I long ago lost count of how many times I’ve heard unbelievers object that “Christianity is nothing more than rules and regulations!”
Let me begin by saying that that when the unbelieving world sees our faith as nothing more than a list of “dos and don’ts,” we have done a poor job of presenting the beauty and the blessing of the good news of the Gospel. Christianity, first and foremost, is Good News — the good news of a relationship, NOT a list of rules. John Piper put it this way:
“It’s like we’re in a war, in a concentration camp, and suddenly you’re hearing on the smuggled-in radio that the troops of deliverance have landed in helicopters five miles away. They’re conquering everything in their path, and they’re just about to get to the gate and open the doors. And having lived all your life in this concentration camp, you’re now going to be set free. That’s Christianity.”
By natural birth, we are all awaiting certain death in a cosmic concentration camp. But suddenly we hear God’s Good News declared by His Son, Jesus Christ. We have a Deliverer who came to set the captives free by destroying the works of the devil. And when He opens the gates of the concentration camp to free us, He is not setting us free to follow rules; rather, we are now free to exult in an intimate, personal, eternal relationship with our Savior.
I want to show you this truth so you can share it with those souls who are still locked in unbelief by looking at Christianity through the lens of both relationship and rule-keeping.
Everything in the Scriptures describes Christianity primarily from the standpoint of a relationship, not a list of rules and regulations.
- Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are His sheep (John 10).
- Jesus is the Vine and we are His branches (John 15).
- Jesus is the Bridegroom and we are His bride (Ephesians 5).
- Jesus is the Head and we are His body (1 Corinthians 12).
Now, I think we would all agree that within relationships there are rules. If I came home around 2 a.m. on a Friday night after being out with some of the guys from church, and my beloved Kim said, “It’s a little late!” I would not answer, “Where is it written that I have a curfew?” That would not go over well! In any healthy relationship, there is communication on the front end, but it is the relationship that drives the communication, not rules. It is care and concern for the relationship, not compliance to a list of dos and don’ts, that keep the lines of communication open.
Living by a list of rules encourages us to do the bare minimum. The rule-keeping spirit knows how to do just enough in order to “win” at the game of life. You can keep all the rules and yet never give your heart away to anyone.
I say all this to say that Christianity is most definitely not a list of rules and regulations, but rather it is about opening our hearts to a right relationship with Jesus Christ, who has loved us so deeply from all eternity that He gave His life for us.
Jesus made this truth crystal clear in the parable of the prodigal son by introducing His listeners to the elder brother, who kept all the father’s rules but was just as alienated from the father as his younger brother, who squandered his inheritance on wild living. The younger brother had broken all the rules, so it was easy to see how separated he was from his father.
The elder brother, however, had kept all the rules and done nothing outwardly immoral. It was not until the younger brother returned and was embraced by the father that the elder brother’s sinful, selfish heart was laid bare, demonstrating that he was every bit as estranged from the father as the prodigal had been.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. He said to his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’” (Luke 15:28-30).
If rule-keeping was the way to a right relationship with God, the elder brother would have been as “right” as anyone could be. But Jesus ended the parable with the elder brother still outside of the feast. Why? Our Lord is telling us that following rules is not the basis for relationship with Him. Keeping all the rules gave the elder brother a smug sense of entitlement, not true sonship. He wanted to acquire his father’s resources, not his relationship. He too had run away from the father’s love, just like his younger brother. The only difference was that the older brother rejected his father while staying at home.
Notice the elder brother’s response to his father’s plea: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you!” Rule-keepers feel like slaves, not sons. Why? Because they are serving themselves, and serving self turns duty into drudgery. But those who truly understand the good news of the Gospel see Christianity as a right relationship with Jesus Christ, one which ultimately turns duty into delight.
Jesus was given the perfect opportunity to “lay down the law” and tell the crowds that followed Him all about the rules and regulations they should obey when He was asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
“Jesus answered, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. . . . This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’” (John 6:28-29, 40).
The essence of Christianity is not about how we behave, but about how we believe. Jesus did not die to make you good. He died to make you His . . . and in making you His, He is making you good. Now, that is Good News to share with a lost and hurting world!
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.