As a Christian, I often attempt to share my faith with others. One of the greatest challenges I encounter in these exchanges is the conflation of the practice of religion with faith in Jesus. For most people this may seem like the same thing, but in reality there is a huge difference. Religion can be defined as outward activities that are done to improve one’s standing before God, whereas faith in Jesus concerns our relationship with Him and our position relative to Him.
On a number of occasions I have had opportunities to share the Gospel with Catholics. You may be asking yourself why I would share the Gospel with a Catholic, who is already a Christian. I would respond that the Catholic teaching does not emphasize the redeeming power of Jesus Christ, which is the central theme of the Bible. They place a greater emphasis on the 7 sacraments, church hierarchy, and good works. Because of this, many of their parishioners attend church for the beauty and spectacle of the ceremony and do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. This practice is a perfect example of the elevation of religion over relationship.
Of course, this is not a practice that is unique to Catholicism. Many religions believe in a superior being who created the world and the things in it. This being may also have power over their daily lives. If this God lives on top of a metaphorical mountain and we live in the valley below, religion is the things we do to climb the mountain and reach God. Christianity is unique among all the religions of the world in that it acknowledges that God can’t be reached in this way. Romans 3:23 says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No matter how hard we work or how righteous we are, we can’t get to the top of the mountain.
The good news is that God sent Christ to live with us in the valley and then sacrifice Himself for us. He bridged the seemingly unbridgeable gap between God and man. As a result, religion is unnecessary. We only need to acknowledge our weakness and accept Jesus as the payment for our sin and he will be the conduit between us and God.
Unfortunately, this simple message is lost on most people in the world. Instead, men and women practice religion in order to bridge the man-God gap themselves. In this way religion becomes a false god that replaces true worship. Many ways of practicing religion are common today. Some are ceremonial, but others include doing charity work, giving money, praying multiple times per day, etc. While a lot of these things are good in themselves, they are a waste of time and money if your goal is to improve your relationship with God. In fact, the underlying motive of many of these activities is to glorify man and his worldly institutions, not God.
Does this mean that once you become a Christian worship and good works are meaningless? Not at all. The epistle of James makes it clear that works are a necessary feature of the daily Christian life. However, their purpose is not to mend our relationship with God, but to serve as evidence of our faith. Additionally, good works allow us to share the love of God with people who do not yet have a relationship with Him. The same can be said of worship. In addition worship gives us an outlet to express our gratitude for God and all He has done for us.
Even if you finish reading this post and are not ready to commit to a relationship with Jesus, I would challenge you examine your life and evaluate how much of what you are doing on a regular basis is with the vain intent of impressing God. If you give up this practice now you will be spared the disappointment of failing Him, or the prideful arrogance of thinking you succeeded. Hopefully at that point you will better see the emptiness in your heart that can only be filled by a personal relationship with Jesus.