Religion, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship.” The Bible refers to religion in several places. Recalling his time as a Pharisee, Paul relates how he belonged to “the strictest sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5). Festus calls Judaism a “religion” in Acts 25:19.
God defines true religion this way: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). In other words, the system of worshiping God is not a matter of observing rites and rituals; rather, it involves practical help for those in need and living a pure life, separated from the sin of the world.
One type of religion is comprised of that “which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8). This type of religion is based on false gods and worldly philosophy. Throughout history, various religions have venerated idols and glorified the creature over the Creator. The craftsman takes wood and “works with chisel and plane and carves it into a human figure. He gives it human beauty and puts it in a little shrine” (Isaiah 44:13, NLT). Seeing the work of his own hands, “he bows down to it and worships” (verse 17). The idol worshiper and all who follow false religion are destined for disappointment: “A deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself” (verse 20).
Another type of religion relies on tradition, ceremony, and rule-keeping to curry favor with God. The scribes and Pharisees in the Bible are examples of this form of religion. Jesus said, “They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Luke 20:46–47). Their religion was outward and heavily influenced by their traditions. Rather than aid the widows as James 1:27 commands, the Pharisees robbed them. Like beautiful tombs, they only appeared clean and pure, but inside they were corrupt (Matthew 23:27).
Much of what we consider to be religion—church on Sunday, reciting a prayer, lighting a candle, etc.—are human traditions that give the appearance of devotion but ultimately have little to do with the soul of the participant. In fact, in 2 Timothy 3:1–5, we are warned that people can have “a form of godliness” without their religious activity making any meaningful difference in their lives. Despite their external ceremonies, they remain unloving, unthankful, uncontrolled, and unrepentant. The scriptural instruction is “Have nothing to do with such people.” Jesus described those who were undoubtedly religious in Matthew 7:21–22, yet His final word to them is, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (verse 23).
As James 1:27 says, true religion in God’s eyes makes a difference in who we are and what we do. It is religion based on relationship: Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Obedience is the proof of love. We love God because He loved us first (1 John 4:19), and our love leads us to action; it is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). This religion of relationship is not based on what we do for God; it is based on what He has done for us. We are not trusting in our performance but in a Person—Jesus Christ.
The word religion is used in many contexts, but there is a difference between false religion and true. Similarly, there is a difference between religion to look religious and religion to cultivate a deeper relationship with Christ.