Christianity, or Jesus? (Aren’t They the Same?)

Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

Our family is currently making our way through the book of Luke together. We’re taking our time, but I do enjoy reading in larger chunks, so we will often read what might be the subject of an entire series of sermons in one sitting.

Tonight, we read through the fifteenth chapter: the three stories of lost and found.

Though we’d often read more than that, it’s such a good three-part story—with the most famous, the Prodigal Son story at the end—that I thought it would be nice to stop and discuss.

The kids are reading and learning about “unreached people groups” with Mom during the school days, and both of the older boys picked up on the “lost” theme that Jesus’ stories held.

When I asked what everyone heard in Jesus’ stories, Ian replied first, “I think it shows that God cares about every single person: if even one in a thousand is lost, there’s a celebration when he realizes he’s wrong and returns to God.”

“Yep. So right, Ian.” I affirmed.

Alex chimed in next, “Or, like if one person in the 10 million in Japan who are buddhists or other things turn to Christianity. It’s like that, even.”

I smiled and affirmed Alex’s insightful answer, too. But something didn’t sit right with me, the way he had phrased that answer.

Ian and Mom both explained what they had been studying—unreached people groups—and I realized what it was that bothered me: the lost returning home story is not about conversions to Christianity, it’s about the Good News that Jesus is life and nothing else.

I tried to lovingly expand on that thought to Alex, but I guess maybe it didn’t come out quite right. Jen didn’t think I was saying it correctly, and by offering further instruction at that time, kinda squashed Alex.

jesus-christ-in-stained-glassAnd, honestly, she doesn’t really agree with my instruction, that Christianity is not the same as Jesus.

I told Alex that the somewhat subtle distinction between someone “turning to Christianity” and someone meeting Jesus (The One true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent) are often, even usually very different things.

One is a religion. Plain and simple, Christianity is not in the Bible. (Really! It’s true!) In this sense, Christianity is no different than Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, and so on. Jesus never talked about establishing a religion (though he did mention building the Church) and I can’t think of anywhere that the word “Christianity” or “Christendom” can be found on the pages of Scripture. (Though other people called the Church, “Christians”—Acts 11, and Acts 26—the only other occurrence of the word is in 1 Peter 4:16.)

Returning to a loving Father is a different story. Realizing our need to be connected to the Vine; understanding the limitless, boundless love that God has for us, wanting from before the foundation of the world to adopt us as his own children; understanding how the cross restores our friendship with God by destroying sin and death and shame once and for all…

That’s a different story. (And doesn’t “sign you up” for anything.)

Now, I’m certainly painting with too broad a brush right now. Firstly, only a chapter or two before, Jesus addressed his disciples and the crowds following him, making sure they understood the cost of being his disciple. The cost is… everything. He said we need to be willing to give up everything (even family, wealth/possessions, a home), even our own life.

But the key is, nothing else matters outside of his Life. Nothing.

And that’s the point. Converting to a religion often satisfies our own accomplishable goals and benchmarks. There are “measurables” with Christianity. You can check things off like, reading your Bible, or having quiet time, joining a prayer group, or some other “small group”, going to services, volunteering for a ministry… or five ministries. All of those things can become “feathers” in our caps.

Jesus asks us to volunteer to be last, though. To not be noticed. To give up our dreams, turn the other cheek… all of that. And all because there is nothing we need or could ever want more than to know him.

Paul knew that, and wrote:

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ. —Phil 3:8

Honestly, I could be convinced that I’m straining out gnats here. OR, I could be convinced that this is the pivotal, most important, fundamental part of the Gospel: Jesus matters.

It’s him. And nothing else. Not a religion (Christianity), not a building or an organization (First Christian Church of Wherever), and not even a set of benchmarks that you set up for yourself to take your spiritual temperature.

Do you trust him? Then you’re in. And your life will never be the same. If you believe that Jesus is Immanuel, God made flesh, the Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life… buckle up!

That might be the same to you as “Christianity”, and if that’s the case, I’m really glad. My experience has been different. We people are good at maintaining control, and I think Jesus wants—longs for—us to relinquish that. Most often systems with fancy names—Christianity—don’t allow any room for that to happen, and even worse, they keep us in the “performance” mindset, where we’re always trying to “do better… for God, of course…

But Jesus’ words were always simply, “Follow me.”

I think it might really be that simple.


  1. The truth is that many do see them as the same, Christianity and Following Jesus. That can be a great thing if you know Jesus and your experiences have been faithful and nurturing under those terms, but for those who have seen it from a different vantage point, putting the religious title of Christianity as an alternative to following Jesus can be detrimental to their finding Jesus.

    What I am getting at is perspective. There are many cultures, peoples, other religions who don’t see “Christianity” as a Godly walk but as a political movement, an institutional force. The reality is that this is how it started as well, back with Constantine. Often people see the term Muslim, (which basically means “devoted to God, or “Allah” which is just another word for God”), but we associate the Muslim religion with the terrorism and the sad representation of their religion. We are in the same boat. “Christianity” is more often associated with the political forces that have developed and the western lifestlyles and not with following Jesus.

    I mention the Muslims because, though they don’t see or know Him as God, more than just a prophet, they are openly willing to hear His words. They actually hunger or thirst for His words. If they were to associate Jesus with “Christianity” then the opportunity to bring witness to them would be lost.

    Jesus is the center of our hope and purpose. Jesus actually fought the religion of the day, often showing even a form of contempt and anger at the religious methods and weights that had come about and were never meant to be. “Christianity” as a religion came 300 years later as Constantine made it a forced religion, a state religion you could say.

    Actually, even much of the epistles shows the disciples, the writers trying to know the religious out of the understanding as it kept trying to creep back in. Seems we have a tendency to want to follow rules over a person. Perhaps we trust following something that is written more than following a person, and in this case, the person, the source of truth, Jesus.

    So, from perspective I feel there is a huge difference between “Christianity” and following Jesus, if not in our eyes, then definitely in the eyes of so many others. Instead of fighting to restore “Christianity’s” good name, if it ever had one, I would recommend what Greg is talking about. Follow Jesus and let all the labels fall to the wayside. They often just get in the way. You never know, you may get the opportunity to introduce a Muslim or anyone to Jesus and help them find out who Allah really is. Let’s not fear our misunderstandings. Let’s follow Jesus!


  2. Correction “Actually, even much of the epistles shows the disciples, the writers trying to KNOW the religious out of the understanding as it kept trying to creep back in.”

    “Know” should be “throw”, I think. LOL!


  3. Spot on, Jim. I think you said it, Christianity is a political and cultural lifestyle (as well as a religion) and none of those are the person of Jesus. There’s something to be said about understanding the Kingdom of God/Heaven, and having a “kingdom” perspective, but, the danger is when we make following Jesus about how and what we do, rather than whom we follow and whom we love (God, our neighbor).


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