Many years ago, before I became an apologist, I was introduced to a Calvary Chapel pastor who knew that I was a Catholic. As we shook hands, he asked me enthusiastically, “So, do you know Jesus?”
“What?” I thought. “What kind of a question is that? Jesus lived almost 2,000 years ago, so how could I ‘know’ him today? I know about him, but that’s not the question I’m being asked—he asked if I know Jesus.”
At the time I was a young adult, comfortable in my faith but inexperienced in discussing it with non-Catholic Christians. If the pastor had asked me something along the lines of “Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?” or “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?”, his conversation opener wouldn’t have seemed so strange to me. As it was, I simply brushed it off as jargon, replied with a quick, “Yes, of course,” and moved the conversation along to more comfortable dialogue. Later I would privately scoff at the pastor’s question and try to figure out just what he meant by it.
It’s no surprise that the question sounded awkward to me, a cradle Catholic—we typically do not use such phraseology in casual conversation. But many non-Catholic Christians commonly speak of “knowing” Jesus and of having a “personal relationship” with him. “Do you know Jesus?” is just another way of asking “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” Such an inquiry can lead to the Catholic being accused of relying on a “religion” rather than a “relationship” for salvation. Religion is thought to be bad, a relationship good. Do these Christians know something Catholics don’t?
What is “Religion” Anyway?
The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of religion has two parts:
- Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
- A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
Non-Catholics do not object to the “belief” and “reverence” part of this definition; it is the “system” part that many claim makes religion bad. Specifically, any system that places an emphasis on certain behaviors—a strict moral code and the importance of good works—is a system gone astray. In their eyes, we’re all sinners and we cannot work our way to heaven—only a personal relationship with Jesus Christ can accomplish that. “Jesus and me,” the saying goes, is said to be all that matters. All too often a relationship with Jesus Christ can amount to confessing that he is Savior and little or nothing else. But is this the type of relationship Jesus expects of us?
Of course, Catholics agree that we must have a relationship with God and that we cannot work our way to heaven. But we don’t agree that our behaviors aren’t important. In fact, as we will see, Scripture indicates that, indeed, a relationship with God calls us to be people of moral behavior and good works—that is to say, religious people. Christianity is itself a religion and to be religious means to live morally and to do good works. Scripture teaches that, in essence, to be in a personal relationship with Jesus means to be religious.
Scripture Speaks of Religion . . .
There are several Greek words that are translated as “religion” in English, and not all versions of Scripture are consistent in such translations. So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll consider the Protestant Revised Standard Version of the New Testament, which Catholics generally find acceptable.
The Greek word most commonly translated into English as “religion” is threskeia, and we find this word used by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles when relating the story of Paul’s testimony to Agrippa. Here Paul refers to Judaism as a religion as he explains to Agrippa that Christianity is Judaism’s fulfillment:
My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and at Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers (Acts 26:4-6).
Paul does not denounce the religion of Judaism here. He clearly recognizes that it is from this religion which Christianity sprang. And he does not view Christianity as a new religion but rather as the fulfillment of the promise of Judaism. It is a continuation of—not a break from—Judaism. And in this continuation it does not throw off its religious aspect.
Quite to the contrary, Paul also refers to Christianity as a religion in his first letter to Timothy: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16).
James too speaks of Christianity as a religion, and he provides an example of vain religion: “If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:26). He provides an example of what it really means to be a religious Christian: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).
According to James, being a religious Christian carries with it the expectation of certain behaviors. In this example, visiting orphans and widows are good deeds—works, without question. And keeping oneself unstained from the world is just another way of describing a moral life. So, James is teaching about morality and good works here—sounds pretty religious and very Catholic.
Paul speaks of religious behavior when writing to Timothy: “Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion” (1 Tim. 2:9-10).
Also: “If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God” (1 Tim. 5:4).
In these passages, we see again that works (“good deeds” and “religious duty”) are expected of Christians.
Finally, Paul discusses hypocrisy within religion:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
The last several words of this passage are telling: “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.” Religion is powerful!
So far we have seen that Judaism is recognized in Scripture to be a religion as is its ultimate fulfillment, Christianity. We have also seen what being a religious Christian looks like: moral behavior and works.
Next, let’s look at what Scripture has to say about a relationship with God.
. . . And Knowing God
Christians are often surprised to learn that the word relationship does not appear anywhere in Scripture. Nowhere in the Bible do we find the apostles or others asking the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” Even so, Scripture does speak of knowing God and of not knowing him. (I guess that Calvary Chapel pastor had his terminology right!) In these passages, we discover what it means to be in relationship with God.
Paul tells the Christians in Galatia:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Gal. 4:8-9).
This knowing God and being known by God which Paul writes about implies relationship.
In other writings, Paul explains more about such a relationship by making definite distinctions between those who know God and those who do not know God. And these distinctions are clearly behavioral in nature.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God” (1 Thess. 4:3-5).
Heathens do not know God, Paul says; by implication, Christians do and their behavior should reflect that, Paul explains. Thus, knowing God—having a relationship with him—carries with it the expectation of moral behavior.
In another letter Paul warns of the danger of denying an obedient relationship with God:
God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:6-8).
Clearly, moral behavior is expected of Christians in relationship with God. But what about works?
John probably answers this question best when he writes, “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (1 John 4:8). The words translated as “love” here come from the Greek word agape, meaning the love of others, as in good works. So, if one does not love others, he does not really know God—he does not have the relationship with God that Jesus intended.
Finally, in discussing relationship with God, we see a passage that sounds strikingly similar to the final one we discussed about being religious: a warning about hypocrisy. In his letter to Titus, Paul writes, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed” (Titus 1:15-16).
As can be seen from just these few passages, knowing God—having a relationship with him—carries with it the expectation of love for others and moral behavior.
Keep His Commandments
To sum up, Christianity is a religion whose adherents are expected to live moral lives that include works. And Scripture reveals the very same thing about truly knowing, or being in relationship with, God. Thus, to know God truly is to be a religious Christian: Religion and relationship are not separate entities.
But we did not need to go through this whole exercise to know that Jesus expects his “friends”—those in relationship with him—to live religious lives of moral behavior (“keep my commandments”) and good works (“love one another”), for Jesus proclaimed as much himself:
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love . . . This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:10, 12-15).
So, do you know Jesus?