With more than two billion adherents—approximately a third of the world’s population—Christianity is the largest religion. Most people who claim to be Christian belong to one or another denomination or confession, each of which has differing beliefs and practices defined by a statement known as a creed.
Within Christianity, there are hundreds of sects with diverse and often contradicting creeds, all claiming to have derived from the same source, the Bible. It is a picture of confusion.
Adding to this complexity are the many other non-Christian religious beliefs, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, New Age and their various offshoots. Never before have we had within our reach such a vast smorgasbord of ideas and easy-to-access philosophies. While some optimistically view all the world’s religions and philosophies as valid and necessary expressions of spirituality and believe that there are many roads to “god,” others conclude that the fruits apparent in religious history justify turning away from all such forms of belief.
The numerous possibilities and contradictions within these various world religions and philosophies have frustrated and bewildered many people and have left others disillusioned and skeptical.
The purpose of Foundations is to clear away the fog of religious ideas. And while we don’t claim to know everything, we do teach the only stable and true foundation for a life of purpose and meaning.
How is the word religion defined?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, religion is “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine. Religion is commonly regarded as consisting of a person’s relation to God or to gods or spirits. Worship is probably the most basic element of religion, but moral conduct, right belief, and participation in religious institutions are generally also constituent elements of the religious life as practiced by believers and worshipers and as commanded by religious sages and scriptures” (“religion,” Encyclopedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite, 2011; emphasis added).
For most people, the form of worship is certainly a key element of religion, but there are others:
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, defines religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural”; “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance”; “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”; or “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith” (emphasis added).
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th Edition, Revised) defines it as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods”; “a particular system of faith and worship”; “a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion” (emphasis added).
For most people, religion means a system of beliefs, a creed, or belonging to a certain confession with a specific expression of their faith in holy days, rites and worship services.
Is there a biblical definition for religion? You can’t find the precise equivalent of the English word religion in the Greek or Hebrew Scriptures. The Greek word threskeia is used in the New Testament a few times, but its meaning is limited to ceremonial observance or worshiping. However, the Bible does define what is expected from the true follower of God.
The Bible is the basic manifestation of the will of God, of His mind, and it describes the “religion” of God simply as “the Way.”
For this reason, we have named the study area concerned with the will of God “The Way of God.” This is not just an interesting label but a biblically based definition.
The Bible teaches that true religion is a way of life.
When Moses recapitulated the commandments and instructions of God with the people of Israel before his death, he used an interesting expression. He said, “You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (Deuteronomy 5:33, emphasis added throughout).
The prophet Isaiah took the same approach when he prophesied that in the future people will be helped to understand how to live. He wrote: “Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21).
The New Testament Church of God is not simply a denomination or confession, but is identified as following “the Way.”
Before the apostle Paul became a disciple of Christ, he tried to destroy members of the new church. Luke’s account of Paul’s persecution of those converts describes them as people “who were of the Way” (Acts 9:2). Paul himself also confessed, “I persecuted this Way to the death” (Acts 22:4).
An eloquent Jewish teacher named Apollos is described as a “man [who] had been instructed in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25).
Not everyone accepted the teaching of the early Church. In fact, “some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way,” and in this case “there arose a great commotion about the Way” (Acts 19:9, 23).
At one point some were so angry with Paul’s teaching that they planned to kill him. He was rescued and brought to Caesarea, where he appeared before Felix the governor. Paul was given the opportunity to explain his convictions. He said, “I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14; see also verse 22).
It is interesting to note that the followers of Christ were regarded as a sect from the beginning, but the apostle Paul stated that he regarded himself as a true follower of God and His way.
The apostle Peter expressed himself in similar language when he warned about false teachers. He wrote that because of them, “the way of truth will be blasphemed,” as “they have forsaken the right way and gone astray.” He concluded that “it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:2, 15, 21).
The Way of God was exemplified in its completeness in the life of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus said of Himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
During His ministry, Jesus spoke of two ways of life, which he compared with two types of gates. He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13–14).
According to Jesus Christ, the right way of life is the path less traveled. Of course, believing in a creed or belonging to a confession, and then simply participating in activities such as worship services, holiday celebrations, etc., is much easier than following “the Way.”
Some people are willing to give their lives for their ideas and convictions. However, the greater challenge is to give up sin, overcome human weaknesses and follow Christ’s example throughout life.
There is a common misconception that simply acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God is sufficient to be granted salvation.
Yet Jesus taught that we are to live by every Word of God (Matthew 4:4). The apostle Paul wrote that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The apostle James discussed the need to act on the Word of God. He advised, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
We must be living a life of obedience to God; otherwise our religion is nothing more than a vain show, and we deceive ourselves. James also makes it plain that belief alone is not sufficient for salvation; it has to be evidenced by works (James 2:14–19).
The Bible teaches a way of life, which involves participation and practice. It means living a life that is compatible with the Word of God, which affects everything we do.
James gets to the heart of right religious practice when he writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
The Bible Knowledge Commentary says of this passage, “A clean and undefiled religion is one in which one’s conduct and character are disciplined in accordance with God’s Word. . . . It is apparent that God’s emphasis is not on religious ritual but on right living. James outlined what God the Father stresses: look after orphans and widows—referring to one’s conduct, and keep oneself from being polluted—referring to one’s character. . . . A believer with God-pleasing ‘religion’ helps others in need—and thus is faultless (lit., ‘pure, undefiled’), and keeps himself pure (lit., ‘clean’). This is not a definition of religion but rather a contrast to mere acts of worship and ritualistic observances that are commonly called ‘religion’” (italics added).
This clearly speaks to an active and conscientious way of life.
What God is looking for is not an external display of religiosity but the transformation of our hearts.
This is not just an ethereal feeling; it means a change (a turnaround or conversion) of thinking and behavior—away from selfish concentration on our own ways to looking to and following God and His ways. See Expanded Study Below: Module 1.4.1 Repentance: The Beginning of Conversion
Because true religion includes the transformation of our minds, it is not surprising that the Bible describes a true follower of Christ as one who is led by a new way of thinking caused by a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ and God (Romans 8:9, 14).
By this spirit the Way of God, expressed by the law of God, is written into our hearts or minds (Hebrews 8:10; Ezekiel 11:19–20).
God has given us His Word or instruction book, the Bible, so that we can learn the Way of God.
The Bible could also be considered in part the “Manual for Right Living.”
Can People Be Sincerely Wrong?
Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21–23).
Christ was describing religious people who even prophesy in His name but do not practice God’s law and way of life. Their worship is futile and He does not know them. In effect, they are not true followers.
They practice a form of religion, but not the Way of God.
Strange as it seems, it has been common through the ages for those claiming to be the proponents of “true” religion to reject God’s commandments and to support and practice humanly devised teachings in their place.
First-century Judaism was no exception. Over time the Jews had developed many traditions in addition to what God had commanded. At times, their traditions were in conflict with the law of God.
Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus rebuked them for this approach. He said, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8–9).
It is possible to worship God to no avail by worshiping Him according to our own ideas—ideas that are not based on His true knowledge.
Our Personal Choice
God’s way of life requires active participation and absolute commitment. It involves personal sacrifice (Matthew 10:38–39, Luke 14:25–33, Romans 12:1–2). People are often unwilling to give up doing things their own way. So they search for something that meets their approval, something that allows them to continue as they are, unchanged.
The apostle Paul anticipated this approach among those professing to have faith: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3–4).
In this world of religious diversity, there is no shortage of teachers, particularly in the area of religion. There is so much choice that it is all too easy to look for religion according to our own desires, instead of seeking out God’s way of life. However, in so doing, we not only compromise our integrity but we make the same mistake our first parents did, choosing the way that seemed right to them and rejecting the Word of God.
The right choice is still available to those who want to find it.
The Way of God is not just another religion. It signifies a genuine relationship with the almighty God and His Son. It is a relationship that affects the way we live our lives every day. That relationship must be on God’s terms and not according to the fallible ideas of men.
Essentials of This Module:
- For many, religion means belonging to a confession or believing in a creed.
- The Bible teaches that true religion is a way of life.
- God’s way of life is expressed in God’s Word, the Bible.
- The Bible could also be considered in part as “The Manual for Right Living.”
- It is possible to serve and worship God in vain.