Religion. Just what does that word mean? According to Merriam-Webster.com, there are four definitions that apply to this discussion.
- The service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
- A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
- Archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness
- A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith
These definitions demonstrate that every human being has a religion. An atheist holds to a cause, principle, or system of beliefs with ardor and faith. Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jew… not one escapes religion. It’s just part of human nature to hold to a personal set of beliefs and practices.
With so many choices to pick from, can any belief system claim to have it right? Christianity boldly claims to be the only way to “Heaven.” Yet, even Christianity has stooped to the level of being merely a religion. It can be a round of service and apparent worship of “God” while being no different from every other system out there.
Often seekers repeat this oft heard phrase, “There is truth in all religions.” I have to agree. There is. Yet there is one truth that stood out in early Christianity that we struggle with today. There is supposed to be a difference between Christianity and religion.
So what is religion really? It is a contractual relationship with the “deity” a person worships. The contract goes something like this: You give me the rules. I obey them. You cut me some slack and ultimately send me to a good place.
What is Christianity? It is a covenantal relationship. The covenant goes something like this: I recognize your inability to obey the rules, so I absorb the penalty for your disobedience. I get you out of the scrapes you’ve worked yourself into. I only ask one thing–appreciate it.
By this definition, Christianity existed from the Fall. Adam and Eve got themselves into a serious scrape–one they even blamed God for. He didn’t destroy them. He demonstrated His covenant by fashioning robes for them. The cost was a sacrifice of blood–foreshadowing that offering a covenantal relationship isn’t without cost to God.
Cain got himself into a serious scrape. Even though God had reached out to him, he didn’t like what God said. He blew his stack. He murdered his brother. God spoke directly with him again, offering that covenantal relationship yet again. Cain rejected it. He preferred a contract. Cain established the first religion.
Within 1600 years of creation, the world had embraced Cain’s religion so thoroughly that only Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. God made a way of escape. All who would enter the ark were protected from the flood. God didn’t ask for those who entered to be good. He just asked them to go inside. Only seven of his family members joined him.
Abraham left Ur and Haran because he heard God’s call. Repeated scrapes are recorded. Why did Abraham become the father of the faithful? Because he believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.
As the entire Hebrew scriptures unfold, we see this theme repeated over and over. We see it again in the preaching of Jesus’ followers. Primitive Christianity is a message that stands in sharp contrast to religion. It states that the one you worship doesn’t need to be appeased. You don’t enter a contract that says, “I obey, therefore save me.”
Instead, it is a covenant that states, “I save you. Respond with obedience.”
Even when those who enter into this covenant slip into contract mode, God doesn’t respond in like mode. He works in ways that encourage us to embrace the covenant.
We see this dramatically in the destruction of the Temple. It was a devastating event for Jews. Yet, it proved a blessing. It forced them to try to understand what each sacrifice was about. What did it mean? Many Jews through the centuries have embraced a deeper understanding of who God is through that study.
Meanwhile Christianity has gone on it’s own exploration of seeking God through contractual relationship instead of covenantal relationship to God. Many Jews walk today in covenant with their God serving Him because He gave them His word at Sinai. Many Christians walk in a contractual relationship. It is possible to look to the Bible as a list of instructions whether Christian or Jew. And it is also possible to look to the Bible as promises whether Christian or Jew.
If we catch ourselves saying, “They are under the old covenant,” we may need to take a closer look at which covenant we are talking about—the one based upon our promises to God, or the one based on God’s promises to us. One leads to a frustrating experience. The other leads to blessings evermore.