One of the common fallacies among Christians that has become a household cliche today is “Christianity is NOT a religion, but a relationship with Jesus Christ.” In fact, this is so popular that there is even a fan page of such statement in Facebook. It has become such a well embraced dogma that to challenge such notion is unthinkable and even consider uncharitable. However, one of the most charitable acts that Christians can display to other Christians is to admonish one another in God’s truth (Romans 15:14). After all, all Scripture is sufficient, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
So, what is problematic about the statement? A discerning Christian would raise a number of issues, namely is it biblical, theological, and historical? First, is it biblical? That is, does Scripture explicitly (or even implicitly) teach such notion? One of the reasons why Christians propagate such cliche is because many are hung-up with the word “religion” as if it is bad or evil. The word simply means belief or worship. Certainly, the word “religion” has some negative connotations due to all aberrant beliefs or religious systems. But one would think that this would be a wonderful gospel opportunity to explain how Christianity is so radically and fundamentally different (and even better or superior) than all other religious beliefs. In fact, in James 1:26-27 the Bible makes the point that there is a difference between worthless religion and pure religion (i.e., the real saving faith of Christianity). Hence, to say that “Christianity is not a religion” is simply not biblical.
Second, is the cliche theological? From the onset of Scripture, God is revealed as the sovereign creator. That clearly implies that all creation is accountable to their maker, especially, the mankind. Hence, there is no mankind who is free from being accountable to God. In other words, everyone has “a relationship” (moreover, a “personal relationship”) with their sovereign creator, regardless whether one believes, blasphemes, or hates God. That means even the demons have “a relationship” with God. In fact, James says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (2:19). Tragically, the difference between the demons and today’s professing Christians is that at least the demons believe and tremble!
That is why to say “Christianity is a relationship with Jesus Christ” is dangerous oversimplification. To unregenerate minds, they think they are Christians when in fact they are not. This oversimplification assures false converts. This oversimplification aids their continual in sin. It fails to confront their sin. It fails to call for repentance. It fails to demand all their life in obedience. It is simply a watered-down gospel. It is deceptive and dangerous.
Although there is definitely a relational aspect in the gospel, one needs to qualify it by pointing out that Christianity is not about a mere relationship, but “redemptive relationship” between God and saved sinners. That is, though every sinner deserves to die and be separated from God eternally, God chose to redeem some. And the basis of his choice is purely out of his sovereign grace, not because any sinner deserves to be saved.
Lastly, is the cliche historical? That is, did this popular cliche ever affirm in the church throughout her history? This is where knowing church history helps. The simple answer is no. This oversimplified theological notion was foreign in the church until last century with the rise of theological liberalism. One of the paradigm shifts that the church has seen (in both liberal and evangelical churches) is preoccupation of “personal faith,” “personal relationship,” and so on that turned the subject of faith and doctrine into a matter of personal opinion. Hence, one’s responsibility and accountability to a local church has greatly diminished, since the focus has now turned from corporate cohesiveness to a matter of privacy and personal subjectivity. One wonders why churches today have a difficult time finding people who are committed and accountable. To embrace the notion that Christianity is about “having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” encourages the people to be less dependent, accountable, and committed to fulfill the “one another” commands in Scripture. Why would they? After all, it is all about having “a personal relationship with Jesus” that matters.
As pointed out, the popular cliche that “Christianity is NOT a religion, but a relationship with Jesus Christ” is neither biblical, theological, or historical.