I wasn’t raised in the church. I didn’t become a believer until I was 31. When it came to spiritual beliefs, what mattered to me was how my life might be personally impacted. I resisted formalities, was turned off by rituals and church felt like being pressured to surrender my individuality in order to conform to the group identity.
Religion never made me a better person. Religion never brought me to God. Yet, when I try to talk about my faith, the conversations invariably take the form of discussing religion. For all intents and purposes, religion actually distracts us from realizing who we are in relationship to our Creator and how that relationship defines our lives.
Even earning a PhD in theology will not necessarily bring a person closer to God. But the fear of the LORD is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom. One must begin by believing in God. Learning then becomes building upon and growing in one’s faith. But I do not call the process of seeking God and growing in faith “religion”. As I see it, religion is mainly outside things we tack on to our faith.
For anyone who is interested, there is an article at https://frankpowell.me/jesus-hates-religion that explains the shortcomings of “religion” per se, as compared to true Biblical Christianity. It has become a trite saying that Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship, and I’ve come to see that saying so can be a bit off-putting to people, even if they are genuinely interested.
Yet that is exactly my side of the story. I came to Christ personally. I didn’t come to a decision to follow a certain religion. I had always hated religion. What changed my life was deciding to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Deciding to attend a church came later. My decision to follow Christ is what changed me — what saved me and got me on the right path. My decision to start going to church helped me grow as I learned that God wants believers to grow and serve together on our spiritual journey.
That part definitely involves “religion”. But religion doesn’t produce righteousness. It can only express righteousness. So if there is no righteousness to begin with, religious expression is just an exercise in hypocrisy.
A part of me wants to say that God hates religion. But he gave the Hebrews a perfect religion that had they followed it perfectly would have produced blessings beyond measure (Deuteronomy 7:12-15). The truth is that God hates false religion. James 1:26-27 says,
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 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.
In Amos 5:21-25 God lists many of the things we associate with religion as things he does not consider worthy. Scripture is clear. If you fill your life with so-called religious practices yet continue to mistreat others and live in sinful ways, then your religion has no value.
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Perhaps you have already concluded that since most “religious” (church-going, Bible-thumping) people are hypocrites, how can you rationally consider anything they say? They’re all a bunch of losers, using their religion as a crutch.
If so, doesn’t it strike you that they claim to have a strength that is greater than their own weakness? Will you ignore the “higher power” they point to on the basis that they are too fault-ridden to believe? If this presents a quandary to you, then you do not really understand who Jesus Christ is or what he has done for all humanity.
Do you know the gospel? That’s just a word that means good news. When you know you are already condemned, it’s good news to hear that Jesus has redeemed you. But here is the first obstacle to receiving this good news: not admitting we already stand condemned before God. That means all of us — every human being.
We make the mistake of asking, “Why would God condemn me?” Isn’t he supposed to be loving and forgiving? Our error is that God hasn’t condemned us, we have condemned ourselves. It’s called sin. Now days a lot of people refuse to admit that sin even exists. But those of us who are honest with ourselves know that sin has infected our very being — not just in specific acts we can point to, but in the very character and nature of who we are.
So, what is the exact nature of our condemnation? We are imperfect beings created in the image of a perfect God. There are many wonderful things in life to enjoy. While on the other hand, there are many circumstances that give us pain and sorrow. This life is a blend of blessings and curses. We can accentuate the positive and look at the sunny side of life all we want, but in the end we all die. And that is the curse. We are condemned to die.
Romans 6:23 explains, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Again, the good news that Jesus offers eternal life is apparent to the person who knows they deserve death. Here is the love and forgiveness of God. In spite of our sin, if we by faith accept the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross as atoning (paying) for our sin, ask him to forgive us and receive him as Lord, then we no longer stand condemned. We are forgiven. We are in Christ.
The Bible verse that led me to decide to live for Christ is John 1:12: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. If you don’t know who Jesus is, read from the beginning of this chapter. Start at John 1:1. Jesus is God. God the Son. He voluntarily laid down his human life as the only possible perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. ~ John 10:18
But the Christ not only died for our sins, he triumphed over death itself — the very curse of all mankind. He rose from the grave, ascended into heaven and raised us up with himself. Ephesians 2:4-7 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-6 Paul summarized:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
If you have not yet received forgiveness from God, whenever you are ready to ask, he is there to listen. But don’t expect that by “being saved” or “becoming a Christian” all of the problems in your life will disappear. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” But we still need to deal with the daily realities of our circumstances. There is no quick fix. The process of sanctification is more of steady growth than sudden, dramatic change. Walking by faith takes persistence and patience. At times you might even see yourself as a hypocrite.
A good thing to remember is the encouragement Paul gives us in Romans 6:10-14:
For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
If you want this, just pray a simple prayer. The exact words don’t matter, but what’s in your heart. Something like… Jesus, forgive me for my sinfulness. I believe you are God the Son. I believe you died on the cross for my sin; that you were buried but rose to heaven on the third day according to Scripture and are seated at the right hand of God the Father. And I receive you as Lord and Savior. Help me to live the rest of my life according to your will and to the glory of God the Father. Lead me, strengthen me and help me by the power of your Holy Spirit. In the name of Jesus, Amen.