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Can Being "Religious" Bring Salvation?

Updated on May 17, 2021
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I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

Christianity: Both Religion and Relationship

I constantly hear evangelical Christians say that Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship. But is this true? My answer to that is that it is both a religion and a relationship, with the emphasis on relationship. The trouble is that the word "religion" has gotten a bad rap because it is used by everyone who has any belief system, whether good or bad.

The website gives this definition:

"Religion is a fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a group of people. These set of beliefs concern the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, and involve devotional and ritual observances. They also often contain a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

There are many belief systems in the world, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Shintoism. And there are many religions who call themselves Christian, such as the Mormons and the Jehovah's witnesses who stray far from what Christ and the early Apostles taught. Each of these has their own unique teachings and are as different as night and day, but they all fall under the term "religion" in its broadest sense.

Yet, as I have stated, Christianity claims to be more than just a religion. It is a relationship with God based upon the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross, taking away the sin that separated us from a Holy God. Jesus, in turn, gave us His righteousness and made us a part of His family. God is now our Father in Heaven. And we are His children. That makes all who call themselves Christians, brothers, and sisters in Christ. (II Corinthians 5:19-21; I John 3:1,14).

Sadly, the word "religion" has not only received a bad reputation by those who have a belief in spiritual things but has also been hijacked by the secular world as well. I have heard some people say things like: "Hockey is the religion of Canada." Or, "Politics is his religion." This apparently means that these people follow sports or politics and love them so much that they almost become the center of their world. Their life revolves around the next big game or the next election cycle.

But putting all this aside, the terms "religion" or "religious" are good words and are biblical ones as well.

I. The Meaning of Religion and Religious

The Greek word thréskeia, which means 'religion', has to do with the reverence and worship of the gods and refers to the outward show such as ritual acts and ceremonies. Thréskos, is the adjective of that word and means religious and is the careful observation of the restrictions of religion.

Both these words can be found in the book of James when he says:

"If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man's religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1:26,27).

There is nothing wrong with outward rituals that demonstrate our faith. James himself said that "Faith without works is dead." (2:17). The problem comes when the outward show is divorced from an actual faith and is used as a way to get in God's good graces. Our Lord said:

"On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." (Matthew 7:22,23).

The reason that we don't like the word religion when it comes to our Christian faith is that salvation is not by works of righteousness but totally by God's grace (Ephesians 2:8,9; Titus 3:5). However, just as a living tree produces fruit, so a living Christian who has a relationship with Jesus Christ will produce the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23). Our Lord said this concerning false prophets, and it is true of all true Christians: "By their fruit, you shall know them." (Matthew 7:16). In other words, true religion produces true fruit.

The 19th Century Dutch theologian Soren Kierkegaard perhaps explained it best when he identified two kinds of religion which he called Religion A and Religion B. Religion A is faith in name only (II Timothy 3:5). It's the practice of attending Church without genuine faith in the living Lord.

"Religion B, on the other hand, is a life-transforming, destiny-changing experience. It is a definite commitment to the crucified and risen Savior, which establishes an ongoing personal relationship between a forgiven sinner and a gracious God."

The Magazine 'Our Daily Bread'. in 1994, gives the illustration of how author C.S. Lewis had a lot of trouble changing from atheist to believer because Religion A had blinded him to Religion B. His brother Warren had this to say about Lewis' conversion:

"His conversion was 'no sudden plunge into a new life, but rather a slow, steady convalescence from a deep-seated spiritual illness - an illness that had its origins in our childhood, in the dry husks of religion offered by the semi-political churchgoing of Ulster, and the similar dull emptiness of compulsory church during our school day."

Lewis as a child, like so many who claim Christianity today, knew of the outward form of religion that tries to reach a Holy God by your own personal effort. That is impossible for God's standard is perfection and none of us can attain such a standard. Jesus told us to "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in Heaven is perfect. " (Matthew 5:48).

Lewis didn't understand until much later, the inward transformation that is given freely by a loving and gracious God that brings life to the sinner. No amount of religious ritual can give that to anyone. Religious rituals and other works cannot save.

II. Paul and the Religious on Mars Hill

We have looked at the Christian religion. But in Acts 17 we can see an example of a very religious pagan people as well. Athens didn't worship the one true God but nonetheless were extremely proud of the many gods that they worshiped. Virtually every deity known to man could be found in that city.

Today, many teach that there are several roads to God and that, as long as you are sincere, God will honor that sincerity. Sadly, according to Scripture, they are sincerely wrong. The Bible teaches that there is only one way to Heaven. And this is not through religious rituals. It is through Christ. Our Lord Jesus Himself said:

" I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes unto the Father except by me." (John 14:6).

Just as there are many religions in our day that claim that they can make it to God or the gods by works, Athens, during the time of Jesus and the Apostles, had these kinds of religious beliefs as well.

While the Apostle Paul was waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to arrive in the city of Athens, he saw that this area was full of idols.

Paul began, as he did in all cities, to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. While doing this, some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers came up to him in order to question him.

Epicureans were Greek philosophers who taught that the chief end of man is the avoidance of pain and the seeking out of the highest good which is pleasure. By pleasure, they didn't mean the pleasures of a prodigal or that of sensuality. By this, they meant the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. And at the end of life, when a person died, they taught that his soul disintegrated.

Stoics, however, taught self-mastery. They thought that the goal in life was to reach a place of indifference to pleasure or pain.

Thinking that the great Apostle was a proclaimer of strange deities, these philosophers wanted to find out what he taught. This lead to one of Paul's greatest sermons given on the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.

The Areopagus is a prominent rock outcropping located Northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. In classical times it functioned as the court for trying deliberate homicides, wounding and religious matters, as well as cases involving arson or olive trees. In Greek mythology, Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon's son Halirrhothius.

In his speech, Paul did what all successful missionary preachers have done ever since. He looked for common ground by which he could relate to them. In this case, he found an idol whose inscription read: "To an unknown God." (Acts 17:23). It was this God, unknown to them, that he began talking to them about.

He begins by telling them that he observed that they were quite religious since they made sure to cover all the gods by erecting the idol to this "Unknown Deity" The word here, translated 'religious' by several Versions of Scripture, is rendered as superstitious by the King James. This isn't likely the translation. The term here is not thréskos but another Greek word which could best be translated as 'in fear of gods.' In other words, they feared or reverenced the gods.

Here is part of his brilliant oration:

"Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being...." (17: 23b-28a).

Paul ended his talk by telling them that God has, up until now, overlooked their ignorance, but there is soon coming a time when he will judge them according to the man, Jesus, whom He has appointed and then furnished proof by raising him from the dead (29-31).

The minute that they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some sneered, while others said they would hear Paul again. Still, others believed in Jesus and followed Paul (32).

One of the major things that we learn from this great exchange between Paul and the men of the Areopagus is that other religions, even though they set up their elaborate idols and have their complicated rituals for making contact with the Eternal, fall far short of the one and only God, who has appointed His Son, Jesus Christ alone for the salvation of all mankind.

In dealing with those lost in sin, we have to get them to realize their utter helplessness on merit alone to stand before a Holy God. As long as they think that they can do it on their own, they have no hope of reaching the One who saves by grace through faith.


Pastor Harry A Ironside and his friends, when witnessing on the streets of California often got interrupted by listeners. One day someone asked:

"There are hundreds of religions in this country. And the followers of each think that they are right. How can poor plain people like us find what really is the truth."

Ironside and his fellow evangelists would usually answer something like this:

"Did I hear you say that there are hundreds of religions? That's strange! I have heard of only two. True, I find many shades of difference in those comprising the two great schools. But after all, there are but two. The one covers all who expect salvation by doing. The other includes all who have been saved by something done."

The question is: "What religion are you relying upon for your salvation from Hell and an eternity separated from the God who loves you? Worldly religion won't do it. Only a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God who died for your sins and rose again will get you an eternal place in Heaven. As the song says: "On Christ the solid rock I stand! All other ground is sinking sand!"

And once you've made your decision for Christ, how many can you take with you to heaven before you die? There are literally millions heading down a road of religion that dead-ends at a cliff. As we pass them, may they not go into eternal judgment without one person telling them that there is a better way. Indeed it is the only way that leads to eternal glory. May God grant us one more soul for His Kingdom as we journey toward Heaven! And let us all sincerely thank God for His provision for our salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ!

© 2019 Jeff Shirley


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