The concept of “religion vs. relationship” is something we bring up in evangelism all the time. It’s meant to emphasize that one can be religious without ever developing a real relationship with God, which is very important to share with an unbeliever. However, I believe it’s just as important to remind the believer of this exact same truth.
I don’t think the concept of “religion vs. relationship” was only meant to be used in evangelism. Rather, Christians should continuously be mindful that they’re demonstrating faith that reflects a relationship rather than mere religion. I want to bring awareness to the cruciality of balancing holiness and love in our walk with Christ. Without acknowledging this balance we ought to strive for, we risk misrepresenting Christ with either too much holiness and not enough love, or too much love and not enough holiness.
Often, it’s those who do have a relationship with God that fall victim to acting “religious” rather than faithful whether they realize it or not. I believe there are two main factors that hurt our witness. And what are those factors? I’m glad you asked.
1. The Pursuit of Holiness at the Expense of Love (John 13:34)
In the New Testament, we see this in the Pharisees. They’re often referred to as legalists for being so educated in religiosity that they were completely blind to the Messiah in their midst. And to think, it was at the hands of “religious” people that God incarnate was hung on the tree.
Now, the legalism seen in the Pharisees is not necessarily what I am referring to as the issue today. The danger we face now is more inconspicuous, as it often occurs under the umbrella of good intentions. Legalism still occurs, but it’s observed in a different light. Unlike the Pharisees, whose legalism was rooted in hypocrisy and a lack of love, Christians today face a sort of legalism that overrides love.
According to Jesus in Matthew 22:36-40, the two greatest commandments are “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart … soul and … mind” and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Arguably, the Pharisees violated both commands as most did not possess a genuine love for God, much less their neighbor. But we face an issue today where people want to obey God and the first greatest commandment that they forget the equal significance of living out the latter.
This can be the Christian parent who has a son claiming to identify as gay, but instead of loving that child and continuing to share the gospel with them, the parent kicks the child out of the home and cuts off all communication. Of course, the practice of homosexuality is sinful (Romans 1), but it lacks love to abandon that person, thus depriving them of your godly influence. At the same time, loving an individual involved in homosexuality should never mean that we affirm them in their sin, such as attending a Pride parade. This distinction is vital, so I pray you see the drastic difference.
Another example is Scripture’s command not to be unequally yoked. The modern legalist may avoid interactions with unbelievers as much as possible in fear of being influenced by them. However, this isn’t biblically accurate. We’re called to be equally yoked in marriage, and our closest friends should be our brothers and sisters in Christ, but it’s impossible to fulfill the Great Commission if we have no contact with the unconverted. Jesus spent His time during His earthly ministry with some of the “worst” of that time, including tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers. Why? Because He came to seek and save the lost. This objective has not changed.
The problem with this category of Christian is that they want to pursue holiness, but they do so at the expense of love. And this is a problem, because love, as it pertains to God and others, is a distinction of the Christian faith, and heavily emphasized throughout Scripture. It’s central to our witness of the gospel. It’s what God is (1 John 4:16).
We are in the world, but not of the world. We need guidance to know what it looks like to be secure enough in Christ to love those who live like the world — people we are called to interact with in love. If you wrestle with this, or know someone who does, my first suggestion would be to observe the way Jesus lived His earthly life, as He is the perfect example of obedience in love.
2. The Pursuit of Love at the Expense of Holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16)
The second issue that creeps into the church is on the opposite side of the spectrum, but it hurts our witness all the same. Rather than pursuing holiness at the expense of love, some Christians pursue love at the expense of holiness.
I’m not referencing liberal theology that advocates for the world’s definition of “love.” This is about the Christian who strives to love others the way Christ loves. All believers are called to do this, and I know for a fact these Christians get the message. But where the legalist goes to the extreme, those in this category fall short.
When we study God, we see His sovereignty, holiness, and perfection. We learn how deeply sin offends a holy God, and this kind of knowledge leads to an increase in reverence for God, which should lead to an obedience of His Word that shapes our lives.
The Christian who pursues love at the expense of holiness obeys in loving their neighbor, but their actions don’t reflect loving God by heeding the call to righteous living. Rather, biblical doctrine is avoided because it’s “too divisive” and “we just need to love.” This is the Christian who has friends who identify as LGBT, but never shares the gospel with them. Or the one who wants to prove that they love their neighbor by going to that party they were invited to only to overindulge like everyone else. This is the Christian everyone knows is a Christian because they go to church, but their actions are hardly distinct from the world around them.
They have the loving others part down, but loving God means our lives will look different. To walk in love and holiness means we’ll be loving but also known for saying “no” when it violates Scripture. Love is necessary, but it was never meant to snuff out our pursuit of holiness. Being a Christian was never meant to be easy. And if you believe otherwise, that didn’t come from the Bible. The true gospel offends the unconverted, and we will be hated for it by many (John 15:18).
It’s easy to shy away from holiness because the holier our lives become, the more we are considered hateful, intolerant, or bigoted. Some Christians fear that opposing and exposing sin will make them seem unloving or “too religious.” They just want to prove that “not all Christians are like that.” But the reality is it’s not loving to others or God to hold back the truth.
So, yes, we need to love the unconverted, but that love is void without the truth accompanying it in both word and deed. Again, if you or someone you know wrestles with this, Jesus provides the perfect example of someone who is loving and perfectly holy. Obviously, a standard we will fall short of in this life, but one we should pursue nonetheless.
Hebrews 12:14b states, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 says that of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest. Both are greatly emphasized in Scripture. Or as Pastor Jonathan Leeman said, “Holiness and love are mutually implicating and work in concert, not in opposition.” It’s not one or the other. It never was, and it never will be. Neither love nor holiness can be separated from God, so they shouldn’t be within us either. This balance of love and holiness distinguishes God, the gospel, and Christians from everything the world and its religions offer.
It’s easy to pursue honoring God in an incomplete fashion. But to demonstrate the truth more completely, it must be done where mercy and grace, accountability and compassion, and holiness and love come together.
Sarah Holliday is a reporter at The Washington Stand.
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