Depending on the circles you run in these words carry different meaning. Some think one is a bad word. Some think both are.
The Bible consistently warns people against two extremes. We are warned against legalism. We are warned against licentiousness. The first is religion without relationship. The second is relationship without religion. Both are common. Both are deadly.
Many people are deceived into believing that certain deeds are inherently good. Other deeds are inherently bad. Some (perhaps most) are neutral. This is the error of Moralism. This type of thinking can make the drift into religious activity devoid of relationship with the living God easy to miss.
When we classify religious activity – things like prayer, Bible reading, church attendance – as “good” we can simply go through the motions. We can use these “good” activities to try to manipulate God into giving us what we want.
Sometimes all we want is for Him to leave us alone and let us do what we desire.
Religious activity can result in treating God like a distant deity who is pleased with our jumping through hoops. Our service and deeds become an act of appeasement. If we want God’s favor we do our rituals.
I recently started studying through Isaiah with a brother in Christ. The prophet calls out religious activity. God inspired language that is alarming.
Do not bring any more meaningless offerings; I consider your incense detestable! You observe new moon festivals, Sabbaths, and convocations, but I cannot tolerate sin-stained celebrations! I hate your new moon festivals and assemblies; they are a burden that I am tired of carrying. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen, because your hands are covered with blood. (Isaiah 1:13-15 NET)
Meaningless. Detestable. Sin-stained. Hate. Tired.
God directly says that their religious activity causes Him to look away. He refuses to even listen to their prayers.
It is striking to realize that these activities were ordained by God. The activities are done according to the Law. They are proper religious activities. At least, they are outwardly. Inwardly is another story.
They are doing them with wrong intentions. Their religious activity is superficial. They are neglecting other aspects of walking with God. They are neglecting the costly duties: seeking justice; reproving the ruthless; defending the defenseless.
They are not reflecting God’s character. They are attempting to check off God’s requirements.
It is good to be reminded of God’s character. After God rejected Saul as king and directed Samuel to anoint David as king, God told Samuel something important:
God does not view things the way men do. People look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7 NET)
God is looking for heartfelt religion. Not empty deeds. God is not teaching us Tai Chi. He is not interested in us simply going through the motions.
God redeemed a people for Himself. He gave them the Law so that they would live in holiness. Their holiness was a means to an end. It wasn’t the end in and of itself. The true end was so that God could dwell among them.
Are you not astounded that God desires fellowship with His people?
Our sin hinders genuine fellowship. God paid a very costly price in the blood of Jesus to eliminate our sin problem.
We must always remember that salvation is a work of God in Christ reconciling us to Himself. The aim of true religion is to restore what was lost in the Fall. We became rebels. Christ makes reconciliation between rebellious sinners and a holy God possible. In Christ, we have our relationship restored with our heavenly Father.
Religion without relationship is still rebellion. Relationship without the appropriate religious activity is rebellion too.
Repentance. Reconciliation. Restoration.
The aim of religion is eternal life. Eternal life is knowing the true and living God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3). We are not walking a path to God. If we think we are then we are on the wrong path.
Jesus makes it possible for us to walk the path with God. The path we walk with God in this fallen world is narrow indeed.
True religion understands that our religious activity is not a price we pay to satisfy a distant God. Quite the contrary! God has paid the price so that we may be brought near to Him. We walk in holiness because we want to keep in step with Him.
Celebrate and enjoy the nearness of God today. It can’t be done through empty religious activity. It has been done through Jesus. God is making a people for Himself. He desires to dwell in our midst.
Do you desire to dwell in His presence today? To know Him and to make Him known? That is the aim of true religion.