“It’s not a religion. It’s a relationship.”
I don’t remember the first time I heard this statement, but I’m sure it resonated with me. It was a favorite among college students during my decade leading college ministry. Back then, it was often used to justify church-less Christianity. For people who don’t like commitment, finding out that Christianity is “just” a relationship is music to the ears.
But the statement highlights a reality that is at the very heart of the Christian faith. On the basis of all that Jesus has done in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, sinners can be reconciled to God. Because of Jesus, our sins can be forgiven. Because of Jesus, we can now call God “our Father” (Matthew 6:9)! Those who have been saved by faith in Christ can now know God relationally, experience his presence, and communicate with him personally. We now have a relationship with God!
In case you haven’t noticed, humans struggle with nuance. We like things to be black and white, good or bad, either/or. But life is far too complex for our preferences. Would you believe that the Bible, right alongside its emphasis on relationship, also describes our faith as a religion (James 1:27)? James uses this language because he is putting stress on the reality that God has called his people to practice certain things.
We need to be reminded that Christianity is a relationship to avoid dry formalism and to connect everything we do to the living God. But we also need to be reminded that Christianity is a religion to avoid inactive emotionalism. Emphasizing religion reminds us that the God we call “Father” actually calls us to live and to worship in specific ways.
Praying the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) helps us to keep the balance between relationship and religion. In beginning the prayer with “our Father,” Jesus grounds everything that comes after in the all-important relationship. God is now our Father, and everything we do as Christians must be grounded in that relationship. Because God is our Father, we are no longer fearful of his judgments. Because God is our Father, our acts of devotion are carried out in the warmth of his fatherly love. Because God is our Father, our priorities have been radically reoriented toward his name, his kingdom, and his will (Matthew 6:9-10).
But the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t stop with the relationship. Flowing out of God’s fatherhood, we are called to live in daily dependence upon God as we pursue the things that our Father has asked us to do. Thus, Jesus concludes the prayer by pointing out three ways we are daily dependent upon God as we practice (religion) our faith.
First, we are called to trust God daily for his gifts. In praying for daily bread (Matthew 6:11), we are learning to rely on God for everything. This dependence is harder to see in a culture of affluence. When we get hungry, we just go the stocked shelves at Kroger or any number of drive-thrus in our cities. But we ignore the ultimate source of our provisions to our own detriment. The blessed life is the dependent life. Our joy is full when we know from whom our blessings flow.
Second, we are called to trust our Father daily for grace. We pray for God to forgive our debts (Matthew 6:12), because we realize that we sin daily both by what we do and by what we fail to do. Even though we know that Jesus’ death paid for all our sins, we continue to pray daily for forgiveness in order to train ourselves to live in the grace of the gospel.
Further—and here religion comes in again—we are called to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Our reception of forgiveness from God is proven in our willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us. As people whose only hope is forgiveness, we have forfeited the right to withhold forgiveness from others. Forgiven people are forgiving people. We practice forgiveness (religion) precisely because we have received forgiveness (relationship).
Finally, we are called to trust God everyday for guidance. We realize that this world is not hospitable to faith, hope, and love. If we offer no resistance, we will drift away from our Father. We need our Father to help us not be overwhelmed by temptation. We alone are no match in the face of temptation; our only hope is his deliverance.
We are called to do many things as Christians. But our Father never leaves us alone. We practice religion on the basis of the relationship established through the reconciling blood of Christ.