in modern churches. It is something you simply don’t see much of anymore. The unfortunate thing about the old alter benches was that back in those days, I can actually remember men or women, boys or girls, going to the alter to accept Christ as their personal savior, only to be immediately whisked away after their time of prayer was over to be told what the “rules and expectations” were now that they were a Christian. Churches back in those days spent a great deal of their time stressing what a Christian shouldn’t or couldn’t do, and really never allowed God’s Holy Spirit to lead and direct people in the way that they should go. The whole approach and philosophy back in those days was the ultimate display of religion that failed to focus on the aspect of a relationship with God.

What I am about to say may shock some of you as you read this, so brace yourselves! Are you ready for this? OK…here we go. Religion has never saved anybody, has never succeeded in making a person righteous, has never placed people into a right standing with God, and it never will! Religion is nothing more than man’s rules to get to God. Religion tries to tell a person that they need to clean him or herself up before they can ever come to God and be accepted. Religion tries to make men acceptable to God based on what a person does or their outward appearance. Religion tends to focus on the outside. Here is the problem…true Christianity starts on the INSIDE! There is nothing we can ever do in and of ourselves that would ever make us acceptable in the sight of God. Church attendance will not save you. Someone once said that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in a garage makes you a car! As humorous as that may sound, it is very true. If it were possible for us to clean ourselves up, the sacrifice that Christ made on Calvary would not have been necessary. 

Let’s take a look at a passage in the Bible when God was talking to some of the most religious men around during that time. In the 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, we can read about a time that God was talking to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious dignitaries of their day. They were the church leaders, preachers, and teachers of their era. The Pharisees were known for always wearing very elaborate and ornate robes and clothing, and always made it a point to be seen praying in public to display how “Godly” they were. They made sure they said all the right things, and made every attempt to live up to all the rules that the old Jewish laws spelled out. The Pharisees could talk the talk, but they didn’t necessarily walk the walk.  Look at how Jesus described the Pharisees in the beginning of Matthew chapter 23. In this chapter it reads, Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. They don’t practice what they teach.  They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. “Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues.  They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi”. (Matthew 23:1-7 New Living Translation) Jesus made it pretty plain in this passage that the Pharisees focused a great deal on their religion, but didn’t really have a relationship with God.

Take a look what Jesus said to the Pharisees about the way that they tried to be acceptable to God through their own means. Jesus said to them, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!  You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.  Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness”  (Matthew 23:27-28 New Living Translation) Wow! Jesus didn’t pull any punches with the Pharisees! He told them like it is! So, how do we relate this to the church of today? It is really quite simple. The Pharisees thought that obeying a long list of rules and making every attempt to look righteous before God would actually make them acceptable to God. The truth is that there is nothing we can ever do to make ourselves acceptable to God. We simply need to accept the grace of God, and accept what He has done for us by sending His son Jesus to die for us on the cross in our place. Grace by definition is unmerited favor. It is favor of God that we don’t deserve and cannot earn. The Apostle Paul said in the Book of Ephesians, God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.” (Ephesians 2:8 New Living Translation) It doesn’t matter how godly we act or how godly we try to make ourselves look…which is what religion tries to do. Living a life that pleases God all starts on the inside. It starts in the heart. In the Bible in Romans 10: 9-10 it says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved.”  It all starts with the heart and on the inside. It is all about entering into a personal relationship with Christ. When we truly do that, we do not need a set of rules to tell us what God wants us to do. That is what his Holy Spirit is for. Jesus told his disciples in John 16:13, ” When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth”

I would like to suggest to you that it is possible to attend church every Sunday, follow all the church rules, and end up missing out on what God wants for your life. Being like Christ is not about following man’s rules to get to God, which is what religion really is. If we are to ever be what God wants us to be, we need to establish a personal relationship with him, and trust that He will show us what areas of our lives we need to change. That is something that religion can never accomplish. Do you have religion or a relationship with God? Do you know about God, or do you KNOW him?

Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

Mark

  

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