What is true religion, according to the Bible?

Q. What does the Bible say about true religion, and how are we to identify it today?

Let me respond to your question about “true religion” in a couple of senses.

In terms of true religion, we might ask when religion is truly what it should be. James, a brother of Jesus who was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem, spoke directly to this question in his New Testament epistle: “Religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God the Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, the Bible says that religion is truly what it should be when it leads people to help others who are in need and to live in an honorable and morally pure way. Another way to put this would be to say that people are truly living out their religion when they do these things. The Bible suggests that this is a legitimate expectation that others can have of people who claim to be religious.

We might also ask what makes religion “true” in the sense of genuinely teaching what God is like and how people can know God. You asked specifically what the Bible says about this, and the Bible says that in Jesus, God came to earth and revealed to us what God is like. As the apostle John wrote in his gospel, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [God the Heavenly Father] except through me.” So according to the Bible, true religion is that which points people to Jesus as the way to God.

The Bible indeed identifies Jesus as the way to God, but it also demonstrates that God will take any way necessary to get to us. It illustrates, for example, how Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, an elderly Jewish leader, about being born again, but to a Samaritan woman whom he met at a well about living water. Jesus introduced himself as the light of the world to a blind man he healed. The apostle Paul preached from the Hebrew Scriptures when he spoke to Jews in the synagogues, but he quoted from Greek philosophers when he spoke in the Areopagus in Athens. So we can expect, on the Bible’s own testimony, that God will reach through the whole range of human cultures and languages to help people find the truth that the Bible says is uniquely in Jesus.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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