When you consider the many world religions and
the vast diversity they represent, it's hard to imagine how any one
definition could encompass them all. And yet for every religion
from polytheism to atheism (1) there is actually one general definition
that takes into account all the apparent diversity and provides one
basic principle from which all arise.
Webster's New World Dictionary (2) provides an inclusive
definition of religion as follows:
"Any specific system
worship, conduct, etc., often involving a code of ethics and a
Though stated in a very general form, this
contains the kernel from which all religions originate; that being the
idea that we must do a certain thing or think a certain way in order to
be in right relationship with God, the universe, ourselves, others, or
whatever we decide to venerate. The focus is on what we do or think as
measured by a set of rules.
Such a life principle is thought to be like a balance scale; one side
for doing wrong, the other for doing right. The goal is to
counterbalance the bad with the good – that is, good works
compensate for sins. The way most people assess how they are doing is
much like a school report card. Here you have a system where someone
might get an "A" another an "C," neither one of which represents a
perfect record for the subject at hand. Those things which would limit
us from keeping a perfect record are taken into account as natural
limitations, "After all nobody's perfect."
Here it really must be asserted that Christianity is not a religion at
all. Though it has many external features in common with some
religions, the point at which it differs with all is this idea that we
can establish or maintain a right relationship with God by our works.
Now in order to see this crucial difference it is necessary to consider
the key elements in the religious man's world view. First we need to
understand that the nobody's perfect
excuse simply can't explain away
sin. The Bible explains that we are not in some kind of school of life
where some are "morally gifted." Instead, all people are born with a
conscience, "the law written in their hearts" (Romans 2:15, ESV).
Therefore, we can never explain away our willful wrongdoing by saying
we didn't have enough information, or we didn't have enough time to
study, or that we are not gifted enough in the subject.
Next we need to understand that a relationship with God is completely
different from any grading system where an "A" does not signify perfect
knowledge or performance. You see, for a personal relationship
the standard for faithfulness is incomparable to that for any set
rules. For example, imagine a husband coming home from a business
trip and saying, "Honey, out of the ten times I could have been unfaithful, I was actually faithful
nine times." Well, as we all
know, at this point the relationship is broken and it will never be
the same again. There is a separation the Bible warns is the natural
consequence for sin. In the same way, when we sin against God we are
separated from him and there is no sense in trying to make up for our
willful wrongdoing with "good works" like the husband who tries to buy
off his wife's pain, grief, and justified anger with an act of bribery.
Of course, there are those who object that they don't believe in a God
or the moral standards given in the Bible and, therefore, they will
live by their own standards (Thank you!). However, a personal code of
ethics is no
better than any other for establishing or maintaining a right
relationship with anyone – not even oneself. A practical example
of the futility of using any standard as the basis for a right
relationship is found in the traffic laws. Consider whether you have
ever heard of someone getting awarded the "Key to the City" for obeying
traffic laws. This is of course absurd since the chief time we become
concerned with the law is when we break it, for which we expect to pay
a penalty. So it is with any standard and especially God's standard,
none of which could ever provide a means for a right relationship. In
fact, the only thing standards can do is prescribe the penalty when we
do wrong which we are all certain to do. Further, if we just lower our
standards to escape the guilt of doing wrong, we must realize this act
is punishment in itself. This is the definition of degeneracy which
either stops at some broken-down standard, or spirals down to self
destruction. Finally, for those that believe that only the "truly evil"
people are condemned to hell – the final place of separation, the
question is, "Where is the line drawn? How many sins am I allowed? How
can I know if all hope is lost?" An insightful paraphrase of Romans
3:23 sums this up in saying, "All have sinned and are far away from
God's saving presence."
The Christian response to all the world's religions, whatever form they
may take, is found in Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV):
"For by grace you have been saved
through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of
God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are
his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God
prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.."
It is because of God's grace – his unmerited favor – and
through the faith in Christ which he himself provides, that we are
saved both from the life pattern of sin, as well as the consequence of
death, which is eternal separation from God. Christianity alone has
correctly diagnosed the condition of man who would begin from the
position of a broken relationship with God and then boast of good works
that are used to buy him off. Jesus Christ unlike any other showed that
unstained good works are the result, not the cause of a right
relationship with God. For all others the only hope of either
establishing or maintaining a relationship with God is through the new
beginning of forgiveness found in the death of Christ on the cross.
The world is full of religions and philosophies, each of which offers a
different path on which we can work our way back to a right
relationship with God. Christ, however, said,
"Enter through the
narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to
destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and
narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew
Then Jesus showed by his sinless life that he was
that narrow gate, and in his death he paid the penalty for our
sin-stained works, and finally he was vindicated by God in his
undeniable resurrection. Therefore, Jesus can say with all authority,
"I am the way and the truth and
the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6,
By faith, Christians recognize that Jesus has done for us what we could
never do for ourselves.
- For the purposes of this essay, atheism, Secular Humanism,
and other non-theistic belief systems (Bubhism, Toaism, etc.) generally
operate by a code of ethics and therefore constitute a form of religion
as defined above.
- Webster's New World Dictionary, 1960.
- NIV: The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984,
- ESV: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 2001, by
Crossway Bibles, Good News Publishers.