Is Religion the same as Righteousness?
Religion and righteousness are not exclusive of one another. It is possible to be religious and righteous or righteous and religious. But before we explore these relationships, it might be helpful to consider some differences between the two.
Religion or religious behavior is focused on human behavior. It would seem strange to speak of a religious God, but we think nothing of referring to a righteous one. We can presume this is because it would be absurd to think God needs to practice the qualities that make up His perfect nature. Religion is usually reserved for a human act or lifestyle indicating the earthly working out of faith.
Righteousness can be an act or a lifestyle as well, but it is also an imputed state, owing its origin to the blood of Jesus poured out on the cross. As believers, we have been made righteous, and as a result pursue a righteous life and perform righteous deeds. This last form, “deeds”, is what most of us think of when we think of religion. It is the focus of James’ letter when he wrote, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
In the negative, the absence of righteous actions might very well indicate one is not in the right relationship with God. If we see righteous acts and religious acts as close relatives, we might also say those who are undisciplined or irreligious in their faith also need to examine their walk with God. But another negative line of reasoning also reminds us religion is not the same as imputed righteousness, which can only be given by grace, and any notion we can be declared righteous by God based merely on our actions is erroneous.
Yes, religion can be a barometer of righteousness. But, no, we cannot attain righteousness through the practice of religion. This means if we are to hunger and thirst after righteousness, we must first focus our attention on the state of our hearts, and allow religion to take its rightful place as a “pure and faultless” expression of our love for God. When we figure out this dynamic the religious life we live will be a sincere reflection of righteousness.