Relationship, Not Religion

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27

As you can probably tell from many of my blog entries, I am a bible believing Christian. I believe in God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe that the bible is reliable and is the basis for truth. I believe that God wants to have a relationship with everyone on earth and to see them come to salvation.

Religion is a different matter. I don't believe in religion. I am not religious. Now don't get me wrong. There are lots of great religious men and women doing fabulous things: building communities of believers that love God, serving their fellow man, advancing the kingdom of God, all that stuff. But religion is not God. It is merely a system of beliefs advocated by those who do their best (in most cases) to adhere to the principles of scripture. Even Christianity is about people and made up of people. In that sense, it is highly fallible.

So why do I say all that? Because people love to be part of something. I love to be part of something. Being a part of something bigger than the self helps to give life meaning. Christianity and the activities and ministry of the local church helps to add meaning to the lives of many people. But it also distracts them sometimes from the real purpose of our existence.

God created us for relationship. He wants to walk with us, talk with us, help us to learn and grow. We are spiritual beings, created to know God. One of the problems I see with Christianity as a religion is that it takes its focus off of the relationship and puts it onto the "lifestyle" of Christians. There is a Christian lifestyle - common dos and don'ts, ways of talking and behaving, an expected political outlook - and unfortunately, a common critical eye towards those who believe differently and act differently. In this I find the biggest fault with Christianity - the focus on sin, both personal sin and the sin of others.

Jesus Christ did not come and die on the cross to get us to stop sinning. He came to set us free from sin. He came, not to put our focus on sin, but to take our focus off of it. The distinction is huge and the consequences even bigger. We are now dead to sin; dead to the law. It is fulfilled. If you got killed in a car accident and you were at fault, would the officer give you a ticket? No, you're dead - a ticket is pointless. We are dead to the law.

God wants our focus to be on Him, not on the rules. I don't lay down a law against my wife. We have a relationship, we love each other, and learn and grow together. Rules don't make that relationship work, love does. God wants the same thing to be true with the relationship He has with us. He wants it to be about love, not sin, not punishment, not getting it right every time, but learning and moving forward. "And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." (1 Cor 13:13) Love is mankind's greatest motivator. If anything stirs the heart of man, it is the desire for love. You see it everywhere - movies, books, music, poetry, art. We were made for relationship, and the beginning of any successful relationship is God.

If we are in a relationship with God and commune with Him via the Holy Spirit (our spirit relating/connecting to His Spirit) we will be lead into right behavior. Jesus Christ set me free from the worry of sin, from the condemnation, from the fear. Now I walk with Him. I try things, I make mistakes, I fall, the Holy Spirit speaks to me, I learn, and I grow. It is by living that we become the men and women God wants us to be. Its partly by failing that I grow in my sensitivity to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

So does God want us to sin? Absolutely not. The wages of sin is death. It hurts us dreadfully to sin. But God wants us to be able to let it go and move on. He wants to lead us out of sin as we commune with Him in a love relationship - not because we are fearful of hell or the criticism of fellow Christians. God wants to teach us to avoid sin because it is an assault on the relationship He has with us and because it is an assault on life itself. God has good plans for us and sin prevents Him from leading us into that blessing. Sin is the choice to do something our way, contrary to the leadership of God. God is the author of life and knows what it takes to provide for life. Sin produces death because it is contrary to God and to His wisdom. Follow God and live - that message is everywhere in the bible.

We often sin because we hurt. All people need love, acceptance, and leadership. God promises to meet all of those needs through the Sprit - He is our comfort (love), provides fellowship (acceptance), and offers counsel (leadership). When we connect with God, we can receive all of these things and be made whole. Our hearts can be filled, so to speak. When we are disconnected from God, our hearts become empty. It's at this time that we often turn to sin as a remedy for the pain of an empty heart. Only the love of God can fill an empty heart. Sin is man's attempt to fill his own heart; to find a little relief; to escape the pain of life. As we grow in our relationship with God, we learn how to recognize when we are disconnected from God by the desire for sin that sometimes rises within. We can sense our own "heart level" and use that nudge to step back into fellowship with God.

So why did Israel have the law? The bible says in Gal 3:19 that it was "added because of transgressions till the Seed should come." And in verse 24 that it "was our tutor to bring us to Christ." Like a child needs rules and laws provided by the parents for protection - Israel needed those laws because they had very little love for God and weren't interested in pursuing a relationship with Him. God made a promise to Abraham (Gen 22:18) that He intended to keep. Specifically, God promised that from Abraham's descendents a savior would come that would bless the entire world. Israel was the promised vessel through which Jesus Christ would come. If Israel didn't follow God, like so many other ancient nations, they would cease to exist. God gave them the law to protect them and hence His ability to keep His promise to Abraham. He didn't give the law to other nations and He doesn't give the law to us. The law was not God's wish - it was added because of Israel's sin. God has no love for the law. The law had a purpose; that purpose has been fulfilled - Christ has come.

Focusing on the sin is legalism - and legalism kills. Here are 6 serious problems with legalism.

1) A legalistic person has a relationship with rules rather than a relationship with God.
2) Legalism produces a sense of self-righteousness in the person who follows the rules. Fake holiness. A self-righteousness that keeps them from seeing their need for God. Remember the pharisees? They had no love for God because they were convinced of their righteousness.
3) Legalism produces self-condemnation in those who recognize their own inability to obey consistently. "I'll never be able to do this!" People give up and leave Christianity in their hopelessness.
4) Since the heart is still empty, a legalist is tempted to think that there might be relief in that which is forbidden. People begin to think, "I'm so unhappy, but those people sure seem to be having a good time. Maybe I'll try what they're doing." For that person, the remedy for the emptiness must be sin. The legalist is drawn to sin by his own desperation for peace within his heart.
5) Legalism makes Christianity look unappealing to the lost; like a bunch of boring people trying to be good. Who wants that?
6) Legalism prevents people from learning to listen to the Holy Spirit and recognize when they are disconnected from God and how to reconnect. It puts them in a state of spiritual blindness.

Our job on earth is to reach the lost. Legalism prevents us from doing so and focuses us on the sin of others rather than on ways to love them. Commenting or pointing out the sin of others never led them to Christ. Its love that draws people, not condemnation, not the fear of hell. Have a relationship with someone, find out what moves them, get interested in that. If you want to save them - love them. The Holy Spirit is already convicting them of their sin and you'll have opportunities to teach them as they grow in their relationship with God and learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. We are called to exhort, edify, and comfort (1 Cor 14:3) - not criticize.

Legalism steals the life that God intended for us to have. He wants us to live wonderful lives. Full of joy and blessing. He wants us to fully enjoy the kingdom of God. A great deal of Christians today are nothing more than modern day pharisees.

So, again I quote Jesus from the book of Luke:

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” (10:27)

Love God, love your neighbor - its about relationship, not religion.

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Anonymous said...

This is definitely one of the best christian articles on legalism and true Christianity I have read. I wish I read this in my christian infancy. It has taken me 5 years to learn this....from genuine hypocrite then all out backslider....then back as the prodigal. Truly you hit the nail on the head saying legalism produces emptiness which leads one to just give up and pursue the world in hope for peace...or at least numbing of pain. thank God for His grace and mercy....and that it is about relationship not perfectionism. For who then would be saved. Again great....pointing out that focusing on sin leads to stumbling but on Christ in relationship leads to peace and intemacy. Im saving this for reference. Cheers.


Mike Snapp said...

Thanks Aaron - I wrote this a couple of years ago and reading back through it was encouraging even for me. The truth of God is powerful and a relationship with Him always provides comfort. That was a good reminder. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention.

Anonymous said...

Having done an in depth study on the topic of legalism in the Bible I have found that legalism is in fact the belief that one can be saved by keeping the Law. In essence it is a works based Salvation. However, it is very easy to misunderstand Biblical standards for legalism. I am not saying that this is what you are doing, I am simply bringing it up as something I have seen over the years.

Example: The Bible clearly teaches that being drunk with alcohol is sin and leads to other sins and ultimately destruction. The Bible also tells us as Saved by the Blood (not by works) Christians to separate ourselves from those who would commit sin willfully and to put off even the appearance of evil. So using Biblical principles as my standard I will not go and hang out in bars with friends because of the drunkenness and often other sin that is being committed openly in that place. Yet I have been called a legalist for my stance on this issue and many others. I am not avoiding the bar because I think it will help toward my Salvation, I am already born again. I avoid the bars because the Bible teaches me that I should. I try to be a witness for Christ everywhere I go but I am not convinced that a bunch of intoxicated people are going to listen (I've tried they don't). Instead if there is someone that the Lord has laid on my heart to witness to, I will wait until they are sober. In doing so they have the opportunity to make a conscious decision to accept or reject the Saviour unhindered by alcohol or anything else.

I fully agree that we should be focused on our relationship with our Lord and not with sin or with keeping the Law. However, the Bible does not tell us to disregard the Law altogether. In fact it tells us to keep it in mind at all times so that we will be aware of sin when we are confronted by it. And as a result we will be less likely to commit a sin that we are full aware of and thus will not have a break in the fellowship that we enjoy with our Saviour as a result.

Lynn said...


Your work has truly been a blessing to me. I hope God continues to work through you.

Also, how do you feel about this statement: "Religion and Legalism have been dichotomized by those who have lost the purpose of a relationship with God. This has fostered through out centuries, now, there is a notion that Religion is a set of rules."


Anonymous said...

I ABSOLUTELY love this! A lot of Christians keep Jesus on the cross. Constantly walking around eggshells of life trying not to offend God. He can't be offended by your actions. We are justified by His grace through FAITH ALONE. Long live the King of Kings.

melina said...

The old way of the law is like a blind person trying to move around in life. Because they can't see, they need s stick or people to tell them where to walk and everything must be in just the right spot so they don't fall over - so the person doesn't sin. But now Jesus has come and given his blind children sight. We don't need other people telling us where all the furniture is and we can throw away the stick. Instead, we can see! But now that we can see; now that all the previous restrictions have been taken away, does that mean we should still walk into things? Does that mean that we should still sin? Of course not! It would be foolish for a sighted man to walk into objects just because he can see them now. Likewise we do not intend to sin just because we can see through Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Anonymous said...

Praise God! This is exactly what I needed. When we confess our sins, we are forgiven. I thank God for opening my eyes. It is so easy to become religious w/o noticing...and exactly what you mentioned in the article we begin to point out the sins of others and not LOVE. I ask God to forgive me, restore me, and remove any religiousness from me. I want to grow in Him and bear good fruit. I ask the Lord to continue to use you for His glory..