Today we will wrap up our Freedom Series. We can be in prison in one of two ways. One way is when we don’t know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. We can be in the prison house of sin. Unless He sets us free, we will face eternity without Him in a place called Hell. Jesus Christ takes the place of us at execution. Jesus took our place on the cross. Blood appeases the Lord and satisfies His righteousness. We can go to heaven by accepting Jesus’ blood sacrifice on our behalf. Alternatively, we can be set free from our sins by becoming Christians and go back to jail by how we choose to live our lives. We are not called as Christians to keep rules and regulations in order to be saved, yet sometimes we live this way. Rules and regulations will never save us. People want to do good things and become more spiritual through this thing we call religion. Religion is a prison.
Isn’t Christianity religion? Isn’t church religion? Isn’t this the common way of discussing belief systems around the world that have a supreme being, ways to live, rituals, and so forth? The New Testament never calls Christianity religion. It is true that three times there is a word that could be translated as religion in the Greek in the New Testament. One time it is in reference to worship of angels, another to a system of religion, and the third time to devoutness of a person’s heart when they do good works. There is a compound of that word religion which means self-made religion too. Three out of the four times when this word is used, it is used in a negative connotation. In today’s world, religion comes at us in two ways in terms of parts of speech: First of all, we have the noun which is “religion.” Religion basically means a definitive set of beliefs and practices held by a number of adherents, or followers. Second, religion comes at us as with the adjective “religious.” This is when we recognize piety in someone because they follow spiritual regulations or rules.
If Christianity is ONLY a religion, however, it has no power to change us from the inside out. We cannot keep the law in order to please God and gain favor in His sight. Galatians 5:1 is the theme of the entire book. Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Jump down to verse 13: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Religion cannot help us on two fronts: 1) It cannot save us by doing good things. 2) It cannot perfect us once we come to know Jesus Christ. Totally powerless. Religion will imprison us, but Christianity involves a relationship with Jesus Christ that will set us free. You can live the fullest life possible. This is why Jesus Christ came down to Earth. He came down to set the captive free! Jesus does not want those He has saved to return to bondage.
Christianity as a religion will imprison us to obedience without transformational results.
Below are three areas we need to examine in our own lives where religion often imprisons us:
1) Our relationships with God. If we have religion, we try to impress God with our good works. We believe we have to be good enough to get to heaven. It will never work. The law cannot save us. We are all sinners. By being religious, we cannot earn enough credit to get to heaven. We simply cannot be saved in this way. We must throw our faith onto the cross, the forgiving work of Jesus Christ, and accept the Great Exchange. Jesus took our place.
If we cannot be saved by being religious, then what happens after we become a Christian? How are we going to live after we come to know Christ? Will God love us more for being more religious? NO. We cannot keep enough rules or go to church enough times or sing in the choir often enough or give enough money to make God love us more. God loves us right now as much as He is ever going to love us. His love is not given on a performance basis. God loves us not as we should be, but as we are right now. We will never be as we should be on this side of heaven. At the same time, God loves us too much to keep us where we are spiritually standing right now. God is at work in our lives changing us.
2) Our relationships with ourselves. We often try to please God with our self effort by using our own energy and strength through religion. This is the energy of the flesh. We try with all of our determination to keep the rules of the Bible and the church. If we are not successful, how do we feel? We feel like failures. There are a lot of people that go to church and feel like a failure and cover it up with a smile. Inside they don’t feel like the real deal. Why? Because they don’t have the energy to do what they think they have to do through religion. They are in prison. The other side of the coin are the people who have learned to be pretty good at the rules. They have come to feel pretty good about themselves. We are the only creatures whose heads swell up when we receive a pat on the back. We think God loves us because we are doing pretty well. We commend ourselves and become prideful. Pride is the first and original sin.
3) Our relationships with others. Pride always flows into the third area of our lives: Our relationship with others. We become judgmental. When we are religious and keep to a code, we compare ourselves to how others are keeping it too. Religion can make us like the Pharisees because we elevate ourselves above other people. Luke 18:11-12 says, “‘The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” People get in like cliques at church and go around judging others people. This is terrible! This is what religion does to us. Colossians 2:23 says, “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Religion makes us look good on the outside, but on the inside we are not who we advertise ourselves to be. Jesus said it best in Matthew 23:26-27 when he exclaimed, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” Religion is all about working ourselves to death for absolutely nothing. We move ourselves from others and from God into a prison.
Christianity as a relationship with Christ frees us to truly live life.
God would honestly like to throw up over religion. The Lord tells us in Amos 5:23-24, “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” All of that religiosity out there is external. Apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ, there is nothing inside that frees a person.
Below let us look at the same three areas of our lives where our relationship with Jesus Christ has an impact on us:
1) Our relationships with God. We are not trying to impress God at all. When we met Jesus at the cross, we gained full acceptance with the Father because now Jesus sees us with the full righteousness of His Son, Jesus Christ. We are fully accepted by God. There is nothing else we must do. We will be insecure with God if we do not understand this point. We will be like the little girl who plucks the petals off a flower saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.” The child who understands God’s love pulls off every petal saying, “He loves me, he loves me, he loves me…” There are so many Christians who are afraid that if they don’t keep the rules and regulations, God will be out to get them. God doesn’t desire to watch us squirm in pain and to be punished. When we realize we have a relationship with Jesus Christ and are fully accepted, we have a desire to please God. Our approach to life changes.
2) Our relationships with ourselves. In religion we are trying to work so hard in our own self effort to please God, but in a relationship with Jesus Christ we realize we cannot do anything to boast. We have come to the place where we know we are so valuable in God’s eyes, and He looks at us as priceless treasures. There is nothing we can do to become His treasures. We already are His treasures! We can now accept ourselves. Many people suffer from low self-esteem or inferiority. People think they need work and spouses and children and stuff to affirm their worth. Jesus looks at us with supreme value, and this should mean more than how a person or other people think of us. Jesus sent His Son for each one of us.
3) Our relationships with others. When we have a relationship with Jesus, we love one another. We want to do to others what Christ has done for us. God loves us as imperfect people, and His love for us overflows. He asks us to in turn to go love other imperfect people–not to judge them. The one word to fulfill the law is LOVE. None of us is a perfect person. God gave us all grace. Where would we all be today without it? A relationship with Jesus Christ transforms our hearts, so we can love those in our families, in our churches, in our workplaces, and everywhere else in our lives. Love is not an emotion. It is a decision to seek the well being of those with whom we are in a relationship.
I hope you understand the difference between Christianity as a religion and Christianity as a relationship with Jesus Christ. Everyone in this world is born in prison. We need to trust Jesus Christ on the cross and make that Great Exchange. Jesus will free us from the prison of Hell and condemnation. The question is: How will YOU live your life? You need to get as close to Christ as you possibly can be through the relationship that we have discussed today. Come out of prison today and have fullness of life! Experience what it means to live in true freedom.