Some people say, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I am curious why one thinks that these two ideas are mutually exclusive. A religion is a relationship, a connection between God and man expressed in certain defined doctrines and practices. One would be hard pressed to find anyone within Christianity who would actually say that the empty performance of religious ritual is a good thing. Our worship ought to be a matter of the heart, or in other words a matter of sincerely held belief, and not just vain formalism.
If this is what people mean when they differentiate religion and relationship, they’re right, though I fear that they often mean something else. Often, by “relationship”, people seem to emphasize entirely just one side of that relationship, their own, so that by a “relationship” they really mean an experience, a feeling, a particular emotional ecstasy. Too often it seems that it is the very idea that God has regulated our relationship with Him that people find offensive. Is it the case that we want to be in control of the way that relationship functions, of how and when we experience that relationship?
It is a relationship, but because God is who He is and we are who we are, that relationship must be defined and regulated very carefully, and we are not the ones who do the defining and regulating. So it is a “religious relationship,” a relationship with God which is governed by order and sound doctrine.
Cain’s problem was not that he didn’t want a relationship with God. He wanted one, but he wanted to be in control of it. He wanted to offer God the sacrifice that he chose to offer, rather than the one God had taught him to offer. He wanted to change the terms of the relationship. God responded by rejecting that sacrifice and calling on Cain to repent. Over and over we can see the same pattern being repeated. Every kind of sin that exists basically boils down to this impulse. Even atheists, whether they are willing to admit it or not, are demanding to have a relationship with God on their terms, because they insist on the right to enjoy God’s good creation without submitting to Him. This is the very essence of the sin of idolatry. The practice of idol worship was at its heart a desire to fix and control one’s relationship to the god, controlling my relationship to the god by the things that I myself have made.
God is sovereign over us and can never be anything but sovereign. We can never be in charge of our relationship with God. So whether or not we will have a relationship with God is not the question. As His creatures, we will always be in relationship with Him. The question is, whether we will submit to His rules for that relationship, or whether we will insist on writing our own. This principle will be reflected in everything we do, and it will be seen in our worship above all else. Is our worship driven by God’s own revealed truth? Or is it driven by our feelings, opinions, and priorities? Do we desire to generate certain kinds of emotional experiences and call that worship, or do we desire to submit ourselves to the God that made us?
We are called to a religious relationship with God, and that relationship will be an extremely blessed one. God has all the treasures in the world, and desires to give them to His people. He will always do so in a way that is true to His own nature, that reflects His sovereignty and rule. In grace, He sovereignly reveals the truth to His people, opens our eyes to the true nature of our religious relationship with Him, so that we can be conformed to the truth of His sovereignty and receive all of His gracious gifts.
This is all revealed in Christ. His life was one of perfect obedience in submission to the will of His Father. His death showed that fellowship with God can only be had in conformity to His law. Since God’s law demanded death for our sin, that price had to be paid, and it was. His call to us is to believe on Him, to be covered by the blood He shed for us, and thus enter into a right and gracious relationship with God which honors both His sovereign justice and His gracious love. This is the heart of what people find so offensive in the cross. It expresses perfectly the truth that our relationship with God can only ever be had on His terms, not on ours, that God will sooner undergo the horrors of death Himself than give up His sovereign right to rule.
It only reveals the desperate condition of sinful man all the more that so many continue to reject this perfect offer of fellowship and continue to insist on writing the rules of our relationship with God ourselves. It would be like the Gauls trying to dictate to Caesar the terms of their surrender after Caesar had utterly crushed them. God holds all the cards here, yet He has approached us in grace and mercy. It is only reasonable then that we give up any attempt to try to dictate to God what our relationship with Him will look like, and humbly and simply look to Him to instruct us in the religious relationship, the sovereignly-ordered worship and life to which He has called us.
Rev. Matt Powell
Christ RCUS, Casper, WY