A religion can be defined simply as a system of rituals and practices in accordance to one's personal belief. Some of the major world religions may include as a part of their system prayers, fasting, baptism, holy communion, confession, pilgrimages, penance, and a variety of other ceremonies and acts which the individual is obligated to observe.
But what does one gain for all his of her religious activity? Is it heaven? Or is it salvation? Is the eternal God of creation impressed by the external religious things that we do?
These questions can be answered in this way: religious activity for the sake of religious activity gains nothing for us. The Bible says that the Apostle Paul said to the men at Athens, "I observe that you are very religious in all respects" (Acts 17:22). The Athenians were known for their worship of a variety of gods. Everywhere you looked in first century Athens you could see temples and monuments and altars designed for religious purposes.
But what did the Athenians gain from all their religious dedication? Not a thing. Paul still warns them that they need to repent before they stand in judgment before God (Acts 17:30-31).
When Jesus walked on the earth He often confronted the religious leaders of His day. These were men who practiced very diligently all the outward activities of their religious system. They faithfully gave ten percent of what they had, they observed ritual cleansings, they offered many long prayers, and they wore sacred articles as symbols of their religious commitment. Theses were men who were looked at by the community as being the most godly and most righteous men of the day. But Jesus says of them, "You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: 'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me'" (Matthew 23:7-8). All their religious activity gained them nothing before God.
Further, the Bible explains over and over again that our good works and religious activities contribute nothing to our salvation: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9); "a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28); "But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not in the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy" (Titus 3:4-5).
But if our religious activities do not find favor with God, what enables us to reach heaven?
Not just a religion but a relationship. Specifically, it is a relationship with Jesus Christ.
When we confess that we are sinners before God, and that none of our religious activity makes up for our sin, we must turn to Jesus as the only hope of salvation. You see Jesus paid the penalty for sin that we owe - He willingly died on a cross so that we could have eternal life. This was the ultimate sacrifice - the ultimate display of God's love: "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8); "We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us" (1 John 3:16).
And when we embrace this love of God and trust Jesus alone for salvation, we immediately begin a relationship with Him. We are united with Him in His death and in His life (Romans 6:5-11). In His death we freely receive His payment for our sin, and in His resurrected life we livingly serve Him as Lord. He is our vine, and we are His branches - apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). His Spirit dwells in us (Romans 8:9-11), and He sustains, guides, strengthens, and comforts us. Jesus makes us able to love and serve God from a transformed, born-again heart, rather than from a dead obligation to outward activities.
We are not just following a religious system of rules, rituals, and regulations- we are in a lasting relationship with the living God Himself who came in the flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Praise God for His wonderful grace and mercy!