By D.E.J. D’entremont and Charles Jacobi
“It’s not a religion. It’s a relationship.”
Far too often have churches employed the aphorism, “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship!” Mark Driscoll, a man foundational to the faith of many Reformed millennial men, regularly disparaged “religious” practices with comments like, “… religion never saved anyone, and religious answers to complex questions are simply misconceptions.” The saying has become a creed of sorts in the American church partly to not scare off unbelieving guests in hopes they return. Unfortunately, new believers are quick to take up the saying without considering what lies down the theological stream.
In a sense, it is true that Christianity is a relationship. But aphorisms like this smuggle in a harmful theology that at best dampens spiritual development, and at worst, leads to apostasy. Thousands of American evangelicals have unknowingly taken up the error of antinomianism, or against (anti) the law (nomos).
Sophisticated proponents of this theology call this antinomian theology “Free Grace.”
Free Grace Theology claims once a man is saved, he is under no obligation to follow the Law of God. Bonhoeffer’s words are helpful in describing its absurdity, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Modern Free Grace theologians flow out of the teachings of Robert Sandeman, a Scottish theologian known for his contrarian views on justifying faith. Sandeman concluded that “justification comes from bare faith”, meaning, forensic justification only needs an intellectual assent of faith uncoupled from good works. Sandeman was Calvinistic in his soteriology, but one would be hard-pressed to find his conclusion regarding justification among the Reformers.
Free Grace makes its way into the church through a poor understanding of Law and grace, Christ’s work, and scriptural authority. The Pharisees, often wrongly associated with following God’s commands “too strictly,” are incorrectly linked in the evangelical mind with modern men and women seeking to be faithful to all that Christ commanded. Jesus was not antagonistic toward the Pharisees because of their Law-keeping—He instructed His disciples to follow their teaching (Matthew 5:20)—but because they made the Law a burden to follow by adding extra-biblical commands. Masses of evangelicals do not grasp this critical distinction. Therefore, the accusation of “legalism” is often inaccurately used, usually when firm moral distinctions are made. The common evangelical who lives out a mere relational Christianity inserts an artificial opposition between God’s Law and His grace. Ironically, this free grace is not found in ordinary relationships.
Amends of this wide theological error is needed. But not by an untampered censure. Perhaps, those young in the faith do not realize the deep relationship that is formed by a rigorous religion. It’s possible that many sheep have been led astray and much fault ought to be placed on their “shepherds”. Instead of a reprimand, what’s needed is demonstration and articulation of what great fruit lies in deep religion; rigorous religion produces a deep relationship with Christ.
Religion or Relationship?
Imagine your wedding day. It was, hopefully, one of the most relationally fulfilling days of your life. Your bride was perfect, family present, love overflowing, hopes high, emotions even higher. Even if everything didn’t go according to plan you were marrying the one who held your highest earthly affections. You were both excited and probably nervous. It was on that day, amidst those relationally fulfilling moments, you made solemn vows. You promised to adhere to a set of rules established by God. In fact, a covenant relationship was formed. Imagine thinking to yourself, “I don’t want rules. I just want a relationship with my wife.” May it never be! There is a peace in those rules, which you vowed to keep, because there is an understanding that these rules create a place where the relationship with your bride will flourish. Breaking that covenant will result in a bad relationship or none at all.
If that is true for the highest human covenantal relationship, how much more so is it for man’s relationship with God? Would a marriage be better if the covenantal boundaries were removed? What about children? If a child rarely heeded a father’s instructions but maintained warm affections towards a vague idea of him, would that be honoring? Surely the father would not agree. Neither does God. For Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15).
This divorce between religion and relationship is a poor attempt to sever what God has joined together. It is as artificial as a covenant-less marriage. Sometimes this is done by well-meaning believers (even pastors and theologians) who want to avoid a salvation-by-works system. This is to be commended. But often, this aversion to rules and religion is a symptom of denying a fundamental aspect of God’s character, namely, His wrath. The logic is something along the lines of, “God was wrathful in the Old Testament, but Jesus changed that. Now all people are free from the constraints of the Law except some of the 10 Commandments.”
However, God’s Law is an extension of His very character, which cannot change (Malachi. 3:6; James 1:17). Well-meaning believers led astray by this theology would likely affirm God’s unchangeability all the while unaware of their logical inconsistency. Much fault can be levied at Free Grace pastors and ministries like Grace Evangelical Society that expose the following: “…Faith is simply being persuaded that the saving proposition (that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who guarantees the eternal destiny of all who believe in Him)… Faith is not a promise to obey, maintain obedience, persevere, turn from sins, or anything other than to believe in Jesus for the salvation He promises.”
Worship is Unavoidable
These believers need to be shown that “religiosity” is unavoidable in the final analysis. Worship itself is unavoidable. Neutrality does not exist. It is not a question of whether we will worship and obey, but who we will obey and worship. Not realizing this, believers influenced by antinomianism make a law that there is no Law. Modern secularists do something similar. For example, they deny a religious worldview but have their own commandments, holy days, creeds, rituals, and dogmas. Whereas Scripture teaches that the focus of our worship is tainted but the desire to worship is still ever present. So, whether one wants to be “religious” or not, they will always end up taking a stance or position that is religious in and of itself. Even if that position attempts to be neutral. Whether you go to the beach or church on Sundays, you are observing your religion by how and what you worship. But, if we are Bible-believing Christians, shouldn’t we let God determine how we worship?
Our orderly creator is not an author of confusion, but clarity. He has spoken and revealed Himself to us in his Word. In that Word, He goes to great lengths to describe appropriate worship for his glory and our benefit.
If God cannot change, the way we are called to worship and act is the same as it was when Moses wrote the Law; what was then good and evil is today good and evil. After all, God regarded His Law so highly that He sent His Son to die a brutal death so that he might save us from the curse of disobeying Him. If God could change, Jesus could have avoided all that cross business and simply waved away the requirement to act righteously. But by His life and death, Jesus taught the Law remains binding on the consciences of men.
Driscoll, Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions, 13. Publishers Weekly.
Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 47. Macmillan Publishing Co.
Sandeman, Letters on Theron and Aspasio
Wilkin, Salvation by a Dead, Spoken-Only Faith (https://faithalone.org/blog/salvation-by-a-dead-spoken-only-faith/