I get asked from time to time by atheists and skeptics why I make a distinction between following Christ and Christianity, or religion. To be clear, I do consider myself a Christian. The problem is that it’s a loaded word with lots of baggage that may or may not describe my life in Christ. “Religion” is even more vague and freighted, so these labels have almost no significant meaning.
So let me explain the distinction with a few quick thoughts. I will also reference other posts (or series of posts) for further explanation, if you’re interested.
With regard to religion, as Robert Capon put so well, “Christianity is not a religion; it is the announcement of the end of religion.” (See post, “How Christianity is Not a Religion.”)
One can follow Jesus and be a religious Christian; but being a religious Christian does not necessarily mean one is following Christ (see my series, “Leaving Religion to Follow Christ.”)
As I’ve said before, religion is about us inviting God into our life; following Jesus is about Him inviting us into His life.
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt.11:28-30 MSG)
Religion, even the “Christian” version of religion, is performance-driven and transactional; following Christ is relationally-driven and transformational (see “The sheer brilliance of Jesus and the overcoming life“).
Following Christ is not about me trying to live a better life, but about me participating in Christ’s life.
“My old identity has been co-crucified with Messiah and no longer lives; for the nails of his cross crucified me with him. And now the essence of this new life is no longer mine, for the Anointed One lives his life through me—we live in union as one! My new life is empowered by the faith of the Son of God who loves me so much that he gave himself for me, and dispenses his life into mine! (Gal.2:20 TPT)
Following Jesus is not about knowing or saying the right things, it’s about doing what He says.
“But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46)
Evidence that we’re following Jesus is not found in how much we know about the Bible, or how much faith we have, or by our importance in the church, or even how much we serve others. The only real evidence is how much we love (1 Cor.13:1-8; 1 John 4:7-8).
You can tell if you’re following Jesus by the “fruit” that’s produced in your life, which looks like…love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal.5:22-23). Of course, no ones life produces this fruit perfectly, but what does come forth won’t look like something else.
16 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. (Matt.7:16-17 NLT)
Finally, following Christ is about the continuing cooperative process with Christ that allows Him to work in and reshape the deepest and darkest parts of us, bringing us from glory to glory, which cultivates a renewed mind and an open heart as we become more like Him in this world (Rom.12:2; 2 Cor.3:18; 1 John 4:17).
Interesting post. The apostle Paul rarely used the words “religion” or “religious,” and when he did, he generally used it as a negative term. He called the people of Athens religious because of their many temples to various gods, even an unknown god. And he referred to his prior life as a Pharisee as religious. By the way, Soren Kierkegaard also distinguished between the life of a Christian and life in Christendom. J.
Good points. In fact, Paul went so far as to say that religious service without love means nothing. (1 Cor. 13).
That is kind off interesting! I tend to really enjoy the Apostle Paul and one reason why is that he can really cut through all the deceptions and get to the heart of the matter. Kind of funny, it just occurred to me that before Paul had a change of heart, he actually WAS the religion of the day.
Yes, Paul was one of the first to leave religion and follow Jesus. 🙂
If the fruits of following Jesus are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, how do you account for all the non-believers who bear the same fruit? Are they unwitting followers of Christ?
That would be a simple answer, Ron. Because all humankind has a moral conscience and knows right from wrong, that we would say comes from God. According to our theology, God is the source of all that is good, regardless of who displays it. As Paul told the pagan Athenian philosophers, they were right when their poets said, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” And I also could argue that these values are deeply embedded in our culture, so many practice them at least at a superficial level. Furthermore, some people have less emotional and psychological baggage than others. So. technically, an emotionally healthy atheist could show them better than an emotionally unhealthy believer.
To be clear, these “fruits” didn’t start when Jesus taught about them; He precisely identified them as the nature of God and exposed the damaged human condition for what it was (i.e., unforgiveness, anger, murder, lust, revenge, greed, selfishness, envy, judgmentalism). What is perhaps different would be the transformative power of God’s grace available in a person’s life who is in relationship with God. A person who was once deeply damaged, not showing these fruits before, can be healed from the inside-out and begin to demonstrate them in his or her life. The point is, these fruits demonstrate the nature of God and define what relational maturity looks like.
I could make the argument that, theoretically, if everyone on the planet all of a sudden decided to start practicing all of Jesus’ teachings, there would be no more war, violence, strife, theft, poverty, hunger, or any other aspect of the damaged human condition. This would be so because all these issues comes from the things Jesus deals with in His teachings.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but your response indicates that following Jesus is superfluous to being benificient since Taoists, Hindus, Buddhists, Jainists and even the non-religious can achieve the same results.
This is well said, Mel.
I really liked this, “Following Jesus is not about knowing or saying the right things, it’s about doing what He says.”
I have had experiences in my life where I had no understanding, no moral grasp, no intuition, and a great deal of hesitancy about what the Lord was suggesting I do. There is no way that wisdom came from me, but it was right, it all turned out beautifully. That’s kind of what following Christ is all about for me. Sometimes I am in uncharted waters, but it’s all good. There just isn’t a map or a set of rules that fits perfectly, but the intuition that stems from a relationship with Him won’t steer you wrong. 🙂
You’re right about the intuition, no set formula, IB. This is why no matter how one tries to explain it, it defies explanation!
I was pretty much the same as what you’re saying before I entered into what I’m calling a “cooperative process” with Christ. I grew up questioned everything, standing up when they told me to sit down, always siding with the rebel in every story, which turned out to be both a good thing and a bad thing in my inquiry about life. 🙂
For me, it was His outrageous love, gracious kindness, and fatherly affirmation of who I am that changed me and made realize that what He asks of me is the most wonderful experience of life there is. As you said, that’s where the trust came in. It was His fatherly affection that made me even love His discipline in areas where I had to change. That’s when I finally understood what Jesus meant by, “If you love Me, you’ll obey my commandments.” When we finally see that Jesus’ commandments are found in this outrageous other-centered, self-giving love…of course, we’ll want to obey with all of our heart. Why would we want to do any other!
You wrote…”To be clear, I do consider myself a Christian. The problem is that it’s a loaded word with lots of baggage that may or may not describe my life in Christ.”
Here in the South, everyone is a Christian. Just ask them. They might live like the devil Monday through Saturday, but come Sunday you will find them all gussied up in their Sunday go to meeting clothes.
Surely EVERYONE isn’t a hypocrite in the South.
You live there, right?
Yes, I live in Louisiana. I’m being sarcastic with a large smathering of truth thrown in.
I live near the headquarters for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the frozen North. A lot of incoherence and mythology here. 😊
A lot of incoherence and mythology here. Also truth. 😇
You actually gave a good picture of who a true Christian is. Great points.