“For it is by free grace (God’s unmerited favor) that you are saved (delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation) through [your] faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves [of your own doing, it came not through your own striving], but it is a gift of God; Not because of works [not the fulfillment of the Law’s demands], lest any man should boast. [It is not the result of what anyone can possibly do, so no one can pride himself in it or take glory to himself.]” – Ephesians 2:8-9

Ciara Lilly is a Charlotte-area writer. Her faith-based column, Fishers of Men, is published here each Monday. Opinions expressed are solely her own.

In my early years of walking with God, I never identified a difference between religion and Christianity. In fact, I was confident that the two concepts were synonymous. I was a Christian; that was my religion. It was that simple.

It wasn’t until I started studying the Bible that I noticed a difference. Religion is rooted in the belief that we as Christians must earn God’s favor, love and blessings. And we earn these things by following the rules and rituals set in the Old Testament. Religion exchanges the relationship with God for rules and rituals.

Don’t get me wrong; rules and rituals are not necessarily bad. They become bad when you lose sight of God in performing the rules and rituals.

Here’s an example that happened to me: I tithe, and I’ve tithed while unemployed; I’ve tithed when it would seem ridiculous to tithe because I had no money remaining, but I still gave that 10 percent and then an additional offering. Well, just recently I noticed something — my joy for tithing had declined significantly. I found myself tithing because Malachi 3 said so. I started holding myself to the very law Jesus came to free me from. Instead of being a “cheerful, prompt-to-do-it giver,” you know the one 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that God loves, I became a, “I’ve got to do this, because it’s my ritual and it’s what I’m supposed to do” giver.

I wasn’t cheerful about my giving; I was the exact opposite. Now is God mad at me? No! He knows my heart, but I also think that He would want us to do something because we truly want to do it, not because we have to.

With religion, it’s easy to slip back into living like the Pharisees — those who lived strictly by the Law, so strictly by the Law that they crucified Jesus Christ, the one they should have worshipped. The danger in doing so is that you completely miss the grace, mercy and abundant blessings supplied in the New Testament. You work to earn something that’s been given as a gift.

Christianity, on the other hand, is liberating.

As Christians, we have this inseparable relationship with our Father. We do not have to worry about ‘earning’ things from Him; we simply have to believe that He’s already provided all that we could ever have need of. In fact, the only work God requires from us is in John 6:29, “Jesus replied, This is the work (service) that God asks of you; that you believe in the One Whom He has sent [that you cleave to, trust, rely on, and have faith in His Messenger.]”

I believe too many people, including me, at one point are deceived into thinking that God’s love and goodness are contingent on what we do. And I think that’s giving us way too much credit. When God gave His Son, Jesus, He saved us from a Law that was impossible to fulfill. He rescued us from all sin (past and present); He healed us from all sickness and diseases (Isaiah 53:4-5); He showered us with abundance (2 Corinthians 9:8-11) and He fused us so tightly that nothing we could ever do would keep us from possessing His love (Romans 8:38-39).

Christianity tells us that God gave us a gift — a very expensive gift — but He never looked at the price tag. He just gave this gift to everyone. It wasn’t because we followed all the rules; we actually broke the rules. It wasn’t because we got all A’s on our holier-than-thou report card. No, he gave us a gift because He loved us and wanted a relationship with us. He wanted to be our Heavenly Father, and He wanted us to be His beloved children. But as with any gift, we have a choice to open it or not. In our attempt to be religious, we have a choice to look at the gift and say, “You know I actually haven’t earned this gift. Take it back, just save it for later” or we have a choice as Christians to say, “YAY! This is a gift for me? I really don’t deserve it, but I’m going to open it and treasure it for life!”

Just think how different Christmas would be if we rejected our gifts because we didn’t feel that we earned them? I would love to witness someone reject a million-dollar gift because they felt like they didn’t earn it? So why is it different with the gift of salvation?

Don’t get me wrong; I am not dismissing the importance of the Old Testament. I am not ridiculing the practices of those who have a more legalistic approach. I know the Old Testament is filled with wisdom and valuable lessons that are applicable to our lives today. But we do not live by the same customs as those in the Old Testament. We have to know that Jesus did not save us from the Law just for us to live by it in the 21st century.

We have scriptural evidence of that; just read Galatians 3:13: “Christ purchased our freedom [redeeming us] from the curse (doom) of the Law [and its condemnation] by [Himself] becoming a curse for us, for it is written [in the Scriptures], Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree (is crucified).”

Here’s a better one: “But when the proper time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born subject to [the regulations of] the Law. 5: To purchase the freedom of (to ransom, to redeem, to atone for) those who were subject to the Law, that we might be adopted and have sonship conferred upon us [and be recognized as God’s sons].” –Galatians 4:4-5 (AMP)

We have sonship! We have His grace and mercy; we have God-like power; we have Jesus living inside our hearts! This is why it upsets me when people dismiss a relationship with God, because they see the religious conduct of His people. It’s sad when people never take the time to open their gift from God. But we cannot just chalk it up as a sad fact of life. It’s not! It’s a sad fact that can be demolished by the truth!

Before I close, I don’t want people to mistake this to mean that we can walk around sinning, disobeying and living however we want, because that could not be farther from the truth. We have no right to abuse God’s love and mercy! Instead, as Christians, it should be our deepest desire to live the life Jesus died for us to have. And I believe religion can hinder you from doing that.

This week, I just want to encourage you to live freely as a child of the Most High. Do not exchange your gift for the unnecessary burden of trying to earn merit with God. Just understand that He loves you and that love was enough. You cannot impress God with your works; you impress Him with your faith. You cannot earn a gift, you just make sure that every day you’re remembering it and operating in the joy that it brings. And eventually, you’ll find more people around the world unwrapping their gifts.

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