Many today attack religion thinking Christianity is a relationship, and it certainly is! But this is like saying government is bad because our government is bad, but government is a gift of God. The same is true of religion. To say, “Jesus trumps religion,” uses the word “religion” differently than does the New Testament. All other religions disappoint because they are idolatrous and twist the worshipper into the shape of the created rather than the Creator.
James 1:26-27 mentions both vain and true religion. We ought to oppose vain religion, and embrace true religion. Only the life-encompassing pattern of worship prescribed by God will fulfill.
The religion vs. relationship choice, just as the love vs. law choice, is false because all relationships require structure. True religion is the prescribed form of a relationship with God, and an essential part of His plan for the transformation of sin-sickened souls. True religion is not self-defined, but follows a pattern outlined by Scripture.
Imagine, for example, attempting to sustain your marriage without submitting to its form(s). “Honey, it’s okay that I’m going out to dinner with this other lady, because I don’t actually have a relationship with her; it’s you I love.” Well, you won’t have a relationship for long! It’s the same way with God. “God, I’m going to approach you with yoga and marijuana; I’m sure you’ll be okay with it, because it’s still you I’m pursuing.” Sorry, that’s the ways and means of idolatrous worship.
The habits of a religion reveal and affirm what we believe and whom we serve. It is “the binding tendency in every man to dedicate himself with his whole heart to the true God or an idol” (F. Nigel Lee). Religion inaugurates, declares, represents, and rehearses covenantal bonds. We submit to or cooperate with the terms of a religion in our way of life—consciously or unconsciously—because we cannot escape having been made in the image of God: created to worship and serve. We will therefore, either worship God according to the pattern of His character, or worship any number of alternatives (including ourselves) according to the pattern of their emphases.
The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religare which means “to bind” or “to tie.” The root of the word is lig-, from which we get our words “ligament” and “ligature.” Though light and easy there is a yoke for Christ followers: a binding tie which serves to guide us. There is a reason we are servants; we are not free but a doulos (bondservant). We are not our own; we were bought with a price.
The relationship we have with Christ is founded upon a covenantal/judicial word-act (not incidentally compared to marriage in Eph 5:31-32), and as a covenant it comes with terms. Terms we cannot satisfy on our own, therefore they were satisfied for us, in order that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Assuredly, Christianity is a relationship with Christ. But there is no relationship with Christ outside of his covenant promises and action. A covenant is, by definition, a relationship established upon certain bonds, and each covenantal relationship has behaviors that are required for participants. Our covenant with God depends upon His faithfulness alone, but our covenantal obligations are in no way thus diminished. We now pursue them with freedom rather than condemnation, but our release from condemnation does not remove the goodness of the way prescribed by our Suzerain (see http://www.fivesolas.com/suzerain.htm).
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” indicates that in the worship of Jesus one gets true religion: a container for your worship, attitudes, thoughts, and practices that will produce blessing if it is followed and cursing if it is thwarted. Even though it is good for image-bearers to follow this religion, they cannot thus earn their salvation. However, on the other side of having been justified, the religion of the Jesus Way (described from Genesis to Revelation) is a good and perfect gift that we embrace to our benefit, and as a necessary part of the abundant life God has designed and described. Grace is opposed to earning but not to effort and the variety of efforts God prescribes to us as containing life is true religion: the only one that will satisfy.
There are only two religions: Christianity or Paganism. Paganism comes in many forms, but they all boil down to a rejection of the Sovereign Authority of God and a rejection of His religion: a covenantal tie to Him that acknowledges His all-encompassing Rule, and enjoins upon us a way of relating to and serving Him. To reject religion as bad is to deny one of God’s gifts, and to inescapably embrace a syncretistic blend of His way and our preferences: a new gnosticism which inevitably devolves into idolatry.