Religion vs RelationshipBy Nathan Mates
Growing up, I had a number of joke books that I'd read in between other, more substantial, books. One joke that always piqued me was this, slightly paraphrased: "A passenger airplane's engines fall off, and the plane's heading for a crash landing. One of the passengers notices that she's sitting next to a minister, so she yells at him: "You're a minister! Do something religious." So he passed the hat and took up an offering."
While that joke may have been intended to make fun of ministers, and was probably written by a non-Christian who wanted to make fun of what he saw ministers always doing, it does have a kernel of truth at its core: that religion can be twisted to following rote behavior instead of a relationship with God. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary lists definition #2 for 'religion' as "2) a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices." [From http://www.m-w.com ]
In the Old Testament, especially the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God lays out extensive rules for behavior, from which foods were acceptable, to how and when sacrifices were to be offered, to what a future king's behavior should be like. God laid out these laws, God certainly wanted them to be followed, and yet God did not want the laws to be the focus of behavior. Mixed in with those laws on such outward behavior were also comments like these: "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry." [Exodus 22:22-23]
God wanted his people to be close to him, not just with their outward deeds, but with their hearts as well. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The prophet Isaiah would note that their behavior was not godly while they did outwardly godly actions: "Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. [...] Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" [Isaiah 58:4,7; verses 3-12 is the whole of the passage]
What had gone wrong here? Isaiah had previously noted that "The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men." [Isaiah 29:13] God wanted these people to check their heart's attitude, as it was the most important part of their behavior. But, these Israelites focused only on the rules, making this a religion.
Despite their exile to Babylon for their wickedness, the Israelites only increased their outward legality until the time of Jesus. And so, just like Isaiah, Jesus had harsh words for them: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." [Matthew 23:23]
What we have here is the distinction between religion and relationship. The Pharisees were the ultimate in religious behavior-- they extended the laws of the Old Testament, and added their own. And yet, their slavish desire to follow the law made them blind to the bigger picture. Jesus, on the other hand, said godly behavior starts from the heart, and extends outwards from there. [See also Mark 7:18-23]
Paul spends much of the first 11 chapters of the book of Romans explaining why the law just cannot save someone. In a nutshell, he says "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." [Romans 3:20] Nobody's good deeds are good enough for salvation in God's eyes. Nobody's good thoughts are good enough for salvation in God's eyes. You can't earn salvation on your own merits. The law is there to point out how often we break it and how often we fail.
So if blind devotion to a law (aka religion gone bad) won't work, what must we do? Paul has the answer, in one verse: "[We] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus" [Galatians 2:16a] Or, in other words, the law doesn't work and faith is the solution.
Paul would later write that "Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." [Romans 13:10] Starting with a love for God, one will tithe properly. And also from that same love, one will also desire justice in this world, yet demonstrate mercy towards others and have faithfulness towards God. Starting from love, we can get the proper behavior that Jesus expected out of the Pharisees, and by extension, us.
So, if we can't get by with following the law, but need faith in God and love to carry things out, where does one get those things? Simply put: a relationship with God. Having God as a friend gives us access to God's character, and helps transform us over time to be more and more like him. With God's help, we can do what God wants us to do, and his mercy will cover for all the many sins we will do. But, once you're in a relationship with God, you wouldn't want to willingly do anything that offends (i.e. sins against) God, your friend.
As Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." [John 14:6] You can't get to heaven by following rules laid down by other humans, you've got to have that relationship with God through faith in Jesus.