I was saved on my 13th birthday if I remember correctly. At least, that was when I responded to the call to salvation by Pastor Smalls at New Saint John Baptist Church. I don’t know if I understood it all, but I do know that I had a relationship with God since I was about six years old or so, thanks to my mother. It was my mother who introduced me to God. Therefore, for me, God was not a religious entity that many obligate themselves to, but rather, God was real to me, just like a person. I talked to God as a child would talk to an imaginary friend. God was real to me and I believe that He existed.
However, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that I understood what Jesus did for me. I would say it was a revelation (similar to an epiphany). I believe I was watching a teaching by Gloria Copeland on television. It was called, “So Great a Salvation.” Another important thing about this time was that I was reading and studying the Bible a lot.
Church Attendance Didn’t Do it
One would think that growing up in a Baptist church that I would be well versed in the principles of salvation. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention. I can’t say for sure. In any case, the church was not a place where I learned about the Bible or became familiar with salvation as a child. The church was primarily a place of fellowship and a place of personal development via plays, recitals, music, etc. I don’t recall ever really being introduced to Jesus Christ in the church as a child. It was my mother who told me about God and Jesus Christ apart from the church. It wasn’t until later in my post-high school years that I began to learn more about God, Jesus, salvation, and the principles of God’s Kingdom revealed in the Bible because of the efforts of Pastor Effie Blumentoe. The Bible was alive for me.
I began vehemently studying the Bible and creating Bible study lessons for Sunday school. I even started putting them online sometime later. I started building a Christian library by purchasing all kinds of books for Bible study, theology, and more. I became very familiar with scripture and the principles revealed in the Bible because of all that studying.
However, one day as I was praying, I heard God say to me, “Where have you been” I answered, “I study a lot and I teach the Bible. What do you mean by ‘where have I been?’ He said to me, “Bible study and fellowship with me are not the same things.” That was it. It hit me like a ton of bricks. All of that time spent studying the Bible was not as important to God as simply spending time with Him in fellowship. It took years for this lesson to sink in because several years later I received the revelation that I was too academic in my approach to the Bible. The Bible was not created for academic purposes so that people would have a great intellectual knowledge of the scriptures, history, and people in the Bible. It was meant to reveal the will of God, the way of God, and therefore, Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus is the express image of God (Hebrews 1:3).
Jesus is the Key
The thing that escaped me all those years was the simple fact that Jesus is the key. I was well aware and knowledgeable of what Jesus did and the principles of salvation. However, it was mostly academic to me and not something that was simply relational. You see, when I was a child, I thrived on a simple relationship with God. I would talk to him while walking to school. I would pray to Him when I needed something done (e.g., to fix my broken watch). I would sit in the backyard late at night and just meditate and talk to Him. It was wonderful. Sometimes I would stay up late and sit by the window in my bedroom and just talk to God. I remember at least once trying to talk to God late at night while lying in the bed. That didn’t work out too well because I fell asleep.
The point here is that we need to focus on Jesus Christ. It is because of Jesus that we have salvation. God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to. Jesus is the key to everything with regards to our relationship with the Father and operating in His kingdom. The key is Jesus.
Jesus gave a very interesting parable that I believe applies to most church-goers today, based on my experience in church.
Matthew 7:21-23 (NKJV)  “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
There is more to entering God’s kingdom and right relations with the Father than church attendance and doing good deeds (See Isaiah 64:6). Just because you teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, usher, run a Bible study, or even preach the word, does not mean that you belong to the body of Christ. Those things do not get you to heaven, so to speak. They are merely activities that anyone can accomplish. For example, someone who academically studies the Bible can regurgitate what they have learned to a class. That does not mean that he or she has a personal relationship with God. The same is true with choir members, etc.
Paul told us that God is reconciling us to Himself through Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (NKJV)  Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation,  that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.  For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Jesus didn’t sacrifice his life so that we would have buildings to worship in, a plethora of religious denominations, or even a religion we call Christianity. Jesus died so that you would be reconciled to God. To be reconciled in this context means to be brought into an agreement or right relations with God. Reconciliation means to bring us into accord with God in that we are in right relations with Him through Jesus Christ and is not based on what we have done (see Ephesians 2:8).
Jesus said, ”I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”
(John 14:6). Our way to the Father is through Jesus Christ, not religion or religious acts. So many people miss the mark. They think that if they are good people, were baptized, attend church, give offerings, etc., they somehow are in right standing with God. A criminal can do all of those aforementioned things. What makes the difference is our belief in Jesus Christ. We need to know Jesus Christ personally and then we can say that we are saved and that we are part of the body of Christ.
So what do we have to do to enter into right relations with God? The textbook answer is to believe in Jesus Christ. However, what does that mean? How do you do that and what does it look like? This is where many people go astray. They start thinking that they are entering a relationship with the Father when all they have done is entered the darkness and bondage of religion. That religion could be the Baptist tradition, Presbyterian, Catholic, or whatever denomination you can list. In many cases, people who are trying to find their way to the Father will be served religion instead of Jesus, who is the way to the Father.
What sets us free from that trap is to seek the truth. We need to hear, believe, and respond favorably to the gospel. What is the gospel?
1 Corinthians 15:1–4 (NKJV) —  Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand,  by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
Also, consider the following statement from Jesus himself.
John 3:16 (NKJV) —  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
GOD WANTS YOU! We may think that an abundance of religious activities and the like have meaning to God. They pale in comparison to having a personal and intimate relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. God wants a relationship with you. In many cases, churches do not present God in this way. God is typically presented as someone who has passed down a list of rules that we must follow to be pleasing to Him. The focus then becomes on ourselves and what we can do instead of Jesus and what he has already done. We keep trying to earn and deserve what God has already given us.
The good news (gospel) is that God has provided salvation for us. He has provided an escape from the death that awaits us because of our sinful nature. All we have to do is to accept the gift, not academically or intellectually, but with the heart. Believe in your heart that Jesus died for your sins. Believe that he rose from the dead so that we could be alive with him forever. We only need to take the gift that God has presented to us and we become free. Free of what?
Romans 8:1–2 (NKJV) —  There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
If you receive Jesus as your savior then you are free from the bondage and penalty for sin. You are no longer condemned to death but are now alive to Christ and in right relations with God the Father. You may be tempted to want to earn God’s love, but the fact is that He already loves you even when you were sinning against Him with no interest in his gift of salvation.
Romans 5:8 (NKJV) —  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Jesus is Not About a Religion
One of the disturbing things I encounter is when people equate Christianity with religion or consider it to be a religion. This is especially true for people who profess another religion such as Islam, Black Hebrews, etc. I read their comments on social media and shake my head in amazement about how people who know very little to nothing about Christianity have so much to say about it (usually to criticize it).
Jesus did not start a religion. He did not come to us so that we would have organized religious activities to perform. Christianity is not a religion. The big difference between Christianity and religion is that religions focus on what you have to do to be pleasing to a deity or earn a place in that religion’s “heaven.” Christianity is focused on what Jesus has already done for us so that we would be in right relations with God and thrive in his kingdom. Going to “heaven” is just a part of the package, not the ultimate goal.
Our focus should be on Jesus, not religion. We should be careful that we are in a relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ and not through religion. Some people, for example, base their relationship with God on the pastor or religious leader. Those people are highly deceived and don’t realize that they do not necessarily have a relationship with the Father.
It’s not about religion, but rather Christ. Jesus is the key to eternal and abundant life (See John 10:10). We need to be more sensitive to Jesus than the religion that we practice every Sunday. We need to prioritize the Kingdom of God instead of the church organization. Surely, we need to take seriously that God desires that we be saved and come to know Christ than to be part of a church organization practicing its man-made religion.
It is Jesus who is lifted. It is Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead so that we would have life. There is nothing religious about any of that. Jesus is therefore the focal point of our faith (not religion). Jesus is the key to approaching the Father. Jesus is the key to eternal life. Focus on Jesus