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Religion vs Relationship With God — What Is The Difference?

Find clarity in the religion vs relationship conversation, enhance your personal connection with God and enrich your spiritual journey along the way.

I saw a meme recently that described the difference between religion and relationship in an interesting way.

A man sat in a boat with a fishing rod in hand and a beautiful sunrise glowing in the sky behind him, reflected in a calm lake. The caption read, “Religion is a guy in church thinking about fishing; relationship is a guy out fishing thinking about God.

One thing that comes to mind when thinking of religion vs relationship as framed by this meme is that it paints sitting in church as a duty to be performed and by the act of doing it, this person is made righteous, but the person in question is not invested in a way that reaches his heart since he is thinking about fishing rather than spending time with God.

The person in the boat fishing is enjoying himself, but he is not fulfilling a religious duty (perhaps he is even skipping church to go fishing), yet he is communing with God in a way that is likely fulfilling, and in this way he is deepening his relationship with God.

How valid is this as a picture of religion vs relationship, though?

The debate on religion vs relationship covers the whole spectrum of discussion, from religion being just a set of good works we do to make ourselves right with God and gain favor with Him on our own terms and in our own strength to spurning anything remotely structured so that only a spiritual relationship is emphasized, which can lead to people putting too much emphasis on their own experience, opening the door to anyone’s perspective becoming truth if taken too far.

The difference between the two sides is not always so cut and dried. On one hand, they can go against each other, on the other hand, they can enhance each other.

What is your experience with religion and relationship? 

Are you exploring your spiritual path and seeking clarity in understanding the dynamics between organized religious practices and a personal, intimate relationship with God? 

If so, read on to find clarity in the religion vs relationship conversation, enhancing your personal connection with God and enriching your spiritual journey along the way.

A close shot of a bible with a cross hanging to it. A great example of Religion vs Relationship with God.

Understanding Religion

A general definition of religion is that it is a set of organized beliefs, practices, and systems relating to the belief in and worship of a controlling force, such as a personal god or another supernatural being. It involves adherence to a worldview as well as possible rules, rituals, and religious practices.

Many established religions exist, including the major world religious traditions that people are most familiar with, some of which promote belief in a single god (monotheism), while others represent belief in multiple gods (polytheism). 

A common thread among most of these religions is the belief that good works will help a person achieve a right relationship with God or grant them access to life after death in some way.

Most of those who practice a specific religion do so in order to obtain the goal of salvation for themselves and others and to render due worship and obedience to God. There are different understandings of salvation and God, depending on the religion and the culture.

Religious practices are how various faiths show their adherence to what they believe about God. Generally speaking, religious practices influence cultures, provide moral guidance, and add to the organization of communities. When individuals commit themselves to practicing their religion, it can strengthen them and their families, communities, and society as a whole.

The concept of true religion focuses on God, where religious profession, experience, and practice are all centered on God from God’s perspective rather than from a human perspective. As Christians, we can turn to God’s Word to discover what He has revealed about Himself for our own personal guidance.

Micah 6:8 in the Old Testament gives a very clear idea of what true religion is: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God in such a way that our whole being is involved in our relationship with God and others.

James 1:27 in the New Testament says that true religion is looking after orphans and widows in their distress and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world; in other words, it includes the way we live, but it is more than just a set of rules or rituals.

The definition of true religion as given by suggests that “the two most common ingredients in religions are rules and rituals. Some religions are essentially nothing more than a list of rules, do’s and don’t’s that a person must observe in order to be considered a faithful adherent of that religion, and thereby, right with the God of that religion… by obeying the rules of the religion, a person will be considered right with God.”

It goes on to say that “true religion is neither rules-based nor ritual-based. True religion is a relationship with God. Two things that all religions hold are that humanity is somehow separated from God and needs to be reconciled to Him.”

Exploring Relationship with God

Trying to solve the problem of separation from God by observing rules and rituals will not lead anywhere because only God can rectify the separation

God provided for our restoration by coming to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross in our place was a sufficient sacrifice and closed the gap of separation between us and God (Romans 5:8; 1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

Once we accept that Jesus Christ is the only way we are able to bridge the gap of separation between us and God, it is rituals and religious practices that help us deepen our relationship with Him.

Jimmy Mallory shares what it means to have a personal relationship with God in his article about religion vs relationship. He says, “By definition, a relationship requires a mutual connectedness. … by God’s grace at work in our lives, we can respond. And the practices by which we respond are collectively called ‘religion.’ It makes our mutual connectedness complete. … God comes to us in grace. We go to God in religion. Together, we form a relationship that puts all other relationships into right-relatedness.”

When we place our faith in Jesus we become a child of God and our lives are changed to be able to serve Him and others as a spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1-2). 

When we have faith in Jesus Christ and a relationship with Him, all our actions will come out of our love for Him and our desire to serve Him well.

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the world to dwell within us, speaking to us so that we can understand God’s Word and apply it. 

As John Piper says concerning what it means to have a relationship with God, “We receive his communications and, by the Spirit, are made alive to them. We see them coming—his communications of himself, his character, and his work on our behalf—and we are awakened to them. We are made to admire them, to delight in them, and to be happy, hopeful, and encouraged. Then we return to him—likewise through the word, by the Spirit, and through the name of Jesus Christ—prayers, acts of gratitude, resolutions to fight the fight of faith, and acts of obedience. The result is that our lives are going Godward while his life toward us is coming manward. That’s the relationship.”

Religion vs. Relationship: A Comparative Analysis

It cannot be over-emphasized that observing rules and rituals is not what makes a person right with God. Good works do not bridge the gap of separation from God and we cannot earn God’s favor by doing them. 

Instead, following rules and taking part in spiritual rituals are more the result of a proper relationship with God, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone as Savior. We do things out of love for God and the desire to grow closer to Him.

The ultimate goal in the Christian faith is an ever-deepening intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. When grounded in biblical truth, it is possible to take part in religious practices, traditions, and disciplines that without that grounding, might be seen as good works alone or rules being followed.

When we adhere to the Word of God and listen to the Holy Spirit, however, such consistent practice of spiritual disciplines can help believers grow in love, faith, and character.  It is vital to be grounded in the Word, however, to prevent these daily habits from becoming legalistic or a meaningless following of rules.

While our good works do not save us, it is by our works and practices that we profess and live out our faith. James 2:18-23 speaks clearly to this when it says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”

Belief in Jesus Christ causes us to want to serve others who are in need, and by serving them our faith is strengthened. Christians will work for the benefit of others because they have placed their faith in Christ.

The Importance of Balance

As in all things, balance is important. It is possible to enjoy the benefits of both a vibrant religious life and a genuine, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ as long as we make sure we are soundly based on biblical principles.

When pursuing true religion and a right relationship with God, we must always remember that there is no way we can successfully work our way into God’s favor. In addition, we are not automatically a child of God because we were born into a Christian family.

This was something I had to come to realize myself, when as a teenager, I realized there was more to having a relationship with God than going to church, being in Sunday School, and having parents who sang in the choir and read the Bible daily.

That realization came out of the blue one day in a Sunday School class, when something about the Bible lesson being taught caused me to realize that I did not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Once I had taken the step to put my faith in Him, then it was natural for me to want to deepen that relationship in whatever way I could.

I wanted to learn more and more through Bible study, prayer, taking communion, and trying to behave in a way that was honoring to God — all things that might be considered religious rituals and good works, but I wanted to do them to learn more about God and to serve Him well. 

As a result, my faith grew and continues to grow now, even after many years!

Finding Balance in Faith and Life

Going back to the meme about the man in church vs the man fishing, it is perhaps safe to say we want to be a combination of the two men in order to love and serve God properly

We can be that man who sits in church and takes part in spiritual practices, but we must not think that this is all there is to serving God. We also need that relationship with Him that the other man has, where we think of God and seek to know Him better wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

We cannot make God love us any more by going to church, and He does not love us any less if we feel like we want to go fishing instead.  We don’t need to do good works or keep spiritual disciplines to earn His approval, but we certainly can do good and obey well as we seek to grow in the personal relationship we have with Him.

A close shot of a bible with a cross hanging to it. A great example of Religion vs Relationship with God.

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